Frantz Fanon / Black Skin, White Masks



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Michael J. Wilson

The first serious encounter I had with Frantz Fanon's work came during a college course surveying post-colonial literature. A hefty part of the class was dedicated to understanding the conversation between members of the Negritude movement (particularly Aime Cesaire) and Fanon's writing in Black Skin, White Masks. At first approach, the book seemed to be an oddly written (i.e., translated--from the French) and dense combination of anti-colonial rants and black philosophical esoterica. My colleagues and I were excited to finally get the chance to delve into Fanon, a writer we had heard referenced in other classes and so many of those bull session conversations about "blackness" one has into the wee hours of the morning. We came away from our initial reading confused and unsatisfied; the professor spent two weeks bouncing around the book, the wording seemed all over the place at times, and the parts we did comprehend appeared to color Fanon as stereotypically angry.

While the book does call for an end to oppression along with attempting to identify the nature of the "black self," it is also a direct assault on what many considered (and still consider) to be the essence of the black identity. As such, the book becomes a sort of internal conversation among black people calling for a reassessment of who we consider ourselves to be.

The goal of these posts will be to conduct a chapter-a-week close reading of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, while analyzing, summarizing, and dialoguing with the text to provide readers with a better understanding of this crucial contribution to thinking about race. For those curious, I will be using the 1991 paperback reissue with [cover design by Liadain Warwick Smith].

Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation's first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes "blackness," we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers--over 50 years ago--to our most pressing questions about black people.

At any rate, let's get right to it...

INTRODUCTION

"At the risk of arousing the resentment of my colored brothers, I will say that the black is not a man."
~Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

One of the first mistakes my class made in tackling BSWM was skipping over the introduction. I can't stress how important it is to ALWAYS read the introduction to any piece of literature you come across as it prepares you for what you are about to read!!!

In Fanon's case, the introduction immediately tells us a number of things. The author assures us, with characteristic irony and sarcasm, that he has not come with "timeless truths" and that he "is not illuminated with ultimate radiances" (7). He also informs us that he ultimately believes in mankind's ability "to understand and to love" (7). With those disclaimers out of the way, Fanon goes on to state that he "propose[s] nothing short of the liberation of the man of color from himself." (8). For Fanon, this type of liberation is necessary because it is the "black" psyche which motives black people to "want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the value of their intellect" meaning, "For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white" (10). While Fanon acknowledges that some black (and white) people "will not find themselves in what follows" it does not mean that the problem he is outlining is nonexistent.

The author then goes on to give us brief descriptions on what each of the chapters will cover. The first three will deal with the modern black man's thoughts and feelings once he finds himself in the "white world". The fourth chapter is a critique of a book (Prospero and Caliban: Pyschology and Colonization) by M. Mannoni. The fifth chapter--a very important chapter!!-- is an examination of black people's understanding of blackness. This chapter reveals the heart of Fanon's writing in the book as he seeks to explain the inherent desperation and existential angst found in black people "driven to discover the meaning of black identity" (14). The last two chapters seek to explain the philosophical underpinnings of being black.

Now that we've covered the Introduction, next week we can begin with chapter one which covers some of the issues surrounding black people and the adoption of the colonizer's language. While this chapter will deal mainly with speech politics concerning continental Africans and Caribbeans, African American readers may find that some of the ideas expressed will ring relevant to our own issues with "talkin' white"!!!

See you next week...

The goal of these posts will be to conduct a chapter-a-week close reading of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, while analyzing, summarizing, and dialoguing with the text to provide readers with a better understanding of this crucial contribution to thinking about race. For those curious, I will be using the 1991 paperback reissue with [cover design by Liadain Warwick Smith]. Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation's first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes "blackness," we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers -- over 50 years ago -- to our most pressing questions about black people.

Chapter One: The Negro & Language
(Last week: Introduction)

/////What I want to do is help the black man to free himself of the arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment./////

In this chapter, Fanon shares his thoughts on how langauge choice reveals some of the effects oppression has had on the black psyche. He points out that, for black people, "to speak is to exist absolutely for the other" meaning that the language one chooses to communicate with requires that he or she "assume a culture, support the weight of a civilization" (17). Key to this theory is the notion that, in the oppressed black mind, there is the tendency to equate European culture and whiteness with humanity. Thus, "the Negro will become whiter--become more human--as he masters the white man's language" (18).

