When in March 1945 the Allied Army was preparing to cross the Rhine River, advance on Germany and thus give the final blow to Nazism, among the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and colonial troops was a young West Indian. He wore a Croix de Guerre medal for his bravery and daring in the Battle of Alsace, but neither he nor many others were able to enter Berlin with the victorious armies. The troops were to be “whitened” for the eyes of the world. His skin and his origin “did not allow him”, racism did not allow him, the colony showed him all its contempt. It was civilization in all its glory.
Perhaps in those days Frantz Omar Fanón was beginning to germinate the ideas and phrases that would mark his revolutionary work and practice; perhaps he collided head-on with that reality, with that barrier that was, and is, being one of the “wretched of the earth”.
Almost 60 years after his death and on a new anniversary of his birth, his reflections are still valid. If the Wretched of the Earth provides insights into the process of decolonization, Black Skin, White Masks allows us to think about how the ruptured psyche of the colonizer and colonized subjects functions. For Fanon, both the colonizer and the colonized are subjected to a process of alienation that degrades their entire humanity.
In a reality of our America, permeated by coups d’état, racism, political projects that perpetuate hatred, large swaths of societies mobilized around the sense of equality and the defense of privileges, even of their oppressors, it is necessary to revisit Dr. Fanon in order to understand and transform our variegated societies of white masks.
A civilized Antillean against fascism
Frantz, the youngest of eight children, was born in Fort de France, on the island of Martinique, in 1925, in a family that was not so badly off and, like many, as geographically distant from the French metropolis as it was from the local language and culture, Creole. His childhood was spent in a colonial society, where skin colour and “good speech” were measured against a white French stick. Later on, in one of his works, he would say that: “the bourgeoisie of the Antilles do not use Creole, except in their relations with the domestic staff”. [i]
At the age of 18, he left his family home clandestinely to join the Forces de Libération de France and fight for “freedom” and “his” metropolis, culture and civilization in the face of fascist barbarism. His feeling of full humanism also weighed on him: “Every time a man causes the dignity of the spirit to triumph, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subdue his fellow man, I feel solidarity with his act”. His daughter, Mireille Fanon-Mendès France, would say that this decision was the trigger for Fanon’s political conscience [ii].
Once in the war, young Fanon was confronted with the “colonial system revealed”,[iii] his side, the Allies, and the Nazis were enemies, but they shared a civilization and an otherness. No matter what army those “others” fought in, they would always be “inferior”. He had fought “for an obsolete cause,” he wrote in a letter to his relatives. This is the letter of someone who was disappointed in his aspirations for recognition by “civilization”.
Aimé Cesaire, teacher of Fanon and all peoples fighting against oppression, in his Discourse on Colonialism[iv] also reflected on this war:
…in the end, it is not the crime of Hitler that is not forgiven, a crime against humanity which is not the humiliation of humanity itself, but the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the application of colonialist procedures to Europe against which only the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the blacks of Africa have so far stood up.
The white masks
But there is one element that Fanon studied and made his thesis in his psychiatric studies and that was the acceptance by the dominated subject of the values, forms and meanings of the dominator while rejecting his/her own values, forms and meanings. The racial-colonial system establishes the white dominator as the parameter of everything, and this causes survival and privileges to be staggered and reproduced by the colonized. Adopting the white masks of the colonizer, making their own the meanings of that civilization and submerging their own meanings, those of that other denied reality.
We have known, and unfortunately we continue to know, fellow natives of Dahomey or Congo who call themselves Antilleans; we have known and still know Antilleans who feel offended if they are presumed to be Senegalese. The fact is that the Antillean is more ‘evolved’ than the black of Africa (understand well, that is closer to the white); this difference exists, not only in the city and the streets, but also in the administration and the army (…) The natives despise the riflemen; the Antillean reigns as the indisputable lord among all this despicable Negrada, commented the author in one of his works [v].
