Why Frantz Fanon Still Matters

Failure & Reciprocity

By Professor Nigel Gibson (Emerson College)

June 14, 2016             Picture: AFP/Getty


This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”


I

Living Dream And Nightmare

Over sixty years ago, Frantz Fanon wrote Black Skin White Masks in hopes that it would aid disalienation. He submitted the work as the thesis for his medical degree at the University of Lyon in France. It was not accepted by his supervisor and thus failed as a thesis. However, Black Skin White Masks has had a remarkable afterlife as a foundational text across academic disciplines and essential for radical social activists.

Fanon argues that the Black suffers in the body in quite a different way than the White. What is the reason for this? It is because the Black is not recognized as fully human, as a thinking and actional being. Wherever she goes, the Black remains Black, an object put together by an Other, a phobogenic object, naturalized and reduced to the biological, produced by social and economic realities and reproduced in anecdotes, myths, and assumptions.

Fanon’s specific concern was the tragic and impossible desire of gaining recognition from the White Other. The situation is non-reciprocal. And in part the weight of the racial gaze experienced in daily life, the double consciousness, as DuBois called it, is the source of trauma and neurosis. One expression of this alienation is what Fanon calls “fissipariousness” (expressing not only division but literally breaking apart), manifested in modes of expression, tone of voice, behavior and language (the Antillean will be whiter through the master of French)[i] and at the same time Fanon argues, “The Black has two dimensions one with his fellows, the other with Whites. . . That this self-division is a result of colonial subjugation,” he adds “is beyond question.”

Around the same time Black Skin White Masks was published, Ralph Ellison described the United States as a “nation of ethical schizophrenics” whose pathology of racism “was deeply imbedded in the American ethos.” (1964: 99). It forced the Black “into an inner world,” he said, “where reason and madness mingle with hope and memory and endlessly give birth to nightmare and to dream” (1964 100).

For Fanon, this zone of the “Invisible Man,” is the zone of nonbeing, a “veritable hell.” The “extraordinarily sterile and arid region” is more existential nightmare and yet, still, there is a dream that from here “a genuine new departure can emerge” (2008: xii).

Fanon’s foundational question to Black Skin, “What does the Black want” thus opens up a nihilistic syllogism:

“The Black wants to be recognized as human.

The Black is not human.

The Black must turn white or disappear” (2008: xii-xiv).

This source of tension is an open secret. The common “resentment” and what Fanon calls an “affective anaphylaxis” (or serious rapid onset allergic reaction; he often refers to medical analogies) leads Fanon to observe, “the Black’s first action is a reaction” (Fanon 2008: 19). Indeed, neurosis is “normal” in a racist society. The source is social, with “this ever-menacing death” connected with material reality “and the absence of any hope for the future” (1965 128).

How can we break this nihilistic syllogism? By the utter destruction of the morbid universe of anti-Black racism, he answers. Just as alienation must be diagnosed socially, what Fanon calls disalienation is a social process fought “on the subjective and objective level” (see 2008 xiv-xv) against “depersonalization on a collective level” (2004 219).

 

(A) Black Lives Matter

What does the Black want? To be recognized as human. The question and logic has resonance with the idea of Black Lives Matter. Why? Because Black Lives Matter is a demand not a request. In its gestures to humanism, it is an imminent critique of White liberal humanism and its abstract universals, which, by saying all lives matter, elides the concreteness and specificity of Black lives mattering [See Thalos on the problems with the popular ‘all lives matter’ rebuttal].

In other words, at the level of daily experience of Black life, especially the life of Black youth, Black life does not seem to matter, or matters only as a threat to civil society, which is normatively White. Put another way, in cosmopolitan civil society, racially coded across space and place, Black life is still not fully human.[ii]

In fact, the Black—makes as Lewis Gordon puts it, an “illicit appearance” (Gordon 2015)—viewed as a phobogenic object, as well as a corrosive to moral values (2004: 6). In this sense, Blackness is not life but what Fanon calls a living death. And a stand must constantly be taken against it, which is why Fanon also begins Black Skin White Masks with a note of hope.

