Black skin, white masks

Image: Claudio Mubarac / Jornal de Resenhas


Commentary on Frantz Fanon's First Book

Black skin, white masks it was originally published in Paris, by Seuil, in 1952. Fanon, a young Martinican doctor, decorated for his work in the French army in World War II, was then 27 years old, and had received his doctorate in psychiatry the previous year in Lyon. The first version of the book, entitled Essay for the disalienation of blacks, the young psychiatry student had written with the intention of submitting it as a doctoral thesis, which was deterred by his advisor, who considered that a conventional clinical study would be more appropriate.

A year later, Fanon sent the manuscript to Francis Jeanson, a philosopher associated with the Modern times, in search of a preface. Jeanson had just published in that magazine a devastating review of the Rebel, by Camus, in what would become the first step in his rupture with Sartre. Patrick Ehlen tells us (Frantz Fanon: A spiritual biography), that Jeanson enthusiastically received the manuscript and, to his misfortune, “made the mistake” of telling this to Fanon, who was hoping for a critique worthy of his efforts.

The answer came back steaming: "What you mean is, for a black man, it's not bad." The scene that followed, with Jeanson pointing out the door to Fanon, convinced the young doctor of the philosopher's sincerity, and was the beginning not only of a friendship, but of a lasting collaboration, until his death in 1961, with Sartre's inner circle, based on the crudity and clarity of intention with which opinions and ideas were expressed.

After practicing social (or institutional) psychiatry in Saint-Alban, in metropolitan France, Fanon went to Algeria, where, in Blida, he began to practice a libertarian and anti-colonial psychiatry, to finally engage, from 1956 onwards, in the National Liberation Front. Only in 1961, with the publication of The Damned of the Earth, the political-scientific application of Fanon's humanism, inspired by Hegel, Marx and the existentialists, is completed.

With black skin, his first step, Fanon wants to free the black man from himself. The black wants to be white and thus denies himself as a man; even when he assumes his race, the black is not a man, Fanon tells us, in a polemical overcoming of blackness, because his mental scheme remains colonized; it cannot be enough for him to recover the past or devote himself to African civilizations in order to reinvent himself, he must create the future. It is necessary to go beyond the negritude and psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan to decolonize oneself, since, for Fanon, psychoanalysis does not exist abstractly, above and beyond the social structures, societies and colonial economy.

The violence of the colonial state deprives the black man of humanity, systematically and rationally strips him of humiliation, beatings, physical and mental torture, which generate colonial neuroses. This, like the French metropolitan state, is a racist state. Liberation, which can only be the work of those oppressed by color, passes through the denial of whitening, of institutionalized racism, of colonial and post-colonial states. In all cases, only the confrontation of racism through revolutionary violence can liberate. For only by fighting colonialism can the black man stop being a slave of slavery.

Nothing clearer, nothing more raw. But clarity, in this book, does not mean transparency of thought that avoids metaphor, analogy and constant reference to facts, ideas, authors and information shared in post-war Paris, but largely unknown outside it. Our literary and academic world practically ignored the work until recently, when cultural studies, subaltern studies, and other Anglo-Saxon academic fads landed in our faculties of Communication, Social Sciences and Letters. Such late reception deserves attention and study, not limited geographically to Brazil. Fanon was already dead when the world left discovered him.

But still, it was Sartre's preface to The Damned of the Earth that circulated widely among non-blacks, not his books. Fanon continued to be a black revolutionary for the European and American (including Latin) world, with the white masks that the European universalist culture put on him. The man who said in so many words that he wanted to be a man and not a nigger hardly reads as a man.

Fanon's reception had at least three decisive moments, which I briefly recall here. The first took place in the 1960s, amid riots, in neighborhoods burning in flames, by the Black Panthers. The US state is a colonial state, black Americans are subjects of an internal colonization, they said at the time. The liberation war would not only take place in the Third World, in Algeria, in Indochina, in South Africa, but in the heart of imperialism. More than adequate reading for Fanon. Among us, some young exiled intellectuals, such as Glauber Rocha and Paulo Freire, also understood it that way.

Fanon's second reception was made, in Brazil, by Abdias do Nascimento and by the young black students and professionals of the 1970s. The Brazilian state is also a colonial state despite its ideological façade of racial democracy. All its apparatus of violence, all the emotional and psychic paraphernalia of whitening, torture and dehumanization have remained intact since Independence; this colonial state was only appropriated by white Brazilians or those who define themselves as such; there is also no room for blacks in it. Is there a more Fanonian diagnosis?

A third reception of Fanon is that which occurs today in postcolonial metropolitan states, where immigrants from former colonies are sub-citizens, indigenes of the Republic, as they call themselves in France. Perhaps now the French will hear him say that republican France is racist without considering him a black man.

Anyway, in the USA, in Europe, in Africa or here, black skin it is more current than ever.

*Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães is a retired senior professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. Author, among other books, of Classes, races and democracy (Publisher 34).



Frantz Fanon. Black skin, white masks. Translation: Sebastião Nascimento with the collaboration of Raquel Camargo. Sao Paulo, Ubu, 2020.








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