When the Oxford Left Review invited me to write on intersectionality in relation to race, writing, and colonial/postcolonial literature, I was preparing for a class on the Martinican-born French psychiatrist, intellectual, and anti-imperialist writer Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, a treatise on the deep disorder of identity and identifications whose genesis can be traced to traumatic colonial intersections. Fanon wrote Peau noire, masques blancs (translated into English in 1967) while preparing for the exams that would enable him to join the august ranks of France’s psychiatric health system. He had wished to submit it as his doctoral thesis, though it is debatable whether Peau noir would pass with flying colours. The book came together in Lyon between 1951 and 1952, a period marked by, as his biographer Alice Cherki puts it, “a triple junction” of encounters and experiences. First there was psychiatry, his chosen vacation, and a discipline Fanon believed was equal to the task of curing psychic maladies. Then, Cherki lists, there was his discovery of phenomenology, existentialism and psychoanalysis and the influence these schools of thought had on his early work. Finally, there was the encounter with a racist white French society and the ways in which Fanon assimilated this experience, both in the army and during his years in Lyon, as a black man and a minority.
The doubt and trepidations of the introduction – “Why write the book? No one has asked me for it” – juxtapose with the author’s quiet determination that the book will be a “mirror with a progressive infrastructure, in which it will be possible to discern the Negro on the road to disalienation.” According to the biographer David Macey, Fanon plundered the libraries and bookshops of Lyon and then strode up and down, dictating his text to his wife, Josie. The main materials to hand were the phenomenology of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the discourse of the Négritude movement, the psychiatry in which Fanon had just trained, and fragments of psychoanalytic theory he had absorbed from books. Black Skin, White Masks is what Patrick Taylor calls a “phenomenological examination” of the experience of racialization in a colonial world: experience is designated not as the effect on a subject of events unfolding in the world around it, but rather as a mode of being in the world. Fanon situates the man of colour in a world where he is seen and heard by others, and is for others. And so is the white man. Trapped in their respective ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’, they create one another, though this does not imply any reciprocity. Fanon, whose mother was of Alsatian descent, grew up in Martinique thinking of himself as white and French: his painful reconstitution as a black West Indian occurred only when he arrived at the French capital. In France, Fanon had come to realise that volunteerism on behalf of abstract principles of ‘freedom’, ‘France’ and ‘anti-fascism’ counted for nothing in the eyes of the majority of French citizens, for whom he remained a black man, inferior, inassimilable, nothing but an interloper. According to Albert Memmi, this marks the point when Fanon loses himself as a black Martinican: “Fanon’s private drama is that, though henceforth hating France and the French, he will never return to Negritude and to the West Indies.”
It is true that Fanon never went back to Martinique. Fanon’s decision to leave France for Algeria in 1953 was made suddenly. In an undated letter, he unexpectedly told his brother Joby: “I’m going to Algeria. You understand: the French have enough psychiatrists to take care of their madmen. I’d rather go to a country where they need me.” While Fanon identified with Algerians on the basis of their colonization by France, he did not move to Algeria in 1953 out of a sense of political commitment (his first contact with the Front de Libération Nationale happened in late 1954). The culture at the hospital was racist and punitive, marked by mutual incomprehension and mistrust. As Fanon wrote in his letter of resignation to the Resident Minister, “the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation.” Fanon resigned from the post at Blida-Joinville in 1956 – from service in the French colonial state – to join the cause of Algerian liberation. Yet his attempts to identify himself as an Algerian proved equally doomed. For Algerian revolutionaries he was an Antillean, an outsider. Fanon worked as a psychiatrist in Algeria and Tunisia, but did not understand the language in either country: his consultations were conducted through an interpreter. Little wonder then that Fanon dreamed of a world where one could look into a mirror and have no colour, and see what Memmi calls “a completely novel man”. As he writes in Black Skin, White Masks:
The body of history does not determine a single one of my actions. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate the cycle of my freedom.
Black Skin, White Masks is an exercise on theorizing whiteness as much as it is on blackness. In Fanon’s work whiteness gains a spectral presence through the desires and fantasies played out in its constructions and interpretations of blackness. Fanon reclaims the colonized from what Memmi calls “an anonymous collectivity”, averting the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject, “from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers”, to borrow a formulation from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. Primarily, however, Black Skin, White Masks is about the psychopathology that attaches to the “lived experience of the black man”. In intellectual terms, he was the most thoroughly assimilated of Francophone colonial activists, and the person who imbibed contemporary French philosophy, literature, and culture more voraciously than any of his African or Caribbean contemporaries. As an international activist, moving from Martinique to Paris to Algeria to Tunisia, from which he travelled frequently, his interest in local cultures was limited: while he manoeuvred his general Marxist perspective towards tricontinental priorities, unlike almost all Anglophone and Francophone Marxists, he did not attempt to graft it on to the specifics of African cultures, of which he had a relatively restricted experience. He was also known to have a shaky grasp of the facts of the “African Revolution.” As Robert Young observes, “He always remained intellectually centred in Paris, and never resisted European thought as such, as much as he resisted European domination of the colonial world. A product of the Western-educated colonial elite, Fanon used the resources of Western thought against itself. What he did was to translate its epistemological location.”