He also dreams. He believes in humanity, in the possibility of understanding and love and thus of course of reciprocity. Yet, equality in the face of the criminal justice system continues to be illusory. The Black body is policed, criminalized and incarcerated into a proverbial zone of nonbeing.[iii]

There seems no way out. Fanon argues, “racism is the most visible … and the crudest element of a given structure” (1967 32). In a racist society,[iv] the Black is overdetermined from the outside—social and historically—reduced to the racial-epidermis. Yes to love, Fanon writes. But there is no outside to the racial gaze, which at once fixes and erases. To talk about life and love and understanding is normal. To talk about Black life mattering is, however, not normal, which is why the idea of Black Lives Matter begins with love, with respect, and with dignity.

 

(B) Breath

In the 1960s Fanon’s works became popular in the U.S. and his book The Wretched of the Earth became the revolutionary “bible” of the Black movement. Today his works still have a remarkable resonance even if translated from another time and space.

No doubt things have changed as a result of constant struggles where nothing is given for free: “There are laws that gradually disappear from the constitution. There are other laws that prohibit certain forms of discrimination” (Fanon 2008: 196). But Eric Garner’s last words seemed to speak directly to Fanon’s conception of the continued Black revolt in the United States. “We revolt because we can’t breathe.” (Fanon 2008: 201)

The 2014 suffocation of Eric Garner, whose last words were not only a literal plea for help, as he struggled for his last breath with the police on his back, but a Fanonian expression of Black experience of racism in many communities in the United States.

Breathing is of course essential to life, and is also an expression of Fanon’s vision of a new humanism, “porous to all the breaths of the world” (as Fanon quoted Césaire). And he concludes Black Skin connecting the difficulty of breathing with the reason of revolt. Revolt “quite simply … because it became impossible … to breathe, in more than one sense of the word.” (2008: 201). The person “who takes a stand against this,” he adds, “is in a way a revolutionary” (2008: 199).

Fanon uses the terms, “suffocated,” “hemmed in,” “smothered,” “imprisoned” to describe the experience in The Wretched of the Earth, where the colonized are forced to live in a “narrow world strewn with prohibitions” (1968 37; 2004: 3). There must be revolt because life cannot be conceived “otherwise than as a kind of combat … a combat breathing” (2004: 199; 1965 65).

 

(C) Mental Health

The history of racism in the United States is intimately connected with the history of mental health. The December 11th 2014 issue of the New York Times led with a story uncovering the intimate connections between the American Psychological Association (APA) and the post-911 American torture complex.[v]

On the inside pages was a story that told of the continuing materiality of institutional racism in American life and its terrible cost felt at the individual level. I am talking about the sheer longevity, reproduction and materiality of racism, aware of changes wrought by social struggles and by the “evolution of exploitation” that sometimes may look as if racism has disappeared and “no longer dares appear without disguise” (1967 37).

Racism, in words, is not as an added element, but an essential and indeed modifying element in American life and culture, arising out of slavery and reproduced in ideas (crude and sophisticated), in cultural and in scientific discourses, from eugenics, neo-eugenics, and DNA to neuroscience research on population “groups” and brain MRIs.

In short, the idea is still playing out in America’s education system where studies indicate that the darker the skin, the more likelihood of school suspension.

Laying aside for a moment the continued social science materiality of racial classifications, we need to ponder for a moment this objectivity: “Black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than girls with the lightest skin.”

The stereotypes of race and gender inscribed as a disciplinary practice are expressed quite openly: “when a darker-skinned African-American female acts up there’s a certain concern about their boyish aggressiveness” and “researchers say black girls tend to be penalized more subjectively, like for having a bad attitude or being defiant.”

