‘I belong irreducibly to my time’, wrote Frantz Fanon in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks. That time was, of course, the era of anti-colonial struggles. Born in the then French colony of Martinique in 1925, where he was a student of Aimé Césaire, Fanon fought with the Allied forces in the Second World War and then trained in Lyon as a physician and psychiatrist. His remarkable Black Skin, White Masks was published in 1952 and had a significant impact in intellectual circles in France at the time. It was a passionate cri de cœur—‘the experience of a black man thrown into a white world’.footnote1 In 1953 Fanon was appointed to the Blida Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, just a year before the outbreak of the War of Independence. He rapidly became outraged by the stories of torture that his Algerian patients recounted to him. Already a sympathizer with their cause, he resigned his post and went to Tunisia to work full time for the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne (gpra). He wrote extensively for El Moudjahid, the official journal of the revolution.
In 1960, the gpra sent him as its ambassador to Ghana, at that time the de facto centre of the movement for African unity. The gpra wanted him to reinforce links not only with Ghana, but with the various nationalist movements in Africa still struggling for their independence, and whose leaders regularly passed through Accra. It was there that I first met Fanon in 1960 and where we had long discussions about the world political situation. He was both very encouraged by the global sweep of the national liberation movements, and disturbed by the signs he saw already in the limitations of the leadership of many of these movements—discomforts he would discuss at length in his last book. Soon thereafter, he fell ill of leukemia. He went first to the Soviet Union and then to the United States for treatments, which were fruitless. I was able to visit him in hospital in Washington, where we discussed the nascent Black Power movement in the United States with which he was fascinated. He exploded with anger about us policies in the world. He said ‘Americans are not engaged in dialogue; they still speak monologues’. In the last year of his life, he devoted himself principally and furiously to writing the book published posthumously as The Wretched of the Earth.footnote2 Fanon lived to read the famous preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, which he thought superb. The title of the book, Les damnés de la terre, was, of course, drawn from the opening lines of the Internationale, the song of the world workers’ movement. He died, much too young, in 1961.
It was this work, not Black Skin, White Masks, which brought Fanon his world reputation, including of course in the United States. The book became something like a bible for all those involved in the many and diverse movements that culminated in the world revolution of 1968. After the initial flames of 68 died out, Wretched of the Earth receded into a quieter corner. In the late 1980s, the various identity and post-colonial movements discovered his first book, upon which they lavished attention, much of it missing Fanon’s point. As he wrote in the Introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon thought that to overcome the alienation of the black man would require more than what Freudian psychoanalysis had to offer. Freud had argued the need to move beyond a phylogenetic to an ontogenetic explanation; for Fanon, what was required was a sociogenic explanation. Although Black Skin, White Masks would have a second life as a central text in the postmodern canon, thirty years after it was published, the book was in no way a call to identity politics. Quite the contrary, as Fanon’s lines in the concluding pages make clear:
Whatever Fanon was, he was not a postmodernist. He might rather be characterized as one part Marxist Freudian, one part Freudian Marxist, and most part totally committed to revolutionary liberation movements. If he belonged to his time, however, his work still has much to offer ours. The very last sentence of Black Skin, White Masks is this: ‘My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions!’ It is in this spirit of interrogation that I offer my reflections on the utility of Fanon’s thought for the twenty-first century.
I am struck, on rereading his books, firstly by the degree to which they make very strong declarations of which Fanon seems entirely confident, especially when he is being critical of others; and secondly, by the way these declarations are usually followed, sometimes many pages later, by Fanon spelling out his uncertainties about how best to proceed, how to achieve what needs to be accomplished. I am also struck, as was Sartre, by the degree to which these books are not at all addressed to the powerful of the world but rather to the ‘wretched of the earth’, a category that overlaps heavily for him with ‘people of colour’. Fanon is always angry at the powerful, who are both cruel and condescending. But he is even angrier at those people of colour whose behaviour and attitudes contribute to sustaining the world of inequality and humiliation, and who often do so merely to obtain crumbs for themselves. In what follows, I will organize my reflections around what I think are three dilemmas for Fanon—the use of violence, the assertion of identity and the class struggle.