Fanon uses the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage to reveal the mechanisms of the colonial psyche. The text he refers to is a chapter on family written by Lacan for volume eight of the Encyclopedie Francaise (1938), not the article published in 1949 that appeared in Écrits. The mirror stage, in Lacan’s formulation, occurs at the end of the period of weaning and entices the subject to realize a specular unity and cohesiveness of the ego where the other has no place: “In this world, we will see, there is no other.” Lacan’s essay posits the child, who experiences its body as in pieces, as jubilating at the sight of the ‘whole’ mirror image, which it takes as the promise of its own future coherence. This moment of jubilation is a moment of the misrecognition of the image as one’s ego ideal. The task of psychoanalysis, Lacan suggests, would be to show that our ego ideals are false and imaginary. The body cannot be pure image, an ego identification produced in the mirror of error. The white child constructs its ego ideal on the basis of an egregious exclusion: the mother or carer propping him up, and of course the cultural and racial other disallowed to enter the scene. Fanon analyses the colonial racial schema as one in which the imaginary oneness of the white subject is threatened, where the “other takes a hand”, and the fantasy of the Negro as “murderer” intervenes. This is how Fanon rewrites the mirror stage in Black Skin, White Masks:
When one has grasped the mechanism described by Lacan, one can have no further doubt that the real Other for the white man is and will continue to be the black man. And conversely. Only for the white man The Other is perceived on the level of the body image, absolutely as the not-self – that is, the unidentifiable, the inassimilable.
Lacan’s mirror stage testifies to the fleeting moment of illusory self-possession before otherness – I is an Other – constitutes the very entry into subjectivity. Fanon’s translation of the mirror stage essay for the Antilles forcefully makes the point that behind the mess of images in the mirror stage is a black body, biologically, historically, and economically marked. The black man under colonial rule is, however, denied an oppositional subjectivity and sealed instead into a “crushing objecthood.” In the white racial phantasm, the black man is forced to occupy the static ontological space of the timeless primitive. Through the violence of a racist system – “Dirty nigger!” Or simply, “Look a Negro!” – Fanon registers the self-shattering process of becoming an object. “I took myself off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself an object,” he reflects. However, while the black man must be black in relation to the white man, the converse does not hold true: the white man can be white without any relation to the black man because, as Diana Fuss states, “the sign ‘white’ exempts itself from a dialectical logic of negativity.” As a self-identical, self-producing term, white draws its power from its transcendence of the category of race. White is freed from any dependency upon the sign ‘black’, whereas “The Negro is comparison” (B 211) and “with the Negro the cycle of the biological begins”. Fanon points out that historical and economic factors influence the ways in which the black man’s psyche is constituted, and that it is material privilege that causes the white man’s psyche to be untroubled by similar vicissitudes of embodiment.
Just as the white child constructs its ego ideal on the basis of an exclusion, the black child in the Antilles, who looks in the mirror, also excludes its own colour. The confusion of the Antillean is that his mirror imago does not appear to have a colour that would oppositionally construct him. While blackness, for the white man, is most visible, the black man cannot lock eyes with the white – colourless – other in the mirror. Thus, for the delirious Antillean, the mirror hallucination, Fanon writes, is always neutral. “When Antilleans tell me that they have experienced it, I always ask the same question: ‘What colour were you?’ Invariably they reply: ‘I had no colour.'” The black child comes to being through disavowal – the inability to accept its own blackness, while the white child individuates through phobia – the inability to connect with the other’s image.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Fanon was to choose between the violent forging of a hermetic racial identity and the rich ambivalences and admixtures of identities. Frantz Fanon stands at the intersection of colonial and psychoanalytic discourse, Marx and Freud, psychology and politics, “ontogeny and sociogeny”, as Henry Louis Gates puts it. According to Homi Bhabha, Fanon “is too quick to name the Other, to personalise its presence in the language of colonial racism”. These, Bhabha says, detract from the complexity of psychic projections in the pathological colonial relation wherein the post-Enlightenment man is “tethered to, not confronted by, his dark reflection . . . that splits his presence, distorts his outline, breaches his boundaries, repeats his action at a distance, disturbs and divides the very time of being.” In other reappraisals, such as Abdul Jan Mohamed’s, Fanon’s Manichean struggle is an accurate representation of a profound conflict. In an overview of the conflicting ways in which Fanon has been appropriated by literary and cultural critics, Henry Louis Gates comments on the double bind of representing the colonised psyche. He points out that when we see the native as discursively empowered, we stand the risk of downplaying the impact of the real and epistemic violence of colonialism: the opposite stance, of playing up the absolute nature of colonial domination, threatens to erase the resistance and solidarity of the colonised. Perhaps, Gates wonders, we should no longer let Fanon remain a kind of icon or “screen memory”, standing for collective dreams of postcolonial emancipation. It means neither to elevate him as a “Global Theorist”, nor simply to cast him into battle, “but to recognize him as a battlefield in himself”.
