‘The Fact of Blackness’, the seminal 1952 essay by Frantz Fanon, is still relevant today, argues Chambi Chachage. ‘It is relevant simply because Du Bois’ problem of colour line has not yet disappeared.’
‘ What does a black man want?’- Frantz Fanon’
‘Look not upon me, because I am black’- The Song of Solomon 1:6
‘The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself’- Steve Biko
‘I propose nothing short of the liberation of the man of colour from himself’ – Frantz Fanon
In the beginning of the 20th century the great black intellectual William. E. B Dubois, writing concerning ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, stated that the ‘the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of colour line’ (Charters, 1999, p.1411). Incidentally, in the middle of the 20th century a young black intellectual by the name of Frantz Fanon emerged as a great champion in the art of problematising the study of ‘colour line’, for indeed the issue of ‘colour line’ had become a global problem. Now history tells us that the 20th century is behind us, yet as we live in the beginning of the 21st century the problem of ‘colour line’ is still a part and parcel of our society. In this essay, I attempt to critique one of Fanon’s essays entitled ‘The Fact of Blackness’, which deals with this problem.
I have divided the main body of my essay into three sections. The first one deals with the social-psychological notion of ‘self-identity’ in relation to the so-called ‘fact of being a black person’. The second section deals with the economical and social-political notion of ‘self-determination’ in relation to the ‘fact of being a dominated black person’. And the final section deals with the contradictory nature of affirming the ‘fact of being a black person’ vis-à-vis the ‘non-homogeneity of blackness’. But before delving into these sections, it is important to sketch a brief biographical background of Fanon in the context of his politics and the intellectual currents of his time i.e. the time he wrote ‘The Fact of Blackness’.
According to McCulloch (1983), Fanon was born in 1925 on the small Island of Martinique. He received his early education from an elite school in Martinique where one of his teachers and mentors was Aime Cesaire, who, according to Irele (1972), was the black intellectual who coined the term ‘negritude’. Moreover, McCulloch (1983) notes that Fanon went on to fight in World War II on the side of the Free French forces in Europe and in 1945 Colonel Raoul Salan awarded him the ‘Croix de Guerre’ for his heroism in combat. Ironically, ten years later, Fanon and Salan found themselves fighting as opposites in the Algerian revolution. And of course it was Fanon, not Salan who threw his lot in with the Algerian ‘rebels’. A short biographical note accompanying his book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, attributes this decision of Fanon to his experiences and observations in an Algerian hospital – a hospital he was assigned to, after graduating as a medical student in Paris. It should be noted that Fanon returned home after the World War and completed his secondary education before heading to Paris in 1947 where he ended up studying medicine. He specialised in psychiatry under ‘one of the most radical psychiatric teaching programmes then available’ (McCulloch, 1983, p. 1).
According to Panaf (1975), it was while he was at Lyon University in France that Fanon wrote ‘Black Skin, White Mask’ in 1952. Its fifth chapter entitled ‘The Fact of Blackness’ was, according to Macey (2000), an essay that appeared in May 1951 in the journal ‘Espirit’ and it took a form of the ‘lament of the black man’. It should be noted this was the time the process of decolonisation and self-determination among colonies was starting to gain momentum. India, for instance, had gained independence in 1947. France was starting to think about giving the option of independence within or without the French territory to its colonies such as Martinique. It was the time of the emergence of the educated elite among the colonised. These were groomed to be the leaders of the new independent countries. In the Francophone colonial world the names that loom large include that of Leopold Senghor, Aimer Cesaire and Cheikh-Anta Diop. Imperial France had been defeated by the wretched of Vietnam. The cold war was forming its camps while the problem of colour was gaining its momentum in places such as South Africa and Algeria. The white world was producing more progressive white thinkers such as Josie Duble, who was to become Josie Fanon in 1952 when she married Fanon. This was a stimulating environment for a young intellectual like Fanon who wished to write a different kind of book and thus be as great as his mentor Aimer Cesaire.