Next, we are presented with a few examples of how and why this process takes place. Fanon uses the instance of the native Caribbean's first encounter with the "mother country" (in this case, a Martinican visiting France for the first time) to illustrate the nature of a black inferiority complex. He states that,

/////Every colonized people--in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural orginality--finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. (18)/////

The author goes on to point out that schoolchildren in Martinique were taught to look down on their native creole and that the middle class only used the dialect when speaking to their servants. Some families did away with creole all together and ridiculed their children for using it, all in the name of perfecting their French. Fanon reminds us that, "for the Negro knows that over there in France there is a stereotype of him that will fasten on to him at the pier in Le Havre or Marseille" (20).

The logic of equating French culture with progress or cultivation is peculiar. Fanon describes it as "a psychological phenomenon that consists in the belief that the world will open to the extent to which frontiers are broken down" (21). Colonialism and oppression have a way of distorting one's notions of success and achievement to the degree that the person will forget about his or her own self completely and attempt to become another (in this case, white) person.

Briefly and vaguely, Fanon delves into a larger philosophical problem at the end of page 22, that of man's narcissism. Because of man's extreme infatuation with himself "in order to imagine that he is different from the other 'animals'". This narcissism is a mirage, but it is also at the root of black people's pursuit to "change who they are" in order to impress or prove themselves to whites. The solution to this problem, according to Fanon, is "man's surrender", that is, his doing away with his narcissism. Again, this section of the chapter is not explained in detail and the reader may have the feeling it feels out of place or serves as a distraction to the rest of the text.

Moving on, we are provided with yet another example of the language problem manifesting itself, this time in a Martinican who has just returned home from France. We see that he has seemingly forgotten creole, developed an intimate association with French culture, and become "critical of his compatriots" back home. He envisions himself as having oracle-like knowledge and comes to view life in his hometown as "deplorably played out" (24). This "brand-newness" is understood to be "evidence of a dislocation, a separation" (25).

Next is Fanon's take on the white perspective of this dilemma. For Fanon, the relationship between the two is analogous to that of the relationship between an adult and a child. In his observations, he recalls seeing many whites speak condescendingly to blacks (in dialect).

/////A white man addressing a Negro behaves exactly like an adult with a child and starts smirking, whispering, patronizing, cozening. It is not one white man I have a watched, but hundreds; and I have not limited my investigation to any one class... (31)/////

Naturally, these actions make blacks angry because they are a part of the process of "classifying, imprisoning, primitivizing, and decivilizing" black people. Fanon believed that the "European has a fixed concept of the Negro" (35).

Near the end of the chapter, Fanon provides us with one more example of language pathology when he states that "there is no reason why Andre Breton should say of [Aime] Cesaire, 'Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can" (39). For Fanon, this is the height of insult. He closes the chapter by saying, "we should be honored, the blacks will reproach me, that a white man like Breton writes such things" (40). -END-

The goal of these posts will be to conduct a chapter-a-week close reading of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, while analyzing, summarizing, and dialoguing with the text to provide readers with a better understanding of this crucial contribution to thinking about race. For those curious, I will be using the 1991 paperback reissue with [cover design by Liadain Warwick Smith]. Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation's first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes "blackness," we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers -- over 50 years ago -- to our most pressing questions about black people.

Chapter Two: The Woman of Color and the White Man
(Last week: Chapter One)

"Me? a Negress? Can't you see I'm practically white? I despise Negroes. Niggers stink. They're dirty and lazy. Don't ever mention niggers to me"
~Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon

And now we move to one of the more exciting chapters in Fanon's book, "The Woman of Color and the White Man". Fanon's analysis, as we have seen, is based primarily on the Martinican relationship to France during his time. As such, he decides to analyze a book written in 1948 by a black woman--Mayotte Capecia--in which she divulges her reasons for being exclusively attracted to white men.

For Fanon, the acts of love and admiration are directly tied to who and what we value. He says, "authentic love...entails the mobilization of psychic drives basically freed of unconscious conflicts" (41). In other words, I cannot seek to love unless I have rid myself, in this case, of my inferiority complex. For black people, this becomes a humongous hindrance because, as Fanon believes, the inferiority complex is what the black world view is mainly comprised of.

