Thought and Theory with Frantz Fanon: On Race and Humanism

Decoloniality currently holds the mantle of critical theory in South Africa and informs what decolonisation should entail. This relatively young tradition, with almost no history in struggle, places an enormous significance on race as the central category of analysis to understand and explain uneven development, cultural domination, violent social relations, and alienated psychology. Should it though? And why does it?

The authority of decoloniality is drawn from the voice of one of the greatest anti-colonial intellectuals of our time: Frantz Fanon. As an example, every decolonial scholar mentioned in UCT’s Change of Curriculum Framework has been deeply influenced by the work of Fanon. Paul Gilroy, a highly regarded historian of the British Empire, claims that contemporary readings of Fanon (i.e., post-1990s) draw on a single text in Fanon’s oeuvre,which has now risen to prominence: Black Skin, White Masks (and the reasons why are important, but those are for another piece). My only correction to Gilroy is rather to say that the text has had less influence than a specific chapter.

The the fifth chapter, “The Lived Experience of The Black”, more popularly known as “The Fact of Blackness”, is widely prescribed in university course readers and is mined for its quotes on identity. That chapter – and this should go without saying – is part of a larger whole which has an intended structure, so each chapter has a specified purpose which is not referenced in the chapter itself. In other words, it is one chapter in a book. The reading of this chapter as a self-contained essay has unfortunately created a secondary literature and a narrative called the Fanonian story which, as David Scott puts it, goes something like this:

“In the Fanonian story the idea is that the colonised are alienated from a harmonious identity; that this alienation is fostered by colonial institutions that repress the colonised self and […] the redemptive project is to return the natives to themselves”1

For Scott, “returning the native to themselves” leaves unquestioned the idea of an authentic native subject and, as we have seen, has had practical consequences. Since Fanon’s revival in student politics in 2015, there has been an effort to reject or distrust traditions of thought on the basis that they are ‘Western’; to put forward that there are multiple ontologies and epistemologies other than ‘Western’; to centre authenticity and identity, experience and positionality, settler and person-of-colour, as key political categories. This is entirely consistent with something that Fanon says in the fifth chapter:

“As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others. There is of course the moment of “being for others,” of which Hegel speaks, but every ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized society […] In the Weltanschauung (fundamental worldview) of a colonized people there is an impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation. Someone may object that this is the case with every individual, but such an objection merely conceals a basic problem. Ontology – once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside – does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man”2 (p.82)

This passage can be read as confirming, as Scott put, a politics that is concerned with returning black people to themselves to undo the alienation experienced from their identity in a society where anti-black racism is pervasive (as is the case in South African history). This is one reason behind the return to Steve Biko in South Africa and the tradition of Black Consciousness.

Yet, is the purpose of Fanon’s chapter to affirm this understanding of alienation? Is this the conclusion that Fanon comes to? Is this the politics he advances in his work and life? Using these as questions to guide a more careful reading of Fanon, it is clear that Scott, even though he offers an excellent critique, is criticising a caricature of Fanon. In this little piece, then, we can start to see a Fanon for the 21st Century emerge.

Let us turn to the introduction of Black Skin, White Masks to make sense of what Fanon is trying to do:

“This book is a clinical study. Those who recognize themselves in it, I think, will have made a step forward. I seriously hope to persuade my brother, whether black or white, to tear off with all his strength the shameful livery put together by centuries of incomprehension”3 (p.6, emphasis added)

Alright, so what is this book a clinical study of? Well, gathering from the original title of the book, before it was changed at the discretion of Fanon’s editor from The Disalienation of The Black Man to Black Skin, White Masks, then it is possible to say, with some certainty, that the book is a study of alienation. Yet, even before we get there, Fanon wants to clarify something about his argument.

Before beginning the case, I have to say certain things. The analysis that I am undertaking is psychological. In spite of this it is apparent to me that the effective disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process:

primarily economic; subsequently, the internalization – or, better, the epidermalization – of this inferiority”4 (p.6)

That is a very important paragraph. Fanon is very clear that racism is not the driving force of colonialism that then created an inferiority complex among people racialised as black. That the driver of relentless British expansion (or, in his case, the French Empire) was not ‘white values’ or a superiority complex goes against a central idea of postcolonial and decolonial theory because Fanon is firm on the economic rationale for colonialism rather than ‘Western being’. To justify economic domination, there has to be an ideology and, for Fanon, that is what racism is.