Those Senegalese riflemen fought and died to free Europe from Nazism, that Europe that despised them, but so did those other colonized people who felt one step above the pigment pyramid. One chapter, as disastrous as it was unknown, was the massacre at Thiaroye, in the–then–colony of Senegal, in December 1944, caused by French gendarmes who shot at those recently demobilized Senegalese soldiers, most of whom were themselves former prisoners of war and were demonstrating to demand payment of what the French army owed them.
The explosion will not take place today
Frantz returned to Europe to study psychiatry in Lyon. His controversial text, which must have been his doctoral thesis, was entitled: An Essay on the Disaffection of Blacks, published in 1952 and already renowned as Black Skin, White Masks.
“The explosion will not take place today. It’s either too soon… or too late.” Thus Fanon fires with all his power in the first line of Piel negra…, where he analyzes the dismembered subject and the destructive relationship generated by the system, which he identifies as colonial. But the exploration in this work goes in both directions. The aim is to liberate all of humanity, from the liberation of the oppressed, and therefore the liberation of the oppressor, because both are alienated by the colonial system: “The black man wants to be white. The white man passionately seeks to realize a condition of humankind. In this work we will see how an essay of understanding of the black-white relationship is elaborated. White is enclosed in its whiteness. Black in its blackness”.
For Fanon, both the colonizer and the colonized are subjected to a process of alienation that degrades their entire humanity.
Fanon wants to untie and release both of them from their prison: the white from their prejudice and the black from their colour, and erase the emotional aberrations of both, those two metaphysics that generate excluding relationships. Because its purpose is to help the oppressed and the oppressor white to free themselves from the arsenal of complexes that have dominated them and that sprouted in a colonial situation.
This is how he explains the process by which this situation is reached in the colonies: in a first phase the occupier legitimizes his domination with scientific arguments and the “inferior race” denies itself as a race, so the racialized and dominated social group begins to imitate the oppressor and through this, to de-racialize itself. The “inferior race” denies itself as a different race and comes to share with the “superior race” the convictions, doctrines and other views that concern it. Their systems of reference are liquidated and their culture collapses. All that remains for the native to do is to “recognize with the occupant that God is not on his side”. This is how he throws himself on the imposed culture.
Civilized people speak better
Language is the element that makes a human being what he is. We can say that before the individual there is a community, because there is a set of common meanings that allow communication, that is why language creates the subject, it shelters him/her in culture. Now, when this culture is superimposed, imposed on another, on others, in a violent and systematic way, it seems to generate a shattered subject.
Fanon explains that “to speak” means to use a certain syntax, to possess the morphology, but, fundamentally, it is to assume a culture, to bear the weight of a civilization. Thus, having to incorporate a symbolic system of the dominator forces one to think within the schema of the latter. But, in addition, the use of this language is a way of exercising power and that power will be greater the closer it is to the metropolis. In this way, “the black Antillean will be all the more white, or rather, he will be all the more like the real man, the more and the better the French language becomes his own”.
José Larralde, master of Argentine music, reached the same conclusion by other means, while feeling the same oppressive power of the local oligarchy, which is itself submissive and semi-colonial. Jorge Cafrune, another revolutionary, interprets this conclusion, in “Quién”: “It is a pity that I do not understand the fine language of being a lord or, as the patron of England said on that day, a lord who is best spoken. The master told me one day”. [vi]
Any colonized people, in whose midst an inferiority complex has been born as a result of the burial of the original local national culture, is always situated in the relationship with the language of the civilizing nation, that is, of the metropolitan culture. “The more and better the colonized escape from their jungle, the more and better they make the cultural values of the metropolis their own,” Fanon reflects.
Based on reflections matured and elaborated during his years of psychiatric practice, Fanon understood that racism has its consequences at the level of subjectivity, but this is not the cause but the consequence of the shameless exploitation of one group by another through military and economic oppression, which precedes and makes racism possible and legitimate most of the time.