Macey (2000) alerts me that ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ is not a pure autobiography of Fanon. The ‘I’ that speaks in its pages is often what literary scholars call a persona. Since I agree with this, I have decided to treat ‘The Fact of Blackness’ as a non-pure autobiographical narrative whereby Fanon’s ‘I’ sometimes conflates with the black man’s ‘I’. But it should be stressed here that this black man is not universal, but rather he is the black man Fanon was writing about. Probably aware of what his critics would do if he universalised a black man, Fanon in his introduction to ‘Black Skin, White Mask’ categorically gave the following concluding statement: ‘Since I was born in the Antilles, my observations and my conclusions are valid only for the Antilles – at least concerning the black man at home. Another book could be dedicated to explaining the differences that separate the Negro of the Antilles from the Negro of Africa. Perhaps one day I shall write it. Perhaps too it will no longer be necessary – a fact for which we could only congratulate ourselves’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 16). At the risk of appearing patriarchal, most of the times I have also followed Fanon’s use of the masculine in referring to the black person he is writing about. Although Bhabha (1986) argues that Fanon’s use of the word ‘man’ is inclusive of man and woman in the sense that it connotes a phenomenological quality of humanness, I, like many feminine critics of Fanon, disagree with that. Concerning the black woman, I have decided to take Fanon (1986) at his word, that he does not her.
FANON AND THE BLACK MAN’S BURDEN
In his introduction to his book ‘Black skin, White Masks’, Fanon (1986) poses what appear to be a rhetoric question. It’s a question, which he tries to answer at length in the fifth chapter of the book i.e. the chapter entitled ‘The Fact of Blackness’. Although it is an open-ended question, the brief answer he provides in the introduction has to do with a question of identity. The question is, ‘what does a black man want?’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 10) But instead of directly asking this question, he prefixes it with a prior question, ‘what does a man want?’ From a psychoanalytical point of view, of which Fanon was subscribing to, it is important to note this deliberation in the light of the quest for identity. Note the following statement, which immediately follows those two questions, ‘At the risk of arousing the resentment of my coloured brothers, I will say that the black is not a man’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 10). If the black is not a man, then what is the biological, psychological and cultural identity of the black? If the black is not a man, what and who is black? Fanon’s answer to this is equally enigmatic: ‘The black is a black man.’ Moreover, his answer to what a black man wants is more enigmatic: ‘The black man want to be white’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 11).
All these are enigmatic because prior to his questions, he sarcastically describes his fragmented thought processes as follows: ‘Toward a new humanism…Understanding among men…Our colored brothers…Mankind I believe in you…Race prejudice…To understand and to love…From all sides dozens and hundreds of pages assail me and try to impose their will on me. But a single line would be enough. Supply a single answer and the color problem would be stripped of its importance’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 10). A single answer was and is indeed not enough to deal with Dubois’ old problem of color line. Thus, drawing from his experience as a black man in the Antilles, Fanon attempts to analyze the black man’s burden vis-à-vis a white man
BLACKNESS AND THE QUEST FOR SELF-IDENTITY
According to Fanon (1986), one of the importances of ‘The Fact of Blackness’ is that it portrays the Negro face to face with his race. In it we ‘observe the desperate struggles of a Negro who is driven to discover the meaning of black identity’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 16). Since this was an ontological problem which had to do with the essence or the nature of being of blackness, it was natural for Fanon, as Macey (2000) also notes, to make use of the existentialist phenomenology of Sartre, the negritude of Cesaire and fragments of psychoanalytical theory in his attempt to diagnose and prescribe a remedy to the problem of blackness. To Fanon (1986), the problem started as early as when he came to the world imbued with an inquisitive mind. He came with a quest that led him to realise that he was an object in the midst of other objects. Like a child, modeling from his/her parents and siblings in the process of identity-formation, Fanon turned to his own blacks and their attention temporarily liberated him from this crushing objecthood. An objecthood which had suddenly sealed him into nonbeing. It was a temporary liberation because when Fanon reached the other side, that is the whites’ side, the glances of the other fixed him there: ‘Look, a Negro!’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 109)
The above white gaze problematises the whole notion of ontology as far as a black man is concerned. Although Fanon accepts that there are some exceptions, he states that there is no room for a black man to experience his being through others when he is among his fellow blacks. But the black man Fanon was writing about was living in a colonised and civilised society which was characterised by the above-mentioned gaze. A society which, according to Fanon, makes every ontology unattainable. According to Fanon, this is so because in the worldview or schema of the colonised people there is an impurity or flaw, which makes it impossible for one to have any ontological explanation. Since it is very crucial here to understand what Fanon is saying, it is worthwhile to allude to the classical definition of ontology. The Chambers’ 21st dictionary defines it as the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature and essence of things or of existence. Thus, when Fanon talks about the limits of ontology in explaining the being of the black man, he simply means that ontology can only explain the being of the black man if and only if it deals with his existence as a black man per se and not as black man in relation to a white man. But this is unattainable because a colonised black man is Manicheanly constructed or brought into being in relation to an opposite, that is, a white man. Without a white man there is no black man. As far as skin colour is concerned, a black man can indeed be ontologically brown or even posses a skin shade that can make him pass for white as history has shown us. But a black man in Fanon’s time was not brown or white because the white gaze had ensured that he must not only be black, but he must be black in relation to the white man: ‘Look A Negro!’ ‘Dirty nigger!’