I take subjectively here to be the product of a racial gaze on the look out for the black girl’s defiance. Summing it, The Times article quoted Jamilia Blake a professor of educational psychology at Texas A & M: “while black boys are seen as threatening, black girls are often seen as ‘unsophisticated, hypersexualized, and defiant.”’

The latent messages are remarkably consistent over time. Black boys are seen as threatening, Black girls are defiant. If Black teens and pre-teens react to objectification they are “aggressive.” Girls become hypersexualized (and therefore not feminine), which is already assumed for boys. The game is already rigged: Reaction is pathologized and criminal. The Black becomes a pathological type, quick to temper.

In the article we are told of Mikia Hutching, a slight 12 year old, “whose voice barely raises above a whisper” and whom teachers describe as “very focused.” She got into trouble writing on the wall at school. Accused of vandalism she was fined $100, which the family could not afford. Because the family couldn’t pay, the police showed up at her house and served her papers. In a plea deal she agreed to criminal trespass and spent the summer on probation. The white girl who had also written on the wall paid the restitution and faced no charges. Mikia was criminalized. The 12 year old who had written “hi” on the wall felt the full force of the “society.”

The experience was traumatic. She was frightened; she couldn’t eat. She had become the problem, a problem that reflected her essence, internalizing the problem, as her failure, and her anxiety. But what of the society which creates it. Can we consider this social failure?

 

II

Failure?[vi]

Every contact between the occupied and the occupier is a falsehood.

Fanon, “Algeria unveils herself”

It might seem counter-intuitive to argue that failure is an essential element of Fanon’s dialectic of liberation. I am not only thinking of Hegel’s pithy sentence that error is a dynamic of truth[vii] but a kind of historical necessity to think critically through failure.

Fanon does not begin with failure. Indeed, the necessity to patiently analyze failure begins from the test of humanist universals. As a young man, he left Martinique to join up with the Free French Army.

After being deployed through North Africa and then taking part in the Battle of Alsace in 1945, his initial enthusiasm turned bitter. About his decision “to fight for an obsolete ideal,” he wrote to his parents that he was questioning everything, even himself. [viii]

And yet from this moral failure he asks, by way of Karl Jaspers’ notion of metaphysical guilt, Why is there not enough “solidarity among human beings as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge”?

It has been almost 55 years since Fanon died, a period marked by struggles, victories, defeats and truces, and also continual oppression, exploitation, repression, criminalization, imprisonment and a daily death at the hands of police.

Hillary Clinton’s super predator comment was no slip of the tongue. What is new is not that she was taken to task for it twenty years later but this became front page news thus reflecting this moment when the idea of Black lives mattering has caught the imagination.

Clinton’s choice of language is eerily presaged in The Wretched of the Earth where Fanon speaks of the North African’s “predatory instinct and aggressivity” as “known facts” straight out of the handbook of ethnopsychiatry (2004: 223):

One of the characteristics of the Algerian people established by colonialism is their appalling criminality. Prior to 1954 magistrates, police, lawyers, journalists, and medical examiners were unanimous that the Algerian’s criminality posed a problem. The Algerian, it was claimed, was a born criminal … born idlers, born liars, born thieves, and born criminals (2004: 221).

Clinton’s 1996 statement was an expression of more than a decade long populist law and order campaign presage on racial threat, legal reform and incarceration that was connected with the neoliberal restructuring of the economy with devastating effects on Black working class communities.

Increasing pauperization and criminalization were linked to the “war on drugs,” three strikes you are out, anti-gang legislation, stop and search, and mass incarceration and mandatory sentencing. These political, economic, and social policies were all parts of a program to control, discipline, subdued and pacify (see 2004: 228) and became especially pronounced in the aftermath of the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992.

It is estimated that on average the police kills a Black person everyday. We can accumulate data as if this is a question of debate, but facts cannot be separated from ground as Hegel advises, and to privilege the accumulation of “facts” is to accept the ethnocentric, sociocentric (let alone socioeconomic) ground on which they stand. “Cataloguing reality [is]… a colossal task,” Fanon repeats. “We accumulate facts … but with every line we write … we get the feeling of something unfinished” (2008 147). Unfinished indeed.

