Frantz Fanon: black skin, no mask

Frantz Fanon was a brilliant, maverick thinker, a theorist of anti-colonialism who tried to understand the damaged psyche of his native Martinique and the violence that racked his adopted country, Algeria, in its struggle for independence. His writings — especially Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth — are lauded by contemporary postcolonial scholars, but few manage to grasp the complexity of his thought or the depth of his humanism. Jeremy Taylor searches for the man behind the revolutionary icon, and ponders Fanon's relevance to the 21st century world

  • Frantz Fanon. Photo courtesy Grove/Atlantic
  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier
  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier
  • Frantz Fanon. Photo courtesy Grove/Atlantic

A hot December day in 1961, the sky a dazzling blue. A small column of men crosses the border from Tunisia into Algeria, alert for enemy patrols. They follow a track into the forest. Armed guards stand on the hillsides above the path and alongside it. In the middle of the column, soldiers carry a makeshift stretcher, taking turns with the weight. On the stretcher is a coffin. Even to march a few hundred metres across the border is risky. Ahead are the French defences, barbed wire and mines, radar and searchlights. The grave has been prepared already. There is gunfire not far away, and fighter planes sometimes roar overhead. Beside the grave, a military commandant and the vice president of the Algerian Provisional Government deliver eulogies. Then the coffin is lowered into the grave and covered with earth.

Inside the coffin is the body of a young psychiatrist from the Caribbean, dead from leukaemia at the age of 36. Fulfilling his last wish — to be buried across the border in his adopted country — has involved tricky negotiations. The Tunisian government has allowed the young psychiatrist’s body to be displayed in Tunis. Local people at any moment could have betrayed the operation to the French. Even the American State Department is part of the operation. A man from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stands among the soldiers by the graveside.

Frantz Fanon had come home.

Not to the island of his birth, four thousand miles away in the French Caribbean; not to France, the mother country to which his compatriots were devoted. But to Algeria, the country with which he had so fiercely identified in its horrendous battle for independence.

Fanon’s furious journey from colonial Fort-de-France to a secret grave near the Algerian-Tunisian border, and the ideas he developed along the way, are still deeply controversial, more than 40 years after his death.

Fanon was born into a middle-class black family in the French island of Martinique in 1925. His mother was of mixed race, his father the descendant of West African slaves. He was a brilliant child.

As a teenager during World War II, he left Martinique in an open boat, without anybody’s permission, to undergo military training in Dominica for the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle, which were resisting the German occupation of France; this fizzled out, and he was soon back in Martinique finishing his education. In 1944 he volunteered for formal military service, and was part of the force which invaded France from North Africa soon after D-Day, pushing northwards against the retreating German armies; he was badly wounded in the Battle of Alsace by shrapnel from a mortar shell in his chest and shoulder. He was hospitalised, and received the Croix de Guerre for his bravery and “brilliant conduct”.

After the war, he was unable to settle in Martinique, and returned to France, where he studied medicine and psychiatry in Lyon; he married a feisty white Frenchwoman, Josie Dublé, and worked in a French hospital while he finished his dissertation.

Angered by his experience of French racism, he eventually took a job running a psychiatric hospital 30 miles south-west of Algiers; he made radical changes there. Algeria was still a French colony. As the campaign for independence turned into all-out war, everyone was forced to take sides; in 1956 Fanon resigned his hospital post and his French citizenship, travelled to neighbouring Tunisia, and worked there both as a psychiatrist and as editor of El Moudjahid, the paper of the FLN, Algeria’s National Liberation Front.

In Tunis, Fanon became a political activist and Algeria’s spokesman. As an ambassador of the Provisional Government, he lobbied for the Algerian cause in Africa, pleading for an African Legion to intervene in the war against France. He was wounded again when his jeep hit a landmine on the Moroccan border (or crashed, according to some versions of the story); he was flown to Rome for medical treatment. The car that was due to meet him there was blown up by a bomb, and there was a machine-gun attack on his hospital bed. Later, after narrowly escaping capture by the French, he crossed the Sahara from Mali to the southern border of Algeria, looking for a new way to supply and support besieged Algerian forces.


