Analysis

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Frantz Fanon's book is an examination of colonialism, partly from a Marxian perspective and partly from Fanon's own personal viewpoint as one who witnessed the struggle for liberation in Algeria and who had studied the various decolonization movements elsewhere in Africa and in other parts of the world.

Fanon presents the history of colonialism in stark terms. Europeans have taken over countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas in order systematically to exploit, for their own enrichment, the people and the resources of "underdeveloped" nations. In doing so they have imposed their negative view of non-European peoples on the colonized populations themselves and have tried to implant the idea that prior to being taken over by the Europeans, non-Europeans had no real civilization and lived essentially in a state of barbarism.

The Wretched of the Earth was written in 1961, at a time when independence was being granted, or had been already, to most of the previously colonized countries in Africa and Asia. Much of Fanon's analysis is focused on the process of decolonization and the response of the "native" peoples to the withdrawal of the Europeans. One of the key points is that the leadership of the newly independent countries, their nationalist parties, are made up of working-class and bourgeois people who lived in the towns and actually benefited in some ways from the European presence and that they are remote from the rural people who make up the bulk of the population and suffered most from colonialism.

Fanon examines the psychology of people in formerly colonized countries and their tendency, at least initially, to buy into the ideas imposed upon them by the Europeans, though he realizes that this situation is changing. The Arab countries, for instance, are rediscovering their own cultural past and celebrating it. In Fanon's view, however, international capitalism has rigged the system against developing countries. He observes that the European countries taken over by Germany during World War II demanded reparations and also that the Germans acknowledged the Holocaust and have paid, and are continuing to pay, reparations to the Jewish people. But, Fanon states, nothing similar has been done to recompense non-European peoples for the exploitation of them which has occurred over a period of centuries. The cultural, economic, and psychological damage inflicted upon Third World peoples has been enormous, and yet, nothing has been done to redress these wrongs.

Part of Fanon's analysis deals with racism in the United States, where he identifies key differences between the situation in which African Americans, in 1961, find themselves and that of the population in Africa. Though his descriptions overall of the legacy of colonialism and racism are stark and realistic, revealing with startling honesty his anger and bitterness, Fanon does believe that eventually the whole system of economic oppression at the root of all this will be defeated. The Wretched of the Earth has, at its core, a faith that basic humanity will defeat injustice. Much of his analysis may strike the present-day reader as one-sided and extreme, but one needs to remember how much has changed in the world in the past nearly sixty years since he wrote. It is something that can reinforce one's faith in "progress" to see that, although Fanon's main points are valid, humanity has advanced and, we hope, will continue to do so.

Form and Content

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In 1954, within a year after accepting a post as head of psychiatric services at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria, Frantz Fanon faced the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution. If the Martinique-born, French-educated black psychiatrist had any lingering loyalties to France upon his arrival in Algeria, however, he quickly severed his ties after witnessing the effects of French atrocities and torture on Algeria’s Muslim population. In 1956, Fanon made an important decision. Determined to take a meaningful stand against Fascism in North Africa, he resigned his post and officially joined the National Liberation Front (FLN). Moreover, from 1956 until his death in 1961, Fanon devoted himself exclusively to the Algerian struggle for independence.

This struggle, which inspired Fanon’s political awakening as well as his increasing understanding of the effects of both colonization and decolonization on individuals and nations, began to alter his vision of the world. Although still Manichaean in outlook, he saw a world divided not into black and white but rather into “colonizer” and “colonized.” In addition, although his four books, Peau noire, masques blancs (1952; Black Skin, White Masks, 1967), Pour la revolution africaine (1964; Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays, 1967), L’An cinq de la revolution algerienne (1959; Studies in a Dying Colonialism, 1965), and The Wretched of the Earth, are all products of his Algerian experience, the problems he discusses are not unique to Algeria; he defines and describes the distortion of human relations which the phenomenon of colonialism produces.

In 1960, one year before his death, Frantz Fanon was diagnosed as having leukemia. At that time, instead of continuing a study he had begun on the revolution and Africa, Fanon began work on what later became known as The Wretched of the Earth. He completed the bulk of the manuscript in three hectic months, from March to May of 1961.