Since ontology leaves the existence of a black man aside, the quest for his self-identity becomes a painstakingly task because it does not permit him to understand his being. This is so because the ‘black man has not ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 110). This white gaze leaves a black man ontologically disturbed for overnight he is given two points of references within which he has to simultaneously position himself while going on with his quest for self-identity. This is aggravated by the fact that the black man’s customs and the source that they were based on were wiped out. Fanon tells us that this was so because these customs were in conflict with the white civilisation that he, the black man, did not know and that imposed itself on him. Even though Fanon was aware of this, he, like many other black intellectuals of his time, were allured by the concept of negritude, which tried to trace the residues of these customs as an attempt to seek a black identity and a black ontology. Fanon, knowingly or unknowingly, alluded to one of the pitfalls of negritude inherent in its advocates when he stated that the ‘black man among his own in the twentieth century does not know at what moment his inferiority comes into being through the other’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 110). Moreover, Fanon alluded to another pitfall when he noted in his observation the little difference that existed among the almost-white i.e. the mulattos and the nigger in the Antilles. This observation in relation to his identity was not dramatic until he met the white man’s eyes: ‘Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!’
This encounter with the white man’s eye made it difficult for Fanon and his fellow men of colours to develop their bodily schema. The consciousness of his body became what he calls a solely negating activity since it makes a black man have a third-person consciousness in relation to his self and the world. Negating because the structuring of one’s self and the world creates what he calls a real dialectic between one’s body and the world. Here it should be reiterated that the world Fanon is referring to is a Manichean world whereby the corporeal or bodily schema implies that a black body is bad. This is a world, which according to Fanon, had some of it’s laboratories spend several years trying to produce a serum for ‘denegrification’ so as to whiten the miserable Negro and thus save him from his burden of corporeal malediction. Keeping faith with his quest for self-identity, Fanon sketched below this corporeal schema as a ‘historico-racial schema’ but as we have noted above, the sources of black man’s custom and thus, his authentic history were virtually wiped out. The implication of this is that Fanon relied on elements provided for him by the other i.e. the white man such as Jaspers who had woven Fanon, a black man out of numerous legends, anecdotes, stories and historicity. Thus, in order for Fanon and any black man of his time to construct his self-identity, it was not enough to just construct a physiological self or to balance space and localise sensations. And Fanon realised this painfully in that train when he couldn’t laugh at the fact that whites were afraid of him. He couldn’t laugh for his corporeal schema, being assailed at various points, crumbled.
