Frantz Fanon: an Introduction

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

His revolutionary ambitions cut short by leukemia in 1961, psychoanalyst and philosopher Frantz Fanon had by the time of his death amassed a body of critical work that today establishes his position as a leading theoretician of (among other issues) black consciousness and identity, nationalism and its failings, colonial rule and the inherently "violent" task of decolonization, language as an index of power, miscegenation, and the objectification of the performative black body. Fanon's burgeoning popularity and influence on more recent post-colonial readings of black liberation and nationalism perhaps serve as an index of his centrality to the movement for Algierian self-determination in the 1950's that shaped (and, in turn, was shaped by) his diverse career as a political activist and critic. Born on the island of Martinique in 1925, Fanon fought with the allied forces against Nazi Germany in Europe during the second World War and afterwards studied psychiatry in France, where he published his first book, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks). While practicing medicine in Antilles in northern Africa during the French-Algerian war, Fanon actively supported and organized a resistance to French colonialism by authoring two books outlining an insurgent Third World uprising: L'An V de la revolution algerienne (A Dying colonialism or Year Five of the Algerian Revolution), and Les Damnes de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth).

As Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renee T. White suggest in their introduction to Fanon: a Critical Reader, Fanon's critical trajectory spans across the political and academic disciplines of philosophy, psychiatry, social science, and literature. Rather like the writings of C.L.R. James -- a Trinidadian Marxist whose critical scope ranged from cultural critiques of cricket and Shakespeare to political polemics engaging Lenin and Trotsky -- Frantz Fanon's contributions must be contextualized historically; unlike many of today's postcolonial critics, in other words, Fanon's contribution to current understandings of nationalism and decolonization emerged during and not after the exegencies of colonial rule. In other words, it's important to contextualize Fanon's vehement (and perhaps both ethnocentric and reductive) advocacy of anticolonialism against his participation in the Algierian struggle for self-determination -- a moment of social transformation that preceded the emergence of the poststructuralist lessons of the 1960s and 1970s that underwrite the projects of so many postcolonial critics today.

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