This of course is not to downplay the importance of racism as a feature of social life. Fanon’s work makes an important contribution to intellectual thought by explicating how complex the psychological effect of racial ideology is and how destructive it can be. That is possible precisely because Fanon departs from conventional political discourse using psychoanalysis and phenomenology. Neither, however, can explain the origins of colonialism and racism. One cannot trace these origins to a “white” or “western” mind or prejudice, but rather to economic compulsions at this point in specific point in history. I am touching on an important debate surrounding race and class, and here is a good segway to the purpose of chapter 5:

“The fifth chapter, which I have called The Fact of Blackness, is important for more than one reason. It portrays the Negro face to face with his race. Here […] we observe the desperate struggles of a Negro who is driven to discover the meaning of black identity. White civilization and European culture have forced an existential deviation on the Negro. I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artefact5 (p.6)

Here Fanon is not asserting that race is biological (part of nature) or ontological (an unchangeable mode of being), or signalling a process of identification (as Bhabha would say more plausibly). By asserting that race is an artefact that forced an “existential deviation” then race is something that comes after something else or, in the least, it is not something that acts as a force alone.

The imposition of colonial/racial categories creates something of an existential paradox (what Du Bois called double consciousness): a person can articulate themselves using racial terms and change their meaning to have a positive valence (black is beautiful, white is right). This is an act of agency. Yet, those categories subjugate the first person singular (which is not quite the same as the individual), and consign a person to a cardboard-like role (or “shameful livery”, in Fanon’s words) that is often in conflict, and dependent on, the existence of an ‘Other’. Yet it means that the very categories, and the social milieu it is a feature of, that bring a person into social being simultaneously undermines social life, and that is the problem of alienation. If a politics of racial authenticity simply leads us into another form of servitude and alienation, what are we to do?

Here Fanon offers suggestions in the Conclusion:

“I am a man [sic.], and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world. I am not responsible solely for the revolt in Santo Domingo. Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act. In no way should I derive my basic purpose from the past of the peoples of color. In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognized Negro civilization. I will not make myself the man [sic.] of any past. I do not want to exalt the past at the expense of my present and of my future” (p.176)

He goes on…

“Have I no other purpose on earth, then, but to avenge the Negro [sic.] of the seventeenth century? In this world, which is already trying to disappear, do I have to pose the problem of black truth?” (p.178)

To emphasise the importance of the economic dimension of the struggle against colonialism Fanon states:

“Let us be clearly understood. I am convinced that it would be of the greatest interest to be able to have contact with a Negro [sic.] literature or architecture of the third century before Christ. I should be very happy to know that a correspondence had flourished between some Negro [sic.] philosopher and Plato. But I can absolutely not see how this fact would change anything in the lives of the eight-year-old children who labour in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe” (p.180)

And finally, affirming his humanism:

“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behaviour from the other. One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices. I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world. My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro [sic.] values. There is no white world, there is no white ethic, any more than there is a white intelligence. There are in every part of the world men [sic.] who search. I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself” (p.176)

And he overturns the entire tradition of liberalism with a single sentence on the last page of his conclusion:

“Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?”

These are remarkable sentences which are potent with meaning and require proper elaboration. Briefly, what seems to be going on in these sentences is a refutation, rather than an affirmation, of the Fanonian story. Fanon believes that fighting the alienation of racism requires that we build a new tradition of politics that unmasks and transcends various forms of parochialism. It is not a politics which that grasps the creative dimension of persons, and, if the interpersonal dimension of freedom is to be realised (of the “I” and the “You”), then there is a need to go beyond colonial and nativist patterns of identification (of the “Other” and “Me”). But what does this mean for decolonisation, and how does that make us think of the ways that economic systems work?

(For a more comprehensive and critical engagement with the last two chapters of Black Skin, White Masks, read Anthony Bogues’ Empire of Liberty: Power, Freedom and Desire)


1 – Scott, David. (1999). Fanonian Futures? In Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality. Princeton University Press.

2 – Fanon, Frantz. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

3 – Ibid.

4 – Ibid.

5 – Ibid.

6 – Ibid.

7 – Ibid.

8 – Ibid.

9 – Ibid.