Both the seriousness of his illness and his outrage at the atrocities he had observed from inside the revolution, then, contributed significantly to the mood and form of The Wretched of the Earth. Although the work traces the psychological and political destruction of colonialism on both the colonizers and the colonized, it is not an empirical description or a sociological explanation of a political phenomenon but rather a call to action to the exploited masses. The tone is both angry and passionate. Consumed by the desire to excite and activate the people as well as to warn of the dangers of more subtle kinds of exploitation, Fanon resorts to an aphoristic style; in his haste, he often indulges in sweeping generalizations unsupported by concrete evidence. The narrative shifts tenses without warning. Also, critics point out that Socialist revolutions for which there are no precedents are prescribed and that the Algerian Revolution is implicitly treated as a model for all Africa. A set of ideals and categories is imposed on a large and diverse continent. Initially published in Paris, although making no concessions to the “European” point of view, the work was intended for the intellectual elite of the Third World. Yet the work is also considered Fanon’s most important and influential; it has even been called “one of the great political documents of our time” in its analysis of political development, the genesis and degeneration of nationalist movements and parties, and, perhaps most important, the question of violence in Third World revolutions.

Turning to the work’s format, of the book’s 316 pages, the famous preface, written by Jean-Paul Sartre, consists of twenty-five pages. While Fanon’s audience was the intellectual elite of the Third World, Sartre addressed Europeans, particularly French intellectuals, exhorting them to heed Fanon’s warnings:You [Europeans], who are so liberal and so humane, who have such an exaggerated adoration of culture that it verges on affectation, you pretend to forget that you own colonies and that in them men are massacred in your name. Fanon reveals to his comrades . . . the solidarity of the people of the mother country and of their representatives in the colonies. Have the courage to read this book, for . . . it will make you ashamed, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment.

The body of the work consists of five essays and a six-page conclusion. In the first chapter, “Concerning Violence,” Fanon discusses his highly controversial concept of the cathartic effect of violence as well as its purifying and creative power. The next chapter, “Spontaneity: Its Strengths and Weaknesses,” explores the positive and negative aspects of peasant participation in the struggle for liberation. “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” Fanon’s third chapter, describes the dangerous rise of national bourgeoisies which threaten the unity of newly independent nations. In chapter 4, “On National Culture,” Fanon explains the necessity of maintaining a unique national identity by preserving precolonial history and culture. The final chapter, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” catalogs case histories which reveal the psychological damage caused by the Algerian Revolution’s terrorism and violence. Fanon’s brief conclusion urges the intelligentsia of the Third World to turn to itself rather than to Europe for solutions to its problems.

Additional Reading

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Bulhan, Hussein Abdilahi. Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression. New York: Plenum Press, 1985. A biography of Frantz Fanon from a psychiatric perspective. Fanon is treated essentially as a contributor to the field of psychiatry, and his revolutionary activity is placed primarily in the context of his interest in the psychology of oppression.

Geismar, Peter. Fanon. New York: Dial Press, 1971. The most authoritative biography on Fanon, based on Geismar’s interviews with members of Fanon’s family and his friends. Geismar claims to have been influenced very little by the secondary literature on the topic of Fanon, asserting that as of his publication date, little informative secondary literature on Fanon existed. This book is a good introduction to Fanon and provides a sympathetic and easy-to-read account of Fanon’s life.

Gendzier, Irene. Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study. New York: Pantheon, 1973. One of the few sbiographies on Fanon. This book should be standard reading for any serious inquiry into Fanon’s life.

Gordon, Lewis R., T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renée T. White, eds. Fanon: A Critical Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. This compilation contains twenty-one essays by different authors produced for a Fanon conference in 1995. These essays are grouped into six main sections and cover the following themes: oppression, questions regarding the human sciences, identity and the dialectics of recognition, the emancipation of women of color, the postcolonial dream, neocolonial realities, resistance, and revolutionary violence.

Macy, David. Frantz Fanon: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A biography of the author and revolutionary.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminism. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. This book reevaluates Fanon’s commitment (or noncommitment) to feminism through an examination of his commitment to antiracism. It also revisits many of the previous interpretations of Fanon and feminism. Sharpley-Whiting finds Fanon to be profeminist, which is counter to the majority of feminist critique of Fanon and his work.

Wyrick, Deborah. Fanon for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1998. Combines a detailed account of Fanon’s life with a critical view of his major works. Accompanied by cartoon illustrations to help make the author’s points clearer. Contains a glossary, and many terms are defined in the text. A good source to be read in conjunction with one of Fanon’s works because it helps place any individual Fanon work in the larger context of his life.

Context

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Frantz Fanon’s principal work, The Wretched of the Earth has sold millions of copies and has been translated into twenty-five languages. Essentially, The Wretched of the Earth is an analysis of the process of decolonization that was occurring at a rapid pace while Fanon was writing this book. The sense of urgency that pervades the book is partly a result of Fanon’s condition. He was dying of leukemia and knew he had only a limited amount of time left to contribute to the destruction of colonial relationships everywhere, but especially in Africa.

