Frantz Fanon and Lessons from a Not So Dying Colonialism

Dr. Frank B. Wilderson, III, author of Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid, discusses the enduring legacy of Frantz Fanon.

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Story Transcript

FRANK WILDERSON: One of the things that makes Fanon extremely valuable, whether you are a revolutionary or whether you are a psychologist or a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst, or whether you are a student, is his explanatory power. About 15 years ago I was struck by a comment that Subcomandante Marcos made to the media when they came to the Zapatista stronghold. And he said, one of the reasons why the Mexican government hates us so much is because we can explain everything. We can explain everything. And I just got a big kick out of that.

I think that is–if that’s true of Subcomandante Marcos then it is three and ten times truer of Frantz Fanon. You can go to Frantz Fanon to explain everything. For example, the bombings that took place in Paris, there’s a pithy little two-sentences here from a woman named Deborah Wyrick, who wrote a book, Frantz Fanon for Beginners, that I use for my undergrads and even my grad students. And she writes this–but she’s talking about the Algerian revolution.

She writes: French intellectuals and leftists present a certain kind of problem. Although their politics should put them in the category of friends of the Algerian revolution, they are either–they either demonstrate what Fanon calls, quote, pseudo-solidarity, or have abandoned the cause completely. Militant Algerian revolutionary tactics throw them into a panic. By condemning a, quote, terrorist–in quotations–a terrorist act, the intelligentsia loses sight of the reasons why violence is necessary to overturn colonial rule, a point that Fanon talks about in Wretched of the Earth. This is a forest and the trees problem based on a misguided emphasis on the individual. In this type of thinking, a single act of brutality or a single act of kindness eclipses the entire struggle.

Well, that’s clearly what’s happening here. I’m not on the side of ISIL, I’m damn sure not on the side of the French and the Americans. But what you see is all the caring energy for the recent attacks in Paris, the same pattern of caring energy going to these individuated, non-Arab and non-black subjects. And that, unfortunately, is something that Fanon can go on to explain as something that happens when Arabs are aggressing against blacks, as in Mauritania. So you have these hydraulics of whiteness that impose itself on every scale of abstraction that Fanon has explained. And precisely what that means is that the darker you are, and blackness is the darkest, you can only be imagined, you can only be categorized in the news, as a kind of perpetrator or terrorist. But no caring energy towards your victimhood can come forth. So that’s why we have all this energy about Paris, and not about Kenya several years go.

I think it’s of value today, because there are kind of, in the brief time we have, there are two big ideas in what I just said that are traced throughout all of Fanon, and that are really important. One big idea is, as brother Dhoruba bin-Wahad from the Black Liberation Army said on your radio show a while back, is that the colonized world or the Western state demands that the sovereign–that they have a sovereign right over violence. So that they can use whatever violence they want for their own needs, whether to get oil or to repress black liberation, and that violence is always characterized, narrativized as legitimate. And it enters our minds as a legitimate form of violence.

So any type of response to that, which is what Fanon was talking about in his first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, has two problems. One, it is actually a tactical problem of finding the kind of strength and paramilitary capacity to fight state violence. But two, and which is more important, is finding a way to legitimate your own response to that violence in your own head first, and in the heads of people like you second. Then in the heads of the rest of the world.

So what we have is a situation in which the–again, I’m not on the side of ISIL for many different reasons, but what is clear here is that Fanon’s racial analysis is never not in the mix. It’s always in the mix. Here is a Western power that is responsible, along with the United States, for the problems in the Middle East. Responsible for millions of deaths in the Middle East. They get hundreds of deaths on one day, and suddenly they’re narrativized as victims. The only way they can do that, narrativize themselves as victims and make it stick, to understand that you go from Fanon’s second book, Wretched of the Earth, back to his first book, Black Skin White Masks, and you find the strategies of narration which are subtended, meaning connected to structural violence, that allow for the idea that white is right to be naturalized.

Those strategies have never gone away. They’ve been shot through a prism and they’ve changed, but I would say that they’ve been more intensified. And so Fanon is more important today than he’s ever been.

I think one of the reasons that Fanon is–Fanon is popular amongst academics partially because his theories of psychoanalysis, part of the bedrock for racializing psychoanalysis, Lacan and Freud didn’t think of the psychoanalytic subject, the person on the couch, as a raced person. And Fanon comes in and he says, no, this is what’s most important in terms of value in the unconscious, whether one is black or not.

And as a result, that strain of Fanon allows black people to understand the dynamics of their own suffering for themselves and to themselves, and allows academics to do their work in ways that Lacan was able to help them with. For activists, there’s a way in which reading Fanon will strengthen your–I could say your ethical backbone.

One of the things that Fanon’s writing does is not just the content, but it’s the style. In other words there’s an irreverence that he has towards everything that the colony and the colonist has set up. And that irreverence is something that’s really hard to kind of get into your bones and your zeitgeist. So for example, one starts off as an activist wanting to right the wrongs and make reforms in civil society. And one gets frustrated because civil society morphs and shapeshifts to the point where it will make reforms on one side but intensify the oppression on the other side.

One reads Fanon, and in the first few pages of Wretched of the Earth one gets a sense that it’s okay to be against the entire project of the world. You don’t have to whittle down your antagonistic energy towards substantiating various acts of discrimination. Fanon clearly calls the settlers’ community, the settlers’ side of town, a side of town that is unethical precisely because it’s parasitic upon the casbah, or the ghetto, or the township. And so one then can be against European space and time as opposed to simply against European acts of discrimination. And he says, you know, he puts in a really pithy phrase. He says, when the settler, when the native understands that the settler believes in the way, just the same way that the native believes that this shapes the world in a very necessary manner, so it allows you to laugh and release yourself of the moral guilt that comes along with your project and the way you’ve been raised, I’d say, in a very simple nutshell.

That’s a very complicated question. The first answer is yes, he did. You have to remember that MK was basically run by the Communist Party. 15,000 people in Umkhonto we Sizwe, 90-95 percent of them were Communist Party members. But they were black. So they were black, having come out of Biko’s Black Consciousness, primarily, in the ’70s and gone into MK. So they came with Fanon. Now, when they come with Fanon into MK and the Communist Party, the Communist Party is a line to the Soviet Union. And it says to them, well, Fanon has an unsophisticated reading of Marxism. The way he stretches Marxism in The Wretched of the Earth is not okay.

So the point is that there’s a tension there, because the black cadre are very much invested in Fanon. The multicultural central committee understands this. But I would say that Fanon is the kind of cult figure of the black cadre of MK, but his work does not figure into the authorized political discourse of the Communist Party because it’s aligned with the Soviet Union. But we must remember that one does 18 months in prison if one gets caught with The Wretched of the Earth. So that alone, that alone catalyzes, you know, captures the imagination of black people. It’s a tension, that’s what I’m trying to explain.

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