Finger On The Page: Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks"

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The first serious encounter I had with Frantz Fanon's work came during a college course surveying post-colonial literature. A hefty part of the class was dedicated to understanding the conversation between members of the Negritude movement (particularly Aime Cesaire) and Fanon's writing in Black Skin, White Masks. At first approach, the book seemed to be an oddly written (i.e., translated--from the French) and dense combination of anti-colonial rants and black philosophical esoterica. My colleagues and I were excited to finally get the chance to delve into Fanon, a writer we had heard referenced in other classes and so many of those bull session conversations about "blackness" one has into the wee hours of the morning. We came away from our initial reading confused and unsatisfied; the professor spent two weeks bouncing around the book, the wording seemed all over the place at times, and the parts we did comprehend appeared to color Fanon as stereotypically angry.

While the book does call for an end to oppression along with attempting to identify the nature of the "black self," it is also a direct assault on what many considered (and still consider) to be the essence of the black identity. As such, the book becomes a sort of internal conversation among black people calling for a reassessment of who we consider ourselves to be.

The goal of these posts will be to conduct a chapter-a-week close reading of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, while analyzing, summarizing, and dialoguing with the text to provide readers with a better understanding of this crucial contribution to thinking about race. For those curious, I will be using the 1991 paperback reissue with [cover design by Liadain Warwick Smith].

Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation's first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes "blackness," we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers--over 50 years ago--to our most pressing questions about black people.

At any rate, let's get right to it...


"At the risk of arousing the resentment of my colored brothers, I will say that the black is not a man."
~Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

One of the first mistakes my class made in tackling BSWM was skipping over the introduction. I can't stress how important it is to ALWAYS read the introduction to any piece of literature you come across as it prepares you for what you are about to read!!!

In Fanon's case, the introduction immediately tells us a number of things. The author assures us, with characteristic irony and sarcasm, that he has not come with "timeless truths" and that he "is not illuminated with ultimate radiances" (7). He also informs us that he ultimately believes in mankind's ability "to understand and to love" (7). With those disclaimers out of the way, Fanon goes on to state that he "propose[s] nothing short of the liberation of the man of color from himself." (8). For Fanon, this type of liberation is necessary because it is the "black" psyche which motives black people to "want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the value of their intellect" meaning, "For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white" (10). While Fanon acknowledges that some black (and white) people "will not find themselves in what follows" it does not mean that the problem he is outlining is nonexistent.

The author then goes on to give us brief descriptions on what each of the chapters will cover. The first three will deal with the modern black man's thoughts and feelings once he finds himself in the "white world". The fourth chapter is a critique of a book (Prospero and Caliban: Pyschology and Colonization) by M. Mannoni. The fifth chapter--a very important chapter!!-- is an examination of black people's understanding of blackness. This chapter reveals the heart of Fanon's writing in the book as he seeks to explain the inherent desperation and existential angst found in black people "driven to discover the meaning of black identity" (14). The last two chapters seek to explain the philosophical underpinnings of being black.

Now that we've covered the Introduction, next week we can begin with chapter one which covers some of the issues surrounding black people and the adoption of the colonizer's language. While this chapter will deal mainly with speech politics concerning continental Africans and Caribbeans, African American readers may find that some of the ideas expressed will ring relevant to our own issues with "talkin' white"!!!

See you next week...

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