The body of the black man is at the centre of Black Skin, White Masks – mocked, beaten, raped, assaulted, tortured, caught in the web of fantasy and perversion. Fanon rages against the racism that captivates the black male body and transforms it into a “thing”. White men and white women desire the black man’s body, not out of love, but to fulfil perverse fantasies (passive homosexual fantasies for the white man, rape for the white woman). And black women reject the black man because, out of internalised racial hatred, they want the white man. The black body is a phobic object that variously attracts and repulses. It is important to remember that Fanon’s deeply troubling comments on white women – he imagines the negrophobic woman saying “I wish the Negro would rip me open as I would have ripped a woman open” – are formulated within a historical context in which the racially charged stereotype of the oversexed and beastly Negro put all black men at perpetual risk. Cultural historians and critics urge us to read Fanon in the historical context of a society where fabricated charges of rape were used as powerful colonial instruments of fear and intimidation against black men.
For Fanon, to be exiled from language was to be dispossessed of one’s very subjectivity. Fanon emphasizes the importance of speech to the assumption of subjectivity: “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other…To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is.” Fanon says bitterly that his facility with the French language accords him what he calls “honorary citizenship” as a white man. In The Scandal of the Speaking Body, Shoshana Felman’s book on literary speech acts, she reads the seductive promise of speech as a seductive promise of love. She uses phrase “seduction in two languages” to refer to acts of translation: translation between languages, between the theoretical and the rhetorical, between language and praxis,. Seduction is the promise of meaning and truth in all these various reckonings and exchanges, and testifies to the desire that mobilises and survives the many acts of translation. Fanon also realizes, however, that this citizenship is never more than ‘honorary’, insofar as an epidermal racial schema ceaselessly works to keep the black man in his “infernal cycle”.
Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is more a flashing question mark than a polemic, one that begins with a “What does the black man want?” and ends with the dream of perpetuating the questioning corpus: “O my body, make of me always a man who questioned.” This is probably why this text has been variously appropriated in our times as the key Fanon text, leaving behind the text of Black Marxism, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon’s rallying cry to arms to third world nationalist movements. As Kobena Mercer asserts, Black Skin, less clearly formulated and more contradictory than the later work, curiously appears more pertinent today as nation-states are losing their power to multinational conglomerates and to global capitalism. The book explores what it might mean to be saddled with a “dark and unarguable blackness” through the politics of racialisation in the colony and the visual, aural, and olfactory economies of metropolitan imperial discourse: “Dirty nigger!” . . . “nigger underwear smells of nigger” . . . “nigger teeth are white”. In turns made to feel brittle, distorted, and recoloured, the Antillean is reinvented as negro in the imperial metropolis. In ‘The Fact of Blackness’, often regarded the most forceful of chapters in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon puts up a bitter struggle, hoping to cancel Western discourse with Western discourse, the “shameful” sciences on African primitivism and hard-wired degeneracy with the scholarship of Schoelcher, Frobenius, Westermann, and Delafosse – “all of them white” – which presented fair-minded accounts of the antiquity and glories of a pan-African civilization. His momentary triumphalism is, however, crushed by the voice of “real reason” of a post-industrial and post-teleological world, ruled by “integers and atoms”, in which Africa is, at best, the cradle of civilization, and at worst, the site of arrested development and perpetual dependency on betters. “Every hand was a losing hand for me,” Fanon concludes. Refusing to capitulate, yet powerless to conquer, feeling in himself a soul as immense as the unfeeling, unreflecting world around it, “I began to weep.” More than sixty years after its publication, in the very different but relatable dynamics of racist societies where the inquest of Mark Duggan, marked by rank inaccuracies and discrepancies in police reporting, is lost long before it even began, or where the murder, in cold blood, of the Florida teenager Trayvon Martin is blamed on the “thug wear” (a hoodie) he had sported on the fateful evening, Fanon’s poetics of black melancholia continues to speak to the quandary, pain, and mortality of epidermalized subjects, especially those whose voiceless misery is systematically engendered and perpetuated. “It feels as though we are living in a parallel universe from mainstream society,” Stafford Scott had written from Tottenham after the Mark Duggan verdict.
Ankhi Mukherjee is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Wadham College. Her book, What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon, was published by Stanford University Press in 2013.