||Fanon did not prescribe violence. He diagnosed it'
As a young man growing up in Toronto in the 1980s, I considered Third World Books on Bathurst St. a shrine to which I made weekly pilgrimages.
In these formative years, I, like so many other young men and women who frequented the store, was exposed to writers and thinkers — Audre Lourde, Claude McKay, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cheikh Anta Diop, C.L.R. James — and a range of ideas such as Pan-Africanism, socialism, Third Worldism, and anti-imperialism. Third World Books was the site of lively, and, at times, heated debate. We were imagining and crafting the world anew, and our tools were the books that graced the store's shelves.
Sadly, the bookstore no longer exists. It expired with Leonard Johnston, or Lennie, as we affectionately called him, who, along with his wife, Gwendolyn Johnston, was not only the proprietor but also the heart and soul of a remarkable institution.
It was Lennie who first exposed me to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The Martinican clinical psychiatrist literally wrote the book on his deathbed as his body teemed with an excess of leucocytes. At the time, he was actively engaged in the Algerian liberation struggle, serving as the Front de libération nationale's (FLN) ambassador to Ghana. The FLN was at the forefront of Algeria's gruelling battle against French colonialism. Fanon had earned the respect of the FLN during his tenure as chef de médecin at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria in the mid-1950s. He put his life at risk by publicly denouncing the horrors of French colonialism in Algeria and treating FLN fedayin who had been tortured by the French.
In retrospect, Fanon's destiny appears to have been tied to Algeria from the beginning. As a medical student specializing in clinical psychiatry in France in the 1950s, he treated impoverished Algerians, leading him to sarcastically remark, "If the standard of living made available to North Africans in France is higher than the one he was accustomed to at home, then there is a good deal to be done in his country, in that `other France.'"
He had also trained for combat in Algeria as a soldier in the French army during World War II. It was during this first visit to Algeria that Fanon encountered the virus of racism that seems to have eluded him in Martinique. White French troops were separated from black West Indians, who were supposed to be French citizens. Black African soldiers were also segregated from French troops, as were Arab Africans, whom the French reviled and treated like pariahs on their own soil. Fanon lived this experience at the very moment that the French army set out to confront German fascism, with its notions of racial purity. The irony of this situation was not lost on him.
The war undoubtedly shaped Fanon's understanding of violence. Fanon entered the war as an adolescent; its endless carnage served as his rite of passage to adulthood. It shook him to the core and purged him of the idealism he harboured when he joined the Free French Force.
Violence profoundly touched Fanon at a pivotal moment in his life. So it is not surprising that he would take it up as a theme in his writing. Since the 1961 publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon has been at the centre of a storm of controversy, most of which is based on the first chapter of the book, entitled "On Violence."
Part of the problem lies in the fact that Fanon is generally read too literally when, as York University professor Ato Sekyi-Otu and others have argued, he should be read, at least in part, in a literary way. Fanon's vivid and dramatic prose was influenced by the literary style of the Martinican poet and statesman Aimé Césaire. The French surrealist poet André Breton described Césaire's 1939 poem "Return to My Native Land" as "nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of all time." In the poem, Césaire declared:
my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against
the clamour of the day
my Negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my Negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky
it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience
Césaire taught Fanon at the Lycée Schoelcher in Martinique, and his compelling, highly emotive manipulation of the French language left a lasting impression on his student. At times, Fanon appears to be making a statement when in actual fact he is either describing a situation, as it exists, or making a dramatic claim, only to recant it in another section, as if he were writing scenes in a play.
In a February 2002 National Post column, "Frantz Fanon: A Poisonous Thinker Who Refuses to Die," writer Robert Fulford claimed that "it was Fanon who brought into modern culture the idea that violence can heal the spiritually wounded," and that Fanon "argued that violence was necessary to Third World peoples not just as a way to win their liberty but, even more, because it would cure the inferiority complex that had been created by the teachings of white men."
He also informed us that The Wretched of Earth "went into six editions in Arabic," scandalously insinuating a relationship between Arabness and violence. Fulford is sorely misguided, if not disingenuous. He perpetuates the image of Fanon as an apostle of violence. But to label Fanon as an avatar of violence is as presumptuous as labelling Fulford as a pacifist.