 

(A) The Failure of Reciprocity

“This woman sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer. There is no reciprocity. She does not yield herself”.Algeria Unveils Herself (1965 44)

European humanism, namely its racism and chauvinism internalized by the colonized, has severe psychological costs and the goal of Black Skin as a project of disalienation simply put, is an “inner revolution” (2008 175).

In his catalogue of the failure of humanism, Fanon turns to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic from the point of view of the Antillean now “emancipated” by the former white master. Fanon does not simply dismiss Hegel’s notion of reciprocity, but argues that the movement of Hegel’s dialectic, which begins with equal self-consciousnesses meeting each other in a struggle for recognition, does not operate because,

“The upheaval reached the black from the outside. The black was acted upon. Values that were not engendered by the black’s actions …. The black went from one way of life to another, but not from one life to another” (2008: 194)[ix]

Since there is no risk of life in the struggle for freedom, Fanon argues, the former slave cannot be recognized as an equal, and even when there is a struggle, it is framed by “white values.” In other words, in contrast to a new life demanded in and through a particular liberation struggle, the former slave continues to look to the former master for recognition. Reciprocity fails, and Fanon concludes, the Antillean is doomed to look to the master.

In contrast, the American Black who continually fights and no quarter is given, lives in a different drama. This is the history and thought of black America’s freedom struggle (2008: 196).[x] Fanon notion of culture as a “fighting culture” emerges in these struggles. In part, this is the dialectical necessity of Black consciousness that philosophical thought teaches us is guarantee of genuine reciprocity (2004: 179).

This dual moment, of failure and struggle expressed by these two Black characters, the Antillean and the American, could be considered singularly, as one character (double consciousness) or one movement, self-opposed, in which the internal engagement with failure is critical.

This doubleness is reproduced in Fanon’s critique of decolonization. While there is a class character to Fanon’s critique of the nationalist middle class, the gulf between it and the mass of people is both material and ideational: The opposition between the colonized intellectuals who have internalized European values (2004 11) and the colonized who vomit them up.

The intellectual’s problem is their inability to attribute any reason to the popular mass movements. The intellectuals think that those who have not been formally educated can’t think. Consequently, rather than shifting the geography of reason, they reinscribe colonial values (and elitism) by substituting themselves for the people in the name of the nation, and achieve political power within the state by looking out for their narrow interests without transforming the state of the people’s social reality in any way.[xi]

Speaking of the United States, Hoyt Fuller argued that “On every notable front, the state of well-being of ordinary Black people diminishes at the same rate as the number of BEOs [Black Elected Officials] increases” (quoted in Turner 2015: 255).

In contrast, Fanon not only admonishes this narrow bourgeois interest but also argues that decolonization is the work of turning everything upside down through rethinking everything with the people who have been systematically dehumanized.

 

(B) Failure as elemental resistance[xii]

“The colonized’s indolence is a conscious way of sabotaging the colonial regime; on the biological level it is a remarkable system of self-preservation”. Fanon, The Wretched.

“It may well be that our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment”. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement”.

Employed by the colonial state as a psychiatrist at Blida-Joinville Hospital, Fanon was asked by the court to conduct psychological evaluations of those who had confessed to crimes. In an article “Confession among North Africans,” he makes the point that about 80% of those who had confessed later deny their confession and refuse to talk with the authorities.[xiii]

Written before his commitment to the Algerian revolution, Fanon does not say that the denial of confession is an elemental political act, but it is the “failure” of the notion of rehabilitation, the idea of accepting guilt as part of the work of being rehabilitated back into the community, applied to the colonial situation that also interests him.

