They were out to get him. It was at once a source of terror and a form of tribute. Frantz Fanon was targeted as an Algerian revolutionary, but he was also a psychiatrist, and he knew how emotions could be linked with their opposites.
In May 1959—to choose one consequential incident—he was being driven near a base that Algerian insurgents had set up on the Moroccan border when the driver lost control of the car and Fanon was hurled from it, badly injuring his back. Some suspected that the road had been mined, others that the vehicle had been sabotaged.
He was flown to Rome for medical treatment. Another close call: his confrères in Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) arranged for a car to pick him up at the airport—a car that their adversaries rigged with explosives. Fanon was spared only because a child’s errant ball triggered the bomb prematurely. Then a local newspaper reported on the arrival of an injured FLN official to whom the explosion was seemingly connected, even naming the hospital that was treating him—where, sure enough, two armed men burst into the room he had been assigned. They drew their guns on an empty bed, Fanon having stealthily had himself relocated.
A year later, he was at an airport in Monrovia, Liberia, awaiting a flight to Conakry, Guinea, when he and his FLN companions were told that the plane was full. Marvelously solicitous employees of Air France assured him that the airline would book them on a flight leaving the next day and cover their overnight expenses. Fanon was on his guard: everyone remembered how the FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella had been captured four years earlier when his French-crewed Rabat-to-Tunis flight made an unscheduled stop in Algiers. As Fanon and his comrades set out for Conakry by car, the flight on which they had been rebooked was diverted to Abidjan and searched by French security. Yet another close call.
How did a psychiatrist find himself in the midst of such madness? How did a son of the Antilles become an Algerian revolutionary? For that matter, how did a once-obscure figure emerge as the revolutionary intellectual “most relevant for the twenty-first century,” as Cornel West writes in an energetic introduction to the sixtieth-anniversary edition of The Wretched of the Earth? To understand where Fanon ended up, it’s helpful to understand how he started out.
It is an awkward fact of history that our fiercest anticolonial leaders generally came from the educated bourgeoisie. Born in 1925 on the Antillean island of Martinique, a French possession, Fanon was reared in a household that had servants, private music lessons for his sisters, and, in addition to a comfortable home in the capital, a country house with luxuriant gardens. His father was a civil servant who worked in the customs office; his mother, who evidently had Alsatian ancestors, had a shop and—according to David Macey, the author of the most deeply researched and judicious biography of Fanon1—a head for business. He was superbly educated at the Lycée Schoelcher, where the poet Aimé Césaire taught literature.
But freedom, Fanon believed, “was indivisible,” and in 1944 he enlisted in Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, which provided another education. Stationed in North Africa, he encountered racial hierarchy in rather naked form. Fanon may have had his own prejudices to contend with—people from the French Caribbean were raised to disdain people from sub-Saharan Africa—but it turned out that the Arabs loathed black people indiscriminately, while white Frenchmen, though they ranked Antilleans above Arabs and sub-Saharans, were convinced of their superiority to all peoples of color.
When Fanon’s battalion was sent to the north of France and up the Rhine, where he took shrapnel to the chest, his disenchantment deepened. He had put himself on the line for “farmers who don’t give a damn.” Amid the festivities that marked the liberation of France, French women shrank from dancing with a black man who had risked his life for them. He was a cultivated Frenchman—a student of its civilizational treasures. Why wasn’t he treated as one?
Still, his service record provided him free access to higher education, and he found himself in Paris, attending dentistry school. “There are too many nègres in Paris,” he wrote his brother Joby, evidently referring to the sort of Africans he was raised to despise, “and the less I see of them the better I feel.” After a few weeks, he moved to Lyon, took some qualifying courses in the sciences, and embarked on medical studies. Meanwhile he read extensively, sat in on philosophy lectures given by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and had a daughter with a medical school classmate. (After acknowledging paternity, he decided that he would have nothing to do with the woman or their daughter.) He wrote plays, perhaps in part because Jean-Paul Sartre, the paragon of French intellectualism, did. But then Fanon always had a flair for the dramatic in matters large and small: writing to his dear maman from Lyon, he declared, “Without coffee, I believe I’ll die.”
