Last reviewed: June 2018
Martinican-born Francophone philosopher and psychiatrist
July 20, 1925
December 6, 1961
Frantz Omar Fanon (fah-nohn), who became a cultural and ideological symbol of the cause of Third World revolutionism in the 1960’s, was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique. A speaker of French since childhood, he was educated first in Martinique and then in France. His early exposure to latent racial discrimination would provide Fanon with many of the bases for his writings on the psychology of racism, particularly Black Skin, White Masks. This experience took on a different but equally significant dimension during World War II, when he served in the French army. Frantz Fanon.
After the war Fanon pursued advanced studies of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Lyon. This period of study not only provided him with a professional degree but also enabled him to apply theories of psychiatry to some of his personal experiences as a nonwhite Frenchman. The literary product of these applications, Black Skin, White Masks, was published the year before Fanon was assigned to his first (and only) professional post, as head of the psychiatric division of the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria. A year after he went to Algeria, the Algerian insurrection against French rule began. This event politicized the young psychiatrist to such a degree that he joined the Algerian liberation movement, first surreptitiously (in 1954), then openly (in 1956). The effect of this political decision on his orientation as a writer was almost immediate.
Although Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, was clearly anticolonial in content, its message concerning racism was not yet revolutionary. Referring to the experience of his own partially Europeanized West Indian people, he insisted that they had undergone what another black writer, Aimé Césaire, had called chosification, or “turning men into things.” One way colonialism achieved this end had been to plant, and then constantly to reinforce, a feeling of inferiority in the mind of the colonized. Fanon used the work of French anthropologist O. Mannoni, who had studied black society on the island colony of Madagascar (later to become the Malagasy Republic) as an example of subtle ways in which such self-prejudicial negative attitudes can be implanted. Mannoni had argued that the Malagasy people, as well as a number of other colonized peoples, showed certain characteristics that suggested that they possessed a psychological predisposition to dependence on a more dominant people.
Fanon’s intense arguments against Mannoni’s theories make up the bulk of his first book. What is most important, however, is that Fanon urged educated blacks to resist the temptation to don “white masks” psychologically and culturally to prove their worth in the eyes of colonial peoples. He was not yet rejecting the long-term hope of an evolutionary solution to the racial dilemma and tense relations between colonizers and colonized. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argues that if healthy psychological attitudes could be developed, attitudes which presupposed the inherent equality of human beings irrespective of race, then progress toward decolonization could follow.
A very different set of assumptions pervades the next brief but best-known stage of Fanon’s life and writings. By 1956 his sympathy toward the cause of Algeria’s National Liberation Front and his outrage at the violent methods of French repression in Algeria had led to his self-imposed exile to Tunis, the seat of the Algerian resistance’s provisional government. In Tunis, Fanon undertook the job of editing the Algerian revolutionary organ, Al Moujahid (the freedom fighter). His association with the Algerian cause soon brought both practical political and ideological results. In the practical domain, Fanon was chosen in 1960 to represent the Algerians as (provisional) ambassador to the African state of Ghana. As a result of the books he published during this period, Studies in a Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth, he rapidly became a symbol of the revolutionary ideological cause, not only that of the Algerians but also of the colonially oppressed developing world in general. Shortly after publication of the latter work, he died of leukemia at the age of thirty-six, leaving behind a widow, Josie "Nadia," and children, Olivier and Mireille.
It was clearly The Wretched of the Earth, which appeared in its original French edition in the last year of Fanon’s life, that established this reputation. Although the work was criticized for its emotionalism and sweeping generalizations, there is no doubt that its message fit well within the worldwide context of the liberation struggles of its time. Targets of attack are not limited to external oppressors but include what Fanon labeled the “black and brown bourgeoisies” of Africa and Asia, which had attached themselves to the colonial establishment in order to gain short-term advantages. Such local “parasites” existed at the expense of their own people, not only in cultural terms (the main theme of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks) but also in terms of their ability to prepare materially for the struggle that would free them from external control. This struggle to gain independent access to the material means of independence is justified ideologically in clear Marxian terms. The violent means that would be necessary to attain such access are described in very graphic terms and include the destruction of both the colonial enemy and the “enemy within.” It was this focus on violent revolutionary means that enabled Fanon to posit not only a political solution but also, following his psychiatric mode of analysis, a form of “collective catharsis” to rid colonized peoples of the source of their collective degradation.
For his contributions to the cause of Algerian liberation, Fanon was posthumously awarded the 1963 Prix National des Lettres Algériennes. A foundation and several awards have been established in his memory.