Fanon tells us that this crumbling resulted in the corporeal schema being replaced by a ‘racial epidermal schema’. Thus, Fanon’s self-identity formation process entered another phase i.e. from a phase where he was aware of his body in the third person he entered a phase where he was aware of his body in a triple person. In a tone of someone who has discovered himself, he exclaims, ‘I existed triply: I occupied space. I moved toward the other…and the evanescent other, hostile but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea…’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 112) He realised that like any matter, he as a body occupied space. He also realised that when he moves toward the other he moves as a member of a black race. And he also realised the other is uneasy because of what the other attributes to be the character of the black race in relation to what the other has done during the history of the black race. But contrary to someone who joyfully celebrates his self-discovery, he painfully exclaims: ‘I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectually deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above else: ‘sho’ good eatin’.’ (Fanon, 1986, p.112)
The above-discovered self-identity reminiscent of psychoanalytical conditions such as schizophrenia and multiple personality disorders was not what Fanon wanted and probably it is not what black men have wanted throughout history. Fanon tell us that all that he wanted was to be a man among other men – nothing but a man. But where could he hide and be free from the white man’s imprisoning gaze and its related colonial discourses? Where could he hide for indeed to a white Frenchman he was not just Fanon, but also a ‘ Martinican, a native of “our” old colonies.’ (Fanon, 1986, p.113) And to ‘the handsome little white boy’, he is not just a man but also a nigger who is quivering with rage: ‘Mama, the nigger is going to eat me up’ (Fanon, 1986, p.114). Thus, the above-discovered identity proved to be just an illusion for it does not boost the black man’s self-esteem and confidence in himself. It does not make him a man. Contrary, it sprawls, distorts and recolors his body. It actually tells his self that a Negro is not only an animal, but he is also bad, mean and ugly. Instead of telling Fanon who his self really is, it actually helps him identify his enemies. The Negro realised that the white world is indeed its enemy. While he attempts to forget and forgive what had been to Negroes and only to love, this white world despises, rejects and denies him the slightest of recognition: Why is he trying to behave as if he is expected to behave like a man? Doesn’t he know the ontology of a black man? Doesn’t he know where a black man belongs? Doesn’t he know that a black man is inferior to the white man? And here Fanon realises that it impossible to get from an inborn complex. Therefore, like many black essentialists, he resolved to assert himself as a BLACK MAN. He does not do so because he believes that there is an ontological black man but because his quest for a self-identity is forced to take one and only one path: ‘Since the other hesitated to recognize me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known’ (Fanon, 1986, p.115).
This decision of the Negro to make himself known is self-contradictory. This is so because the Negro is well known to whoever constructed blackness as a supposedly essence of a Negro. Sartre, a white man Fanon referred to as a friend of Negroes, lead Fanon to realise that contrary to the Jews who were disliked from the moment they were tracked down, the Negroes do not have to be tracked down for he cannot go unnoticed: ‘I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am a slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance.’ (Fanon, 1986, p.116) Surely there is no hiding place and there is no room for anonymity or invisibility: to the ‘other’ one is not just my friend but ‘my black friend’; one is not just a university graduate but ‘a black man and a university graduate’; one is not just one of the finest singers but ‘the finest of Negro singers’ and one is not just a friend but a ‘friend from Martinique’. This problem of colour line makes it almost imperative to the others to qualify the black man’s self-identity with the prior or post term ‘black’. And sadly enough in his quest for self-identity the black man has often fallen into this trap: Nelson Mandela is the first black president in South Africa; so-and-so is the first black vice-chancellor, the first black Olympic medallist and the list goes on and on. To Fanon this qualifying process was a shame and a self-contempt: ‘Nausea. When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I am locked into an infernal circle’ (Fanon, 1986, p.116). And when he attached to his fellow Negroes, he was shocked for they too rejected him since they were almost white: ‘I want you to understand, sir, I am one of the best friends the Negro has in Lyon’ (Fanon, 1986, p.117).
With all these version of Negroes, which Negro was to be made known? Although for centuries Negroes have been supposedly known as savages, brutes and illiterates it was a fact that Fanon and French men alike knew that this was false. France and Martinique, in Fanon’s time, was full of literate Negro teachers, gentle Negro doctors and civilised Negro priests. Or probably they were not ‘essential Negroes’ or they were probably what Joseph Conrad would call ‘just a fine specimen’ of Negroes. Whatever the case, Fanon realised that there was indeed a myth of the Negro that had to be destroyed. A kind of destruction that will lead a Negro to establish an authentic self-identity that is free from being made to feel as being inhuman. In his attempt to know why this myth of a Negro prevailed even if the Negro as refined in his manner and knowledge, the intellectual of Fanon’s time refereed him to the then prevalent psychological explanations of colour prejudice, which was championed by the likes of Allport and Burns. He was simply told that he was ‘unreasoningly’ hated, despised and detested by an entire race just because of his colour. But as a reasoning and rational being, Fanon felt he needed to show to the white man that he was mistaken. But reason with all its confidence of victory proved to be elusive for though the white scientists, using their reasoning capacity, reluctantly came to the consensus that a Negro was indeed a human being just like the white man, yet their consensus was only abstract. Abstract because the white man, whether using his reason or unreason, still viewed himself as intractable on certain points. And that’s why Fanon insists that the white man under no conditions wished to have any intimacy between races until he had the full knowledge of the effects of race-crossings.