He also went to the movies. This is not an incidental fact about him. Fanon was a movie lover—“cinephile” is too fastidious a term for someone who loved popular films and loved to complain about them. A friend who had joined the army with him recalled feeling tricked into watching a terrible movie during leave, after Fanon assured him that it was a “wonderful American musical.” Scholars have much to say about how Merleau-Ponty affected him, and rather little about how the movies did. Yet the silver screen spoke to Fanon; that’s why he delighted in talking back to it.
Take the puzzle of why, in 1949, he chose to specialize in psychiatry, a subject in which he’d shown no particular interest. A decision like this doesn’t have just one cause. But consider his fascination with the Hollywood movie Home of the Brave, which came out that year. (He refers to it more than once in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks.) It’s about a black GI who, after volunteering for a mission with a group of white soldiers in the Pacific, returns with a case of hysterical paralysis. In the course of the movie, a psychiatrist, known only as “Doctor,” explores his psyche by means of “narcosynthesis”—a technique in which a patient is placed in a trance-like state induced by barbiturates like sodium pentothal, while troubling memories are revisited. The psychiatrist realizes that the soldier’s condition, though precipitated by a recent trauma, is linked to childhood experiences of racism—and to broader historical inequities.
“It’s a legacy,” the doctor explains. “A hundred and fifty years of slavery. Of second-class citizenship. Of being ‘different.’” By excavating those traumas, personal and social, the doctor restores the man to health. The film clearly left an impression on Fanon, who saw it when he was twenty-four. How could it not? The shrink is a broad-shouldered, masterly figure, equipped with syringes and equally pointed talk therapy: even the wounds of race are no match for him.
The year when Fanon settled on his professional vocation was also the year he met an eighteen-year-old lycée student, Josie, whose left-wing parents raised no objections to their marriage three years later. It was helpful that she was a proficient typist, given that Fanon preferred to dictate his work, declaiming as he paced. And soon there was much to type. In 1951 he published an article titled “L’expérience vécue du Noir”—“The Lived Experience of the Black Man”—which became the centerpiece of Black Skin, White Masks, released the following year. (Lived Experience was the title of the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which had appeared in 1949.)
Black Skin, White Masks—an impasto of cultural criticism, memoir, and social analysis—can itself evoke a sense of narcosynthesis, of a waking-dream session. There are zany moments. Fanon thought that the Oedipal complex didn’t exist in the Antilles (a psychoanalyst would find it significant that he doted on his mother and berated his father as unworthy of her), and therefore homosexuality didn’t either. Yes, some cross-dressing men could be found, but “we are convinced that they lead a normal sexual life.” And he takes mordant pleasure in recounting racially charged moments in the movies, although some appear to be his own projections. Describing Crash Dive (released in French as Requins d’acier), he writes about a black sailor in a submarine who trembles at the quartermaster’s anger and is killed at the end. Actually the sailor (ripely played by Ben Carter) isn’t afraid of the older man, Mac; he’s afraid for Mac, whose heart condition he alone knows about; and it’s Mac who’s killed on a raid, while the black sailor, despite a wildly heroic turn with a submachine gun, returns in fine fettle.
More resonant is Fanon’s rendering of a critical exchange in Home of the Brave. Toward the end of the film, he relates, another survivor of the fateful mission, now missing an arm, tells the black soldier, Peter Moss, “Get used to your color the way I got used to my stump. We are both casualties.” Fanon bridles at being prescribed “the humility of the cripple.” But he had it backward. “No, we’re not the same,” the man tells Peter. “I got nothing in this sleeve but air, kiddo.” His point is merely that certain bigots will taunt and torment them both. The screenplay was adapted from an Arthur Laurents play about a Jewish GI—called not Peter Moss but Peter Coen—and, aside from the necessary adjustments, follows Laurents’s dialogue rather closely here.
