Fanon is not easily wielded. At the end of his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, he issues a warning, ‘There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden. I find myself suddenly in a world …in which I am summoned into battle. ..There is no white world; there is no white ethic, anymore than there is a white intelligence. There are in every part of the world men who search.’ Fanon’s long, fraternal polemic against Negritude can be read from this quote. He refused incorporation into lazy notions of Blackness that he wanted to escape – it was after all a construct made in conflict with a racist society – with its false associations of a heroic past, a history which was important but no more. Against these sloppy notions of identity he fought in all of his work for a universal, non-racial recognition that could only emerge from struggle. Fanon’s brilliance can be seen in his first book.
Below is the second teaser to the forthcoming biography, The Militant Philosopher of Third World Liberation.
‘The publication of Black Skin, White Masks did not thrust Fanon into the spotlight. On the contrary, like many first books (and second, third and fourth), the excitement of receiving the proofs, the anticipation of the finished book gave way to the realisation that not many people would read it and the reviews would misunderstand the author’s principle arguments. Fanon suffered all of these disappointments. The book was not widely read, the few reviews that appeared were confused by the books style and arguments. Fanon did not waste much time on these publication disappointments, instead he plunged himself into his passionate affair with psychiatry and more ‘conventional’ professional research and writing.
Black Skin, White Masks, which he claimed was the outcome of seven years of observations, was published in 1952. This book – which has been celebrated as a monument to philosophical antiracism – is full of profound reflections on racism, whiteness, blackness and human recognition and liberation. Based on years of reading and experience, the book has remained in print since it was published. Startling to read as much for the analysis as the authors astonishing prose; Fanon became known for the ferocity of the delivery, the uncompromising language and anger of his writing.
The book was an attempt to describe the ‘lived experience of a black person’. To some extent it is autobiographical as well as a call for ‘mutual recognition’ and an end to racism. Employing Sartre’s work on anti-Semitism Fanon explains that being Black is made in confrontation with others and created by the racists gaze. Race and racism, Fanon argues in the book, is a relationship of intersubjectivity that orbit around a superiority and inferiority complex, with whiteness at the centre of a supposed superiority.
Fanon argues that he is cast into his blackness by racism, and becomes the categories, the insults and stereotypes of the racist. When a black person is confronted with racism they are immediately broken apart: ‘I was responsible for my body, responsible for my race, responsible for my ancestors …’ He is all the clichés of anti-black racism, ‘the negro is stupid, the negro is bad, the negro is wicked, the negro is ugly.’ But as the black person is confided to their blackness by the racist gaze and insult so the white person is trapped by his whiteness.
If the black person – in the racist circumstances Fanon describes – is denied his humanity and depersonalised then so is the Whiteman. As he writes powerfully in his article on the North African Syndrome from the same period, ‘This man whom you thingify by calling him systematically Mohammed, whom you reconstruct, or rather whom you dissolve, on the basis of an idea.’ But such a process of ‘thingify-ing’ also degrades and dehumanises the racist, the master, the Whiteman (his own humanity cannot not be fully realised and recognised).’ As Fanon concludes: ‘If YOU do not demand the man, if YOU do not sacrifice the man that is in you so that the man who is on this earth shall be more than a body, more than a Mohammed, by what conjurer’s trick will I have to acquire the certainty that you, too, are worthy of my love?’ Simply put if we do not reclaim the person who is before us, how can I assume that we can reclaim the person that is in us?’