It appears that the more Fanon read and learned about what the white man had written about the black man, the more he, a black man, was not and not what he was. For instance, he tells us that in the first chapter of the history that the white man had compiled for him he was taught that his chromosomes were supposed to have a few thicker or thinner genes, which represented cannibalism. Fanon was indeed right in exclaiming that this was shameful science. Shameful for how could an idea of one eating one’s father find a central place in the reason of those who two centuries earlier had worshiped the so-called god of reason. The more Fanon learned about this the more he learned about the enemies he had discovered earlier. The enemies, who though champions of reasoning decided to hide there, anticipated and reasoned colour prejudices under the disguising garb of ‘unreasoning hate’. Thus, Fanon’s rational journey in his quest for self-identity reached a juncture: ‘If I were asked for a definition of myself, I would say that I am one who waits; I investigate my surroundings, I interpret everything in terms what I discover, I become sensitive’ (Fanon, 1986, p.120). And it was this failure of reason that made Fanon more prone to the nostalgic concept of negritude and its quest for black identity and self-determination. This concept tried to offer Fanon a connection in his juncture of self-identification. Looking back one can see why this was so appealing to the anti-racialist and anti self-negating Fanon, for Senghor was to write many years after Fanon’s death that what they, the champions of negritude, have been proclaiming for the past 30 years as negritude is ‘neither racialism nor self-negating. Yet it is not just an affirmation; it is rooting oneself in oneself, and self-confirmation: confirmation of one’s being’ (Senghor, 1993, p. 27).
BLACKNESS AND THE QUEST FOR SELF-DETERMINATION
According to McCulloch (1983), Fanon’s allusion to negritude reflected his quest for personal identity while that of African socialism reflected his desire to return to Africa. Moreover, McCulloch (1983) argues that the concept of negritude had its origin among children of the Diaspora who had little or no first-hand knowledge of Africa and therefore they decided to celebrate the black African cultural values. It was both a protest against domination and an attempt to seek relief from the discomfort of colonial racism. When Fanon was writing the ‘The Fact of Blackness’, the champions of negritude were prospective statesmen and major political figures of the soon-to-be-independent colonies. For instance, in Africa there was Leopold Sedar Senghor who was to become a president of Senegal and in Martinique there was Aime Cesaire who was to be a prominent politician in that former French colony. In their quest for both self-identity and self-determination, the champions of negritude ‘ sought to understand and to change colonial reality by explaining the colonial relationship in terms of a clash of fundamentally different cultures’ (McCulloch, 1983, p. 8).
Thus, from an opposite of the white world a magical Negro culture with is basic element i.e. Rhythm hailed Fanon. Skinner (1999) tells us that Fanon, sympathetic to the need of many young people in Paris for a cultural renaissance that would establish an African orientation, championed negritude and spent innumerable long evenings with black colleagues in the cafes of Paris debating the nature of African culture. It should be noted that the white intellectual of his time had told Fanon that there will always be a white world between him and them because of the other’s failure to liquidate the past once and for all. And here was Fanon joining the negritude rhythmical tune of solidifying the past that they hardly knew. A past that claims that a Negro was and is still governed more by emotions more than reason. A Negro who is the only one who can convey and decipher the meaning of the cosmic message chattered by a tom-tom. Negritude tells him that surely black men are the eldest sons of the world who rule the world with their intuition. But this journey brought him face to face with what would certainly amuse Freud, the father of psychoanalysis: ‘I walk on white nails. Sheets of water threaten my soul on fire. Face to face with these rites, I am doubly alert. Black magic! Orgies, witches’ sabbaths, heathen ceremonies, amulets. Coitus is an occasion to call on the gods of the clan. It is a sacred act, pure, absolute, bringing invisible forces into action’ (Fanon, 1986, p.126). Fanon realises that this the white man had taught him as being typical of the people that have not kept pace with the evolution of the human race. Having reached this point, he becomes reluctant to commit himself to this course that was actually affirming the white man’s discourse – that constructed Negroes as backward, simple and free in their behaviour.
BLACKNESS AND THE DILEMMA OF BLACK ESSENTIALISM
Magubane (1994), commenting on the Negro consciousness, argues that Fanon’s encounter with Hegel’s phenomenology helped him to grasp that colonial domination of African people destroyed the spirit and personality of the Africans. As a result the self-consciousness and the black situation in a white world was in a dialectic interrelationship of independence and dependence: ‘That is, Fanon stressed that self-consciousness of blacks has been sublated by oppression; and that the other, the white oppressors, do not regard black self-consciousness as real, but see in the black only their own self-consciousness. As long as the black self-consciousness is not recognized by the other, the other will remain the them of his [the black’s”> actions.’ If there is no reciprocity between the real self-consciousness of Blacks and the white other, the circuit is closed and ultimately Blacks are deprived of being for themselves. The search for self-recognition necessarily led to a search for roots in Africa. Blacks had to rediscover their lost humanity and fashion it in their own image (Magubane, 1994, p. 230). But as we have seen above, Fanon started to realise the self-contradictory nature of this nostalgic search for the elusive past.