But what is assimilation here? The actions of those who deny their confession can be understood in terms of actions in the face of a pseudo-society, that of Kabylian customary law framed by colonialism. Pathologized as almost hysterical behavior, and framed by ethnopsychiatric notions of the Kabylian personality, these individual actions are elemental resistances to the assimilation framed by the master.[xiv]

The history of racism in the United States is also intimately connected with ethnopsychiatry. In the 19th century, diagnoses reflected slave-holding interests in the context of revolt. Slaves who attempted to run away were considered mad and diagnosed with Drapetomania (from drapetes, “a runaway [slave],” and mania, madness). The cure was whipping.

In the 20th century, race became a pathology, and in 1968 after more than a decade of Black revolt, leading psychiatrists (Walter Bromberg and Franck Simon) conceived a diagnosis “protest psychosis,” considering Black power a “delusional anti-whiteness.”[xv]

One example of this pathologization can be seen in an advertisement in the Archive of General Psychiatry (1974 31,5:732-733) for Haldol, an antipsychotic drug first issued in 1967. In a color scheme reminiscent of the cover of the classic American edition of The Wretched of the Earth—black against a burning orange background–an angry Black man with clenched fist and teeth stares at the viewer. The advert asks: “Assaultive and belligerent?” and answers: “Cooperation often begins with Haldol.[xvi]

Notwithstanding the 2008 election of our first African American President, declares a 2013 Mental Health America report, “racism continues to have an impact on the mental health of African Americans”[xvii] contributing “to high rates of hypertension, heart disease, and other stress-related illnesses in the black community” (Poussaint and Alexander 2000: 74) with the poisoning in Flint, Michigan being the latest public health experiment on a poor Black community.

Over-diagnosed with schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders at four times the rate of Whites (Metzl 2010 x),[xviii] reported Black American psychological stress is 20 percent higher than that among Whites but Blacks are less likely to pursue medical treatment regardless of availability and more likely to be subject to institutional violence. Systematically excluded from social, economic, health, and educational resources, many Black people continue to view white doctors and psychiatrists with distrust.

 

(C) The lie of the situation

“The “truth” of the oppressor, formerly rejected as an absolute lie, was now countered by another, an acted truth”. Fanon, “This is the Voice of Algeria”.

“The duty of the colonized is to have the slightest effort literally dragged out of them… [and] for us who are determined to break the back of colonialism, our historic missions is to authorize every revolt”. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

“In the colonial world, the colonized’s affectivity is kept on edge like an open sore flinching from a caustic agent,” Fanon remarks, and the psyche retracts, is obliterated, and finds an outlet through muscular spasms that have caused many an expert to classify the colonized as hysterical and violent (see 2004: 19, translation altered).

For the colonized and “disinherited in all parts of the world,” he adds, “life [is] not a flowering or a development of an essential productiveness, but as a permanent struggle against an omnipresent death”(1965 128, my emphasis).

Reaction is an element of resistance. A refusal. An organic scream against this life that resembles what he calls an “incomplete death.” “Acts of refusal or rejection of medical treatment are not a refusal of life, but a greater passivity before that close and contagious death.”

Reflecting on a previous period of reactive resistance he argues that these acts “reveals the colonized native’s mistrust of the colonizing technician. The technician’s words are always understood in a pejorative way,” and “the truth objectively expressed is constantly vitiated by the lie of the colonial situation.

The lack of nuance reflects the lack of nuance, so much so that, even when they were values worth choosing (1967c 62) [namely antibiotics or some other drug or procedure we might consider absolutely beneficial], they are a rejection of European medicine because any “qualification” would be “perceived by the occupier as an invitation to perpetuate the oppression, as a confession of congenital impotence.”

Fanon’s approach to understand the colonized’s lie in the face of colonialism’s “objectivity” requires another methodological point, namely that each one of the reactions of the colonized is “analyze[d], patiently and lucidly, and that every time we don’t understand … we must tell ourselves that we are at the heart of the drama-that of the impossibility of finding a meeting ground” (1967c 125).

