Frantz Fanon on Being Black
“I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos — and the white man, however intelligent he may be, is incapable of understanding Louis Armstrong or songs from the Congo. I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.”
― Frantz Fanon
Black Skin, White Masks (1952)
Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 in the French colony of Martinique. As a person of color in a colonial empire, he experienced firsthand the effects of colonialism and its inherent racism and classism. Like many others of African descent in French colonies, Fanon served in the French army during World War II. He was fortunate enough to later attend university in France, earning degrees in psychiatry and medicine. He worked in the psychiatry department of a hospital in Algeria, a French colony that was experiencing increasing violent resistance to French colonial rule.
His experiences led him to vividly understand the negative effects of colonialism on people of color, not just physically and economically, but psychologically and existentially. Fanon realized that colonialism was a social and political hegemony that separated European culture from indigenous cultures. Colonialism’s ideology denotes European culture as civilization and Europeans (and United States whites) saw themselves as bringing civilization to the rest of the “uncivilized” world, whether the rest of the world wanted it or not.
Colonialism Invented Identity Politics
Colonial ideology serves two purposes. It hides the economic exploitation and political oppression of colonialism under the guise of benevolence and it instills in indigenous people the idea that they are inferiors who are separate from civilization. One of Frantz Fanon’s chief concerns was how colonialism’s division of humanity into superior whites and inferior non-whites affected the consciousness of non-whites. Colonialism strips lands of its resources and it strips the lands’ indigenous people of their human dignity, identity, and connection to their land and heritage.
Fanon shows us that the European colonizers invented identity politics. Indigenous peoples had their identities forced on them by dominant groups—identities that marginalized people of color as uncivilized. The marginalized did not create identity politics, but, Fanon says, politics is an effective method of revolt for people of color. It is not enough for people of color to have freedom—they must rediscover their identities.
Frantz Fanon answers the dehumanization of colonialism by emphasizing the humanity of indigenous people. He responded to how Europeans saw indigenous people as “the masses” by emphasizing that people are individuals and demanded that everyone treat each individual as possessing dignity. He urged indigenous people to reclaim their identities separate from colonialism and he attempted to find his. Read the above quote with these thoughts in mind.
The Right of the Oppressed to Rebel
Franz Fanon inaugurated the philosophy of colonialism with his book, The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The book was informed by Fanon’s thinking in Black Skin, White Masks, but it broadens those ideas about the experiences of Black people to the experiences of all oppressed people. Fanon had become deeply involved in the Algerian liberation movement—Algeria then being a colony of France—which kept control through harsh suppression of the Algerian people. Fanon was also interested in the Pan-African movement—the vision of uniting all of Africa in opposition to European colonialism.
In a foreshadowing of intersectionalism, Fanon looked at oppressions based on class, race, or national culture and considered them as having similar effects. All forms of prejudice rip away a person’s ability to feel human, depriving him or her of the possibility of being a person. Fanon said that the tensions caused by settler colonialism grow over time because the relationship of the settler and the native is one between binary opposites. Those tensions eventually become the catalyst for native violence against the settler, the colonizer who occupies native land.
In this way, Fanon defended colonized people’s use of violence to gain independence. He also stated that because the colonizers did not consider the natives as human beings, the colonizers should not expect the natives to be bound by moral principles that apply to human beings. Also, because the colonizer maintains occupation of the land and control over the native population through violence, violent resistance by the natives is justified because it is the only language that the colonizer speaks. Despite his condoning of violence, Fanon stressed the best solution to colonialism was to build up the humanity of the native. The native people needed to learn their own true history, reestablish their own culture, develop their own consciousness of self. The Wretched of the Earth quickly became inspirational to anticolonial movements, including violent ones, across the world.