I finally read Frantz Fanon, the hero of our heroes (yes, the Steve Biko’s of this world took notes from his handbook) and I must say, the guy can think!
While black skin white masks is a challenging book to read, it reads with such ease. We must commend and celebrate him for the easy tone that one senses throughout this difficult book.
A lot has been written about this Fanon’s work and rightly so, we need to celebrate black thinkers and use their efforts to inspire us in our quest for true freedom. As a result of all the literature that is out there, this article will not focus on the whole book (go google Fanon. You’re welcome). I will instead, focus on two things that deeply troubled me while reading the book: the marginalization of black women and attempting to understand the ‘transcendence’ that Fanon aspires to in the final chapter.
Before I share my own views on the role of women or lack therefore in the books of these great thinkers from Fanon’s generation, let me say this:
Fanon was a great doctor, writer, thinker and scholar. Fanon was committed to the liberation of black people. Fanon, though not born in Africa, was committed to the African struggle, particularly the Algerian war. Though Fanon belonged to a different era and explicitly states in the book that he is writing solely about the Martinique people, Fanon’s writings are extremely important (when looked at contextually of course) for all African thinkers in order to make sense of how we got to where we are today and in our attempts to forge a way forward.
I qualify my thoughts on Fanon above because while I have problems with his book, it is still an extremely important body of knowledge that I would urge everyone to read.
PHOTO: Laurie Cooper
With that said, Fanon like most writers of his time, did not have space for black women in his book. His focus on black women is on how they want to be ‘beautiful like white women’ while the analysis on black men is more nuanced. While the book has a section dedicated to understanding the black women being with white men, the existence of that is merely for further explaining the plight of black men in my opinion (notice how he explains the reaction of black women to black men vs. their reaction to being wanted by white men). Fanon’s book is addressed to men. He writes to other ‘men’ that he is trying to convince to try understand the condition of the negro. The erasure of women in his writing is not unique. Women during the 50’s still were not viewed to be of the same stature or intellect as men. During this time, the plight of black women was still only being fought for by black women.
The only role women seem to serve in Fanon’s work is that of being critiqued and analysed for their choice of partner and their attempts to want to be white. This would have been fair had it not been the only role women served in the book as Fanon also analyses black men with white women and their quest to be as powerful as white men. It is troubling that a book written by such a nuanced thinker would narrowly view women only through the lens of their psychological reasoning regarding their choice of sexual partner. This is yet again a classic example of centering discourse on women around their bodies and their existence in relation to men. Fanon’s entire book is dedicated to understanding the psych of black men from differing perspectives yet the only understanding of black women is through a sexual lens.
One might argue that Fanon uses the term ‘men’ in a general sense. This would have been an understandable point had he himself not admitted that when it comes to black women ‘I know nothing of her’, a clear admission that he had never taken the time to even understand black women. Others might argue that it is not on Fanon to write for everyone. He himself acknowledged that he was writing about the unique case of the negroes from Martinique. While this point is fair, it leads to the caveat that when we as black people globally read Fanon, we need to acknowledge these limitations in his writings. Fanon was not writing about all black people in the world. Fanon was not writing for any generation other than his own (he said that!) and Fanon was not writing for black women.
ON THE ISSUE OF TRANSENDENCE
In his concluding chapter, Fanon spends a lot of time explaining what he imagines would be the ‘free’ manner of existence for black men. He argues that he does not want to be seen as a negro as this term in itself causes the ‘othering’ of black men. Instead, Fanon just wants to be a man. Fanon does not want to be shackled by the history of negroes, does not want to carry the ‘othering’ that comes with being a negro and does nor even want to fight some historic plight of black men. He wants to fight for black men to be viewed as wholly men at the present time.
While this sounds noble, I struggled profusely with it. The historic plight of black people is the reason we are here. To personalize this, I cannot fight to be seen as merely human without contextualizing the effect of apartheid on my parents which then affected me. I do not get to escape being black and be merely ‘women’ because the shackles of the historic oppression on my race are still alive and well today. It is not as simple as ‘transcending’ blackness to be viewed as fully human while when I go home I am going to a township where my people are poor, uneducated and unemployed precisely because of the past. The issue of transcendence requires a level of discard for the past that does not come when the past is still shaping the present and even the future of black people. No Mr. Fanon, I refuse to want to be seen as merely “woman”. I want the “BLACK” that- while glorious- still haunts me, to glare at the whole world too.
Fanon argues that this transcendence is the way to freedom, to breaking down the shackles of inferiority that bind black men. Nevertheless, I do not want to discard the past. Or maybe, I am just not ready to be free yet.
By Frank(ie) Talk
Frank(ie) Talk is a Development Finance Masters student at the University of Cape Town. When she is not making bracelets at Relate, you’ll find her at some coffee shop in Cape Town reading or theorizing about the World.
Some great points there Frank(ie)! Frank(ie) mentions Fanon’s indifference to the importance of women to the struggle. The more time goes by, the more we realize that such fundamentals have not changed. The sooner we learn that the struggle calls for both sexes to be involved, the closer we will be to succeeding. Interestingly, this particular issue is what we discussed at our last book club session. It filters through to our everyday life. It is very important-Lee