Fanon knew something about such adjustments: the greatest influence on Black Skin, White Masks was Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive (1946), published in English as Anti-Semite and Jew. It raised a problem, Fanon wrote, that “moves us to the very core.” Sartre’s argument was that the anti-Semite and the Jew were mutually constitutive categories (“The Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew…. It is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew”), and though, as many have argued, the basic line of argument falters when it comes to la question juive, it illuminates the twinned origins of whiteness and blackness. In a famous passage, Fanon tells of a child in France noticing him on the street and saying, “Maman, look, a Negro; I’m scared!” It’s that very gaze that turns a human being black.2
To Fanon it was clear that “what is called the black soul is a construction by white folk,” that “a Black is not a man,” that the whole “psycho-existential complex” behind blackness and whiteness must be abolished. In an often-misunderstood passage from “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” he depicts himself as a negritude-intoxicated novitiate, given to proclaiming Aimé Césaire’s sonorous tributes to the black soul. (“My negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral/It reaches deep down into the fiery flesh of the soil…”) Then, reading Sartre on Pan-African poetry, he learns that negritude is “the weak stage of a dialectical progression”: white supremacy is answered by negritude, an antiracist racism, in a progression toward a society without race. “When I read this page, I felt they had robbed me of my last chance,” Fanon writes. “I needed to lose myself in negritude…. I needed not to know.”
In fact, the passage enacts a sort of play—one far more accomplished than Fanon’s actual plays—in which the narrator undergoes a painful conversion experience: railing against, grieving, and working through Sartre’s revelation. The error is to take this drama as reporting an autobiographical fact rather than an enacted dialectic. There’s no evidence that Fanon ever accepted the black-is-best creed.
“Make me always a man who questions”: in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon presents this imperative as his “final prayer,” and an interrogative spirit suffuses the book. He was dubious of the salves on offer for the wounds of race. “I have neither the right nor the duty to demand reparations for my subjugated ancestors,” he wrote. “I am not a slave to slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.” The necessary emancipation of the spirit couldn’t be achieved through proclamation. It had to be seized. “The black man does not know the price of freedom because he has never fought for it”: this sentiment—that freedom has no value unless it is fought for—is the key to his later work. He would fight for it everywhere, which meant he had to fight for it somewhere.
If anyone had shown that psychiatry could be an instrument of liberation, it was François Tosquelles, with whom Fanon had an internship. A founder of institutional psychotherapy, or “sociotherapy,” Tosquelles grew up in Catalonia, was active in left-wing politics, and treated Republican combatants during the Spanish Civil War. Then, at a hospital at Saint-Alban, in southern France, he refined a therapeutic approach that scrutinized not just patients but the hospital: eschewing even small-scale authoritarianism, it tried to build some version of an actual community within the institution.
“I want to go to a country under domination to cure the sick,” Fanon wrote Joby, after he had qualified to practice as a psychiatric chef de service. His wish was granted when, in the fall of 1953, he was offered a position at Hôpital Psychiatrique de Blida-Joinville, an hour’s drive south of Algiers. An old myth about Fanon is that he liberated his patients quite literally, by removing their shackles. But Blida was no Bedlam; it was a fairly sophisticated place where physical restraints were a last resort. And Fanon was, in many respects, a conventional psychiatrist, who regularly used lithium, barbiturates, and electroshock therapy.
His professional difficulty was that the hospital—the largest such facility in North Africa—had many non-European patients, and he didn’t speak Arabic, let alone any form of Berber, which meant that he often had to communicate with them through a translator. He made efforts at sociotherapy; he set up a small café for the patients and staff, and even a newspaper, Notre Journal. But the measures typically worked best for members of the French settler community. The Maghrebi patients mainly couldn’t read the paper, and the men wouldn’t visit a café where women were present. (Fanon eventually had to segregate it by sex.) Another part of his sociotherapy, however, promised to sidestep such difficulties: he showed movies.
His temperament could clash with his democratic ideals: he was a demanding boss, on edge and prone to anger. Nurses at Blida told Fanon’s first biographer, Peter Geismar, that though they respected him deeply, they found working for him hellish. But then tensions inside the hospital were inevitably raised by tensions outside it. Less than a year after Fanon’s arrival, a war of national liberation broke out in Algeria. Five months later, in the spring of 1955, France declared a state of emergency.
The FLN guerrillas made a specialty of ambushes and bombs. The French responded with horrific ruthlessness. France had just been humiliated in Indochina, and while it would negotiate various degrees of independence or integration with other overseas possessions, Algeria was different. It had officially been a part of the country for more than a century and was home to a million or more French nationals—pieds noirs—who were a clamorous constituency.
