Frantz Fanon (July 20, 1925 – December 6, 1961) was a Martinique-born French author and essayist. He was perhaps the preeminent thinker of the twentieth century on the issue of decolonization and the psychopathology of colonization. His works have inspired anti-colonial liberation movements for more than four decades.
In particular, Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) was a major influence on the work of revolutionary leaders such as Ali Shariati in Iran, Steve Biko in South Africa and Ernesto Che Guevara in Cuba. Of these, only Guevara was primarily concerned with Fanon's theories on violence; for Shariati and Biko the main interest in Fanon was "the new man" and "black consciousness." Fanon's influence extended to the liberation movements of the Palestinians, the Tamils, the Irish, African Americans and others.
Like many social revolutionaries of his era, Fanon was drawn to communism, although he was never a party member. His work was fueled by a combination of righteous indignation and resentment over the treatment of the colored races by whites. He gave voice to the truth that racism is one of the most debasing features of human culture and must be overcome, along with the legacy of social stratification that it has engendered.
Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, then a French colony and now a French département. He was born into a mixed family background. His father was the descendent of African slaves, and his mother was said to be an illegitimate child of mixed race, whose white ancestors came from Strasbourg in Alsace. The family was relatively well-off for Martinicans, but far from middle class. They could, however, afford the fees for the Lycee Schoelcher, then the most prestigious high school in Martinique, where famed poet Aimé Césaire was Frantz Fanon's teacher.
After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Vichy French naval troops were blockaded on Martinique. Forced to remain on the island, French soldiers became "authentic racists." Many accusations of harassment and sexual misconduct occurred. The abuse of the Martinican people by the French Army was a major influence on Fanon, reinforcing his feelings of alienation and his disgust at the realities of colonial racism.
At the age of eighteen, Fanon fled the island as a "dissident" (the coined word for French West Indians joining the Gaullist forces) and traveled to then British Dominica to join the Free French Forces. He later enlisted in the French army and saw service in France, notably in the battles of Alsace. In 1944 he was wounded at Colmar and received the Croix de Guerre medal. When the Nazis were defeated and Allied forces crossed the Rhine into Germany—along with photo journalists—Fanon's regiment was "bleached" of all non-white soldiers and Fanon and his fellow black soldiers were sent to Toulon instead.
In 1945, Fanon returned to Martinique. His return lasted only a short time. While there, he worked for the parliamentary campaign of his friend and mentor Aimé Césaire, who would be the greatest influence in his life. Although Fanon never professed to be a communist, Césaire ran on the communist ticket as a parliamentary delegate from Martinique to the first National Assembly of the Fourth Republic. Fanon stayed long enough to complete his baccalaureate, then went to France where he studied medicine and psychiatry.
He was educated in Lyon where he studied literature, drama and philosophy, sometimes attending Merleau-Ponty's lectures. After qualifying as a psychiatrist in 1951, Fanon did a residency in psychiatry under the radical Catalan, Francois de Tosquelles, who invigorated Fanon's thinking by emphasizing the important yet often overlooked role of culture in psychopathology. After his residency, Fanon practiced psychiatry in France for another year and then (from 1953) in Algeria. He was chef de service at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, where he stayed until his resignation in 1956. Fanon spent over 10 years in the service of France; his experience in France's army (and in Martinique) fueled his later work, including Black Skin, White Masks. For Fanon, being colonized by a language had larger implications for one's consciousness: "To speak … means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization" (BSWM 17-18). Speaking French means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the French.
While in France, Fanon wrote his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, an analysis of the effect of colonial subjugation on the human psyche. This book was a personal account of Fanon’s experience of being a black man, an intellectual with a French education rejected in France by the French because of his skin color.
Fanon left France for Algeria, where he had been stationed for some time during the war. He secured an appointment as a psychiatrist at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital. It was there that he radicalized methods of treatment. In particular, he began socio-therapy which connected with his patients' cultural backgrounds. He also trained nurses and interns. Following the outbreak of the Algerian revolution in November 1954 he joined the FLN liberation front (Front de Libération Nationale) as a result of contacts with Dr. Chaulet.
Fanon made extensive trips across Algeria, mainly in the Kabyle region, to study the cultural and psychological life of Algerians. His lost study of "The marabout of Si Slimane" is an example. These trips were also a means for clandestine activities, notably in his visits to the ski resort of Chrea which hid an FLN base. By summer 1956 he wrote his famous "Letter of resignation to the Resident Minister" and made a clean break with his French assimilationist upbringing and education. He was expelled from Algeria in January 1957 and the "nest of fellaghas” (rebels) at Blida hospital was dismantled.
