Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A reflection on T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting's 'Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms'

Ntombizikhona Valela      

After reading Frantz Fanon's three books (Black Skin, White Masks, A Dying Colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth) it is clear that he acknowledges the importance of the role women in the realization of freedom for colonized people. It is especially emphasized in A Dying Colonialism where we see women active in the liberation struggle in Algeria. I think Fanon is one of the first writers that acknowledges women and for a man writing at that point in history I view it as quite profound because he's not mentioning women at those moments in history where women's roles are undeniable, but he describes women's roles in such a way as to place them in the everyday moments of the struggle for liberation. I contrast his writing with the South African anti-apartheid history that seems to make the role of women an extraordinary event that pops up here and there such as the famous 1956 women's march to the Union Buildings and the less mentioned 1913 anti-pass protest led by Charlotte Maxeke. So I found it shocking that Fanon would face heavy criticism as anti-feminist or anti-black woman by some feminists that Sharpley-Whiting cites in this book. Sharpley-Whiting, without seeming biased offers clarity that clears Fanon's name.

Sharpley-Whiting's first defense of Fanon is her analysis of Fanon's critique of Mayotte Capécia who was a Martinican novelist and one of the first black female novelists to be an award-winning writer which is found in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon is critical of Capécia because she writes about a black woman's desire to be French as this is the only way she can acquire human dignity. Her identity is determined by her winning the love of a Frenchman. This heroine hates black people and wants nothing to do with marrying a black man since black people are not seen as human beings. Pro-Capécia feminists accuse Fanon as being anti-woman/anti-feminists because his reading of Capécia's novel Je suis martiniquais is that of a woman wanting validation from a man, rather than her using him for upward mobility- which they argue as being the case. I interpreted this attack on Fanon as a particular group of feminists rallying around a prominent woman and defending her at all costs, which I think is understandable because she is one of the very few (if the not the only woman) at that time who is representing women among men. Capécia is an example of what women can achieve. Therefore when someone especially a man challenges her, it should be our duty to clap back at that man and show him up to be the misogynist that he is for not allowing another woman to share the space he occupies when she has earned her place on that platform. Sharpley-Whiting points out that these feminists are wrong because, for the sake of an argument they have misinterpreted Capécia's novel and the protagonist's intentions for wanting to be French. It is clear that this woman views “Frenchness” as the ultimate thing to aspire to in order to shake off the shame of being black. Black Skin, White Masks is about the psychological trauma that Fanon goes through of not being recognized as being equal to white people; of not being human enough no matter how smart or eloquent he is because of his blackness. Sharpley-Whitting spends time unraveling Capécia's book revealing the heartbreaking state of the author's inferiority complex that it becomes very clear that Fanon's has been unfairly accused of being a misogynist.

I think a contemporary example would be the recent backlash against bell hooks for calling Beyoncé anti-feminist and a terrorist against young girls. Beyoncé is arguably the only black woman right now who is as successful as she is in the male dominated music industry. She is arguably the most influential artist of this generation right now. So when bell hooks her called out as somewhat being anti-feminist, in collusion with the patriarchal capitalist system and not in control of her image as a result, it was only inevitable for someone to step up in defense of Beyoncé. bell hooks, speaking at the New School, used the cover of Time Magazine as a reference for her argument where Beyoncé poses in a panty and training bra and is thus (according to hooks) imaged as a sexualized little girl to be preyed on. During this talk, hooks weighed in on 12 Years a Slave where she criticizes the portrayal of black women as sex objects who (in her words) "F*** on demand". It was not surprising that such heavy criticism would be unleashed on hooks. Just as was the case with Capécia, there's a defense at all costs of Beyoncé without actually investigating why someone like hooks would make such claims. We are quick to protect rather than engage and debate. I was especially disappointed with the lack of debate among the panelists who were in conversation with hooks. In the case of Fanon, it seems that men are not allowed at all to critique a woman. It's as though it is impossible for a man to be feminist and critical of women.

The most shocking part of the book for me was the attack on Fanon's writing of women's roles in the Algerian liberation war. When I read A Dying Colonialism I was very impressed with the mention of women and their part in Algeria's independence. Fanon places women first and almost at the heart of the liberation movement. Women could go where men could not because of the wearing of the veil. The veil was a useful tool of camouflage and the hiding of weapons and bombs. The unveiled woman became the perfect disguise as Algerian women could pose as French settler women and this could allow them to successfully plant bombs in restaurants and other parts of the settler's part of town. The role women played in the struggle changed family structures and transformed women as equal to men. A Dying Colonialism showed that moments of discomfort in a society's history provided an opportunity for the transformation of that society. A country’s liberation went hand-in-hand with the liberation of the woman. This book shows Fanon's optimism for a transformed society in which all people are equal. I think it is important to note that Fanon was writing during the war, writing what he observed Algerian people do. To critique based on hindsight, where women have been forced to return subservience, I think is wrong on the part of the feminists who criticize him. I agree with Sharpley-Whiting on this point. The writings of Fanon would also inform black feminism and the role of women in movements like the Black Panther party where women sought to be active participants in the liberation of black people beyond them serving the needs of men. It's as though these critics of Fanon want to have a monopoly over commentary on female participation in liberation movements at all costs. Yet, as Sharpley-Whiting argues, if Fanon had never mentioned women he would've been called out as sexist. Fanon doesn't win either way.

I must confess that had a man written this book, I would've have probably not been so ready to agree with the arguments even though they are true and I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I think it's great that feminists can call each other out when it’s valid. Sharpley-Whiting does this excellently and reminds all of us that feminism is not exclusive to women, but that it’s something both men and women can aspire to because it seeks to have everyone recognized as equal. I think Fanon's love for humanity regardless of gender or race is his greatest legacy and we ought to honor him for it.


Sharpley-Whiting, T., 1998, Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Oxford.