French authorities routinely employed torture. Suspects were subjected to a version of waterboarding; burns were inflicted with blowtorches; electrodes were applied to sensitive areas; objects were forced into orifices. A person of conscience, exposed to the reality of official torture, would naturally be radicalized; Fanon had arrived already radicalized. Soon civilians on both sides were deemed fair game. The FLN and its military, the Army of National Liberation (ALN), embraced the guerrilla equivalent of total war. They targeted anyone who was French, and many who were not—notably the rival nationalists and revolutionaries associated with Messali Hadj.
At Blida, Fanon treated both victims and perpetrators of torture, including a policeman who, with the subtlety of a winetaster, could discriminate among the screams prisoners made as a torture session progressed. Just as Tosquelles had protected fugitives in Saint-Alban under Vichy, Fanon provided safe harbor to FLN members. He also established ties with Abane Ramdane, sometimes called the architect of the revolution. As the crackdowns continued, Fanon knew it was only a matter of time before his activities were discovered, and in early 1957 he and his wife decamped for Tunisia. There he found a position as a psychiatrist at the hospital of La Manouba and wrote regularly for the FLN organ El Moudjahid.
The move was well timed. In an odd sense, Algeria was no longer where the action was. The so-called Battle of Algiers, which concluded in the fall of 1957 with the destruction of the FLN’s local cells, marked the end of insurgent advances inside Algeria and, as a grueling stalemate took hold, the dominance of the group’s Tunisia-based expatriate cadre. Fanon, who could now be open about his FLN associations, stood out by his elegance of attire, with shirts and suits he had tailor-made in Europe. This may not have endeared him to his Arab medical colleagues, who referred to him as “the nègre.” According to an account by his friend and colleague Alice Cherki, a psychoanalyst, he socialized easily only with cosmopolitan types—mainly Tunisian Jews and French volunteer workers. He loved to dance, but not around his Algerian comrades. Fortunately, Tunis had a good movie house, La Rotonde, where he liked to sit in the front row.
Fanon’s principal value to the struggle was as an ace propagandist. After the Melouza massacre of May 1957, in which ALN forces hacked up hundreds of people in a rural hamlet who were suspected of supporting the wrong independence leader, Fanon issued a statement suggesting that the French had “stage-managed” it. It was one of many falsehoods he countenanced or purveyed. Owing to the extraordinary archival efforts of two British academics, Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young, the editors of the Fanon collection Alienation and Freedom,3 we can now read various fugitive and formerly lost pieces of writing, including El Moudjahid columns that Fanon seems to have had a hand in. They refer to marvelous victories, when there were no victories. The cause made its demands; so did simple survival.
Mohammed Harbi, an Algerian revolutionary turned historian, has remarked that whenever there was an internal conflict among hard-liners, Fanon sided with whoever seemed more hard-line. It kept him safe. Although his trusted position among the FLN leaders resulted from his connection with Ramdane, he maintained his distance when Ramdane fell from favor. Ramdane had been an author of a declaration, hammered out at a 1956 FLN congress in Soummam, that called for an independent Algerian republic “guaranteeing true equality between all citizens of the same homeland, without discrimination,” and specified that the military should be under political control. A year later, at another FLN congress, in Cairo, this declaration was repudiated; the future regime would be consistent with the tenets of Islam, and military men would have primacy.
Early in 1958, Ramdane’s FLN rivals lured him to Morocco and garroted him. (Fanon later revealed that the assassination weighed on his conscience, and David Macey thinks he may have gone along with the conspiracy that led to it.) Meanwhile, El Moudjahid, whose editorial committee Fanon had joined, kept mum about it for months, and then announced that Ramdane had lost his life “on the field of honor.” Fanon was at least up front about the business he was in. “In the colonial context,” he wrote, “there is no truthful behavior.” Or rather, “truth is that which precipitates the dislocation of the colonial regime.”
When Fanon was flung from that sedan in Morocco, then, it was natural to wonder whether it was really just an accident. Macey persuasively maintains that the cause was nothing more than a car skidding on gravel, while the bomb in Rome was evidently intended for a different FLN official. Macey is persuasive, too, that the bombers and gunmen, widely identified with the Main Rouge, purportedly a terror cell of colonists, were dispatched by the French secret services. Alice Cherki says that Fanon “had an indiscriminate tendency to suspect espionage.” But the world had come to earn his suspicion.
