by Fezokuhle Mthonti
My approach in this paper will be slightly unorthodox. I will speak about Barack Obama and Bill Cosby. I will talk to you about theatre and its performers and in so doing will relay to you, my first encounter with Frantz Fanon. My approach to this paper will be two -fold 1) My encounter with Fanon as live and present body on stage and 2) My encounter with Fanon through the medium of television, as I watched the Cosby Show and reconciled myself with the Politics of Respectability.
Encountering Fanon through presence; my encounter as live and present body on stage:
As soon as the reader opens up the first pages of Black Skin, White Mask they encounter Fanon pacing up and down a room while his soon-to-be wife, Josie, transcribes every word that he says. I imagine that they encounter Fanon gesticulating frantically while he declares certain words to his scribe, and then, moving slowly and deliberately while he stops to think about what he has said.
They encounter a man who is propelled by his own thoughts; they encounter an unfolding consciousness. More than that, the reader encounters the immediacy and the unrelenting nature of Fanon’s presence.
Pakistani born and London based cultural theorist and public intellectual, Ziauddin Sardar says the following about this text in the foreword to Black Skin, White Mask: “above all the text has an immediacy that engages and stirs. We can feel a soil in turmoil, hear a voice that speaks directly to us, and see the injustices descried being lived in front of our eyes.”(1952:xi)Sardar goes on to say that “the text is full of discontinuities, changes in style, merging of genres, dramatic movement from analysis to pronouncements, switches from objective scientific discussion to deep subjectivity, transfers from theory to journalism, complex use of extended metaphors, and, not least, a number of apparent contradictions” (2008:xi).
Because of the way in which this text was written, I think that it reveals a blatant and uncensored honesty from Fanon. It is one man’s exploration of his own truth and because of this, I feel that there are certain demands placed on me as a reader to engage with this text as openly and as truthfully as possible.
That being said, I would like to frame my analysis through the lens of a performer and theatre maker. I would argue that the kind of presence and immediacy that Fanon evokes and expects in this book, is that which is expected of a performer every single time they go into rehearsal or perform for a live audience.
In a book entitled, The Empty Space, Director and Theatre Practitioner Peter Brook describes the theatre as an “arena where a living confrontation can take place.” (1968:122) Brooks goes on to say that the theatre “always asserts itself in the present. This is what can make it real than the normal stream of consciousness. This is also what can make it so disturbing” (1968:122).
I think that this idea of a living confrontation is very relevant to Fanon’s work. To borrow Brook’s phrase “this is a picture of the author at the moment of writing: searching within a decaying and evolving theatre. (1968:123)Black Skin, White Mask is a continual exploration of different living consciousness’s and the struggles they go through in accepting or rejecting their status as black and white subjects.
It is the interplay between characters like Mayotte Capécias and her white grandmother. It is the confrontation of Jean Veneuse and the white man who sees his him solely as ‘the other’ and the white women who continue to reject his advances. It is also a confrontation between the ‘two million whites against almost thirteen million natives [and the fact that it hasn’t] occurred to a single black to consider himself superior to a member of the white minority” (1952:68).
It is the confrontation of all these consciousness’s that I am interested in, with the understanding that no two moments can be the same. This underscores the nature of theatre for me; the performer is always aware of their own engagement and response to the character that they inhabit as well as their engagement with the audiences that then come to watch them. The performer has to consistently engage in a form of double consciousness while constantly being tasked with finding presence and finding truth within the moment. In finding a way to reconcile truth in a moment then allows the performer to move onto the next scene.
Fanon himself takes the concept of presence and the present quite seriously in the closing chapters of his book. He argues that “the problem considered here is one of time. Those Negroes and white men will be disalienated who refuse to let themselves be sealed away in the materialised Tower of the Past. For many other Negroes, in other ways, disalienation will come into being through their refusal to accept the present as definitive” (1952:176).
The Cosby Show and the Politics of Respectability.
If he(sic) is overwhelmed to such a degree by the wish to be white, it is because he lives in a society that makes his inferiority complex possible, in a society that derives its stability from the perpetuation of this complex, in a society that proclaims the superiority of one race; to the identical degree to which that society creates difficulties for him, he will find himself thrust into a neurotic situation.(1952:74)
In reading Fanon’s chapter of The Negro and Language, one is introduced to a colonised subject who seeks to emancipate themselves by increasing their proximity to whiteness, through mastering the colonial language and through changing the physical carriage of their body. This is in an effort to be recognisable to the city of the coloniser and its inhabitants.