Algeria, struggle, reflection and death
After obtaining his diploma as a psychiatrist in Lyon in 1953, Fanon was appointed to the Blida Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, then a French colony–although not for long. There he had his first epistemic shock when he discovered that the psychiatric school in colonial Algeria had labelled the Algerian Arabs as “primitive”, claiming that their brain development was “retarded”.
When the war of national liberation began on November 1, 1954, Fanon came into direct contact with the National Liberation Front (FLN). During the day he treated the occupation’s police officers for “stress” due to the long “interrogation” sessions, and at night, or in his free moments, the young doctor would teach the militia to remain unmoved when planting bombs.
He resigned from his duties in 1956, stating that as a psychiatrist he could not be healing his patients and then send them off to an alienating and dehumanizing society. He was expelled by the colonial authorities. He arrived in Tunisia, where he became fully engaged with the National Liberation Front. In those years he was part of the El Moudjahid publishing collective, which was based in Tunis. His writings from this period were published after his death under the title: For the African Revolution.
He was an itinerant ambassador in Africa for the Algerian government in exile. His mission was to spread the struggles of the Algerian people for the consolidation of alliances with the peoples of Africa and to put into practice his vision of the internationalism of the emancipation struggles. He travelled to Ghana, where he met Kwame Nkrumah; he was in the Congo to talk to Patrice Lumumba, who would warn him of the danger of trusting in peaceful independence; in Ethiopia; in Liberia; in Guinea, which enabled him to obtain the solidarity of President Sékou Touré, who helped convince the Soviets to send arms to the Western front; and in Mali his contribution was decisive in starting a new front of armed struggle in the south, where Guinea was supplying arms.
After a campaign in the Sahara to open a third front in the fight for independence, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia. When his condition permitted, he taught LN officers at the Algerian-Tunisian border. It was in those months that he went to Rome to visit, for the last time, Jean Paul Sartre, who would write the prologue to his most famous book.
Although Sartre’s prologue would be a statement for posterity and a work in itself, it can be said that it does not quite capture the message of the whole book and is oriented more towards “the sins” of Europe and the need for civilizing suicide than towards the perspective of humanist reparation that Fanon wanted to leave behind. Sartre recognized in a blunt way that “Europeans have been able to become men only by making slaves and monsters,” thus denouncing the civilizing farce from the philosophical summit that he embodies.
For Fanon, the construction of a just and prosperous society must necessarily involve the full liberation of men and women from the yoke and after-effects of colonialism.
The Wretched of the Earth
In 1961, he undertook to deliver a manuscript to the French publisher François Maspero, who had published his second book in 1959, The Fifth Year of the Algerian Revolution, in which he accused France of its crimes against the people of Algeria. This second work was sanctioned in France. The manuscripts would become the book entitled “The Wretched of the Earth”.
The liberation of Africa was won. The time had come for the consolidation of the independence process. For Fanon, the construction of a just and prosperous society must necessarily involve the full liberation of men and women from the yoke and after-effects of colonialism. In other words, when the peoples of the world were celebrating the independence of African countries from slavery, our author was thinking about the strategies for consolidating these fragile independences. But his time was slipping away quickly.
The “Wretched of the Earth” is a call for respect. People freed from slavery must work to foster leadership that aims to build national political consciousness and motivated by general interests. For their part, intellectuals must be trained and inspired by the culture of local resistance, otherwise they will be the reproducers of the old colonial attitudes. Fanon proclaimed that liberation movements can be transformed into a mere “bourgeois dictatorship, without masks, without make-up, without scruples and cynicism,” as would end up happening in many of these new republics after a few years.
The “Wretched of the Earth” was a posthumous work.
Frantz Omar Fanon died on December 6 of that year, in a hospital in Maryland, United States, under a false name. He was 36 years old. When his remains were returned to Algeria, they were received by columns of the LN and escorted to the Cemetery of the Martyrs (Chouhada) in Ain Kerma, in the east of the country.
Fanon and civilization today
The phenomenon of the alienation of the colonized and the colonizer and the appropriation of the values of “the superior race” is interesting because it conforms perfectly to understanding the actions of those subjects that reproduce the racial scale and even purge their inferiority complex like those Antilleans who denigrated the Senegalese in Fanon’s anecdote.
