Black Skin, White Masks

Some thoughts…
In this book, Franz Fanon intends to destroy the “massive psycho-existential complex” that’s resulted from the confrontation between “civilized” and “primitive” in the colonial context. It is this juxtaposition of the two races that produces these effects (blacks becoming trapped psychologically by their inferiority and whites by their superiority) and not a condition existing prior to colonization. I was pleasantly surprised to find Fanon apply existentialism, particularly from Jean-Paul Sartre, to issues related to colonialism, where to this point I hadn’t read much of that application outside of Michael D. Jackson.
Explaining the alienation of blacks along these lines, Fanon writes, for example, “There is an attempt by the colored man to escape his individuality, to reduce his being in the world to nothing.” (42) In other cases, this issue is that the black man cannot be – cannot exist – unless he has achieved acceptance into white/high society, acquired the material and social accessories that legitimate him as a human being. Fanon’s chapter “The lived experience of the black man” was fantastically poetic and I most enjoyed his relating his experience in the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist fiction novel La Nausée. Fanon finds himself on a train, the whites around him having left two or three seats to him instead of just the necessary one: “I existed in triple: I was taking up room. I approached the Other…and the Other, evasive, hostile, but not opaque, transparent and absent, vanished. Nausea.” (92)

Interestingly too, Fanon cites psychoanalyst Dominique-Octave Mannoni’s use of the character Prospero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to understand “the raison d’etre for colonialism”: “What the colonial in common with Prospero lacks, is awareness of the world of Others, a world in which Others have to be respected. This is the world from which the colonial has fled because he cannot accept men as they are. Rejection of that world is combined with an urge to dominate…it is always a question of compromising with the desire for a world without men.” (87) These observations of course relate directly to ideas brought up in books like Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, particularly the question of how one relates to the world and others in choosing to enact a narrative that presupposes the inherent brokenness of human beings and the supposed virtues of control.

Fanon gave a really striking analysis of the notion of equality as well: “[W]hen an Antillean with a degree in philosophy says he is not sitting for the agrégation because of his color, my response is that philosophy never saved anybody. When another desperately tries to prove to me that the black man is as intelligent as any white man, my response is that neither did intelligence save anybody, for if equality among men is proclaimed in the name of intelligence and philosophy, it is also true that these concepts have been used to justify the extermination of man.” (12) He continues later on in the book, “[I]f, at a certain point in his history, he [the black man] has been made to ask the question whether he is a man, it’s because his reality as a man has been challenged.” (78) Fanon explains the black man is concerned and suffers in him non-whiteness insofar as he is discriminated against, objectified, devalued, and dehumanized. At which point, he try to make myself more white to justify his humanity to the whites. It is from here that the strive for “equality” arises. So when equality is spoken of in the West, it is not equality as human beings with various ways of being in the world, but equality with the bar set at “whiteness”. In reality, Fanon asserts, there is no such thing as a black or white ethic or intelligence, no black mission and no white burden – these are, along with this conventional understanding of equality, false constructs emerging from the colonial context. There are only “from one end of the world to the other men who are searching.” (204)

Fanon also presents the interesting position of critics of proponents of négritude: “Lay aside your history, your research into the past, and try to get in step with our rhythm [reference to Léopold Sédar Sanghor’s discussion of rhythm as the central African virtue]. In a society such as ours, industrialized to the extreme, dominated by science, there is no longer room for your sensitivity. You have to be tough to be able to live. It is no longer enough to play ball with the world; you have to master it with integrals and atoms.” (111) To me, this is a terribly sad and unimaginative “pragmatic” approach to take. I would agree with Sartre about négritude being a transitional phase in which the colonized take possession of the colonizers’ scorn; thus, as he explains, “I personalize myself against you.” I must also admit Fanon is right that Africans did not need to “create a meaning” for themselves because it was already there, insofar as that meaning is found in one’s humanity and heritage which are indisputable. But Fanon’s objection to Sartre seems off the mark to me, as I see them talking about two different things. I understand Sartre to be dealing with taking ownership of stigmas and stereotypes and using them to one’s own ends to regain existential control over identity. Fanon on the other hand is speaking to the question of whether or not one can speak meaningful of an African “essence.”

In this last regard, I did find Fanon a bit inconsistent. In the conclusion of his book he insists, “The past can in no way be my guide in the actual state of things…I do not want to sing the past to the detriment of my present and my future.” (200) He claims, “It is not because the Indo-Chinese discovered a culture of their own that they revolted.” Now, at one point earlier he claims he could have no interest in a black empire, because he is French (he does not claim to be Martinique), interested in French values, and so on. He asserts further, “My life must not be devoted to making an assessment of black values.” Yet at the same time, he clings to the concept of négritude and describes how unsettling it was to consider the doubts Sartre’s critique initially raised in him. And at the same time still, he stresses the need for Africans to adapt to European culture. I’d be curious to learn how he might respond.

In his introduction, Fanon asked his readers to see themselves in this psychological analysis, and I certainly do. I have experienced what Fanon described in his talk of abandonment and the resulting desire to abandon the Other in retaliation and insecurity, the retreat into the reserved, intellectual life, which finds at least part of its root in shame for one’s own existence. One’s actions being directed toward the Other, for legitemation. I experience the same subconscious association of the good with whiteness since childhood, which is then muddled in ambivalence when I look in the mirror. Even given the ethnically varied environments and social spheres in which I grew up, I still developed a very real complex the prejudiced me against myself. But in trying to articulate one’s experiences, Fanon rightful says: “From time to time you feel like giving up. Expressing the real is an arduous job. But when you take it into your head to express existence, you will very likely encounter nothing but the nonexistent.” (116) As real as the experiences are, the moment one tries to describe them they seem to turn into the altogether tangled and elusive form near impossible to make sense of to another.

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