Fanon points to this rehearsed claim to dignity and humanity through telling the story of a Negro who quietly repeats to himself, “Yes, I must take great pains with my speech, because I shall be more or less judged by it. With great contempt they shall see me” (1965:11).
With this understanding of the colonised subject’s plight, we see that the Black subject almost has to act and gesticulate differently. They have to assume a character and they have to think about the distribution of the weight in their bodies so that they do not resemble the Negro which is still in a stage of “slow evolution monkey into man” (1965:8) The colonised subject is under enormous strain not to act or look like something that is unrecognisable to the ways of the coloniser. In fact, Fanon says that “furtively observing the slightest reactions of others, listening to his own speech , suspicious of his own tongue –a wretchedly lazy organ he (sic) will lock himself into his room and read aloud for hours-desperately determined to learn diction” (1965:11).
It will be my assertion that this phenomena that Fanon has referred to here is what Mychal Denzel Smith has called a ‘respectability politics or The Politics of Respectability’. This is the belief that “one can overcome any kind of racism (or any other form of oppression) by way of your own personal actions, presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by way of your personal actions” (2013:1).
I would argue that this is also the way in which black subjects arrest their bodies in particular ways so that they are more palatable to the norms dictated to by white normativity. For example, this idea can manifest itself in the need for black women to incessantly wear their hair differently from the way in which it grows from their scalp; this is so that they can attain a job, or at the very least, look presentable. It is also in the way that black men have to cower and make themselves smaller in the presence of white females, lest they be accused of being sexual predators. “To express it in genetic terms, his (sic) phenotype undergoes a definitive, an absolute mutation”(1952:9).
This kind of a ‘physiological politics of respectability’ not only articulates itself in the French colonies that have been described by Fanon, but these politics are also pervasive in contemporary understandings of black people in all societies that have not reconciled themselves with non-racialism.
As a young girl in KwaZulu Natal, I was not distinctly taught about ‘the politics of respectability’ but I was aware of what my white neighbours deemed ‘good black people.’ These ‘good black people’ looked like the characters on the Cosby Show. There was nothing about that family that was distinctly black (except for their skin colour) but there was a lot about them that was distinctly white or, rather, there was an overwhelming amount of similarities with their characters and that of other predominantly white sitcoms. So in an attempt to become recognisable in my own community I started to practice the grammar of respectability using the template of Cosby Show. I started to emulate Rudy Huxtable, the youngest of the Huxtable family; I wore sensible clothes that weren’t too bright, I asked my mother to relax my hair and I stared to practice my enunciations of words with a particular R twang. Although these characters were not necessarily white, they were well rehearsed in the grammar of whiteness. I had started to inject into the “labyrinth of [my] arteries [and], entrenched in [to my] little pink fingernails, a solidly rooted, white dignity.”(1965:36)
However, as I will show in subsequent analysis, ‘the politics of respectability’ can be damaging. This is not only in the way that it can act as a form of erasure of one’s identity , leaving the black subject in a ‘black abyss’ but also in the way that it can affect larger black communities.
In an article entitled Respectability Politics Won’t Save Us: On the Death of Jonathan Ferrel by Mychal Denzel Smith, Smith unpacks how influential figures like CNN anchor Don Lemon and renowned comedian, Bill Cosby can be dismissive of the kinds of institutional problems around racism that affect the livelihood and the development of black people in the United States of America. In fact President Barack Obama’s recent initiative entitled My Brother’s Keeper which seeks to mentor and correct the behaviour of men of colour in the USA, has come up against a lot of criticism from the African community because of its inability to locate the problems that these young men face in the kinds of structural inequality and racism that alienate these young men.
Instead of dealing with these institutional and ideological problems these individuals have asked these black communities to increase their proximity to whiteness, ‘by getting an education and getting up and out of the projects’ and in so doing, assume that they have then corrected the problem.
It would be my assertion that Smith finds Lemon and Cosby to be part of a long tradition of men and women who hope to ‘save the race by not slipping back into blackness!’ They form part of a collective that “no longer [tries] to negrify the world,” but rather, tries in their own bodies and in their own minds “to bleach it” in the same way that Mayotte Capécias seeks to correct, what she understands as the mistake of her blackness. (1952:30) Some of the individuals that have canonised The Politics of Respectability, are for Smith, individuals like Booker T. Washington, Elijah Muhammed, Condelezza Rice and ,more recently, President Barack Obama.
