A Response to Frantz Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Masks’

*This is reblogged from The Frantz Fanon Blog. It is written by Jonis Ghedi Alasow, originally posted 4/8/2014.

Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks, is one of the most interesting and insightful books I have ever read. Fanon sets out his discussion with the intention of showing the “various attitudes the Negro adopts in contact with white civilisation” (Fanon, 1952: 5). He labours through a particularly personal and reflective discussion to ultimately provide a “progressive infrastructure, in which it will be possible to discern the Negro on the road to disalienation” (1952: 142). Thus Fanon is fundamentally concerned with describing the place that is held by black people in the mid-20th century. He aims to illustrate the problems with the place of the black people and to point the reader towards an emancipatory future. Black Skin, White Masks is most certainly a ground breaking book and it would be possible to write a review of it that is as long as the book itself. Here I will only focus on a few major themes in an attempt to convey the importance of Black Skin, White Masks in understanding not only the world of 1952, but also the world of 2014.

The first thing worth considering is the very idea of a “Negro”. Where does this idea come from and what is the purpose of sustaining such an idea? Fanon is clear in attributing the notion of blackness to the European (1952: 83). W.E.B. Du Bois argued that black people only know that they are black by seeing themselves through the eyes of white people. Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre attributed the existence of the Jew to the imagination of the Anti-Semite (Sartre, 1948: 7). Fanon follows on from these thinkers and argues that the black person only comes to realise his/her blackness when told by the European that he/she is not white. It is for this reason that people, like Fanon, who leave the Antilles to go to Europe are forced to confront their blackness (Fanon, 1952: 84).

Now that the origins of blackness have been discussed it is time to consider the significance thereof. Why is the distinction between the ‘Negro’ and the ‘European’ necessary? More specifically, I would like to explore the roots of racism as perceived by Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon in fact dedicates an entire chapter to explaining how language is used to distinguish between a more valuable European culture and a less valuable culture of the Antilles (1952: 8). Emphasis is placed on ‘speaking properly’ by both the European and the person of the Antilles in an attempt to get black people to assimilate European culture. Fanon is careful to link language and culture together. Thus by assimilating the language of the coloniser, the black person is also assimilating the culture of the coloniser. By adopting this new culture, the colonised can be “elevated above his jungle status” [sic] (1952: 9).

This perpetual striving towards assimilating the culture of the European seems to indicate a desire to be like the European or, if possible, to be the European. Many have argued that this quest for assimilation is rooted in an inferiority complex. Fanon is not impartial to this idea, but disagrees with M. Mannoni’s notion that the inferiority complex is always present in the black man or woman and that it is only made explicit in the colonial moment (1952: 62). For Fanon the inferiority complex that black people suffer from is entirely socialised…

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Jeremiah Morelock

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