Thus, Fanon’s journey in his quest for self-identity now reached what appeared to be a cul-de-sac. It was impossible for him to be a typical Negro. He needed to completely lose his self in the depths of that unhappy romanticism of negritude, but Sartre’s Orphee Noir destroyed this black zeal that characterises what Fanon calls the black consciousness. This experience led him to realise that the affirmation of black essentialism is self-contradictory for blackness is not an essence. This appears to be one of the highest points Fanon reached in his journey of self-discovery because he realised that the dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of his freedom actually drives him from himself: ‘I am not a potentiality of something. I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal. No probability has any place inside me. My Negro consciousness does not hold itself as a lack. It is. It is its own follower’ (Fanon, 1986, p.135).
Any quest for self-identity or self-determination that uses black essentialism as its basis overlooks or ignores the fact that ‘Negro experience is not whole, for there is not merely one Negro, there are Negroes’ (Fanon, 1986, p. 136). This ignorance will sooner or later make one realise, as Fanon realised, that when s/he is trying to express his/her essence or existence, s/he will run the risk of finding only the non-essence or nonexistent: if one will attempt to claim that blacks are essentially dark, s/he will run the obvious risk of finding blacks who are not essentially dark but light; if one attempt to claim that blacks are essentially rhythmical s/he will be shocked to find that some of us blacks have no rhythm.
If blackness is not an essence why is Fanon writing about ‘the fact of blackness’? Indeed there is no fact of blackness in the fact of blackness, thanks to Macey (2000) who has added weight to my wariness of translations: ‘Fanon is one of the very few non-Anglophones to be admitted to the post-colonial canon, and alarmingly few of the theorists involved realize or admit that they read him in very poor translations. The most obvious example of the problems posed by the translations is the title of the fifth chapter of ‘Peau noire, masques blancs’ (Black Skin, White Mask). Fanon’s ‘L’Experience vecue de l’homme noir’ (the lived Experience of the Black Man’) becomes ‘The Fact of Blackness’. The mistranslation obliterates Fanon’s philosophical frame of reference, which is supplied by a phenomenological theory of experience, but it also perverts his whole argument; for Fanon, there is no fact of blackness (sic), but that experience is defined in situational terms and not by some trans-historical ‘fact’ (Macey, 2000, p. 26).
The above exposition has shown why ‘The Fact of Blackness’ is still relevant today. It is relevant simply because Du Bois’ problem of colour line has not yet disappeared. Fanon’s experiences as a black man as analysed in ‘The Fact of Blackness’ have proved to be influential among black intellectuals in the world. His work has also drawn critics from both the white and the black world. It has also drawn an ambivalent relationship between black feminists and Fanon. For instance, hooks (1995), the black feminist and author of the famous ‘Postmodern Blackness’ admits that Fanon, more than any other thinker, has provided her with a model for insurgent black intellectual life that shaped her works. However, for a long time she abandoned Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Mask’ because of in its patriarchal nature it forgot about the black woman. One of the statements that disturbed hooks had to do with ontological resistance: ‘When Fanon declares that “the black person has no ontological resistance to the white gaze” he denies that the interaction between black males and black females might serve as just such a site’ (hooks, 1996, p. 84). Actually, hooks revealed these insights during a programme made by black artists who, according to Hall (1960), acknowledged some debt of influence to Fanon’s work. Incidentally the intellectual insights that developed in this programme, which included the likes of the pro-Fanon Homi Bhabha and the feminist critic Lola Young, were published as ‘The Fact of Blackness’. It is interesting to note that Macey (2000), argues that the choice of this title was a result of their obliviousness to mistranslation of Fanon’s title of his fifth chapter of ‘Black Skin, White Mask’.