In the fall of 1959 his book L’An V de la révolution algérienne (translated as Studies in a Dying Colonialism) was published, establishing him as an international spokesman for the FLN. In its pages, he distanced the movement from actions by “those brothers who have flung themselves into revolutionary action with the almost physiological brutality that centuries of oppression give rise to,” brothers whom he and his comrades regarded “with pain in our hearts.” Fundamentally, the struggle was for the creation of “a new Algerian man.”
At a time when those who supported the Soummam charter had been murdered or marginalized, Fanon pretended that its secular ideals still obtained; anyone living in Algeria was an Algerian, he assured readers, and could choose citizenship in a state where “every kind of genius may grow.” He insisted, further, that the Algerian family had been transformed, that “the birth of a new woman” had arrived. As for the seeming sequestration of peasant women within the domestic sphere, this was a tactical choice women had made to deepen their revolutionary consciousness. Left-wing members of the FLN like Harbi were appalled at the way Fanon prettified the patriarchy. It was as if the reality of the place of women, in the Maghreb and in the revolution, was a truth Fanon “needed not to know.”
When the FLN established, for diplomatic purposes, a government in exile, Fanon became one of its emissaries. In gatherings of anticolonial leaders, he swiftly distinguished himself as the anti-Gandhi, rehearsing the arguments that he later published in his essay “On Violence.” Decolonization was, he urged, an inherently violent act. It was violent because something as valuable as a colony would never be relinquished without force; it was violent because it involved the liquidation of an entire social order, so that the first would be last and the last would be first; it was violent because colonialism was itself an effect of violence and its victims could not be made whole without more of the same. Where once he had piously disavowed the brutality that “some” were driven to, he now stressed its therapeutic effects. On the political level, he said, violence unifies the masses, by dissolving the partitions and segmentations that colonialism entrenches, while, on the individual level, it is “a cleansing force” that “rids the colonized of their inferiority complex” and “restores their self-respect.”
The equation between self-respect and violence also roiled his personal life; his relationships with women, the scholar Félix F. Germain reports, were “punctuated with violence.”4 The Beninois poet Paulin Joachim witnessed more than one incident when, in the course of a quarrel, Fanon struck his wife. “He did it to humiliate her,” Joachim told Germain. “He was a very violent man.” He would hit his wife in front of others and then declare flatly, “I avenge myself.” Maryse Condé, too, had heard such stories from members of Fanon’s family. Among many Fanon scholars, it nonetheless remains an article of faith that he personally found violence abhorrent. I avenge myself. Perhaps these are matters that we need not to know.
Increasingly, his theory that decolonization was a project of immense violence had to contend with the reality that, for most African nations, it wasn’t. He was furious that Martinicans were insufficiently furious—they had voted in 1958 to remain part of France—and he was contemptuous when a lethal melee a year later in Fort-de-France failed to spread into a revolution. That colonies like Senegal and Ivory Coast gained their independence in a largely phased, bureaucratic manner was proof of its fraudulence. Ghana, where he spent time in the late 1950s, was especially rankling. Its liberation from the British should have been a bloodbath; instead, its Independence Day, on March 6, 1957, was a festival, attended not only by Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph but by the Duchess of Kent and Vice President Richard Nixon. Fanon knew in his bones that such independence was a sham.
When the FLN posted him to Ghana’s capital, Accra, he saw a political elite filled with the detestable “national bourgeoisie.” But he also saw a great many young men of fighting age and hit upon an idea: they should be mustered into an African Legion and sent off to fight for a free Algeria, the true home of the brave. It may sound as if his chief interest in Ghana was instrumental, as a source of bodies to throw into a charnel house. That’s not how he would have seen it. We cannot grasp the value of freedom without risking our lives for it, he contended, and so he would really be rescuing Ghanaians from a process of independence that had been all too banal and bloodless.
Driving through Mali, he made plans for a bold new military strategy. West African soldiers, in his scheme, would swarm through the Sahara, transporting thousands of submachine guns and other weapons, and pour into Algeria from the south. It was a hare-brained idea. Supply lines across the Sahara? The Algerian rebels despised the nomads of the Saharan interior, who returned the sentiment and sided with the French; and a desert convoy of arms and men would have been utterly exposed and easily destroyed.