In 1960 he contracted leukaemia, and in spite of both Russian and American treatment, he died in Washington in December 1961, with Algerian independence only a few months away. The Algerian Provisional Government flew his body back to Tunis, and he was buried just across the border in Algeria. His body was exhumed some months later and reinterred in a martyrs’ cemetery not far away, where it remains to this day.

Fanon published only three books in his lifetime. Black Skin, White Masks analyses the way in which black people are psychologically enslaved by colonisation, and is based on his experience in Martinique and France. A Dying Colonialism charts his developing thought about the Algeria revolt, and The Wretched of the Earth extends the argument into Africa and the ways in which the Third World can move from colonisation to authentic freedom (it was immediately banned in France). A fourth book, Towards the African Revolution, is mostly a further collection of Algerian articles, and appeared after his death.

It was a short, angry life. Today, despite a few monuments and street names, Fanon is widely disliked or ignored in France, neglected in Martinique, and forgotten in Algeria. Which is not surprising; he was responsible for one of the most passionate critiques of colonisation ever made, and his words still sting.


Fanon was a passionate, driven, difficult man all his life. He was headstrong, decisive, tirelessly energetic, an obsessive talker, often impatient and intolerant. His books are not easy reading; he saw writing as a form of action, paragraphs as a hail of bullets. Although he turned his back on France, he dressed elegantly, enjoyed good food and wine and conversation, and his ideas drew heavily on European philosophers from Hegel and Marx to Sartre. He was an outstanding psychiatrist. Oddly, for a man who identified so closely with the Algerian cause, he never managed to learn Arabic; nor did he learn to type — his books and papers were dictated to his wife Josie as he strode up and down (this may account for his often jerky, fragmented style).

Martinique gave him his first big subject.

In colonial Martinique, French almost continuously since 1635, black schoolchildren were taught: We are French. Martinique is part of France. French history is our history, French culture is our culture, French tradition is our tradition. In 1946, the colonial French Caribbean became officially a part of continental France, as if the Atlantic Ocean were a mere canal between them.

There was a close correlation between colour and class: white French creoles, the békés, controlled Martinique, and social status declined steadily as skin colour darkened, until you reached the poor nègres and immigrant Senegalese at the bottom of the pile. To realise yourself as an individual, and to rise in society, meant aspiring to whiteness: it meant despising Africa and blackness, and adopting French language, manners, and culture.

For much of World War II, the French West Atlantic Fleet, loyal to the collaborationist “Vichy” government of Marshal Pétain, was holed up in Martinique, carefully keeping out of the European war (and guarding tons of gold from the French Central Bank). Five thousand bored French sailors were billeted in Fort-de-France, bringing with them an ugly, oppressive racism which Martinique deeply resented. Their crassness seemed a million miles away from the Parisian sophistication to which Martiniquans aspired; as far as these French sailors were concerned, if Martiniquans thought they were French, that was the joke of the century.

In 1939, the young Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire had returned from France announcing that it was a good and beautiful thing to be black. Martiniquans had thought him a madman, a traitor to France; but now they wondered if he might not be right.

The young Fanon was deeply influenced by Césaire. He was stirred by Charles de Gaulle’s broadcasts on behalf of the French resistance, which were reaching Martinique from neighbouring islands. His disappearance to Dominica for military training — on the very day of his brother’s wedding — was a patriotic act. So was his decision in 1944 to join the French army. He was stationed first in Casablanca, then in northern Algeria, alongside troops from the French African colony of Senegal.

But here his “Frenchness” came under further question. The army was fiercely hierarchical; “proper” French troops were the élite, the Senegalese were at the bottom of the ladder, easily used (Fanon suspected) as cannon-fodder, and West Indian soldiers were somewhere in the middle, French but not-really-French. After the war, in both France and Martinique, this lesson was rubbed in, hard. Instead of being part of the victory celebrations, Fanon, now a decorated French war veteran, felt sidelined, unappreciated, snubbed.