This work of Fanon has ironically led some to argue that the major problem of blacks is not racism. For instance, D’Souza (1997), drawing from Fanon, argues that African Americans cannot find any self-esteem in Africa or in dubious ideologies of blackness. What they need is to develop and not regress to their backward past: ‘For generations, blacks have attempted to straighten their hair; lightens their skins, and pass for white. But what blacks need to do is to “act white”, which is to say, to abandon idiotic Back-to-Africa schemes and embrace mainstream cultural norms, so that they can effectively compete with other groups’ (D’Souza, 1997, p. 288). To others, Fanon has appeared as a champion of ontological description: ‘Lewis Gordon argues that for a leading black philosopher such as Frantz Fanon, “classical ontological descriptions” of the black conditions are to be rejected in favor of a “sociogenic” approach that locates the anthropological in the socially existential’ (Mills, 1998, p. 12). This shows why Macey (2000) laments the fact that Fanon is read by post-colonial scholars as an inverted image of the ‘revolutionary’ Fanon of the 1960s. A revolutionary Fanon who was angry, not because of the ‘fact’ of his blackness, but because of his experience as a black man in a world defined as ontologically white and therefore sociogenically white.
‘The Fact of Blackness’, though full of anti-black essentialist sentiments, has not stopped it being an inspiration to the Pan African Movement. For instance, in its biographical series of great lives, Panaf (1975) apologetically argues that the Fanon who wrote ‘The Fact of Blackness’ was only a rebel who was attempting to merely interpret the world. His views only crystallised during the Algerian revolution. No wonder many pages of the biography deal with those themes developed by Fanon after ‘The Fact of Blackness’. However, Fanon is recommended for challenging what it calls the ‘bogus philosophy Negritude’. This is obvious because the champion of Negritude were obstacles to the Pan African Movement. According to Panaf (1975), Senghor did not support the Algerian Revolution while Cesaire, while chanting black is beautiful to Fanon, was busy ensuring that Martinique became a part of France.
Without doubt, Steve Biko, the father of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, read ‘The Fact of Blackness.’ It seems that Biko (1996), like Fanon, reached that point that forced a black person, out of the quest for self-identity and self-determination, to make himself known. That is to affirm his blackness. He agreed with Fanon that blacks were suffering from an inferiority complex. It seems that he agreed with Fanon that a black man was not a man: ‘To a large extent the evil-doers have succeeded in producing at the output end of their machine a kind of Black man who is man only in form. This is the extent the process of dehumanization has advanced. Black people under the Smuts government were oppressed but they were still men…All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow or man’ (Biko, 1996, pp. 28-29). But while Fanon (1986) advocated the liberation of the black man from himself, Biko (1996) decided to advocate black pride: ‘The first step is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity…This is what we mean by an inward-looking process.This is the definition of black consciousness’ (Biko, 1996, p. 29). However, a close examination of the conditions that necessitate the emergence of black consciousness as well as the difficulty Biko had in defining who was black in South Africa reveals that Biko (1996) was aware of the same dilemma of black essentialism that faced Fanon. No wonder that the seventh chapter of ‘I write what I like’ is entitled ‘Fragmentation of the Black Resistance’.
As a closing remark I would like to stress that it is difficult to know the true extent of the influence of ‘The Fact of Blackness’ because its influence is conflated with the influence of other revolutionary works of Fanon such as his work on violence in the ‘Wretched of the Earth’. Thus, when the champions of black power such as Stokely Carmichael call Fanon their ‘patron saint’ one needs to offer a close reading of their work to see how much the notion of black power has drawn from the violence of the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ and blackness of ‘Black Skin, White Mask’. All in all ‘The Fact of Blackness’ is a work that touches all those who encountered experiences which are more or less like the one Fanon encountered in the white world. I personally have encountered them in trains and tunnels, and like Ndebele’s (1998) experience in the white dominated game lodges, I have found them ontologically disturbing. Even reading Fanon proves to be ontologically disturbing, let alone offering a close reading of him. Ontologically disturbing for even Fanon himself could not explain everything he wrote: ‘I cannot explain that sentence. When I write things like that, I am trying to touch my reader affectively, or in other words irrationally, almost sensually. For me, words have a charge. I find myself incapable of escaping the bite of a word, the vertigo of a question mark’ (Macey, 2000, p. 159). No wonder, after the friends of black men had shattered his last illusion of salvation from ‘Nothingness’, Fanon (1986) concluded ‘The Fact of Blackness’ in tears – ‘I began to weep’!
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