Thursday, 19 May 2016

'Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminism' - a review

by Wairimu Muriithi         

Tracey Denean Sharpley-Whiting, in her book Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms (henceforth ConFem) (1998), provides a feminist-centred response to feminist critiques of the revolutionary doctor and theorist, a meta-feminist critique, if you will. Like Lewis Gordon in What Fanon Said (published 17 years later, in 2015), Sharpley-Whiting challenges notable feminist works on Fanon, mainly from the academy, by positing them as misreadings, misinterpretations, oversimplifications and/or even uninformed. The text’s engagements range from three main feminist frameworks – liberal Euro-American lit-crit feminism, Algerian nationalist feminism and radical U.S. Black feminism – to a closing call to post-modern US academic feminists to (re)commit to “Fanon’s radically humanist profeminist consciousness” (1998: 24).

            Sharpley-Whiting appreciates feminist scholar bell hooks’ engagement with Fanon, recognising it for its refusal to accept the binaries that have created a tendency to “dismiss his relevance to feminism and indict his thoughts as not simply ‘sexist’ nor masculinist or phallogocentric, a substantially more accurate assessment, but misogynist” (1998: 90). She is therefore not unwilling to concede that Fanon has shortcomings, or even to discuss them, but to show how relevant his work is to “post-movement feminist liberation theory and praxis” (1998: 1). As such, Fanon certainly cannot be read through the Western first and second waves of feminism, with their blatant lack of commitment to anti-racism – like French feminism in Algeria during colonisation – and must be carefully engaged with as important theory for Black radical thought and postcolonial feminisms.

            Sharply-Whiting references hooks’ rejection of “energetic[ally] setting up Fanon as anathema to feminist resistance politics, as fundamentally misogynist” (1998: 89). This, perhaps, is the problem Fanon’s work has faced over the years. The question, as was posed to hooks, often seems to be “In what ways was Fanon sexist?”, already presuming a Black, male patriarch, especially given that “it is rare to seek hear such condemnation of white male writers” (hooks in Sharpley-Whiting 1998: 90).

            Sharpley-Whiting notes “[l]anguage was the primary instrument through which Fanon observed racism and alienation” (1998: 9). It appears to also be the ways in which Euro-American scholars engaged with Fanon’s work, especially when noting his predominant use of masculine referents. Not only does the text maintain “masculinism is categorically different from antifeminism and misogyny” (1998: 11), it is critical of postmodernism’s renunciation, “in the words of Edward Said, of universal values of truth and freedom for local situations and language games” (1998: 98). In What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture, Stuart Hall asserted, “blacks are ambiguously placed in relation to postmodernism as they were in relation to high modernism […] [it] remains extremely unevenly developed as a phenomenon in which the old centre/peripheries of high modernity consistently reappear” (1993: 22). In Fanon’s work, therefore, his ambiguous placement lies in trying to point to the instances in which his language tends towards the masculine by absenting the feminine. Put differently, it is typical for feminist writing to often include the key words, ‘woman/women’, ‘feminism’ and gender neutral or the two main gender referents – when I am reading on a screen, for instance, I often conduct a search (Ctrl + F on the keyboard) for these words to determine the author’s feminist leanings (or lack thereof). But Fanon’s own personal and political context is often disregarded – he apparently had little social interaction with women of colour, and no WOC patients – and eliding his argument for a New Humanism, “profoundly grounded in the belief in ‘[a] social democracy in which man and woman have an equal right to culture, to material well-being, and to dignity’” (Sharpley-Whiting 1998: 3).

            Of course, Fanon’s limited interaction with WOC would be no excuse to be sexist, and much of his speculations, observations and imperfections would result in limitations in his thinking about women. For instance, in the chapters in which women are a primary subject – that is, in chapters where the phrases are not just ‘men and women’ – he overwhelmingly discusses them in reference to sex and sexuality, not even to impose any moral values, but in a way that “forecloses his humanism to the (black) female, whom he presents, in hooks’ words, as “a sexualised body, always not the body that ‘thinks, ’ but also appears to be the body that never longs for freedom” (Sharpley-Whiting 1998: 91). This rigidity does not see women for their own contributions, and weaknesses (to disavow the myth of the strong Black woman), outside of a perpetual external sexualisation; it is easily the same rigidity that ties a woman’s body to the nation-state as bearer of a nation and carrier of its culture.

            In my reading of The Wretched of the Earth, I note Fanon’s negligible specificity on women’s liberation, but also that his general rejection of colonisation and its after effects is already anti-misogynist and pro-woman because of the inherently patriarchal nature of colonialism. His tendency towards the transcendental could arguably be read as too optimistic, especially when it takes for granted that “women must demand that their liberation, their needs, and their specific oppressions be clearly addressed and incorporated into national liberation movements from the outset” (Sharpley Whiting 1998: 59); but it is an optimism that was also informed by the transitions he was witnessing first-hand during the Algerian Revolution, any such transitions (and more) that keep many women hopeful and moving. In any case, Sharpley-Whiting’s counter-critiques – agreeable or otherwise – make it clear that any preoccupation with locating Fanon as a feminist thinker runs the very real risk of dictating feminist liberation by “totalising feminist paradigms” (1998: 91). The question ought to be, ‘How can Fanon’s thoughts – on love, on violence, on mental health, etc. – be useful to feminist liberation?’; the answer to which is bound to produce more comprehensive answers for a revolutionary theory and praxis today that reaches for that new humanism.


Hall, Stuart. "What is this" black" in black popular culture?" Social Justice 20.1/2
(51-52 (1993): 104-114.
Sharpley-Whiting, T. D., Frantz Fanon: Conflicts & Feminisms. Oxford:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998.