The Economist on Frantz Fanon

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Sat Jan 13 20:34:23 MST 2001

The roots of prejudice
Jan 11th 2001
>From The Economist print edition

By David Macey.
Granta; 656 pages; £25

FRANTZ FANON was born in Martinique and educated in France, where he
became a
psychiatrist. In 1953, he went to work in Algeria and soon sided with the

nationalists engaged in armed resistance against the French. Through his
psychiatric work, Fanon was one of the few people other than victims or
perpetrators who knew the full extent of the French army's use of torture

against those fighting for an independent Algeria.
Shortly before he died, Fanon wrote _Les Damnés de la Terre&_(The
Wretched of
the Earth, 1961), the book he is best remembered for, although its very
notoriety overshadows his other work. A sort of non-Marxist bible of the
oppressed, it was seized on by mid-century radicals in the third world as

justifying violence not only for national independence but as a response
racism and poverty. The Fanon who is likelier to interest today's readers
is the
doctor who saw at first hand how humiliation and prejudice can affect
people on
both sides of the colour barrier and who struggled to understand the
of ethnic hatred.

Fanon never thought of himself as black until he arrived in France, where
found himself stereotyped midway between the tirailleurs sénégalais, who
trained to frighten civilian populations, and the fez-wearing black face
grinned at children from cocoa packets of Banania. The shock was a
lasting one.
As Fanon lay dying from leukaemia, he had a nightmare of being put
through a
washing-machine and de-negrified. Blackness, he wrote, does not exist as
It is something one discovers in another's gaze.

David Macey's life of Fanon provides, as background, an excellent guide
to the
history of French decolonisation and the intellectual debates of post-war

France. The contrast between the abstract belief in liberté, égalité,
that was preached from Dunkirk to Fort-de-France and the reality of
which Fanon experienced on arriving in France to study medicine, provides
haunting, if at times overdone, leitmotif that runs through the book, as
it did
through his life.
Fanon's first book, _Peau noire, masques blancs_ (Black Skin, White
which was published in 1952, is an angry young man's book, that mingles
experiences and psycho-social ideas. Fanon had little patience with the
cult of
négritude which Aimé Césaire, also from Martinique, and Léopold Senghor,
became president of Senegal, believed would transcend racial barriers and

rehabilitate African culture. His interest in mankind was broader. With
Tosquelles, a Catalan-born psychiatrist, he experimented in social
This, and his encounter with Algerian workers in Lyons who suffered from
what he
identified as the North African syndrome, a psychosomatic condition
brought on
by being cut off from one's home environment, prepared him for his later
work in

There, he worked in a hospital with white, Arab and Kabyle patients. This

reinforced his interest in the social dimension of some psychological
Psychotherapy, in his view, involved understanding the patient's way of
the world, however irrational it might seem. As the violence increased in

Algeria, Fanon treated (mostly Arab) victims and (mostly French)
perpetrators of
torture who appealed to him for help. He turned no one away and found
that both
needed care.

Fanon died before Algeria became independent in July 1962. Its soldiers
religious thugs have since made nonsense of his hopeful theory that
violence would spend itself once independence was achieved. He seems here
have forgotten a truer observation of his, taken directly from clinical
experience: in face of violence and humiliation, victims will turn also
on each
other. It is for conclusions such as this, and for his other pioneering
work in
the psychology of ethnic prejudice, that Fanon deserves to be read and

      Copyright © 1995-2001 The Economist Newspaper Group Ltd. All rights


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