Much of the hullabaloo stems from passages such as the following: "At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction." At a cursory reading, the passage appears to be a promotion of violence as cathartic release. But at a closer read, Fanon's language is very specific. The words "At the level of individuals" are crucial: Fanon is sharing his first-hand observations as a clinical psychiatrist. He was treating Algerian patients who were engaged in a life-and-death struggle against French settlers who had killed, brutalized, and maimed Algerian women and men. For some of them, violence was a cathartic act. Under these conditions, should we be surprised that, in absence of an impartial judiciary, police force, or any other official institutions willing to defend the rights of Algerians, some of them should take matters into their own hands?
In a chapter of The Wretched of the Earth entitled "Colonial War and Mental Disorders," Fanon describes a series of clinical cases. One involved two Algerian brothers who had murdered their European friend. They had both lost family members at the hands of the French and appear to have killed the friend simply because he himself was French. Naturally, Fanon did not condone the arbitrary killing by the brothers. But as a psychiatrist, he sought to understand why they did it. He concluded that, like so many of his other patients, the brothers were afflicted with "psychiatric phenomena entailing disorders" that were directly linked to their colonial condition. In other words, random violence was not normal behaviour. Fanon did not prescribe violence. He diagnosed it and sought to explain it.
`Violence ... frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction'
He cringed at wanton acts of violence and, despite his medical training, is said to have had a strong aversion to the sight of blood. And yet he could not ignore Algeria's reality, or that of any other society where the colonizer used violence to subvert and repress the life chances of those they colonized. It is puzzling how such a common feature of colonial society has been so controversial. Violence and colonialism go hand-in-hand. Violence is not only used to subjugate colonized peoples; it conditions their very existence because it is held in reserve, for when the "the natives get out of hand."
And just as the Americans used cannons and gunpowder to throw off the yoke of British colonialism, so too do les damnés de la terre reserve that very same right when other avenues to freedom have been blocked. This is what Fanon means when he writes of the colonized "practice of violence and... his plan for freedom." Context is always important. Who today questions whether the Vietnamese were justified in taking up arms, to use violence, in the face of the U.S. bombs that rained down on their villages, killing and maiming tens of thousands of innocent civilians?
But there is another reason to carefully read Fanon. Most of the violence that Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth is fratricidal — Algerians unleashing their pent-up anguish and frustration upon one another, largely because they feel powerless to lash out against their oppressor. At a time when "black-on-black" violence routinely dominates the headlines (does "white-on-white" crime exist?), Fanon reminds us that alienation, poverty, and marginalization are responsible for many of the social and psychological ills of our time. And while it might be too formulaic to ascribe a simple cause-effect relationship to all social problems, there is no doubt that the fratricide that continues to clip so many lives in North America and Europe is directly related to high unemployment, diminished life chances, and the profound sense of social estrangement so many young people feel.
This picture is clear enough in metropolitan centres like Toronto and Montreal, or cities like London and Glasgow. Scotland's brutal orgies of "booze and blades" among rival gangs of white youth recently led the United Nations to designate it the most violent country in the "developed" world. It is also one of Europe's poorest countries: A quarter of Scotland's children live in poverty and are dependent on government assistance.
Fulford believes that Fanon "has receded into history," but this point could not be further from the truth. Fanon continues to resonate with the oppressed and dispossessed of the world. He has been the subject of at least two films, with another one soon to be released by Danny Glover's company, Louverture Films. His ideas are studied in departments of philosophy and political science, and in post-colonial and cultural studies programs, all over the world. His influence in the field of psychiatry and psychology is growing, and a steady flow of Fanon biographies and anthologies suggests that, despite the tremendous impact of his writing in the 1960s and 1970s, we are only now beginning to understand the breadth and depth of his ideas.
When Fulford suggested that Fanon's ideas stubbornly evade death, he is right. Like a festering wound that refuses to heal, the inequalities that Fanon so vividly denounced are still with us today. Like Lennie, who played his part in wiping the fog from our eyes, the ghost of Fanon continues to haunt us, not as a spooky apparition but as one who challenges us to imagine that another world is possible, and to concretely commit ourselves to bringing that world into being.
David Austin is a Montreal writer and community worker. His two-part radio documentary on Frantz Fanon airs on CBC's Ideas Wednesday, Oct. 25 and Wednesday, Nov. 1 at 9 p.m.