Unable to settle in Martinique after the war, Fanon returned to France, studied medicine in Lyon, and then switched to psychiatry. What interested him now was understanding how French colonisation had damaged the Martiniquan psyche.

He had learned that, for the French, a négre was always a négre, no matter how educated, brave, sophisticated, and well-read he might be. Far from blending in as an ordinary Frenchman among Frenchmen, he himself, a black Martiniquan, was always visible and distinct. How long have you been here in France? How well you speak French, my boy! Which part of Africa are you from? What would you like to be examined on? (wink wink). And, on one celebrated occasion, from a child: Mummy, mummy, look a nigger, I’m frightened.

Other Martiniquans took all this with a large pinch of salt and banded together to drown their sorrows. But not Fanon. He demanded to be recognised and treated as a full and equal human being, not patronised or humoured as an imitation Frenchman. His first book thus emerged as a howl of outrage at the dehumanisation of black West Indians by the colonial process.

Black Skin, White Masks is an angry book, written with all the sweeping passion of an Old Testament prophet. It begins with a quote from Césaire: “I am talking of millions of men who have been skilfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement.” It does not seek racial revenge, but demands the full liberation of all human beings, especially “the liberation of the black man from himself” and from the urge to whiteness. “The black man wants to be white,” he wrote. “The white man slaves to reach a human level . . . The white man is sealed in his whiteness, the black man in his blackness.” Like a surgeon with a scalpel, Fanon examines the way colonisation breeds racial guilt and inferiority, and how its victims are forced to don white masks and forfeit their true identity.

The West Indian returning from Paris is already a mutant, Fanon argues, alienated from his own roots, and alienated from his pathetic Frenchness too, because now he knows that in France he is inferior. The black woman seeks a white husband, the black man seeks a white wife. Always the unconscious need for white validation. Even whites who romanticised black vitality or sexual prowess were showing a form of racism, a primal fear. “Unconsciously,” Fanon wrote, “I distrust what is black in me, which is to say the whole of my being.”

Although Fanon says many harsh and painful things along the way, he still arrives at a humanist resolution in this first book. “The only way to break this vicious circle is to restore to the other, through mediation and recognition, his human reality.” Nothing less than true humanity for every human being will do. To be human is to assert one’s existence and to demand human behaviour from the other. “All I want [is that] the enslavement of man by man cease for ever . . . [and] to discover and love man, wherever he may be . . . Both [sides] must turn their backs on the inhuman voices which were those of their respective ancestors in order that authentic communication is possible.”

Fanon’s polemic fell on deaf ears, in France, in Africa, and in Martinique. It was Algeria that helped him take the argument a stage further. Why were racial mindsets so stubborn? What could release the brainwashed self, help it to achieve authentic individuality?

When Fanon took charge of the psychiatric department at Blida-Joinville hospital in 1953, he found a perfect laboratory for these investigations. Algeria resembled Martinique, but on a much larger scale. A white European minority controlled the land and the economy; there was a small educated middle class created by French “assimilation”; and the Muslim majority was poor, illiterate, and despised. Although pressure for independence was building up, France was not going to let go; it had already been humiliated in Indochina, Morocco, and Tunisia, and in oil-rich Algeria it drew a line in the sand.

Blida-Joinville was the largest psychiatric hospital in Algeria, strictly isolated; European and Algerian patients were segregated and treated differently. Fanon — brusque, abrasive, demanding — hurled himself into radical reforms, easing restrictions and equalising patient treatment. When this did not work, he drew the inescapable conclusion: it was no use pretending the Algerian patients were French and applying French treatment and methods to them. Psychiatry tries to reconcile the alienated psyche to the alienating environment: Fanon now saw this as a wholly pointless quest. Mental illness was rooted in a loss of existential freedom, leading to alienation and social exclusion. Algerians had to be treated within their own cultural context. In a colonised society, this was by definition impossible.

