Sunday 15 May 2011

The Fact of Blackness in a Sea of Whiteness

by Camalita Naicker 

The Fact of Blackness, the fifth chapter of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, is not an answer or an explanation to the statement that is the title, rather it is an insight into the inner turmoil and tense soliloquy that Fanon is experiencing. The answer on what is The Fact of Blackness is exceedingly less important that the question of it. If we take this as our starting point then we begin to understand his angst in trying to locate his identity in a sea of whiteness and white power. It is a conversation not unlike the ones we all have with ourselves every now and again, if you’re a person of colour. His inner rumination and contemplation is central to the chapter, it is the guide that leads to the end of the chapter where Fanon finds himself in crisis. 

The chapter for me is epitomised by the three words at the beginning, “Look, a Negro”. Those three words are the genesis of the disembodying third person consciousness he experiences later when he has come into contact with ‘the other’ and realises that he has to construct his identity out of what has already been a much pre-determined path for him. The mechanical disembodied feeling comes from having existed with oneself for many years and then suddenly coming into contact with a white world, which not only rejects you as person but bestows on you all kinds of characteristics and histories that you must not only be burdened with but learn to accept as one does an amputated limb. 

Fanon speaks about being trapped in the historicity of being a Negro: he is a product of his ancestors who are repeatedly described as cannibalistic savages. He is desperately trying to find some framework through which to understand himself, and be proud of being black. He attempts to reason with racism but finds “for a man whose only weapon is reason there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason”. 

Each time victory eludes him, every time he thinks he has found the answer, using rationalisation theory, the abstract acceptance of his existence as a person never seems to translate into the literal and tangible realisation of it ( I’m sure this sounds familiar to millions of South Africans still waiting for equality and freedom). 

He turns then, in angst and uncertainty to negritude, a celebration of black culture and emotion through poetry and art...“from the opposite end of the white world a magical negro culture was hailing me”, and he answered. He tried to embrace this too, but he could not accept that his culture and his people represented a reality stuck in time, a period of time on the spectrum of development, his decidedly (by the shameful science of the time) “typical of peoples that have not kept pace with the human race”.

We see him reject over and over again different theories designed to explain away the inferiority of black people, some even designed to make it seem as if it truly represented that “magio-social structure” and it was not just white people, it was black men too. The scary part is we can still see these parallels in our society today, the idea of being a product of history is not new by any standard, for it is only ‘modern’ cultures which are allowed the privilege of developing and evolving, whereas traditional cultures and religions remain fixed in time as part of a pre-history, other cultures are denied their own internal struggles and evolution. 

A call by African and Indian women to emancipate themselves and others within African and Indian cultures is seen as a manifestation of western cultural and liberal values into ‘traditional cultures’, but we forget who makes the distinction between modern and traditional cultures and we go along with it, happy to be “the human sustenance” for the “corrupted souls of white people”. Yes, they will come for a taste of the exotic, a cultural experience and they will be wowed by all the bright colours and dancing and singing, and we will play along like show monkeys without interrogating what it means to be traditional. Surely we should be allowed to evolve and develop too, or is it only white culture that should have this privilege? And yet we will laugh at the ridiculous television advertisement caricatures of Indian (isn’t the fact that they still call us Indian interesting? Shouldn’t that earn me an Indian passport?) with their bad accents, clad in brightly coloured saris and traditional clothing ,which you never see any of us wearing on the street on a daily basis, being cheap and looking either for the best deal or a marriage proposal.

In an earlier chapter and in this one, Fanon speaks about a mediated interaction with the negro he is supposed to be, the one on TV and in the newspapers. Have any of these roles changed? Since American’s still come here asking to see the Lions in our back yards, (but that is the extreme) since people in this very country, students in the very same class as I am, do not know the difference between Hindu and Muslim people still. How is it that whiteness still allows us to be to relegated to the peripheries, as a completely homogenous group of people who are in touch with their emotions; spirituality; rituals; ceremonies and “the cosmic message” and who have very traditional and cultural values (But I can’t tell you any of them because really I have no idea what they are). It comes from the negritude that Fanon eventually rejects but also in what has become the culturalist tradition of political thought: the African scholars that still today believe Africa was pre-colonial utopia, that we were “backward, simple, free in our behaviour” and that this world was without the injustices of modernity. What they fail to see is keep ourselves locked in this “infernal circle”, we cannot move forward if we are to be kept within the bounds of such culturalists assertions. For it is these culturalist assertions that make it possible for the Ugandan government to attempt to pass a law enforcing the death as the punishment for homosexuality, it is unAfrican isn’t it? Since by denouncing it as western-import we are asserting our ability to chart what being African means? And it certainly does not mean loving someone of the same sex as yourself. 

This is precisely what Fanon rejects, he does not want to use reason or unreason to defend or assert his blackness, he does not want to convince people of his worth because his ancestors were also clever like white men and they were taken away from Africa, nor does he want a mistake in his diagnosis of a patient to be reduced to the fact of his race (ahh maybe that is the fact of blackness?). Or maybe the fact of blackness is that it is isn’t a fact at all, that it is as Stuart Hall reminds us, a floating signifier, an unfixed, unfixable social construction that is necessary only in its use for deconstruction. Fanon does not want self-objectification, but rather to be free to exist freely in the world as he is and not have to explain or defend himself at every turn. But in fact it is this which we all seek. Since it is only the black politician and the black businessman who will ever have to defend the purchase of their new Mercedes Benz, and it is only black people who will have to enter an academic or social debate and try twice as hard as the rest to sound well informed and make a flawless argument, because if you slip up you will be judged not only on your character but also on your race. Thus it is a constant burden to carry around, forever fixed in an unequal relation to the white world, which sits in ubiquity never examined, never having to make apologies or excuses, never having to define what it is, it just is, and that is ultimately what makes Fanon weep at the end of this chapter, his desire and paradoxical inability to just be.