What is at stake is not simply the failure of assimilation but also a refusal to be complicit with assimilation, namely, that any complicity is felt as a psychological breach. One can see how this is characterized by a reactive resistance. There is no nuance. Simply put, any type of medical, educational, and legal technician, whoever it is, reproduces systems of power and dehumanization.

This is the Manichean world that Fanon tries to explain; the ways in which colonial medicine, considered an unquestioned good, must be rejected. The way the hospital is seen not as a place of recovery, but death. The physician, the psychiatrist, and the researcher from the university cannot be trusted.

Confronting this paradox leads us to the heart of the problem.[xix] The idea that Black lives matter has highlighted resonances in Black communities in the United States where the criminalization of Black youth is an expression of the phenomena where the militarized police, the schools, the courts, and indeed mental health professionals, are all understood as being part of the same system. The racist structure is a total one, reproduced in socially, economically, politically and culturally and also in the mental health of the people.

Here again, the apparent illogical refusal in the face of objective facts is based on a will to resist and disavow “congenital impotence” in the face of superior forces and technology, which seeks legitimization of its persistence in its works.”

The colonized reaction against this physical and psychical oppression “in the name of [this] truth and reason,” often fragmented, isolated and pathologized is a “remarkable system of self preservation” (2004: 220), but when it explodes into a new movement, like Black Lives Matter, new truths and new meanings are revealed.

 

(D) Wither consciousness?

­

Fanon’s work as a psychiatrist is often overlooked as an essential element of his humanist philosophy and still has practical applications to the issue of mental illness and Black life in America.

Fanon’s biographer, Alice Cherki argues that his refusal to call the police on patients who were violent and labeled as dangerous was connected with his wish to find “an ever-increasing connection with them, by involving them in an effort of mental reciprocity.” “He countered the violence of the mentally alienated other,” she argues, “by using language and acknowledgment to open a space for negotiation.

He also understood the ways in which the personality expressed the psychic wounds that had been inflicted on it by violence, and insofar as it was possible, he tried to avoid a repetition of a similar violence in the therapeutic response (2006: 73). In short, he refused to call the police.

Over a quarter of Black people killed during encounters with police in the U.S. in 2015 were identified by family members, friends or police as having a mental health disorder. In this context, let me conclude by remembering these stories.

Denis Reyes, a Bronx man, depressed and diagnosed with schizophrenia told his mother he didn’t feel well. He became increasingly anxious and agitated. His mother, who doesn’t speak English, called 911 for an ambulance. Eight policemen arrived. Pacified, he was held down by brute strength and couldn’t breathe. He died before he got to hospital. His story was so unremarkable that it hardly registered in the media.

Sarah Reed. A 32-year-old, slight, British Black woman was murdered at Holloway Prison in January 2016. Suffering severe mental illness after the death of her baby, she became severely depressed. In 2012, a policeman beat her up after an arrest for shoplifting. The beating was caught on CCTV. She was punched on the head while he was kneeling on her. He was charged, and sentenced to 150 hours of community service.

Sectioned late last year to the famous Maudsley psychiatric Hospital in London, she was arrested after defending herself from what she believed was an attempted rape by another patient. No community service for her. She was sent to Holloway Prison (the women’s prison in London that force fed the suffragettes over 100 years ago).

How did a woman with a history of mental illness end up there? The courts, the police, and the mental health services which was supposed to protect her, colluded in her incarceration and her death. A collusion that echoes Fanon’s critique of psychiatry in the colonial world.

Sarah Reed and Denis Reyes. Saying their names highlights why Black lives still don’t matter; but Fanon admonishes, “As soon as you and your fellows are cut down like dogs there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being” (2004: 221). On that ground, reciprocity can begin.[xx]


Footnotes & References

[1] Cherki, Alice. 2006. Fanon: A Portrait Ithaca Cornell UP.

[2] Ellison, Ralph. 1964. Shadow and Act New York: Vintage

[3] Fanon, Frantz. 1965. A Dying Colonialism New York: Grove Press.

