What the World Got Wrong About Frantz Fanon

The name Frantz Fanon has become inseparable from the history of decolonization. It is almost impossible to speak of anti-colonial violence or the failings of postcolonial elites without referring to the figure who inspired generations of activists to revolt against colonialism. Since the publication of his seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth, in 1961, Fanon has been idealized by generations of activists in the global south and beyond. For them, the Black Martinican and Frenchman who devoted himself to Algerian independence is the fearless and uncompromising prophet of revolution.

The subtitle of Adam Shatz’s new biography, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, suggests that his life was not so simple. Shatz, the U.S. editor for the London Review of Books, is an expert guide through the thicket of Fanon-lore that has emerged since his death in 1961, and his book offers a compelling account of Fanon’s transformation from a medical student into a global icon of anti-colonial revolution.

But The Rebel’s Clinic tells another, more tragic story, too: the tale of a young Black man from the French colonies who never really belonged anywhere, no matter how closely he identified with a nation or cause. Despite his deep attachment to Algeria, he could never really embody the Algerian revolution, as hagiographic accounts of his life have suggested. His life and body of work were too complicated to be branded in this way. Although Fanon was a remarkable thinker, he could be conflicted and even contradictory, and simplifying him only simplifies the difficult and often fraught work that must go into anti-colonial movements.

The first words a young Fanon learned to spell were “Je suis français.” As a child in Fort-de-France, the capital of the French colony of Martinique, in the 1920s and ’30s, he enjoyed the privileges of a typical bourgeois family: servants, piano lessons, and a weekend home outside the city. This was not uncommon for Antillean évolués, or assimilated colonial subjects whose European education let them rise up the colonial hierarchy. Like many of their class, the Fanons looked down on the “nègres” from France’s African colonies, who they believed weren’t really French.

Fanon’s parents identified so deeply with the French Republic that they behaved “more French than the French,” Shatz writes. As for Fanon, whose father was largely absent, Shatz recounts that he would collect several adoptive fathers in his short life but the “symbolic father represented by France” was by far the most important. Fanon strongly believed in the universal values of the republic: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

It was not until Fanon joined the Free French Forces in World War II that his faith in European civilization was shaken. In the army, he witnessed the French generals’ racism; the rigid separation between white, Antillean, and African soldiers; and the horrors of trench warfare. “Yet the incident that seems to have hurt him most,” Shatz writes, “was returning to Toulon [in southern France], during the celebrations marking the liberation of France, and finding that no Frenchwoman was willing to share a dance with him.” Though Fanon had risked his life for France, it would never truly accept him, and he never recovered from the rejection he experienced when he finally arrived in the métropole.

After the war, he studied medicine in Lyon, a city Shatz describes as “notorious for its suspicion of outsiders,” and eventually practiced as a psychiatrist there. His first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), grew out of a period of intense frustration and suffering. He dictated the book to his fiancée, Josie, in a burst of anger and creativity. (Fanon never typed anything himself.) It was his reckoning with a city, and a country, that he was beginning to despise—an attempt to make sense of what he described as the “lived experience” of Black men in white society. The desire to “become” white, he concluded, alienated racialized people from themselves, and assimilation constrained their freedom. Today, the book is celebrated as a foundational text in the study of Blackness and of alienation. But at the time, few readers appreciated or understood Fanon’s methodology—a synthesis of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, memoir, and social theory.

As Fanon’s awareness of the appalling situation of Algerians in France grew, he gradually lost “interest in the psychological dilemmas of middle-class people of color like himself,” Shatz writes. His psychiatric study of the “North African syndrome”—a mysterious illness that plagued France’s Algerian population—was a turning point. Algerians kept going to French doctors saying they were in pain but without clear physical symptoms. Fanon discovered that their pain couldn’t simply be dismissed as “imaginary,” as most French doctors had done. The racism of French society was making Algerians sick, he believed, and their ailments could only be treated by addressing this uncomfortable truth. For Fanon, mental illness could never be divorced from social conditions. He considered himself an activist and, Shatz writes, “approached psychiatry as if it were an extension of politics by other means.”