In political and strategic realms, Fanon’s inveterate mistrust could make him fatefully credulous. He revered Guinea’s Sékou Touré, whose despotic impulses were never hidden and spawned a rather Stalinist regime. And Fanon steered his Algerian comrades into a disastrous course when it came to another settler colony, Portuguese Angola. He was part of an FLN delegation that in early 1960 met with members of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)—a group that Amilcar Cabral, exiled from his native Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), had helped create. Fanon took against them: they were insufficiently centered on the peasantry and excessively devoted to advanced planning. Why, he demanded, were they biding their time? All that was needed was “to begin,” he maintained, for any attack was bound to ignite a spontaneous anticolonial revolution. Fanon prevailed on the FLN to switch its support to a rebel group led by a tribalist warlord named Holden Álvaro Roberto, brushing aside warnings of his ties to the CIA and lack of regional legitimacy. All that mattered was that Roberto, unlike Cabral, was happy to start shooting, without laying any groundwork.
And so Roberto’s forces, drawn largely from his Bakongo people, launched their Fanon-authorized foray, massacring non-Bakongo villagers as well as Portuguese settlers. The Portuguese forces promptly slaughtered not only Roberto’s ragtag followers but anyone connected with the MPLA. Tens of thousands of people were killed. And the FLN’s decision to recognize Roberto’s group as Angola’s provisional government was not without consequences. In time, Roberto’s “foreign minister,” Jonas Savimbi, launched another rebel force, UNITA. Long after Portugal withdrew, Angola was harrowed by a civil war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The tragedy is not so much that Fanon, like his FLN colleagues, knew little about Angola; it is that he knew nothing about how little he knew.
In December 1960 Fanon, who had been looking gaunt, was diagnosed with leukemia. Aware that his remaining time might be short, he turned to the book he wanted to publish, racing against the clock as he assembled the chapters of Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth). Its core was a revised version of “On Violence,” which had appeared in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes. To this he added reflections on “spontaneity,” a diatribe against the leadership of peacefully postcolonial states, a speech he had delivered at a literary conference, and a series of harrowing psychiatric case notes involving victims or perpetrators of violence. (He was dismayed that the technique of Pentothal-aided conversation—narcosynthesis, basically—was being used by military doctors to interrogate prisoners.)
Fanon, whose name was unfamiliar to a broader audience, knew what a difference it would make if Sartre supplied a preface to the book. A meeting was arranged that summer in Rome. “He was sitting down, getting up, sitting down again,” Beauvoir, who had accompanied Sartre, recounts in her memoirs. “All with abrupt gestures, agitated facial movements, suspiciously flickering eyes.” Sartre agreed to write the preface. He declined another of Fanon’s requests—to follow up with a declaration that he wouldn’t write one more word until the Algerian war was over. Fanon, Beauvoir says, was convinced this would “shake public opinion to its foundations.”
Parts of The Wretched of the Earth have a coruscating power, even when its claims are wildly at odds with reality. (“To believe one can create a black culture is to forget oddly enough that ‘Negroes’ are in the process of disappearing, since those who created them are witnessing the demise of their economic and cultural supremacy.”) Yet the prose of the party apparatchik often obtrudes. That’s particularly noticeable when it comes to what Harbi dubs Fanon’s “peasant messianism.”5 Fanon, knowing very little about Algeria’s peasants, turns them into magical creatures, a source of “unimagined tenderness and vitality” who were “spontaneously revolutionary.”
But his biggest error was to take the special case of the settler colony as the all-purpose colonial model. In what sense were the colonies too valuable to part with voluntarily? Fanon’s analysis would have been improved had he been a better Marxist, or at least grappled with the debates over the economic realities of colonization. An influential paper from the 1930s, Grover Clark’s “The Balance Sheets of Imperialism,” had made a detailed financial argument that keeping colonies was a bad business, and many experts had come to agree. For Fanon, decolonization “reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives”; in truth, it often reeked of red ink and double ledgers.
Shortly after The Wretched of the Earth appeared in October 1961, Fanon’s health took a turn for the worse. He had previously been treated in Moscow and was hopeful for a while. But even the Soviets seemed to think that his best chance was to seek treatment in the United States. He wound up at the NIH Clinical Center, where he was visited by Holden Roberto, in Washington to firm up backing for his group, and by a CIA case officer assigned to him. Since Fanon loved to hold forth and the case officer’s job was to listen, they developed what Fanon’s biographer Patrick Ehlen calls “an adversarial friendship.” Fanon died on December 6, just seven months before Algeria officially achieved its independence.
