Article abstract: Fanon argued that race was the most important factor in colonial relationships and articulated a theory of global revolution for colonized people that emphasized the need for each member of society to participate in the decolonization process.
Frantz Omar Fanon was born on July 20, 1925, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, then a French colony. His father was a customs inspector and his mother was a shopkeeper. Fanon was the fifth of eight children. He had three older brothers, one older sister, and three younger sisters. The Fanons were a black middle-class family whose social status fell between that of the wealthy white ruling minority and that of the poor black majority. At the time, France’s policy was to “improve” the lives of people in the nation’s colonies by injecting more French culture into the local culture. The Fanons taught their children to identify with French customs and with the culture of metropolitan France. This included encouraging them to speak French instead of the more popular Creole spoken among blacks living in Martinique. Many blacks living in Martinique hoped that identifying with French culture would provide more opportunities and higher social status.
A detailed account of Fanon’s childhood does not exist. Fanon’s mother, who died in 1981, was interviewed at least once by Peter Geismar, a biographer of Fanon; however, he was only moderately interested in the details of Fanon’s childhood and focused more on Fanon’s life as a revolutionary. Fanon’s brothers and sisters recall him as very rigid and committed to making his words match his actions—a trait he would be known for later in life—and as a practical joker, who once, with the help of his friends, pinned the skirts of a number of women together in church.
The Fanons were able to afford the tuition to send Frantz to the Lycée Schoechler, the only secondary school in the French Caribbean. Only about 4 percent of blacks living on Martinique could afford to pay tuition to this prestigious school. Fanon attended the lycée and became a student of the poet and political activist Aimé Césaire, who taught language and literature. Césaire and his philosophy of negritude had a great impact on Fanon. Negritude, cofounded by Césaire and the Senegalese poet Léopold Senghor, was devoted to promoting African culture and encouraged blacks to reject the culture imposed upon them by French colonialism. Césaire’s attacks on Western civilization and French culture helped Fanon begin to stop identifying with French culture.
However, Fanon’s transformation was far from complete, and in 1943, he joined the fight to liberate France from the Germans, who had defeated the French in 1940 during World War II. Against his family’s wishes, Frantz went to Dominica and received six months of training before returning to Martinique and officially joining the Free French Army with his two best friends during a recruitment drive. Despite his idealism and willingness to risk his life for the freedom of France, Fanon suffered racism, beginning in the transport ships. Fanon became especially upset with the members of the Martinique women’s corps who slept with French officers on these ships.
Fanon’s first assignment was in the Fifth Battalion in Morocco, where he experienced additional racism. Black soldiers, whether from the Caribbean or Africa, were treated with contempt by the white soldiers in the French army. While in North Africa, Fanon began to see the larger picture regarding French colonialism. He began to connect the ill treatment of black Africans with the treatment of blacks from the Caribbean by white French people. In France, the populace, whom Fanon and other black soldiers had come to defend, treated them with contempt, and blacks were shunned at victory celebrations and dances, a blatant insult to those who had risked their lives in battle against the Nazis. Additionally, Fanon mentioned in letters home that French peasants would not fight, an action that made Fanon seriously reconsider his involvement in the war. Fanon was wounded in combat and awarded the Croix de Guerre. When he returned to Martinique in 1945, Fanon was reevaluating his colonial identity as a Frenchman. He worked on the election campaign of Césaire, who was elected mayor of Fort-de-France as a Communist Party candidate in 1945.
In 1947, Fanon completed his examinations at the lycée and went back to France to attend a university with the help of a veteran’s scholarship. Before Frantz left, his father died, which forced Frantz to go abroad with more limited resources than he had expected. Fanon wanted to chose a career that would be practical for the people of Martinique, and his first choice was medicine. However, he was unwilling to spend the years it would take to complete medical training and instead opted for a career in dentistry. Fanon left the school of dentistry and Paris because of boredom (caused by both the course of study and the city) and enrolled in medical school at the University of Lyons, specializing in psychiatry. During this time, Fanon became nominally involved in the negritude movement as a form of escape from racism; he wrote three plays and edited a newsletter for black students. However, he separated himself from negritude and from Césaire for good in 1958 when Césaire advocated a policy of total integration with France. By this time, Fanon was considering solutions to the colonial problem that involved separation, not integration.
While at the medical school in Lyons, Fanon became interested in the work of philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. Also while in school, Fanon met Marie-Josephe Dublé, a white French woman, whom he married in 1953. In 1952, while he was still in medical school, Fanon published his first book, Black Skin, White Masks. Its original title was Essay for the Dis-alienation of the Black, which accurately describes Fanon’s French experience. He expected to be treated as an equal while in France, which is what French colonial rhetoric taught. However, he was confronted with strong racism that revealed itself not only in people’s actions but also in the way they looked at Fanon.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon presented a clinical study of group racial identity. The work shows the influence of Césaire, Sartre, and psychiatric pioneers Sigmund Freud and Alfred Alder. Fanon argues that through colonialism, black people have been taught to desire to be white. This causes an identity...