The Rebel’s Clinic is at its best when Shatz describes Fanon’s early efforts to develop an anti-colonial psychiatry. In 1953, Fanon was hired as the director of the French-run Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria. His time there opened his eyes to the brutality of colonialism, and under his guidance, the hospital transformed into a center for experiments in social therapy. Initially, the Algerian Muslim patients regarded Fanon with suspicion. To them, his cultural attitudes represented those of France. But, as Shatz writes, Fanon had a plan:

Working with a team of Muslim nurses, he created a café maure, a traditional Moorish café where men drink coffee and play cards, and later an “Oriental salon” for the hospital’s small group of female Muslim patients. Muslim musicians and storytellers came to perform; Muslim festivals were celebrated; and, for the first time in the hospital’s history, the mufti of Blida paid a visit during the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

French colonialism dehumanized Algerians by destroying their culture. By reminding them of their culture, Fanon hoped to help his patients assert a collective identity, which would give them the confidence to undergo a process of “disalienation” and fight back against the French.

At Blida, the Algerian nurses shared Fanon’s radical politics, and together, they secretly treated fighters with the National Liberation Front (FLN), which sought to overthrow French colonial rule. The hospital staff formed a militant health care collective that challenged coercive approaches to psychiatry. For them, Blida wasn’t an isolated institution where patients were locked away to recover; rather, their work in the hospital was part of the struggle waged outside its grounds. Fanon and his staff even introduced day hospitalization so patients could maintain ties to their social environment.

In Shatz’s view, Fanon’s dedication to health care was perhaps his most important contribution to the Algerian revolution. (He never engaged in active combat during the war.) Providing health care remained a priority for the FLN throughout the years of fighting.

After the French discovered Fanon was secretly an FLN member, he fled to Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, where the FLN’s provisional government would be based, and took up a new role in the movement: He still treated patients traumatized by war but also worked as a propagandist championing the FLN’s armed struggle. Although his democratic vision of a people-led revolution clashed with the FLN’s authoritarianism, he dutifully justified its policies to an international audience. As Shatz points out, the strategic use of the phrase “we Algerians” in his articles for El Moudjahid, the FLN’s French-language newspaper, was a way to prove how closely he identified with the Algerian cause. His writing and speeches during this period helped create the myth of Fanon as a leader of the revolution. 

The Rebel’s Clinic pushes back against this mythologizing. Fanon’s identification with Algeria grew as the war intensified, but he was an outsider: He spoke neither Arabic nor Berber, was not Muslim, and had come to Algeria as a representative of the colonial government. And while FLN leaders respected Fanon’s medical work, they never quite trusted him. Even as they presented him as a spokesperson of the movement to international audiences, Fanon had little influence over its direction and politics. When he learned that his close friend, key FLN figure Abane Ramdane, had been assassinated by another FLN faction, he was devastated. But he never questioned the leadership’s decision and refused to break ranks. Fanon had become a captive of the revolution he’d hoped to ignite.

Shatz notes that A Dying Colonialism, Fanon’s first book about Algeria, “reads like a record of revolutionary hopes soon to be dashed.” Written in Tunis in 1959, the book gives an idealized account of Algerian liberation, pieced together from his memories of the war’s early stages. But the social changes he praised—the emancipation of Algerian women (the subject of his famous essay “Algeria Unveiled”), the dissolution of classes, and the turn toward secularism—were never realized in practice.

Fanon never really understood his adopted home, especially when it came to religion. His belief in the revolution was so absolute that he failed to consider how the conservative, Islamist forces in the FLN might shape its outcome. Like Ramdane, Fanon argued for an independent Algeria that would welcome everyone who renounced their colonial privilege. He believed that the roles of “settler” and “native” ascribed by colonialism were never fixed. After independence, he hoped, Algerians would finally be able to “discover the man behind the colonizer,” as sympathetic Europeans too became equal citizens in a secular Algeria. But, as Shatz argues, these ideals clashed with the FLN leadership’s more narrowly Arab-Islamic vision of post-independence Algeria. Even the people Fanon had hoped would lead the revolution—Algeria’s poor peasants—embraced the FLN’s social conservatism.