Fanon left for France and subsequently traveled secretly to Tunis. He was part of the editorial collective of El Moudjahid for which he wrote until the end of his life. He also served as ambassador to Ghana for the Provisional Algerian Government (GPRA) and attended conferences in Accra, Conakry, Addis Ababa, Leopoldville, Cairo and Tripoli. Many of his shorter writings from this period were collected posthumously in the book Toward the African Revolution. In this book Fanon even outs himself as a war strategist; in one chapter he discusses how to open a southern front to the war and how to run the supply lines.
On his return to Tunis, after his exhausting trip across the Sahara to open a Third Front, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia. He went to the Soviet Union for treatment and experienced some remission of his illness. On his return to Tunis he dictated his testament The Wretched of the Earth. When he was not confined to his bed, he delivered lectures to ALN (Armée de Libération Nationale) officers at Ghardimao on the Algero-Tunisian border. He made a final visit to Sartre in Rome and went for further leukemia treatment in the United States.
Ironically, he was assisted by the CIA in traveling to the United States to receive treatment. He died in Bethesda, Maryland, on December 6, 1961 under the name of Ibrahim Fanon. He was buried in Algeria after lying in state in Tunisia. Later his body was moved to a martyrs' (chouhada) graveyard at Ain Kerma in eastern Algeria. Fanon was survived by his wife, Josie (maiden name: Dublé, who committed suicide in Algiers in 1989), their son, Olivier and his daughter (from a previous relationship) Mireille. Mireille married Bernard Mendès-France, son of the French politician Pierre Mendès-France.
Fanon embraced Négritude, a literary and political movement developed in the 1930s by a group that included Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Fanon's teacher and mentor, as well as the future Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the Guianan Léon Damas. The Négritude writers found solidarity in a common black identity as a rejection of French colonial racism. They believed that the shared black heritage of members of the African diaspora was the best tool in fighting against French political and intellectual hegemony and domination.
The term négritude (which most closely means "blackness" in English) was first used in 1935 by Aimé Césaire in the third issue of L'Étudiant noir (“The Black Student”), a magazine which he had started in Paris with fellow students Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas, as well as Gilbert Gratiant, Leonard Sainville, and Paulette Nardal. L'Étudiant noir also contains Césaire's first published work, "Negreries," which is notable not only for its disavowal of assimilation as a valid strategy for resistance but also for its reclamation of the word "nègre" as a positive term.
Neither Césaire—who upon returning to Martinique after his studies in Paris, was elected both mayor of Fort de France, the capital, and a representative of Martinique in France's Parliament—nor Senghor in Senegal envisaged political independence from France. Négritude would, according to Senghor, enable blacks under French rule to take a "seat at the give and take [French] table as equals." However, France had other ideas, and it would eventually present Senegal and its other African colonies with independence.
Although Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks while still in France, most of his work was written while in North Africa. It was during this time that he produced his greatest works, Year 5 of the Algerian Revolution (later republished as A Dying Colonialism) and perhaps the most important work on decolonization yet written, The Wretched of the Earth. The Wretched of the Earth was first published in 1961 by François Maspero and has a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. In it Fanon analyzes the role of class, race, national culture and violence in the struggle for national liberation. Both books established Fanon in the eyes of much of the Third World as the leading anti-colonial thinker of the twentieth century. Fanon's three books were supplemented by numerous psychiatry articles as well as radical critiques of French colonialism in journals like Esprit and El Moudjahid.
The reception of his work has been affected by English translations which are recognized to contain numerous omissions and errors, while his unpublished work, including his doctoral thesis, has received little attention. As a result, Fanon has often been portrayed as an advocate of violence. In the original French, it is clear this is not the case. Furthermore, his work is interdisciplinary, spanning psychiatric concerns to encompass politics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and literature.
His participation in the Algerian FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) from 1955 determined his audience as the Algerian colonized. It was to them that his final work, Les damnés de la terre (translated into English by Constance Farrington as The Wretched of the Earth) was directed. It constitutes a warning to the oppressed of the dangers they face in the whirlwind of decolonization and the transition to a neo-colonialist/globalized world.
Fanon was considered an inspirational figure among anti-colonial and liberation movements. In particular, Les damnés de la terre was a major influence on the work of revolutionary leaders such as Ali Shariati in Iran, Steve Biko in South Africa and Ernesto Che Guevara in Cuba. Of these only Guevara was primarily concerned with Fanon's theories on violence; for Shariati and Biko the main interest in Fanon was "the new man" and "black consciousness" respectively. Fanon's influence extended to the liberation movements of the Palestinians, the Tamils, the Irish, African-Americans and others. More recently, the South African movement Abahlali baseMjondolo is influenced by Fanon's work.
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