Fanon was from the French colony of Martinique, now a department of France, and was trained as a psychiatrist in France. Eventually Fanon was assigned to a psychiatric hospital in Algeria, where he treated both Algerians, who he felt were victims of colonialism, and white French people, who he felt were oppressors in Algeria. Fanon believed that many of the psychiatric problems he was treating in Algeria, in both Algerians and white French people, were due to the unequal colonial relationship that permeated every aspect of Algerian society. This unequal relationship affected Fanon so much that during the Algerian war, Fanon became sympathetic to the Algerians’ cause and joined the FLN. Through the FLN, Fanon became the spokesperson not only for the Algerian revolution but also for anticolonial resistance all over the world, especially in Africa. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon drew on many of the ideas he had developed in his earlier writings, notably Peau noire, masques blancs (1952; Black Skin, White Masks, 1967); L’An V de la révolution algérienne (1959; Studies in a Dying Colonialism, 1965); and a number of essays collected in Pour la révolution africaine (1964; Toward the African Revolution, 1967).

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon called for the decolonization of all colonized people. The Wretched of the Earth is not a retrospection of events that have long since passed; in fact, a large part of this book is written in the present tense. Fanon sees the process of decolonization and potential decolonization percolating throughout the underdeveloped world, and through this book, he attempts to influence the process. In the preface, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that The Wretched of the Earth was not intended for a white Euro-American audience, but that it was precisely this audience who should “have the courage to read this book.” Sartre, however, assumes that the only people who are concerned with the unequal colonial relationship are the colonized. In fact, Fanon wrote this book with a much larger audience in mind, optimistically hoping that there were “anticolonialists” throughout the world who wanted to understand the decolonization process. However, Sartre is correct on the general level; this is a book intended for those involved in anticolonial struggles.

A Violent Process

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In the chapter “Concerning Violence,” Fanon painted a slightly bipolar vision of decolonization. At one point, he described decolonization as the “veritable creation of new men.” This suggests that decolonization is a creative process in which humanity invents something new. However, in another portion of the same chapter, he describes decolonization as “quite simply the replacing of a certain species’ of man by another species’ of man.” These contrasting views on decolonization most likely reflect the difference between Fanon’s ideal and what would become reality.

Fanon describes decolonization as a naturally violent phenomenon. He argues that decolonization would not be necessary if there had not first been colonization, which is intrinsically violent and has no positive effect whatsoever on the colonized. Violence is a key element to Fanon’s decolonization, for it is the way in which colonized people find their freedom. He believed that violent tactics cleanse the decolonization movement because they force movement participants to be conscious of their activity and they require that each individual accept personal responsibility for his actions and beliefs. Fanon is often criticized for writing this chapter. Many people believe that he is promoting violence; however, Fanon was attempting to explain human behavior. These critics disregard the fact that colonialism is a physically, economically, and psychologically violent phenomena. Furthermore, Fanon is not calling for massive bloodshed in the streets of every colony and former colony. He claims that the processes of decolonization and colonization are linked; the amount of violence in any particular decolonization movement will be in direct proportion to the amount of violence used by the colonizers.

The Role of the Native

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In the chapter “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” Fanon tackles the question of why decolonization takes place. Fanon argues that mass repression results in the formation of a national consciousness. Decolonization unifies people because the key to colonialism is the separation of people. Decolonization takes place because colonized people become sick of their status as repressed people and begin demanding concessions from the colonizers. Fanon wrote, “The native must realize that colonialism never gives anything away for nothing. Whatever the native may gain through political or armed struggle is not the result of the kindness or goodwill of the settler; it simply shows that he cannot put off granting concessions any longer.”

Fanon further argues that the type of national consciousness that develops in response to colonization can also act as a separating force. Colonialism only exploits part of a country; this allows some native people to become wealthy, which causes them to be generally supportive of the colonial system. Fanon states that typically it is these people who acquire political power when a country gains independence. He argues that the political groups formed by these wealthy natives do not represent the masses but rather function as spokespeople for a small greedy collection of local exploiters who have reached a friendly agreement with the colonizers. After independence, this local elite seeks to follow in the footsteps of the colonizers and, using a slightly modified version of the colonial system, to generate profit for themselves. Therefore, Fanon says, political parties in underdeveloped areas rarely represent the masses. In addition, these political parties use divisive tactics in order to maintain their members’ economic advantage. Fanon states that social separation is most widespread between urban dwellers, who hold most of the formal political power, and rural people, who make up the large majority of the population.