This crucial insight soon acquired extreme urgency. In 1954 the Algerian “revolution” exploded, and France responded with extreme brutality. Terror tactics, torture, barbaric cruelty, massacres — all this became normal in Algeria. There were appalling atrocities on both sides. Fanon was horrified by the violence; he illegally treated Algerian casualties at Blida-Joinville, the tortured as well as the torturers, and quietly supported the FLN (the National Liberation Front); he soon attracted the attention of the police, some of his colleagues fled for their lives, and eventually his own position became untenable. He resigned in late 1957 (shortly before being expelled), renounced his French citizenship, and within a few weeks he was in Tunisia working with the FLN.

A million people died in the Algerian war of 1954–62. Two million were uprooted. Most of the Europeans fled. The economy collapsed. The brutality seeped into the very heart of France; the Fourth Republic fell. For Fanon, angrier than ever, the issue was now the total liberation of Algeria. But he was already seeing beyond that. Faced with the racist fury of French forces in Algeria, he was driven back to the hardest question of all: to what extent does violence justify a violent response? Repulsive as it was, might violence be the only way of prising colonial fingers away from their “possessions”? If liberation is not freely granted, must it then be seized? And, once Algeria was free, how should the process be adapted to colonised sub-Saharan Africa?

Fanon, the doctor and psychiatrist committed to healing, struggled with these terrible questions in both Algeria and Tunisia while he treated appalling casualties, searched for drugs, trained nurses, gave sanctuary to fugitives, taught people how to control fear and bear torture, and argued the Algerian case in unsigned articles in El Moudjahid.

The young radical humanist became a revolutionary socialist. Colonisation was not merely a political or psychological process, he now believed; it was the total, fatal saturation of a subject society by the systems and values of a more powerful culture. Formal political independence was meaningless compared with “authentic” decolonisation.

Violence was now a highly personal issue for Fanon. In the last phase of his short life, he assumed an international profile. Part of his work was diplomatic, as the FLN’s ambassador in Ghana, from where he lobbied for Algerian independence, African armed intervention against the French, and a pan-African federation of liberated states.

Other missions were rather less diplomatic. When his jeep crashed (or hit a French landmine) on the Algerian–Moroccan border, where he was reorganising FLN medical services, he was lucky to escape with his life: in addition to 12 vertebral fractures and a damaged sphincter, his lower body was paralysed. The Algerians flew him to Rome for treatment: there, he narrowly escaped a car bomb, and when a local newspaper reported his presence in a hospital he demanded a change of room — and thus escaped a machine-gun attack during the night.

Later, in 1960, he crossed the Sahara northwards in a jeep, disguised in Arab clothes, to confirm that it would be possible to supply the Algerians — and even send troops — from the south. On the first leg of that journey, the Air France plane he was supposed to catch from Monrovia to Conakry was diverted after take-off to the French base in Abidjan, where it was zealously searched by French troops.

But where killers failed, illness succeeded. After he contracted leukaemia in 1960, and treatment in the USSR was unsuccessful, Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth in a ten-week burst of energy before making a final ironic trek to Washington, DC, where he was kept waiting in a hotel room for a week or more before being treated. He died there on December 6, 1961.

The Wretched of the Earth is his best-known and most cohesive book; it deals bluntly with the theory and practice of decolonisation. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre contributed an inflammatory preface. In order to advance, Fanon argued, the people of the “Third World” have to achieve authentic decolonisation. In order to push back poverty, to industrialise, to compensate for natural resources stripped by colonisers, the “wretched of the earth” need a model, a strategy, a vision. All colonial structures have to be removed; one “species” of people has to be replaced by another. Otherwise leaders and “nationalist” parties simply step into the shoes of the departing colonists, and nothing really changes; the strings of real power are pulled just as easily from foreign capitals as from local ones. (The political games surrounding globalisation would have been no surprise to Fanon.)

A total break with the old ways was essential if the Third World was to have a chance of real development. And because colonisation was an intrinsically violent process, its violence — whether physical or psychic, political or cultural — must be met with violence. Despite his own instinctive humanism and his experience of the terrible effects of violence on both the perpetrator and the victim, Fanon was driven to the conclusion that violence could be a “cleansing force”, a necessary evil that would free the colonised psyche from inner conflict, despair, inaction, and inferiority.