Having said that, it then important to interrogate how and why The Politics of Respectability can be damaging, especially if it is legitimated by the above named black leaders. I would argue that this kind of politicking works on the plane of fictive kinship.
I have come to understand the term fictive kinship through the work of African American academic, Mellissa Harris-Perry who defines it as “the connections between members of a group who are unrelated by blood or marriage, but who nonetheless share reciprocal social or economic relationships.”(2011:102) I am particularly interested in the kinds of racial connections that can arise from fictive kinship, and in this instance, the connections that the likes of Lemon, Cosby and Obama share with an imagined, African African community, is the colour of their skin. Harris-Perry goes on further to say that “this imagined community of familial ties underscores a voluntary sense of shared identity” (2011:102).
That being said however, these ideas do not account for the fact that some people, like the urban poor, are rendered unrecognisable to the state and whenever they try to use the law and the constitution they are met with contempt and violence from the state.
These ideas are dangerous because they are informed by a misrecognition of the problem.
While these ideas are disseminated in good faith and in the hopes of encouraging their imagined familial ties, these kinds of claims can be damaging, because they further alienate and misrecognise the pervasive racism within those societies. Smith argues that it does not reflect their own truths, but rather, “they erase an even larger truth about racism” (2014:1).
In fact, I would argue that these kind of statements act as kind of collective shaming.
It is the kind of ‘collective shaming’ that Black Consciousness thinker, Steve Biko abhors in his own article entitled The Church as seen by a Young Layman where he criticises black ministers for adding “insecurity by its inward-directed definition of the concept of sin and its encouragement of the mea culpa attitude”(1978:61) The Latin phrase mea culpa which is used by Biko, is ordinarily used as a Catholic expression to denote the acknowledgement of one’s fault. In this particular instance, the phrase is used as a means in which black people can acknowledge their own complicity in poverty, as well as of complicity, in their self-induced alienation from the state. This kind of politics can be damaging because it denies the majority of black people within that country, their own experiences of institutional race and class discrimination.
These ideas rest on The So-Called Dependency Complex that Fanon wishes to refute. They position themselves as a consistent reminder of their oppression. Instead of the white man (sic) reinforcing this alienation from the world, I would contend that the Politics of Respectability allow black subjects to not only remind each other of their shortcomings, but to also further entrench cycles of inferior epidermalisation. Fanon says that “I begin to suffer not being a white man to the degree that the white man imposes discrimination on me, makes me a colonised native, robs me of all worth, all individuality, tells me that I am a parasite to the world [and] that I must bring myself as quickly as possible onto step with the white world” (1952:73).
Moreover, I would argue that the politics of the ‘politics of respectability’ are responsible for the creation of Fanon’s conception of a middle class society. For Fanon, a middle class society is “any society that become rigidified in predetermined forms, forbidding all evolution, all gains, all progress, all discovery. I call middle class a closed society a closed society in which life has no taste , in which the air is tainted, in which the men and the ideas are corrupted” (1952:175).
The kind of society that Fanon describes to us is in fact a dying society and these traits are becoming more and more visible in our contemporary socio-political societies. That being said however, Fanon does not want us to sit in our nihilism. He wills the reader to action through embarking on a quest for a true humanism.
For Fanon, the ultimate goal is to find one’s own self in the world and to recognise that you have one right alone: “that of demanding human behaviour from the other!” (1952:179)
As Fanon draws to a standstill in his room, he both asks the reader a simple question and gives them a direct instruction: “Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You? At the conclusion of this study, I want the world to recognise with me, the open door of every consciousness” (1952:181).
Biko. S. 1978. I Write What I Like. London: The Bowerdean Press
Brook. P. 1968. The Empty Space. New York :Simon and Schuster
Fanon. F. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press
Harris-Perry. M. 2011. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotype and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press
Smith. M. D. 2013. Respectability Politics Won’t Help Us: On the Death of Jonathan Ferrell. The Nation
http://www.thenation.com/blog/176183/respectability-politics-wont-save-us-death-jonathan-ferrell Accessed on the 2 April 2014