The major problem in fostering permanent nationalism in underdeveloped countries, according to Fanon, is the development of a bourgeoisie that does not care about the common people and is unable to deal effectively with the West. Fanon believed this class was in political control of the underdeveloped world. Some critics of Fanon have argued that the philosopher was unable to see a political unit other than the modern nation state. This is a common criticism of philosophers Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as well. Perhaps this represents the ultimate colonization of Fanon’s thinking, that he was unable to escape the political terms established by “the West,” or perhaps he was being a realist in acknowledging the power of the modern nation state and realizing that any region’s political future depended on establishing a strong national consciousness. Either way, Fanon remained trapped in this dynamic.

The Colonized and the Colonizer

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In the chapter “On National Culture,” Fanon argues that universal standards of civility and barbarism, based on Euro-American criteria, do not actually exist. In fact, Fanon argues that the educational system is one of the major tools used by colonialists. Native schoolchildren are taught the cultural tradition of the colonizer, France in Fanon’s case. Furthermore, these children are taught that their heritage is one of barbarism. In addition, Fanon tackled the problem of the difference between a political party that claims to speak for a nation and the people who make up that nation. Fanon argued that political parties in the former colonies (or anywhere else) do not represent the masses and that the concept of a “nation” as a singular entity is a dangerous fiction.

In the chapter “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” Fanon provides the case notes for a number of the patients, both colonized people and colonizers, he treated while in Algeria. Through these notes, Fanon provide a firsthand account of what colonialism does to people’s minds. In his brief conclusion, Fanon reminds the reader that in order for the colonized to be successful, they must look for models other than the one provided by Europeans and that these models can be found within themselves.

Political and Cultural Legacy

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The impact of The Wretched of the Earth has been tremendous because this book, like much of Fanon’s work, expresses a deep concern with how the process of decolonization is to occur. Since his death, interest in Fanon’s thought has been steady among those who are concerned with colonialism and neocolonialism. He and his work became well known throughout the colonial world, affecting such African leaders as Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Touré, and Juilius Nyerere. Additionally, The Wretched of the Earth was influential in some of the more radical elements of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Black Panther Party members Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver read Fanon and credited him for providing a framework for their work in the United States.

Fanon thought that decolonization could not occur on a nation-by-nation basis; instead, the people of different nations would have to help one another through this process. This made Fanon a leading theorist in the development of global solutions for the colonial problem. Many scholars criticize the formation of worldwide solutions, arguing that mass generalizations are usually wrong. However, because Fanon was attempting to describe what he saw as a global problem, some generalization would seem necessary and appropriate. In addition, he was entirely aware of the dangers of such mass generalizations and warned readers to beware of this pitfall.

The Wretched of the Earth has also been used as a launching point in cultural studies. Fanon’s interest in examining the way people’s minds and thought were affected by the colonial relationship, especially in regard to racism, made him a pioneer in the field, although Fanon was not writing for an academic audience.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Bulhan, Hussein Abdilahi. Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression. New York: Plenum Press, 1985. A biography of Frantz Fanon from a psychiatric perspective. Fanon is treated essentially as a contributor to the field of psychiatry, and his revolutionary activity is placed primarily in the context of his interest in the psychology of oppression.

Geismar, Peter. Fanon. New York: Dial Press, 1971. The most authoritative biography on Fanon, based on Geismar’s interviews with members of Fanon’s family and his friends. Geismar claims to have been influenced very little by the secondary literature on the topic of Fanon, asserting that as of his publication date, little informative secondary literature on Fanon existed. This book is a good introduction to Fanon and provides a sympathetic and easy-to-read account of Fanon’s life.

Gendzier, Irene. Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study. New York: Pantheon, 1973. One of the few sbiographies on Fanon. This book should be standard reading for any serious inquiry into Fanon’s life.

Gordon, Lewis R., T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renée T. White, eds. Fanon: A Critical Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. This compilation contains twenty-one essays by different authors produced for a Fanon conference in 1995. These essays are grouped into six main sections and cover the following themes: oppression, questions regarding the human sciences, identity and the dialectics of recognition, the emancipation of women of color, the postcolonial dream, neocolonial realities, resistance, and revolutionary violence.

Macy, David. Frantz Fanon: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A biography of the author and revolutionary.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminism. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. This book reevaluates Fanon’s commitment (or noncommitment) to feminism through an examination of his commitment to antiracism. It also revisits many of the previous interpretations of Fanon and feminism. Sharpley-Whiting finds Fanon to be profeminist, which is counter to the majority of feminist critique of Fanon and his work.

Wyrick, Deborah. Fanon for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1998. Combines a detailed account of Fanon’s life with a critical view of his major works. Accompanied by cartoon illustrations to help make the author’s points clearer. Contains a glossary, and many terms are defined in the text. A good source to be read in conjunction with one of Fanon’s works because it helps place any individual Fanon work in the larger context of his life.

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