Frantz Fanon (July 20, 1925 – December 6, 1961) was perhaps the preeminent thinker of the 20th century on the issue of decolonization and the psychopathology of colonization. His works have inspired anti-colonial liberation movements throughout the world for more than four decades.
Martinique and WWII
Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, then a French colony and now a French département. He was born into a mixed family background of African slaves, Tamil indentured servants and a white man. The family were relatively well off for Martinicans but far from a middle class background. They could however afford the fees for the all-black Lycee Schoelcher.
After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, French naval troops were blockaded on Martinique. Forced to remain on the island, French soldiers became "authentic racists". Many accusations of harassment and sexual misconduct arose. The treatment of the Martinique people by the French Army was a major formative influence on Fanon, as it cemented the feelings of alienation and his understanding of the realities of racism. At the age of eighteen, Fanon fled the island and traveled to Dominica to join Free French Forces. He later enlisted in the French army and saw active duty in France, notably in the bloody battles of Alsace. In 1944 he was wounded in battle and received the Croix de Guerre medal. His unit was not allowed to cross the Rhine as the regiment was whitened.
In 1945, after recovering from his wounds Fanon returned home to Martinique, a decorated war veteran. His return to Martinique lasted only a short time. While there, he worked for the parliamentary campaign of his friend and mentor Aimé Césaire, who would be the greatest influence in his life. Although it is often argued that Fanon was never fully a communist, Césaire ran on the communist ticket as a parliamentary delegate from Martinique to the first National Assembly of the Fourth Republic. Fanon stayed long enough to complete his baccalaureate and then returned to France where he took up the study of medicine and psychiatry. He was educated in Lyon where he also studied literature, drama and philosophy. He attended Merleau-Ponty's lectures and studied psychiatry under the radical Catalan, Francois de Tosquelles, qualifying as a psychiatrist in 1951; he practiced psychiatry in France and (from 1953) in Algeria. He was chef de service in Blida-Joinville, Algeria, where he stayed until his resignation in 1956.
While in France he wrote his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, an analysis of the impact of colonial subjugation on the black psyche. This book was a very personal account of Fanon’s experience being black: as a man, an intellectual, and a party to a French education.
Fanon left France for Algeria, where he had been stationed for some time during the war. He secured an appointment as a psychiatrist at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital. It was there that he radicalized methods of treatment and care. In particular, he initiated socio-therapy which connected with his patients' cultural backgrounds. He also trained nurses and interns. Following the outbreak of the Algerian revolution in November 1954 he joined the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) in early 1955 as a result of contacts with Dr Chaulet.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon later discussed in depth the effects on Algerians of torture by the French forces. The fact that some French anti-terrorist units engaged in torture has had political repercussions in France, where, however, those alleged to have engaged in torture enjoy a general amnesty for the "events." That is why Général Paul Aussaresses, who admitted publicly to torturing terrorist suspects, was not tried for what he did then, but for not showing sufficient remorse.
Fanon made extensive trips across Algeria, but mainly in the Kabyle region, to study the cultural/psychological life of Algerians. His lost study of "The marabout of Si Slimane" is an example of this work. These trips were also a means for clandestine activities, noticeably in his visits to the ski resort of Chrea which hid an FLN base. By summer 1956 he wrote his famous "Letter of resignation to the Resident Minister", and made a clean break with his French assimilationist upbringing and education. He was finally expelled from Algeria in January, 1957, and the "nest of fellaghas [rebels]" at Blida hospital was dismantled. Fanon left for France and subsequently traveled secretly to Tunis. He was part of the editorial collective of El Moudjahid for which he wrote up to the end of his life. He also served as Ambassador to Ghana for the Provisional Algerian Government, and attended conferences in Accra, Conakry, Addis Ababa, Leopoldville, Cairo and Tripoli. Many of his shorter writings from this period were collected posthumously in the book Toward the African Revolution. In this book Fanon even outs himself as a war strategist; in one chapter he discusses how to open a southern front to the war and how to adequately run the supply lines.
On his return to Tunis, after his exhausting trip across the Sahara to open a Third Front, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia. He went to the Soviet Union for treatment and experienced some remission from his illness. On his return to Tunis he dictated his testament The Wretched of the Earth. When he was not confined to his bed, he delivered lectures to ALN (Armée de Libération Nationale) officers at Ghardimao on the Algero-Tunisian border. He made a final visit to Sartre in Rome and went for further leukemia treatment in the USA. He died in Washington, D.C., on December 6 1961 under the name of Ibrahim Fanon. He was buried in Algeria, after lying in state in Tunisia. Later his body was moved to a martyrs (chouhada) graveyard at Ain Kerma in western Algeria. Fanon was survived by his wife, Josie, their son, Olivier and daughter, Mireille.
Although Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks while still in France, most of his work was written while in North Africa. It was during this time that he produced his greatest works, Year 5 of the Algerian Revolution (later republished as A Dying Colonialism) and perhaps the most important work on decolonization yet written, The Wretched of the Earth. The Wretched of the Earth was first published in 1961 by François Maspero, and is fronted with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. In it, Fanon analyzes the role of class, race, national culture and violence in the struggle for national liberation. Both books firmly established Fanon in the eyes of much of the Third World as the leading anti-colonial thinker of the 20th century. Fanon's three books were supplemented by numerous psychiatric articles, as well as radical critiques of French colonialism in journals like, Esprit and El Moudjahid.
His work has been partly misunderstood due to flawed English translations which contain numerous omissions and errors. Moreover, his unpublished work, including his important doctoral thesis, has been ignored. The result has been simplistic dismissals, with Fanon portrayed solely as an advocate of violence. In fact, his work is interdisciplinary, broadening out from his psychiatric basis to encompass politics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and literature. His participation in the Algerian FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) from 1955 determined his audience as the Algerian colonized. It was to them that his final work, Les damnés de la terre (translated into English by Constance Farrington as The Wretched of the Earth) was directed. It constitutes a warning to the oppressed of their present dangers as they face the whirlwind of decolonization and the transition to a neo-colonialist/globalized world.
Fanon has had an enduring and inspiring impact on anti-colonial and liberation movements throughout the world. In particular, Les damnés de la terre was a major influence on the work of revolutionary leaders such as Ali Shariati in Iran, Steve Biko in South Africa, and Ernesto Che Guevara in Cuba. Of these only Guevara was primarily concerned with Fanon's theories on violence; for Shariati and Biko the main interest in Fanon was "the new man" and "black consciousness" respectively. Fanon's influence extended to the Palestinians, the Tamils, the Irish, the Black Panthers, and many other movements for self-determination.