In her book Je suis Martiniquiase Capecia writes of her husband, "All I know is that he had blue eyes, blond hair, and a light skin, and that I loved him" (42). She then goes on to recount a time when after much pleading she was allowed to accompany her husband to one of his high society gatherings in a neighborhood of the Martinican city of Fort-de-France called Didier. For Capecia, Didier represents a sort of "Beverly Hills" and symbolizes the height of culture and prosperity. Of course, Didier is almost exclusively white and rich and after finally gaining the chance to go she reflects,

We spent the evening in one of those little villas that I had admired since my childhood, with two officers and their wives. The women kept watching me with a condescension that I found unbearable. I felt felt that I was wearing too much makeup, that I was not properly dressed, that I was not doing Andre [her husband] credit, perhaps simply because of the color of my skin--in short, I spent so miserable an evening that I decided I would never again ask Andre to take me with him. (43)

Fanon believes that Capecia was only trying to realize a childhood wish by accompanying her husband to Didier. That wish was guided by this principle: "One is white above a certain financial level" (44). It is said that Capecia had long been dazzled by the mansions of Didier so it follows that a white husband would have been the key to fulfilling her childhood fantasies. This is the heart of the chapter, that for the woman of color, the choice of attraction to white men is based not only in the inferiority complex, but also in a desire to achieve economic comfort. But Fanon warns us that, "For the beloved should not allow me to turn my infantile fantasies into reality: On the contrary, he should help me to go beyond them" (44).

Next, Fanon delves into Capecia's into the pathological maturation of Capecia's inferiority complex. She moves from trying to "blacken" the world by pouring ink on her classmates in grade school to trying to rationalize her own "near-whiteness" when she muses on the fact that she had a white grandmother. Fanon calls the latter attempt "lactification" (the process of trying to whiten oneself as if to become like milk) (47).

What follows are several examples of black women's reasoning for preferring white men:

"...it is not that we deny that blacks have any good qualities, but you know it is so much better to be white" (48).

"Everyone of us has a white potential, but some try to ignore it and some simply reverse it. As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't marry a Negro for anything in the world" (48).

Fanon then quotes Anna Freud to support his idea that "overcompensation" is actually the root cause of many black women's inability to move beyond their inferiority complexes and achieve authentic love.

Next we are provided with two scenarios that illustrate the complex even further. A "mulatto" woman is approached via love letter by a fairly well off black man. Although his expression is sincere, she is disgusted by his forward attempt. She is especially enraged that he refers to her (endearingly) as a "Negress" when she views herself as "practically white". She dismisses him completely and even threatens to call the police and report harassment. Later, when a white man is merely rumored to be interested in her, the reply is, "Oh it can't be!...How do you know it's true?...Can such things happen?...It's sweet....It's such a scream" (57).

At the end of the chapter, Fanon reminds us that both blacks and whites are operating based on inferiority and superiority complexes, respectively. Because of this both are plagued by neurosis. For people of color, "there is a constant effort to run away from [one's] own individuality, to annihilate [one's] own presence" (60).

After mentioning that this sort of thinking is the type he wants to get rid of, Fanon closes the chapter which leads directly into the "The Man of Color and the White Woman".

Stay tuned and happy reading!

The goal of these posts will be to conduct a chapter-a-week close reading of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, while analyzing, summarizing, and dialoguing with the text to provide readers with a better understanding of this crucial contribution to thinking about race. For those curious, I will be using the 1991 paperback reissue with [cover design by Liadain Warwick Smith]. Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation's first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes "blackness," we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers -- over 50 years ago -- to our most pressing questions about black people.

Chapter Three: The Man of Color and the White Woman
(Last week: Chapter Two)

Fanon argues that the nature of this relationship is also rooted in the latent desire to become white. On page 63 he writes, "By loving me [a white woman] proves that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man."