Fame, and a wide readership, arrived posthumously, albeit chiefly in the anglophone world. (French scholarship on Fanon has been comparatively scant.) The Wretched of the Earth, published in translation by Grove in 1963, became a best seller. Soon the black-power activist Stokely Carmichael was referring to Fanon as his “patron saint.” The book was held up as a bible of decolonization even as it excoriated most actually existing decolonization. It was held up as a handbook of black liberation even as it heralded the impending disappearance of black people. Readers took from it what they wanted and ignored the rest.
As had Fanon with the Algerian cause. On some level, he knew how this movie would end because he had helped produce it. Theorists of revolution sometimes use the term “prefigurative politics” to warn that movements are not transformed in their character when they attain power: beware a group devoted to participatory democracy that is itself harshly autocratic. FLN insiders knew that their leaders had gravitated toward militarism and authoritarianism, that they zealously massacred rivals and dissidents. The state they created followed suit, as if bearing out the young Fanon’s warning that “the slave wants to be like his master.”
In the year of independence, tens of thousands of harkis—Algerians, often illiterate peasants, who had worked for the French state, including as conscripted soldiers—were slaughtered. It would be misleading to say that they were killed indiscriminately: frequently they were killed with a great deal of care—having been bound and dragged behind trucks or horses, say, or having had their eyes and testicles removed, or having been wrapped in a gasoline-drenched French flag and set ablaze. We avenge ourselves. It is not clear whose self-respect was thereby restored.
Long after the Cairo declaration, Fanon, who needed not to know many things he knew perfectly well, advertised a secular country where any resident could choose to be a citizen; independent Algeria promptly declared that everyone who was non-Muslim was a noncitizen. “We Algerians,” Fanon had written: the revolution, fulfilled, denied it. In an early study of Fanon, the political scientist Irene Gendzier noted that there were about 150,000 Jews in Algeria in 1954, many from families that, like Cherki’s, had lived there since Roman times; a few years into independence, a tiny fraction remained. The FLN’s factionalism certainly persisted. Ben Bella, the first president of independent Algeria, was deposed in 1965 by his military chief and sent to prison, which was the fate, too, of Harbi and many other left-leaning FLN members.
And when an actual peasant uprising, inevitably Islamist in nature, occurred, it prompted what a psychoanalyst would call a repetition-compulsion—the reenactment of early trauma. In the “dirty war” that took place three decades ago, the FLN regime killed as many as 200,000 Algerians and tortured a great many others. The usual techniques included a variant of waterboarding, burns inflicted by blowtorch, electrodes applied to sensitive parts, the insertion of objects into orifices. Fanon, writing of violence as a cleansing force, must have known that the cleansing could itself leave a residue of violence.
Today, The Wretched of the Earth—mischievously presented, in HBO’s The White Lotus, as poolside reading at a high-end resort—has the status of the ubiquitous predigested text, the “campus classic” rendered almost illegible by the interpretations layered over it. “Dazzled alterities kill one another,” a character in Fanon’s verse drama Parallel Hands says. The poet and the propagandist vied within him, as did the teller of truths and the retailer of cant. It’s almost painful to recall the “final prayer” with which he concluded his first book: “Make me always a man who questions.” What would have happened, one wonders, had this prayer been granted?
February 24, 2022
‘Invitations to Dig Deeper’
Frantz Fanon: A Biography (Verso, second edition, 2012). ↩
“Regarde le nègre!” Fanon had written, and for translators the nègre problem is a vexing one. Richard Philcox, who translated Black Skin, White Masks with care and craft—it was no doubt helpful that he’s married to the Antillean novelist Maryse Condé—alternately renders the word nègre as “Negro” and as what we now call “the n-word,” depending on context; really, the word is a quarter tone between the two. It was, particularly in the era when Fanon was writing, a pejorative, but it was not quite a profanation. For anglophone readers, the French term is like a blue note you need to infer from the melody because it cannot be notated. ↩
Translated by Steven Corcoran (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). ↩
Félix F. Germain, Decolonizing the Republic: African and Caribbean Migrants in Postwar Paris, 1946–1974 (Michigan State University Press, 2016). ↩
Mohammed Harbi, “Postface,” in Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: Editions la Découverte, 2002). ↩