Putting Frantz Fanon in context

Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a Martinican psychiatrist and political theorist. He is famous for his work which theorises colonialism and violent revolution. Crucial to an understanding of Frantz Fanon’s theoretical work, is an understanding of his very unique personal circumstances. In this short piece, I will give a brief account of Fanon’s life and writing.

Fanon was born 1925 in Fort-de-France, the capital city of the French colony of Martinique. He was born into a middle class family, with a public servant father and working mother. Fanon was privileged to be educated in a good school under the tutelage of another famous Martinican postcolonial theorist, Aime Cesaire (Nicholls, 2015). Fanon’s lived experience in Martinique was unique due to the means and social status of his family.

Like many francophone middle class men, Fanon felt a strong affinity to France. He joined the French Military during World War Two and received decorations for his service (Alessandrini, 1999: 2). Following the war, he remained in France and studied medicine at the University of Lyon. During this time he began to feel racial alienation and wrote Black Skin, White Masks (Alessandrini, 1999: 2). Upon completion of his primary medical degree, he entered a residential program in psychiatry at the Hospital de Saint-Alban.

Following his initial psychiatric training, Fanon sought employment as a psychiatrist in Africa. His preference was to work in Senegal, but he received no offers of employment. In 1953, he accepted a role as chef de service at the largest psychiatric facility in Algeria, the Blida-Jonville Hospital in the capital Algiers. After the beginning of the Algerian Revolution in 1954, Fanon had extensive exposure to treating combatants and non-combatants from both sides of the conflict (Fanon, 1963: 249-310). This revolution saw the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) seek to remove the French colonial powers from Algeria which had operated under colonial rule since 1830. During this time, Fanon was credited with implementing a number of innovative treatment methods and programs within this hospital (Alessandrini, 1999: 2-3). Fanon was a talented and capable physician, but he became progressively affected by his work.

Fanon increasingly sympathised with the revolutionaries in their fight against colonialism. This caused him great concern, especially when he was faced with patients who supported the French colonial power. In 1956 he resigned. Fanon stated in his formal letter to the Hospital that ‘[t]he decision I have reached is that I cannot continue to bear a responsibility at no matter what cost, on the false pretense that there is nothing else to be done’ (Fanon in Azar, 1999: 24). Fanon said that the ‘social structure in Algeria, was hostile to any attempt to put the individual back where he belonged’ (Fanon, 1964: 53). Thus Fanon felt that French colonialism was antithetical to the strong mental health and self-actualisation of the Algerian people. As Fanon was working within a French Algerian Hospital, this caused an intractable dilemma for him which led to his resignation.

Fanon then devoted his time and attention to working with the FLN in their plight for independence. By January 1957, the French government had ordered his expulsion from Algeria because of his support for the FLN (Alessandrini, 1999: 3). During this time, Fanon provided medical services to the FLN fighters, trained medical staff and wrote and spoke of the Algerian revolution in African and French publications and at conferences (Nicholls, 2015). Fanon’s work with the revolution was seen to be so influential, that threats and attempts were made against his life (Alessandrini, 1999: 4). By 1960, Fanon’s health began to deteriorate. He was diagnosed with Leukaemia, and travelled great lengths to seek treatment (Alessandrini, 1999: 4). When Fanon became aware of how dire his condition had become, he commenced and finished writing The Wretched of the Earth in the space of six weeks (Alessandrini, 1999: 4). Fanon died on 6th December 1961 and was buried in an FLN cemetery.

Fanon’s major works have since been emblematic of the call to action against colonial oppression. His first work Black Skin, White Masks was published in 1952. He wrote this while in medical school in France. This text is predominantly focussed on issues of race, and the alienation that people of colour feel within an anglocentric world. It is predominantly written in the first person and engages substantially with Fanon’s personal experience within Martinique and France. The text was first published in English in 1967 with a forward by Homi Bhabha.

Fanon’s final work was written on his deathbed in 1961. The Wretched of the Earth outlines Fanon’s approach to political violence and experiences during the revolution. He established when and where violence had the potential to be politically useful and personally cathartic. He also engaged with the psychological and social effects that violence had on revolutionaries. He describes the revolutionary process from beginning to end, and provides his view on how revolutionaries should act once they have seized power. His final chapter of the text outlined his first-personal account of treating French and Algerian’s psychiatric problems caused by the conflict. This text was first published in English in 1963with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Two other short works are also written by Fanon. Toward the African Revolution is a posthumous collection. This book chronologically publishes his known essays, articles and speeches between the publication of Black Skin, White Masks (in French) in 1952, and the writing of the Wretched of the Earth (1961). This was first published in 1964. The second is A Dying Colonialism, first published in 1959 in French. This book is a chronology of the events in Algeria.

Consequently Frantz Fanon speaks from a unique perspective when theorising political violence. Fanon, while not Algerian himself, understood the colonial context from his upbringing as a colonial subject in Martinique. Additionally, from his privileged position as a psychiatrist, he provided valuable insights into the personal motivating factors that lead to violence. As someone who eventually joined the Algerian revolution, he also brought his first person, lived experience to bear in his writings. Thus Fanon writes about violence and revolution with a depth of knowledge and understanding which is unique to his personal circumstances, which enrich his theory with his lived experience.

Josh Pallas is a Research Assistant in Politics and International Studies at the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong NSW 2522 Australia.

This article was originally published at Critical Legal Thinking.

Select bibliography

Alessandrini, A.C. 1999, ‘Introduction: Fanon Studies, cultural studies, cultural politics’, in Alessandrini, A.C. (ed.), Fanon: Critical Perspectives, Routledge, UK, pp. 1-17
Azar, M. 1999, ‘In the Name of Algeria: Frantz Fanon and the Algerian Revolution’, in Alessandrini, A.C. (ed.), Fanon: Critical Perspectives, Routledge, UK, pp. 21-33
Fanon, F. 1952, Black Skin, White Masks, Markmann, C.L. (trans.), Grove Press, Chippenham, UK
Fanon, F. 1959, A Dying Colonialism, Chevalier, H. (trans.), Grove Press, New York, USA
Fanon, F. 1963, The Wretched of the Earth, Farrington, C. (trans.), Grove Press, New York, USA
Fanon, F. 1964, Toward the African Revolution, Chevalier, H. (trans.), Grove Press, New York, USA
Nicholls, T. 2015, ‘Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)’ in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The University of Tennessee Martin < http://www.iep.utm.edu/fanon>

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