Monday, 26 May 2014

A Response to T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Frantz Fanon: Conflicts & Feminisms

Jonis Ghedi Alasow

Few figures in history have been able to compete with Frantz Fanon when it comes to articulating the condition of the colonised subject. Fanon and his ideas have impacted people and movements across the world. As with most inventive and revolutionary ways of thinking, there has also been widespread critique of Fanon’s ideas. From across the academy there have been attempts to either trivialise or problematize the work of Frantz Fanon. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s 1998 book, Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms provides an interesting and detailed engagement with feminisms as well as the works of Fanon. She takes a nuanced approach to discussing the relationship that has developed between the feminist school of thought and the canon left behind by Fanon. This response will discuss some of these nuances. I do not here attempt to summarise her arguments, but rather to discuss some of the main ideas that can be taken out of the book. I also wish to apply these ideas that Sharpley-Whiting deals with to the contemporary world. This essay therefore hopes to make some headway with respect to two questions. Firstly, what is the link between feminism and the work of Fanon; and secondly, how does this impact on our contemporary lives?

The first thing worth discussing is the notion of misogyny. Many feminist writers have labelled Fanon as a misogynist. This critique of Fanon is based largely on a misguided reading of Black Skin, White Masks. His continued use of the masculine pronoun as well as his portrayal of women[1] often inform this critique (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 10). Feminist scholars often argue that the way in which women are dealt with in the book portrays them as political objects who have no agency instead of autonomous political subjects. In responding to this critique, Sharpley-Whiting points out that Black Skin, White Masks is not meant as a philosophical textbook to understand what the world ought to be. Rather, it is an articulation of Fanon’s experiences in the world. In fact he makes it explicit that “many Negros will not find themselves in what follows [Black Skin, White Masks]” and that this is “equally true for many whites” (Fanon, 1952: 5). Thus the fact that Fanon is providing such a personal encounter with life as a black man, allows for him to write in a descriptive way. He sets out his book with a disclaimer that the book is not an attempt to be prescriptive, but merely an articulation of his thoughts. Critiques of Fanon’s work should therefore be channelled at his underlying assumptions. Even if we were to concede that he is using language and expressions that are rooted in the misogyny of the 1950s and 1960s, we need to engage with the ‘message’ brought by Fanon.

Sharpley-Whiting is clear in pointing out that this ‘message’ is one of an all-inclusive humanism. Neither the “revolutionary” Fanon imagines[2] nor the emancipated future that he hopes for are limited to a certain sex (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 11). Men and women are equally included in his description of the present and, most importantly in his conceptualisation of the future. Sharpley-Whiting therefore remains adamant that Fanon is not a misogynists. She points out that his deep humanism makes misogyny an impossibility in his thought.

In light of this it is important that the feminists who tend to critique Fanon reconsider his ideas rather than the language in his texts. It is interesting that Sharpley-Whiting not only defends Fanon against those who wish to label him a misogynist, she also emphasises that he adopts Feminist ideas himself. His portrayal of women in A Dying Colonialism locates them at the centre of both the colonial and anticolonial projects. He quite intricately explains how she is “the axis around which the colonizing mission and the anticolonial resistance often spin” (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 56). Thus Fanon not only avoids misogynist treatment of women, but also recognises the important contributions made by women to the revolution in Algeria.

From this point, Sharpley-Whiting moves onto the most interesting part of her engagement with Fanon and Feminism. She points out the “pitfalls of feminism”[3]. In the same way that national consciousness is vital in order to set a revolution in motion, feminism is also very important to bring about resistance to patriarchy. However, just as there are pitfalls to national consciousness, there are also pitfalls to feminism. Just like national consciousness can result in an exclusionary politics if it persists once there has been a shift in power relations between the coloniser and colonised, feminism also has the potential for becoming exclusionary if it does not convert from a feminism into a humanism as soon as possible (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 97).

Fanon has reached a stage of radical humanism where divides between various ontologies are considered blatantly false. For Fanon there is one human ontology which includes people of all races, sexes and classes. Many feminists have not yet reached this stage of radical humanism and are in fact at risk of succumbing to the ‘pitfalls of feminism’. This means that Fanon, who started out by being considered a misogynists is in a sense a more progressive feminist than many self-proclaimed feminists.

This particular aspect of Sharpley-Whiting’s work is most useful in the contemporary world. Feminist discourse should be premised on a new humanism, rather than being locked indefinitely in a particular ontology which embraces the essentialism which informs the patriarchal system. Perhaps more practically, feminist agency needs to consolidate the need for a temporary and particular ontology with the need for a radical humanism. The very important activism of the Silent Protest at Rhodes should for instance take more care to avoid being locked in the particularity of ontological differences. The notion that rape is perpetuated by the black male body needs to be replaced with a notion that problematizes rape for undermining the humanism of the person being raped. This is in my view the lesson that can be drawn from Sharpley-Whiting’s book. Only once the ultimate goal becomes the type of radical humanism which is implicitly articulated by Fanon will the circle of oppression be broken. Only then will we have “set afoot a new [wo]man” (Fanon, 1961: 255)

Works cited:

·        Fanon, F. 1952, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press: London.
·        Fanon, F. 1961, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books: London.
·        Sharpley-Whiting, T., 1998, Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Oxford.

[1] Particularly in the two chapters dealing with “The woman of color and the white man” and “The man of color and the white woman” respectively are most notably referenced regarding this critique.
[2] And describes in his later books A Dying Colonialism and Les Damnés de la Terre.
[3] These ‘pitfalls’ are what Sojourner Truth refers to as ‘shortmindedness’ (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 97).