_______. 1967. Toward the African Revolution New York: Grove Press

_______. 1968; 2004 The Wretched of the Earth New York: Grove Press.

_______. 2008. Black Skin White Masks New York: Grove Press.

[4] Fanon, Joby. 2014. My Brother: Doctor, Playwright, Revolutionary Lanham MD: Lexington Books

[5] Gordon, Lewis. 2015. What Fanon Said New York: Fordham UP.

[6] James, C.L.R. 1980. Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin London: Allison and Busby.

[7] Marriott, David. 2011. Whither Fanon? Textual Practice, 25:1, pp. 33-69.

[8] Metzl, Jonathan. 2010. The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease New York: Beacon Press.

[9] Poussaint, Alvin F. and Amy Alexander. 2000. Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans Boston: Beacon.

[10] Turner, Lou. 2015. “Race, Rights and Rebellion in the Custodial State: A Post-Los Angeles Marxian Reconstruction,” Critical Sociology, Vol. 41(2) 249–281

[11] Vega, Tanzina. 2014. “Discipline for Girls Differs Between and Within Races,” New York Times

—————————————————-

[i] Contrast this ontological logic with the shift in attitudes toward the French language during the Algerian revolution where it begun to lose its accursed character and be used in FLN communications (for example the radio, see Fanon 1965).

[ii] That is, not a human being with the free will and morality that according to liberal philosophy defines humanity.

[iii] Indeed, the prison industrial complex (state penal institutions, profit-driven prison corporations, hand in glove with courts and government sentencing) has, witnessed an explosion in the population of women prisoners in the United States along with a boom in prison construction. According to sources, including the US justice department, about 12% of the US population is black and about 40% to 45% of the US prison population is black and an increasingly number are women.

[iv] Or a post-racial society, which in Lewis Gordon’s terms is “little more than a way of referring to continued racism that is simply now ashamed of itself.” (Gordon 2015: 20).

[v] We should remember that for Fanon torture is not accidental but is inherent in a system where life does not matter: a product of “systematic racism, of dehumanization rationally pursued” (Fanon 1967 64). The medical profession is intimately involved as technicians in a coherent system where affective and personality changes correspond to different methods of torture (2004: 207). The literal drowning of waterboarding is just one method.

[vi] My speculations on the idea of failure are indebted to Lewis Gordon’s What Fanon Said and his discussion of failure and the paradox of failure in Black Skin White Masks (see especially Gordon 2015: 19-46).

[vii] “Only out of this error does the truth arise,” as Hegel puts it in A Smaller Logic, a notion that CLR James admired and related to the self-understanding of the proletariat and the self-belief that the lies with itself, and “not with anything which claims to represent it or direct it,” [1980: 92] could be directly related to Fanon’s notion of the historical becoming of the wretched of the earth)

[viii] This did not make him cynical. Indeed one can say that there was not one cynical bone in his body and that Fanon remained committed to fighting injustice wherever he found it (see the footnote on Jaspers in 2008: 69).

[ix] He adds a medical analogy, “Just as a patient suffers a relapse after being told that their condition has improved and that they will shortly be leaving the asylum, so the news of emancipation for the slaves caused psychoses and sudden death” (2008: 1945, my emphasis).

[x] Certainly the history of the Antilles is also the history of revolt beginning with the Haitian revolution. We should note, however, Fanon’s notion of the Antillean here is conceptually specific. That is to say the Antilles, particularly Martinique as postcolonial reflected by resentiment and comparaison (for example, see Fanon 2008: 185-187).

[xi] Such reflection he argues, intimately connected with the struggle, uncovers “unknown facets … new meanings and underlines contradictions that had been camouflaged by this reality” (2004: 95, translation altered).