As in the previous chapter, Fanon uses a work of literature to illustrate the psychological character of a black man who finds himself in love with a white woman. In the novel Un homme pareil aux autres (A Man Like Any Other) by René Maran, the protagonist, Jean Veneuse, was born in the Caribbean but has lived in Bordeaux, France since he was a child. Fanon notes, "he is a European. But he is Black; so he is a Negro. There is the conflict. He does not understand his own race, and the whites do not understand him" (64). We also find that because of these circumstances, Veneuse feels lonely and has developed into what many would call an introverted bookworm. While we might be led to think that Veneuse's desire is to prove to his white counterparts that he is their equal, Fanon believes that Veneuse himself is the man that has to be convinced.

Next, Veneuse ventures to account for his love of a white woman, Andreé Marielle. He cannot explain why he has chosen her as the primary object of his affections and he even appears to show a sense of guilt; however, he concludes that

I know nothing. I have no wish to know any more except one thing: that the Negro is a man like the rest, the equal of the others, and that his heart, which only the ignorant consider simple, can be as complicated as the heart of the most complicated of Europeans. (66)

Here we are presented with yet another dimension of Veneuse's dilemma: not only does he harbor feelings of guilt over loving a white woman, he also feels that his love must be on par with "white love" in order to be validated. And validation he seeks; even after Andreé professes her mutual love for Veneuse, he seeks out his European friend Coulanges to "authorize" his feelings. Coulanges explains that since Veneuse has lived in Bordeaux since he was three or four years old he is essentially a European or "one of us" (68). He stresses this point by reminding Veneuse that he would probably be unable to communicate with anyone from the Caribbean and that he has no resemblance to them. He goes further by saying

In fact you are like us--you are "us." Your thoughts are ours. You behave as we behave, as we would behave. You think of yourself--others think of you--as a Negro? Utterly mistaken! You merely look like one. As for everything else, you think as a European. And so it is natural that you love as a European. Since European men love only European women, you can hardly marry anyone but a woman of the country where you have always lived, a woman of our good old France, your real and only country. (68)

Fanon clarifies this passage by stating that this sort of white male approval can only come about if the black man ensures that he will have nothing to do whatsoever with black people.

Veneuse turns this over in his mind but is said to reject it and instead begins to wonder if his "love" for the white woman is merely a desire to enact revenge on whites by becoming the "master" of a white woman. He wonders if

...by marrying Andreé, who [is] a European, I may not appear to be making a show of contempt for the women of my own race and above all to be drawn by desire for that white flesh that has been forbidden us Negroes as long as white men have ruled the world, so that without my knowledge I am attempting to revenge myself on a European woman for everything her ancestors inflicted on mine throughout the centuries. (70)

Next, Fanon points to a passage by Louis T. Achille which posits the idea that whereas most interracial marriages are arranged so that one of the spouses is of a lower economic or cultural standing than the other in order to achieve the "deracialization" of both partners, when a white spouse is chosen by a black person, the black person's motive seems to be one of establishing equality with whiteness.

Fanon finally concludes that the root cause of Veneuse's neurosis lay in his isolated (i.e., from blackness) upbringing. With a nod to psychoanalysis, Fanon even flirts with the possibility of Veneuse's issues being caused by his feeling abandoned by his mother. The only solution to this problem for Veneuse is acceptance by whites.

Fanon also believes that Veneuse's problems cannot be extended to all black people simply because Veneuse is black (this would risk losing objectivity). He is simply suffering from basic and universal symptoms of the psychoanalytic problem of being an abandonment-neurotic.

To conclude, Fanon reminds us once more that such problems cannot be solved by buying into color hierarchies and alludes to another solution which he will reveal later.

The goal of these posts will be to conduct a chapter-a-week close reading of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, while analyzing, summarizing, and dialoguing with the text to provide readers with a better understanding of this crucial contribution to thinking about race. For those curious, I will be using the 1991 paperback reissue with [cover design by Liadain Warwick Smith]. Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation's first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes "blackness," we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers -- over 50 years ago -- to our most pressing questions about black people.

Chapter Four: The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized Peoples
(Last week: Chapter Three)

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.

Chapter four encompasses Fanon' thoughts surrounding the work of one of his contemporaries, Octave Mannoni, specifically, a work entitled "Prospero and Caliban; Psychology of Colonization". Fanon states that he has chosen the author's work because it emphasizes the problem of "exhaustive" studies on the effects of colonialism tat still cannot manage to provide any real insights into the phenomenon.