Colonization has changed its face. The omnipotent market does not need a whip. It constructs colonial subjects without the need for territorial occupation.
In Argentina, in 2020, the most powerful media, monopolistic concentration through an ideological head of the current right wing, the daily Clarín, headlined one of its articles a few weeks ago: “Hyperinflation, hunger and pandemic in Venezuela: the middle class disappeared and the country is ‘Africanized’”[vii]. What did they mean by this “Africanization”? Again “civilization” measures reality from its racist and exploitative prism. The problem is not only the message, the target audience will not notice the problem in such a statement. It is a good synthesis of their way of thinking. A subject alienated, exploited, with aspirations to be part of the metropolis, as far away from Venezuela as possible, because she is this Latina, Indian, non-European, not “civilized”. But the real terror, for this broken subject, is to become “Africa”. That would be intolerable for someone who longs to be a North American colony. If “the Antillean reigns as the undisputed lord among all ‘this despicable Negrada’”, the Argentine half-haired man [viii] thinks he is God, above the Antillean king.
Haiti, the second country free of colonialism in Our America, is transformed into the “Wretched of the Earth”, with governments submissive to U.S. imperialism. This neocolonialism manifests at the present time, “without scruples, without mask, without make-up,” imperialist and bourgeois racism toward the Haitian people. Neo-colonialism here goes further than Fanon would think.
The country has a cartel of embassies of imperialist and sub-imperialist countries named the Core Group. This is firmly led by the Embassy of the United States of America. The servile government of Haiti cannot make any decisions without consulting this colonial government of the Core Group.
As for the local elites, it remains to be said that nothing has changed in the countries of Our America, they maintain their usual course, and Fanon warned of this in “The Wretched of the Earth”, when he said that: “there is no real bourgeoisie but a kind of small caste with sharp teeth, greedy and voracious, dominated by the usurious spirit”.
That is why it is urgent to shake off the shell of servitude built over centuries under which “white civilization” and European culture have imposed an existential deviation, to begin to discourage the relationship fixed by colonialism and exploitation, the values and cultural constructs, human, that are the legacy of a twisted world. Arturo Jauretche would say: “Look at your own with colonized blinkers”.
In contrast, we can say that to decolonize then is not simply to leave the orbit of colonization. It is also and, above all, to re-solder man to man through a conscious practice of personalization; which must be integral, total and radical. Otherwise, we will have people identified with the elites who protest in the streets asking for colonial domination or collaborating with it complacently. An entire process of manipulation carried out by the dominant apparatuses and institutions.
Perhaps the path of justifying our transformative practices to the paradigms of “civilization” in decline will only continue to provide oxygen to those who blame the decadence on the wretched of this system. It is time to undertake further reflections of Fanon’s in order to transform the world and create a new one.
So, comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies inspired by it. Humanity expects more from us than this caricatured and generally obscene imitation.
For Our America and for humanity we must change our skin, develop a new way of thinking, and try to create a new man and woman.
Gonzalo Armúa, ALBA Movements Operational Secretariat
Jean Jores Pierre, Economist
[i] Black skin, white masks (in Peau noire, masques blancs, 1952). Ediciones Akal, S. A., 2009 for Spanish language.
[iii] Vastey Jean Luis. The Colonial system revealed. Edited by Juan Francisco Martinez Peria. Editions of the CCC.
iv] Discourse on Colonialism / Aimé Césaire.
v] Black skin, white masks (in Peau noire, masques blancs, 1952)
[I saw] Who taught me/ Jose Larralde. Performed by Jorge Cafrune. On record Cafrune revolucionario.
viii] The half hair is a popular pejorative term that Arturo Jauretche conceptualized in his book “The half hair in the Argentine society” to analyze the attitude of the middle strata that are identified with the ruling class, who never identify with the national, and despise their environment and their people