Fanon still relevant today
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.