Fanon still rel­e­vant to­day

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - AZAD ESSA

HE HAS long been dead, but his ideas are truly alive. Still dan­ger­ous. To­mor­row, Frantz Fanon, the revo­lu­tion­ary, philoso­pher, doc­tor and per­haps the most in­flu­en­tial anti-colo­nial thinker of the 20th cen­tury would have been 92. His ideas of race and crit­i­cal the­ory of coloni­sa­tion and as­sim­i­la­tion have never aged.

Born in Mar­tinique in the French An­tilles, Fanon lived in France, Al­ge­ria, Ghana and Tu­nisia. He died from can­cer at the age of 36 in 1961. His work was all en­com­pass­ing; be­com­ing a sup­porter for the Al­ge­rian strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence from French rule, and a mem­ber of the Al­ge­rian Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front.

Fanon’s ideas in those times were as revo­lu­tion­ary as they are to­day; re­jected, fought over, and yet wel­comed by those most in­spired by its sin­gle-minded vi­sion of so­cial change. Fanon’s ideas formed the back­bone of much of Steve Biko’s work on black con­scious­ness and the need for de­coloni­sa­tion. The mut­ter­ings of de­coloni­sa­tion by to­day’s stu­dents, or the Fal­lists are, by def­i­ni­tion, Fanon­ian.

In­ter­pre­ta­tions of his large body of work have shifted with the times: ideas used and abused by thinkers, lead­ers and snake-charm­ers alike. But at its core, the values re­main the same.

His sem­i­nal work Black Skin, White Masks (1952), ex­plored the “in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex” en­dured by the colonised; the sub­se­quent thirst of black­ness to as­pire to white­ness in a bid to progress. In Wretched of the Earth (1963), Fanon gave the op­pressed a roadmap to end oc­cu­pa­tion. He ded­i­cates a chap­ter to vi­o­lence, and al­ludes to it a per­fectly cred­i­ble method of re­volt, or means to re­move so­ci­ety from the clutches of oc­cu­piers. He an­a­lysed the im­pact of coloni­sa­tion on the op­pressed; he ex­plored the in­ca­pac­i­ta­tion, the de­spair and the self-hate. He con­cluded that in­fe­ri­or­ity was nei­ther pre­dis­posed nor nat­u­ral. It was cre­ated by racism.

If you are black or brown in South Africa and were lucky enough to en­ter an ex-Model C school or make your way to univer­sity in the 1990s, or en­tered the job mar­ket where you were to en­counter white­ness, your pri­mary task was to prove you could be­long in a white man’s world. This could be as sim­ple as tilt­ing an ac­cent, con­demn­ing a cul­tural rit­ual or chang­ing your diet.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon dis­cusses apartheid South Africa, not­ing that even as a mi­nor­ity, whites have never had to feel in­fe­rior. And this was true, any­where, from the US, to In­dia and Aus­tralia. The struc­ture of colo­nial racism al­lowed it to be so. And this con­tin­ues even to­day: you could be in a call cen­tre in In­dia, and Sav­itri will lose the Delhi ac­cent and morph into Sa­man­tha to keep Amer­i­can cus­tomers com­fort­able. Such is white fragility.

You could be a vet­eran Pales­tinian writer, but ed­i­tors will trust a white male with telling the story of your peo­ple be­cause you can­not be trusted to be im­par­tial. Such is white priv­i­lege. As may be seen in the US, you could be a film star but, if you are black, you are just as likely to be pulled over by a white po­lice cop as the next black man. Such is the na­ture of white dis­trust.

Would a white Amer­i­can need to change his or her name for an In­dian or African mar­ket? No. It was in Ger­many in the late 1800s and early 1900s where Jews changed their names to fit in in an anti-Semitic Ger­many, years be­fore the Holo­caust was even con­ceived. You would have thought Western Europe would have broached their big­otry by now. Imag­ine what it might have been for a black or brown per­son back then.

Never mind back then, in France to­day, a brown or black kid named “Mustafa” or “Fa­tima” will al­ways be brown and black, al­ways “the other”, no mat­ter the name.

Such is curse of the “white stan­dard”, as dis­cussed by Fanon back then as the “lim­i­ta­tion of French cit­i­zen­ship”.

But Fanon did not merely point out the la­tent racist struc­ture that gov­erned so­ci­eties, be it French or South African. He called for ac­tion. This is why he joined the Al­ge­rian strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence from French rule. He de­nounced cap­i­tal­ism but warned Africa im­ple­ment­ing a tem­plated-type of so­cial­ism. He called for repa­ra­tions from colo­nial states and ar­gued that “moral repa­ra­tion for na­tional in­de­pen­dence does not fool us and it does not feed us”.

Read to­day, the world is still a con­fla­gra­tion of haves and have-nots. Whereas “Europe is lit­er­ally the cre­ation of the Third World”, as Fanon says, Jo­han­nes­burg is lit­er­ally the cre­ation of the sweat of ru­ral South Africa and even Malawi. The economies of our hin­ter­lands and those of Malawi re­main dev­as­tated, in what is an ex­ten­sion of what he de­scribes as the “ge­o­graph­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion” of colo­nial gov­er­nance. The con­texts have changed.

Colo­nial­ism in its most crass form is over. But “democ­racy” and “devel­op­ment” en­force sim­i­lar ver­sion of colo­nial-rule, un­der so­phis­ti­cated lex­i­cons of “free­dom” and “free mar­kets”. The slums are still full, the lives of the poor still cheap and dis­pens­able. “You are rich be­cause you are white, you are white be­cause you are rich,” still holds true. If you are black and rich, it is likely a re­sult of your prox­im­ity to white­ness.

Fanon’s work res­onates be­cause his words con­tinue to pro­vide a the­o­ret­i­cal mind map of the de­spair and alien­ation ex­pe­ri­enced by the dis­en­fran­chised. We can ar­gue that South Africa does not share the same ex­pe­ri­ence as French colonies, and that vi­o­lence, as much as re­tort as it might be, need not be the so­lu­tion. Pos­si­bly so.

But as Fanon ends Black Skin, White Masks with: “O my body, al­ways make me a man who ques­tions”, amid con­tin­ued in­equal­ity and de­pri­va­tion, we still de­serve bet­ter an­swers.

Philoso­pher was prob­a­bly the most in­flu­en­tial an­ti­colo­nial thinker of the 20th cen­tury

THINKER: Frantz Fanon’s ideas have not aged.

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