As with the earlier books, much of The Wretched of the Earth has been overtaken by events. With hindsight, it is easy to smile at Frantz Fanon’s idealism, his insistence on the Algerian model and the “socialist revolution”, his frequent naïveté, and his anguish over anti-colonial violence. Few of his ideas on revolutionary process have stood the test of time.

Martinique and the other French overseas departments have chosen to stay “French”, and are propped up by financial transfers from la métropole. Aimé Césaire, despite decades in the French parliament, is a spent force; demands for independence in the French Caribbean are barely audible. France’s African empire, nominally independent, has retained strong ties with the metropolis; “authentic decolonisation” did not happen.

Algeria reached a negotiated settlement with France after a last appalling flare-up of violence in 1962, and after independence became a one-party state under a military bureaucracy. Armed conflict resurfaced in 1989 (according to one account, it broke the heart of Fanon’s widow Josie, who committed suicide soon after). When a militant Islamic party (the FIS) won the first multi-party election, the result was suppressed and a bloody ten-year civil war ensued. France is still in denial about the Algerian war and the horrors on which it supped there.

Fanon himself, unable to be a Martiniquan, unable to be French, was in the end unable to be Algerian either, despite his secret and dramatic burial: a black non-Muslim could not, by definition, be an authentic Algerian, let alone an Algerian hero. In loyal French circles, Fanon is still seen as a traitor for denouncing his Frenchness, asserting his blackness, and above all for siding with the Algerians.

He became notorious in the west when his work was (poorly) translated into English after his death. Various militant movements have ransacked his ideas to validate their own, including the Black Panthers in the US, and Palestinian and Irish nationalists. Right-wingers have even blamed him for al-Qaeda. He has been dubbed an “apostle of violence”. More recently, his books have found a place in the “postcolonial studies” programmes of American universities, and have become the territory for arcane academic warfare. Elsewhere, it seems, he is little read.

The original Fanon, then, is fading into the distance. He was a hardline, idealistic romantic, a socialist and a revolutionary. He was against colonialism and neo-colonialism in all their forms, against racism, elites, and authoritarians of all varieties. He sided with the poor and the underclass, with every psyche twisted or damaged by colonisation.

He was much better at dissecting problems than at formulating solutions. But it would not be hard to make a list of places where the same psychic damage which he documented half a century ago, the same barbarities, the same inequities, the same cultural destruction, the same pseudo-freedoms, can still be found, in very much the same form.

Right or wrong, Fanon was prepared to follow the argument to its bitter conclusion, and to take the personal consequences. At a time when the world is numbed with barbarities and deceits, Fanon, with his passionate anger, needs to be rediscovered. Not the “apostle of violence” caricature, but the man who could write: “Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes to generosity. But man is also a no. No to scorn for man. No to the indignity of man. No to the exploitation of man. No to the murder of what is most human about man: freedom.”

A Fanon chronology

“My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”
(Black Skin, White Masks)

 1925 Born in Martinique, July 20
 1943 Training for “Free French” in Dominica
 1944–45 Volunteers for French army; fights in Europe, wounded, awarded Croix de Guerre
 1946 Martinique becomes a French Overseas Department
 1946–50 Medical and psychiatric training in Paris and Lyon
 1951 Submits medical dissertation; awarded doctorate in psychiatry
 1952 Publishes Peau noir, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks)
 1953 Head of Psychiatric Department, Blida-Joinville Hospital, Algeria
 1954 Start of Algerian “revolution”
 1956 Resigns from hospital, works with FLN newspaper in Tunis
 1959 Injured by mine; escapes assassination in Rome. Publishes L’an V de la révolution algérienne (The Fifth Year of the Algerian Revolution; translated as Studies in a Dying Colonialism)
 1960 Ambassador of Algerian Provisional Government in Ghana. Crosses Sahara Desert to map southern route to Algeria. Leukaemia diagnosed
 1961 Treated in the USSR. Publishes Les damnées de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth). Treated in the US. Dies in Washington, DC, December 6; buried in Algeria
 1962 Algerian independence
 1964 Pour la révolution africaine (Towards the African Revolution) published posthumously


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