[xii] One can consider Fanon article, “Sociotherapy in a Muslim male ward,” as a didactic of failure. Alice Cherki recounts an astonishing discussion in the wake of the “failure” of the sociotherapy experiment in the Men’s Muslim ward at Blida Hospital after having succeeded in the European women’s ward, indicating not only the educative value of failure, but also the notion of education as a social and dialogic process in which all are involved: “Was Fanon’s attempt to impose European ‘methodologies’ on Muslim patients a genuine ‘mistake,’ or had he consciously implemented a plan that he knew was doomed to failure from the outset? Asks Cherki: [W]hen Charles Geronimi, another intern, approached Fanon a year or so after the fact to express his surprise that the author of Black Skin, White Masks and “The North African Syndrome” could have been so wide off the mark, Fanon reportedly smiled and said: “You can only understand things with your gut, you know. It was not simply a matter of imposing imported methods that had been more or less adapted to the native mentality. I also had to demonstrate a number of things in the process: namely, that the values of Algerian culture are different from those of colonial culture; that these structuring values had to be embraced without any complexes by those to whom they pertained-the Algerian medical staff as well as the Algerian patients. I needed to have the support of the Algerian staff in order to incite them to rebel against the prevailing method, to make them realize that their competence was equal to that of the Europeans. The burden of suggesting appropriate forms of socialization and integrating them into the sociotherapy process had to be placed on the Algerian staff. (Cherki 2006: 70-71).

[xiii] Here in colonial Algeria, the authorities are not the colonial civil authorities but Kabylian “customary” authorities which are brokered by colonialism.

[xiv] The “refusal” to cooperate is often connected with fatalism (in The Wretched he simply says that the colonized “does not accept guilt” (2004: 16).

[xv] In the same period, the idea of schizophrenia made a remarkable shift from a condition associated with “White feminine docility” to that of “angry Black masculinity” (Metzl 2010 xv, 89). In his brilliant book, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease, Jonathan Metzl points out how this shift was marked in the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published in 1968. Schizophrenia was recast as a “disorder of masculinized belligerence” with the manual asserting, “the patient’s attitude is frequently hostile and aggressive” (quoted in Metzl xi). DSM strove to be “objective” opined its compiler Robert Spitzer, but argues Metzl (2010 98), it “mirrored the social context of its origins in ways that enabled users to knowingly or unknowingly pathologize protest as mental illness.”

[xvi] The image for a 1955 advert for the anti-psychotic Thorazine had an image of women quietly undertaking ergotherapy in the hospital ward. See Metzl “Mainstream Anxieties about Race in Antipsychotic Drug Ads,” Virtual Mentor June 2012, 14: 6 pp. 494-502.

[xvii] http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/african-american-mental-health

[xviii] See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2574307/pdf/jnma00207-0025.pdf

[xix] Viewing the European doctor and European medicine not as an unalloyed good but part of the same system as the police and the military simply reflects the fact that the doctor “belongs to the dominant society and very often to the army” (1965 121). What was the daily living death under colonialism becomes the literal work of the medical personnel to keep “the tortured … hovering between life and death.” The doctor continually intervenes to “give the prisoner back to the pack of torturers” (Fanon 1965 138). Since the APA Council of Representatives voted to adopt a new policy barring psychologists from participating in national security interrogations, it should be noted that the policy does not cover participation in America’s prison industrial complex.

[xx] I was going to leave it there, but Fanon continues almost as a duty and indeed as a belief in the humanity of the most dehumanized. Here he is speaking of the torturers. Fanon adds, “You must therefore weigh as heavily as possible on your torturer’s body so that his wits, which have wandered off somewhere, can at last be restored to their human dimension” (2004: 221, my emphasis). Based on necessity to uproot a system, which tortures, destroys, and crushes the human being, this consideration of the humanity of the torturer in a chapter that has analyzed the torturer’s work and sadism in The Wretched of the Earth is in itself remarkable.

Nigel Gibson
Nigel Gibson
Nigel C Gibson is Associate Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Emerson College and Honorary Professor at the Unit for the Humanities at the university currently known as Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa. He is author of Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination and Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo and the editor and co-editor of a number of books including Rethinking Fanon, Living Fanon, Biko Lives and Adorno: A Critical Reader.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search