A term for the anti-colonial liberationist critique formulated by the Martiniquan psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925–1961). Fanon’s work in Algeria led him to become actively involved in the Algerian liberation movement and to publish a number of foundational works on racism and colonialism. These include Black Skin, White Masks (1952, translated 1968), a study of the psychology of racism and colonial domination. Just before his death he published The Wretched of the Earth (1961), a broader study of how anti-colonial sentiment might address the task of decolonization. In these texts Fanon brought together the insights he derived from his clinical study of the effects of colonial domination on the psyche of the colonized and his Marxist derived analysis of social and economic control. From this conjuction he developed his idea of a comprador class, or élite, who exchanged roles with the white colonial dominating class without engaging in any radical restructuring of society. The black skin of these compradors was ‘masked’ by their complicity with the values of the white colonial powers. Fanon argued that the native intelligentsia must radically restructure the society on the firm foundation of the people and their values.

However, Fanon, like other early National Liberationist figures such as the Trinidadian C.L.R. James and the Cape Verdean Amilcar Cabral, did not advocate a naive view of the pre-colonial. Fanon’s nationalism was always what Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism has defined as ‘critical nationalism’, that is, formed in an awareness that pre-colonial societies were never simple or homogeneous and that they contained socially prejudicial class and gender formations that stood in need of reform by a radical force. As Said has noted ‘[Fanon’s] notion was that unless national consciousness at its moment of success was somehow changed into social consciousness, the future would not hold liberation but an extension of imperialism’ (1993: 323). For Fanon, the task of the national liberator, often drawn as he himself was from a colonially educated élite, was to ‘join the people in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving a shape to . . . which will be the signal for everything to be called into question’ 1952:168)

Although Fanon is sometimes recruited to the banner of a naive form of nativism, he took a more complicated view of tradition and the precolonial as well as of its role in the construction of the modern postcolonial state.  Fanon, of course, recognized and gave a powerful voice to the fact that for the new national leaders ‘the passionate search for a national culture which existed before the colonial era finds its legitimate reason in the anxiety shared by many indigenous intellectuals to shrink away from that western culture in which they all risk being swamped’ and to ‘renew contact once more with the oldest and most pre-colonial springs of their people’ (1961:153–4). But he also recognized the danger that such pasts could be easily mythologized and used to create the new élite power groups, masquerading as the liberators of whom he had warned.

A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever present reality of the people. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence. (1961: 154–5)

Throughout his historical analysis, Fanon never lost sight of the importance of the subjective consciousness and its role in creating the possibilities for the hegemonic control of the colonized subject, and of the neo-colonial society that followed political independence. In studies such as The Fact of Blackness (1952) he addressed the importance of the visible signs of racial difference in constructing a discourse of prejudice, and the powerful and defining psychological effects of this on the self-construction of black peoples. Much of Fanon’s work gives definition to the radical attempt to oppose this in the discourses of the black consciousness movement that emerged  in America and Britain in the 1960s and which drew much of its inspiration from Fanon’s work. Although it might be argued that later theorists such as Amilcar Cabral presented a more effective political programme for implementing the radical transformation of the native colonial intelligentsia in what Cabral called, in a memorable phrase, ‘a veritable forced march along the road to cultural progress’ (Cabral 1973), it was in the interweaving of the specific and personal with the general and social that Fanon’s distinctive and profoundly influential contribution was made.


Source: Post-colonial Studies The Key Concepts Second edition Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Routledge 2007.
Further reading: Fanon 1952, 1959, 1961.


Categories: Postcolonialism

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