Fanon is primarily concerned with the lack of subjectivity displayed by Mannoni, which he believes is responsible for the scholar's assumption that, "the inferiority complex [is] something that antedates colonization" or put more simply, that inferiority complexes are somehow inherent to "primitive" or uncivilized peoples (85).

After hihlighting Mannoni's contention that racism can expres itslf in varying degrees; that one form may not be as racist as another, Fanon remarks, "a given society is racist or it is not" (85). He also states that he believes it is possible for people who are not of color to help bring authentic understanding of the colonial situation, the only prerequisite being that the analysis not be stymied by objectivism, because "that would be dishonest" (86). But Mannoni's analysis goes on to treat apartheid South Africa as a simple situation in which grumpy and poor whites resent their African counterparts. Mannoni believes that any racism in South Africa is merely a reactionary response of the white poor and that rich whites have to time to be bothered with racist attitudes towards Africans. Fanon says of this situation:

What is South Africa? A boiler in which thirteen million blacks are clubbed and pinned in by two and a half million whites. If the poor whites hate the Negroes, it is not, as M. Mannoni would have us believe, because "racialism is the work of petty officials small traders, and colonials who have toiled much without great success." No; it is because the structure of South Africa is a racist structure (87)

Next, Fanon dismisses Mannoni's argument that there are different kinds of exploitation or racism by pointing out that all forms of oppression draw their justification from a seemingly "biblical" source that allows them to rationalize the lack of humanity in whomever is being oppressed. Fanon goes on, "when one tries to examine the structure of this or that form of exploitation from an abstract point of view, one simply turns one back on the major, basic problem, which is that of restoring man to his proper place" (88).

Fanon then references a work by Aimé Césaire which compares lynchings in America, worldwide discrimination against Jews, and the legalization of forced labor in Africa to the actions of Hitler to prove his point that oppression is a universal concept that does not vary its intensity whatsoever. He also contends that particular segments of a society are not more or less responsible for racism when he paraphrases Francis Jeanson's statement that "every citizen of a nation is responsible for the actions committed in the name of that nation (91).

In response to Mannoni's statement that, "France is unquestionably one of the least racialist-minded countries in the world" Fanon replies by stating, "France is a racist country, for the myth of the bad nigger is part of the collective unconscious" (92). In response to Mannoni's insistence that inferiority complexes usually occur within a fraction of a minority population and that majority populations seldom experience such complexes, Fanon reminds us that, "in Martinique there are 200 whites who consider themselves superior to 300,000 people of color. In South Africa there are two million white against almost thirteen million native people, and it has never occurred to a single black to consider himself superior to a member of the white minority" (92-93). Fanon insists that there is a correlation between the feelings of inferiority experienced by people of color and the feelings of superiority espoused by whites, that in fact, "it is the racist who creates his inferior" (93). Following Mannoni's line of reasoning, Fanon explains, creates a situation in which an oppressed individual must either develop feelings of inferiority or remain dependent on the colonizer.

Fanon emphasizes in the pages that follow the notion that inferiority complexes are not innate but that they are responses to the newly-occurring phenomenon of discrimination encountered by colonized peoples. He also dismisses Mannoni's assumption that because colonized people held inferiority complexes previous o the arrival of white men (and that they welcomed whites as long awaited masters, hence their inability to view them as enemies) in favor of Césaire's idea that colonized people acted with humanity, good will, courtesy and the basic tenets of "the old courtly civilizations" (99).

Next an example is sketched out by Fanon of a black man who is wondering about the dreams he has in which he turns white after a long and arduous journey to find white men behind a closed door. For Fanon, this dream indicates an inferiority complex which my be rid of--not by remaining "in his place" (i.e., dependent)--as Mannoni would have it-- but by becoming aware of the source of his subconscious conflict and choosing action against its structure or else remaining passive.

Finally, Fanon ends the chapter by rephrasing his point: that inferiority complexes in people of color are the result of the white man's arrival and that "Mannoni lacks the slightest basis in which to ground any conclusion applicable to the situation, the problems, or the potentialities of the [Africans] in the present time" (108).

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