Monday, 14 April 2014

Towards an authentic self-writing in Frantz Fanon’s 'Black Skin, White Masks'

by Mikaela Erskog

Black Skin, White Mask (1967) deals with the psychology of the colonial situation not only by referring to a wide range of case studies that serve to illuminate the fundamental pathology of the colonial system and the varying mental pathologies it creates, but also through its form as an encounter with a psychology of a Self as it presently exists, as it unfolds in our very presence.  Fanon facilitates a living encounter between readers and his state of being as it existed in the very moments of his particular encounters. There exists a present presence. 

As Sardar (2008:xi) mentions in the forward, the sense of urgency and immediacy of the narrative form creates a sense that “We can feel a soul in turmoil, hear a voice that speaks directly to us, and see the injustices described being lived in front of our eyes.” [Emphasis added].

I argue that no other form would have allowed so successful and fruitful an engagement with the particular subject matter. The lyrical and emotive mode of writing does not, as many would argue, take away form the seriousness of the intellectual engagement. Rather the centrality of subjectivity moves towards a more serious intellectual and socio-psychological engagement.

Firstly, the psychological is based on personal, human interactions and comes from within the most personal space: the human mind. As such, it only seems appropriate and holistic that Fanon writes from this space as an inhabitant of the psychological space, in order to explore its functions and influences.

Secondly, according to Dennis Altman (2002:317), “the claim to objectivity and science too often becomes...a form of intellectual dishonesty”, that I would argue is too often left uninterrogated. As such, I would argue that Fanon takes an authentic, responsible (existentialist) approach that honestly presents the problematic relationship between the colonial situation and those whom exist (or in the subaltern’s case, do not exist) within it. In fact, Fanon (1967:64) states outright that:

In this work I have made it a point to convey the misery of the black man. Physically and affectively. I have not wished to be objective. Besides, that would be dishonest: It is not possible for me to be objective.

As such, Fanon’s work is progressive not only because of the psychoanalytic theories he proposes and intellectual discoveries he makes, but because of the way in which he writes and formulates the text, in accordance with himself as a man within a situation. Fanon’s critique of the falsity of the colonial reality is all the more powerful because his self-writing “opens the way for self-styling”, as Achille Mbembe (2002) terms it, that is itself a realisation of his universalism. [The universalism he proposes as the need “to recognize… the open door of every consciousness. ” (Fanon, 1967:181).]

The text moves towards an authentic ‘African mode of self writing’ as Fanon, stating that “I am endlessly creating myself” (1967:179). Like Mbembe (2002), he recognises (initially devastatingly) that the type of writing of Aimé Césaire (nativist) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (afro-radicalism) can tend towards essentialism and stagnation within his particular situation. [This is slightly reductive but does not mean that they have not played enourmous roles in working towards humanism]. As, when Fanon points to the fundamental role that reciprocal recognition plays within the becoming of one’s Self, the historicists approaches clearly undermine the Sartrean ‘situation’ as their approaches affirm a false reality and stray from the central problem of the colonial system.

Fanon’s self-writing is a means by which he is actional and establishes his personhood. It is through the frontal confrontation of himself that he is able to constructively deal with the subject matter and then “the self - the peremptory self of the present - disavows an image of itself as an orginary past or an ideal future and confronts the paradox of its own making.” (Bhabha, 1967:xxxv).
Grappling with the profundity of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, I acknowledge this to be extremely important work, a seminal contribution to humankind. In the background, Twinkle by Erykah Badu (2008) starts to intermingle with my thoughts on Fanon, with Fanon. The song itself seems to be a product of, what contemporary Americans would refer to as, the ‘black-struggle’ history, as Badu speaks of the socio-economic inequalities black American continue to live with, live in and live. The last resounding words, an adaptation of a speech made by Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network, are as follows:

I don’t have to tell you things aren’t good.
Everybody knows things aren’t good
We know the air is unfit to breathe,
and our foods unfit to eat .
Young punks are running the street
No one knows just what to do, and there’s no end to it
The dollar buys a penny’s worth and banks are going under
Cobbler’s keeping a gun under the counter
We sit watching our idiot boxes
While some local anchorman tells us that today we’ve had 18 murders and 80 violent crimes
As if that were the way things are supposed to be
We know times are bad, worse than bad
People are crazy!
It’s like everything everywhere is going utterly mad
So we never leave our homes
We sit in our comfy abodes while the world is getting smaller
And we say, "Come on! At least leave us alone in our family rooms.
Let me have my microwave and flat screen and my 20" wheels and I won’t say anything.
Just leave us alone!"
But I’m not going to leave you alone!
I want you to get angry!
I don’t want you to riot.
I don’t want you to protest.
I don’t want you to write your Senator, because I won’t know what to tell you to tell him.
I don’t know what to do about the recession and the inflation and the crime in the street.
All I know is that you’ve got to get mad.
You’ve got to say, "I’m a human being, dammit!
My life has value!

This song could be transported back to 1950s Algeria, and fit right in. It felt to me as though a collective unconscious was pointing to how Fanon’s psychoanalytic narrative is relevant. The humanitarian struggle continues as all persons have a right to humanity but are yet to be recognised as such; as is evident in the growing social, political, economic inequality.  Much like Fanon’s epoch, asserting one’s humanity is often facilitated through affective action. Much like Fanon, there continues to be a collective crying out, an aggressive demand for “human behavior from the other” (1952:179).

Fanon’s psychoanalytic work is relevant today as, as our respective context seem to converge under a shared banner for the need for a greater humanist praxis. It is clear that through authentic self-writing there can be a reappraisal of the psychological as means by which to illuminate the situational and only such a serious, personal undertaking of honest intellectualism will illuminate the troubled workings of our social structures.


Altman, D. “Writing the Self”. Anthropological Quarterly, 2002, 75 (2): 317-321
Francis, A. R., Erykah Badu:“New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” February 29, 2008 Date of Access: 3 April 2014
Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press: London, 1967
Mbembe, A. “African Modes of Self-Writing”. Public Culture, 2002, 14(1): 239-273