Finger on the Page: Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin White Masks" (Chapter 1) exclusive feature
Michael J. Wilson {Brooklyn, New York}

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.

Chapter One: The Negro & Language
(Last week: Introduction)

/////What I want to do is help the black man to free himself of the arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment./////

In this chapter, Fanon shares his thoughts on how langauge choice reveals some of the effects oppression has had on the black psyche. He points out that, for black people, "to speak is to exist absolutely for the other" meaning that the language one chooses to communicate with requires that he or she "assume a culture, support the weight of a civilization" (17). Key to this theory is the notion that, in the oppressed black mind, there is the tendency to equate European culture and whiteness with humanity. Thus, "the Negro will become whiter--become more human--as he masters the white man's language" (18).

Next, we are presented with a few examples of how and why this process takes place. Fanon uses the instance of the native Caribbean's first encounter with the "mother country" (in this case, a Martinican visiting France for the first time) to illustrate the nature of a black inferiority complex. He states that,

/////Every colonized people--in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural orginality--finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. (18)/////

The author goes on to point out that schoolchildren in Martinique were taught to look down on their native creole and that the middle class only used the dialect when speaking to their servants. Some families did away with creole all together and ridiculed their children for using it, all in the name of perfecting their French. Fanon reminds us that, "for the Negro knows that over there in France there is a stereotype of him that will fasten on to him at the pier in Le Havre or Marseille" (20).

The logic of equating French culture with progress or cultivation is peculiar. Fanon describes it as "a psychological phenomenon that consists in the belief that the world will open to the extent to which frontiers are broken down" (21). Colonialism and oppression have a way of distorting one's notions of success and achievement to the degree that the person will forget about his or her own self completely and attempt to become another (in this case, white) person.

Briefly and vaguely, Fanon delves into a larger philosophical problem at the end of page 22, that of man's narcissism. Because of man's extreme infatuation with himself "in order to imagine that he is different from the other 'animals'". This narcissism is a mirage, but it is also at the root of black people's pursuit to "change who they are" in order to impress or prove themselves to whites. The solution to this problem, according to Fanon, is "man's surrender", that is, his doing away with his narcissism. Again, this section of the chapter is not explained in detail and the reader may have the feeling it feels out of place or serves as a distraction to the rest of the text.

Moving on, we are provided with yet another example of the language problem manifesting itself, this time in a Martinican who has just returned home from France. We see that he has seemingly forgotten creole, developed an intimate association with French culture, and become "critical of his compatriots" back home. He envisions himself as having oracle-like knowledge and comes to view life in his hometown as "deplorably played out" (24). This "brand-newness" is understood to be "evidence of a dislocation, a separation" (25).

Next is Fanon's take on the white perspective of this dilemma. For Fanon, the relationship between the two is analogous to that of the relationship between an adult and a child. In his observations, he recalls seeing many whites speak condescendingly to blacks (in dialect).

/////A white man addressing a Negro behaves exactly like an adult with a child and starts smirking, whispering, patronizing, cozening. It is not one white man I have a watched, but hundreds; and I have not limited my investigation to any one class... (31)/////

Naturally, these actions make blacks angry because they are a part of the process of "classifying, imprisoning, primitivizing, and decivilizing" black people. Fanon believed that the "European has a fixed concept of the Negro" (35).

Near the end of the chapter, Fanon provides us with one more example of language pathology when he states that "there is no reason why Andre Breton should say of [Aime] Cesaire, 'Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can" (39). For Fanon, this is the height of insult. He closes the chapter by saying, "we should be honored, the blacks will reproach me, that a white man like Breton writes such things" (40). -END-

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