Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a colonial subject from the small Caribbean island of Martinique, then a ‘département’ of France. Even though he fought for Free France during the Second World War, he was racially othered and demonised as a soldier in Europe. Today, I revisit his part-autobiographical first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

In it, Fanon remembers that, in his army days, “white women from three or four European countries” would shrink in fear from the black men who asked them to dance in Paris’s nightclubs. Around the same time the book was published, Fanon married a white woman, Josie Dublé, who did not share these prejudices. In 1953, he and Josie left to make a better life for themselves in Algeria.

It was in the subjugated North African country that Fanon came to believe that violence was the only answer to the horrors of colonialism. Not just a theorist, he stood up for his beliefs as a militant for the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), and worked as a psychiatrist on the frontline of the Algerian War of Independence against French colonisation, treating both FLN fighters and their oppressors.

Perhaps Fanon’s most important contribution to what became postcolonial studies was that colonialism not only ravaged economies and political structures, but also devastated the minds of colonised people. The “wretched of the earth”, he asserted, needed to become the subject of their own history. These oppressed people had to rebuild their traumatised psyches, restoring meaning and merit to their own ideas and ways of living.

In his book, Fanon describes a foundational moment for his thinking when he was pointed at by a young Parisian child, who told his mother he was scared. Myths of the fearsome black man abound, and these often cluster around threatening sexuality. Fanon argues that, in the minds of the colonisers, black men are typically assumed to be hypersexual and predatory towards white women.

“What else,” he asks, “can this stereotype … represent except putting the individual back in line?” With remarkable restraint, he talks about how “feelings of inferiority” are produced in the black men being characterised in this way. It is important to remember that Fanon was a hospital-based neuropsychiatrist; as such, his concern with the widespread alienation among people of colour was firmly grounded in clinical practice.

Fanon argues that colonialism’s arsenal destroys self-esteem, creating a profusion of neuroses. “I shall say that a Black is not a man,” he writes. (On noting this gendered language we should remember that elsewhere he says he is “resolutely” a man of his time.) According to Fanon, the inferiority complex stems from how structural racism and economic bondage lead black people to aspire to whiteness.

A white identity is the only status and destiny that count as human in this system. Therefore, for black people to succeed, they are compelled to make themselves seem as white as possible.

First acknowledging the imperial ruination of economies, Fanon goes on to write about the internalisation of racism. Yet, more than absorbing racist ideas and turning them inwards, people of colour experience overt external “epidermalisation” by whites.

He denounces this “racial epidermal schema”, under which black people are pressured to expunge or play down their blackness. “A feeling of inferiority?” asks Fanon. “No,” he concludes, “a feeling of not existing.” He deploys the terms “zone of nonbeing” and “black hole” to describe the negation of black selfhood over centuries of incomprehension and misrecognition.

As well as psychiatric medicine, Fanon was well versed in psychoanalysis, thus intimately familiar with the work of Sigmund and Anna Freud, among others. However, he has a critical view of the European focus on the Oedipus complex, which he categorically claims is not a black complex. At one point in Black Skin, White Masks, he writes with sardonic approval: “In the French Antilles, 97 percent of families are incapable of producing a single oedipal neurosis.”

Fanon suggests that European psychoanalysis has the luxury of being preoccupied with the childhood experiences of particular individuals. Meanwhile, for colonised people, mental illness results from occupation and discrimination. As he puts it, racist ideas “slowly and stealthily work their way into an individual” through various arts and media. This shapes the whole community’s worldview, and so any psychoanalytic or psychiatric response has to encompass not only individual, but also collective trauma.

Fanon’s seventh chapter from Black Skin, White Masks is ‘The Black Man [sic] and Recognition’ and unfolds how the “white gaze” distorts the black man’s sense of himself. In the mirror of this gaze, he cannot recognise his own image and is reduced to a mere “comparaison.” Fanon explains that he uses this French word to denote the fact that the colonised man is “constantly preoccupied with self-assertion.”

But what of the black, colonised woman? Fanon admits to knowing “nothing about her”, even though his second, acerbic, chapter is titled ‘The Woman of Colour and the White Man’. Deborah Wyrick argues that it is crucial to situate Fanon in the sexist context of the 1950s, but also observes that his ideas about women “can range from the dismissive to the peculiar.”

Certainly, he too often forgets the black woman’s very existence. Alternatively, when he remembers her, he is critical of her for wanting white men. He’s much more forgiving of such abjection from black men, whom he positions as desiring white women’s embraces out of insecurity or a lust for revenge.

Despite this significant shortcoming, in 2022 — the 70th anniversary of its publication — Black Skin, White Masks still has much to impart. Depredation is not the end for people of colour consigned by racism to an infernal nothingness. Fanon envisages an affirmation — “a yes”— that will transport them out of the inferiority complex created by nullification, into “revolutionary intention.”

The book sent a shot across the bows of psychoanalysis’s Eurocentrism. And Fanon’s exposure of the white gaze of misrecognition continues to reverberate in recent films such as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and books by A. Igoni Barrett and Reni Eddo-Lodge. The controlled rage of Fanon’s prose and his apocalyptic natural images make this writing stand the test of time.

The columnist is professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 6th, 2022

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