To avoid conflict over its social policies, the provisional government promoted secular leftists to diplomatic positions in West Africa. In 1960, Fanon was stationed in Accra, and he soon came to share the Pan-Africanist views of Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, who insisted that all Africans would be united by their common struggle against colonialism. Fanon was convinced that Algeria would lead the rest of the continent toward liberation. But ironically, his influence in the FLN waned as he became more famous, and he “would have little success in ‘Algerianizing’ the strategies of African liberation struggles,” Shatz writes.

Fanon wanted to convince African anti-colonial movements to engage in guerrilla warfare, as the FLN had done. But their leaders often chose peaceful organizing or negotiations as the preferred route to independence. Fanon rightly feared that this approach to decolonization would enable former colonial powers to “recolonize” Africa through favorable arrangements with compliant leaders. His evisceration of Africa’s post-independence bourgeoisie in The Wretched of the Earth was inspired by his work as a diplomat.

Fanon was not always prophetic about the future of African politics. As Shatz points out, he underestimated the impact of the Cold War on Africa, insisting that it was merely “a distraction from the larger drama of decolonization and the rise of the Third World.” Two of Fanon’s closest friends and political allies in sub-Saharan Africa—soon-to-be Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the Cameroonian communist Félix-Roland Moumié—would be assassinated in the early 1960s because of their leftist politics. (Fanon had himself survived an attempt on his life in Rome in 1959.) Another close friend, the Angolan Holden Roberto, turned out to be a CIA asset and was secretly working to undermine Lumumba, whom he described as a communist “puppet.”

The process of decolonization, then, was not only a struggle between anti-colonial movements and colonial powers but part of the global struggle among competing ideologies. As much as he tried to ignore it, the Cold War found Fanon, too. Following an FLN expedition to Mali to assess the possibility of a weapons corridor to southern Algeria, Fanon fell ill and was diagnosed with leukemia. In a show of “friendship” to the FLN, the CIA agreed to bring Fanon to the United States—a place he’d previously dismissed as “the country of lynchers”—for treatment. Fanon died in a hospital in Maryland in December 1961. A few months later, Algeria achieved its independence.

Today, various activist causes, from Black Lives Matter to the Palestinian solidarity movement, have again embraced Fanon as a leading thinker. But his work has also found favor with scholars in disciplines such as psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. In her recent interviews with Shatz, Fanon’s former secretary, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, mentioned that she didn’t like him “to be chopped into little pieces.” Manuellan insisted that Fanon’s “pamphlets” were “texts written in the service of a political movement, not works of philosophical reflection,” Shatz writes.

Yet this is precisely what the canonization of Fanon has too often done. Fanon’s psychiatric and philosophical writings merit renewed attention. But this attention should not come at the cost of gaining a fuller understanding of how Fanon’s anti-colonial thought builds on his earlier psychiatric studies or of his fraught and often conflicted role in the revolution. The Rebel’s Clinic is careful not to reduce Fanon’s life and thought to a single interpretation. Fanon’s advocacy of anti-colonial violence cannot be separated from his belief in a revolutionary humanism. For him, violence was a necessary step in the struggle—a kind of “shock therapy” that would restore confidence to the colonized mind. But he also understood that the traumas of the war would not disappear at independence.

Shatz does suggest that one aspect of Fanon’s work is most relevant for our world today. Fanon knew very well that the struggle for decolonization was only a first step toward the birth of a new humanity, which would allow both colonizer and colonized to finally be free. He never described exactly what the social revolution he so strongly believed in would look like, but he was certain that the poor and oppressed of the “Third World,” not liberals or the European working classes, would lead the way. This anti-colonial and universalist Fanon is, perhaps, the one Shatz would like us to remember most.

The post What the World Got Wrong About Frantz Fanon appeared first on Foreign Policy.

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