Frantz Fanon at 90: His Relevance to the Pan-African Vision Today
January 13, 2015 § 1 Comment
On 8 January 2015, I attended a lecture to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of pan-Africanist revolutionary and philosopher Frantz Fanon. The lecture titled: “Frantz Fanon at 90: His Relevance to the Pan-African Vision Today” was given by Professor Lewis Gordon, Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor at Rhodes University, South Africa, and Professor of Philosophy and African-American Studies, with affiliation in Judaic Studies, at the University of Connecticut, USA. Gordon is the author of many books, including the forthcoming title: What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought. The lecture was hosted by the Pan-African Baraza & ThoughtWorks at PAWA 254, Nairobi.
While the entire lecture was illuminating, the following concepts in particular stood out for me.
At an early age, Fanon became aware that the world we live in is one of white supremacy; a world in which white people are the standard for what is defined as “human”. It was when he volunteered to fight for “human dignity” in the Second World War that Fanon learnt that his blackness made him a non-human. He watched as black soldiers were sent to war in the hulls of ships, while white soldiers sailed on deck; and black female soldiers (yes, black women also volunteered to fight in the war) were made to sleep in the cabins of white officers. And when the Allies won, black soldiers were shocked to be called “niggers” in the villages they liberated in Europe. At the end of the War, black soldiers from the Diaspora were sent back to their countries in cargo ships, just as their ancestors who had been taken from Africa as slaves.
Observing all this, Fanon realized that the war for “human dignity” was in fact the White Man’s war. “Human dignity” meant “white dignity”. In other words, to be white is to be human and everyone else who does not fit the description of “white” is in fact not human. Black people are “non-human”. And in a white dominated world, non-humans represent violence. To be black is to be violent. Black people are violent simply for appearing in a white dominated world. The very existence of black people in a white dominated world is violent. Even worse for black women, to be black and a woman is to be “inviolable”, in that black women are empty slates on which anyone may place their force. Anything can be done to a black woman without it being registered as unethical!
Because black people are violent simply for appearing in a white dominated world, they have two options: to either disappear themselves or fight back against white supremacist violence. However, the option to fight back is curtailed by pacifist notions of “non-violence”. Yet non-violence overlooks, ignores and negates the fact that the appearance of black people in a white dominated world is violent and is therefore already met with violence.
Pacifist proponents of the “non-violence” doctrine often cite the Civil Rights movement in America and the Anti-Apartheid struggle of South Africa as proof of the effectiveness of “non-violence”. Yet in both these struggles, there was violence – only that those being killed were black. What “non-violence” therefore actually means is that violence only begins when you start killing white people. In the context of non-violence the deaths of black people do not count.
Non-violence is therefore not an option for black people. It never has been. Every instance of slavery involved black people using violence in their fight for freedom. We must therefore reject the “Emancipation” narrative that seeks to deny our agency by painting the picture that it was the good whites who decided it was time to abolish slavery and grant us freedom. We must counter this false narrative which is aimed at cultivating the idea that the oppressed must always “wait” – that black people must “wait” for the good white father to come around and declare us worthy of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by white people – once he’s ready.
It is important to be vigilant in calling out such narratives that aim at negating black agency. It is in this same spirit that the influential French philosopher Michel Foucault must be called out for appropriating Fanon’s ideas and not referencing Fanon. This is ideas appropriation which leads to whites being associated with ideas and blacks with “experience”. Black people then become dependent on whites for thought and ideas in a form of knowledge colonization.
Fanon lived his life as a black revolutionary hero who would not bow down to white supremacy at any cost. He was willing to risk losing a publishing deal as he would not work with a white man who would patronize his intelligence. And when he did get published, Fanon revolutionized revolutionary writing by producing works with poetry, humor, grit and even cuss words.
Had Fanon been here today, he would tell his fellow Pan-Africanists that:
- “African independence” is an illusion. We were never freed from colonialism or white domination. All the colonizers did was to replace themselves with an African elite that is grateful for the crumbs tossed by their masters in Europe. Our African leadership today in fact constitutes agents of white supremacy whose legitimacy derives from having an “enemy”. However, because challenging the real enemy (white supremacy) would lose them their positions and perks, African leaders provide us with alternative “enemies” as scapegoats to blame for their incompetent leadership via xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.
- When you do nothing about violence in the name of “non violence”, you become an agent of violence and end up living in a state of perpetual infantilization. However, violence in and of itself is counterproductive. Along with violence, there must be a plan for what the future should look like. We must think differently and set new conditions for the future world we want to bring to birth.
- Revolutionaries must understand that the communal struggle is bigger than the individual and accept that those who usher in freedom are rarely best suited to lead once freedom is attained. The true revolutionary is willing to fight for freedom even while knowing that they themselves may not taste the fruits thereof.
- It’s perfectly fine and natural to get angry at injustice. Just as laughing means you get the joke, anger also means that you understand the pain behind the oppression. To add to this, convener Firoze Manji proposed that: “If you’re not angry, you haven’t been listening.”
- Our task is never done. We are constantly struggling to make it better. Even when it’s ‘over’ – the struggle still continues!
Recommended reading by Prof. Gordon:
- Fanon’s resignation letter from a psychiatric facility in Algeria.
- Anténor Firmin – a Haitian anthropologist.
- “What Are We Worth”, an essay by Anna Julia Cooper. Cooper was one of two female members of the Executive Committee of the First Pan-Africanists Conference held in London in 1900.
Incidentally, some of my favorite quotes by Fanon:
“The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native. Perhaps we haven’t sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.”
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
“The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.”
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”
“Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”
“What matters is not to know the world but to change it.”
Update 14th January, 2015:
The video of the lecture is up! Watch it below.