BOOK TALK: Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth

Fanon, F. (2001). The Wretched of The Earth. London: Penguin Books: Modern Classics.

“The colonised man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope.” (p. 187)

A few years ago, I was racing through reading material on the English Literature curriculum at the University of Huddersfield. I had classes in a range of specialties including science/speculative fiction, postmodern fiction, Shakespeare and post-colonial voices. Lots of texts had an impact on me and this was probably because they were discussed by very passionate lecturers who loved nothing more than engagement with those of us crammed into those lecture halls and seminar rooms.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon is one of my favourite texts. It is regarded as pivotal literature in the canon of post-colonial voices and is a known catalyst for the Black Panther movement, as well as a seminal text for figureheads like Malcolm X. It was an emotional look into the psychopathology of colonialism, the impact felt by those who have been stomped under the boot of racism and oppression, and a very moving depiction of the brutality of conflict (Fanon was caught up in the Algerian revolution). Fanon was a revolutionary figure himself, when we look back at race discourse, due to his unique perspective as an articulate philosopher, psychiatrist and physician. His works were nuanced and angry: he himself saw on the frontlines the scars of conflict. He heard accounts of trauma from ex-soldiers and victims of gang-rape and torture. Whilst his own experience as a black man informed much of his writing, in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon went a step further and noted insightful observations on mental health, which only helped to propel the notion that the violence of colonialism/racism is not just immediately felt, but can irrevocably change the brain and carry repercussions long into the future of an individual’s life.

The Wretched of the Earth resonated back then, when it was just a discussion piece in a classroom, but has also gone on to be applicable as a crucial text for movements such as Black Lives Matter in light of the world in a post-George Floyd era. More importantly, elements of Fanon’s writing are transferable to the struggle of other racial minorities, women and the queer, which only serves to bolster his incredible status as a writer. I love that good literature only ages like fine wine. Somehow, no matter how much has changed since the first publication, the words stick and seem to serve as educational tools and solace for lots of readers, across different countries in different time zones (perhaps even ones who weren’t intended as the key demographic).

I have recently been skimming through the book again, revisiting some of Fanon’s more problematic ideas (in particular, the role of violence in toppling colonialism) and have found it equally as moving, if not moreso, in the wake of all that has happened since I finished my undergraduate course.

I mean, it’s no secret that in the present day, racial hatred and discrimination is still rife. It’s just shocking to consider our current situations against those events we read about in our history books. We can talk about how far we’ve come since literary geniuses like Fanon penned their pleas to the people, but there’s still a long way to go before racial prejudice is something people talk about in retrospect. The statistical evidence alone is shocking, but the emotive firsthand depictions of inequality experienced in underprivileged neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and within the healthcare system (both staff and patients), which supplement the figures we have available to us, are too vast to ignore. People are still being treated differently on account of their skin colour and are still dying disproportionately to white people at the hands of police brutality.

There’s a lot of opposition to acknowledgement of these prevailing inequities and the pleas for change. There’s resistance from political leaders, from those who enjoy the hierarchical and systemic privileges that the “norm” has afforded them, and also from those who are mentally stuck in a different era and therefore unable to accept change as a positive development, instead perceiving it as a threat of “the unknown”.

Opposition is also stoked by the fact we live in a unique time where “experts” within the general public, informed as they are by right-wing propaganda and fake news, are credited as reputable sources. Their voices are the loudest in the room. This is at the expense of the voices of the people who experience discrimination first-hand and have valid, often brutal, stories to share with the world. The voices of self-proclaimed experts resonate louder than those who try speak out against their oppressors and professionals who have studies, statistics and qualitative data under their belts to support their hypotheses. The reality is that we live in a dangerous time where the objective truth is readily available and instantly uploaded to the internet, yet blatantly disregarded in favour of sensationalism and fabrication. Fascism is on the rise across most of the planet and encouraged by some of the least articulate and least responsible examples of “leadership” the world has ever seen (Trump: you will not be missed).

Our real life examples in the present day show that white people still have the power of a platform from which they can command an audience with a microphone, even if they have nothing valid to say. A prime example being the recent event in which, following incitement by the aforementioned Tango’d Trump, we had embittered people storming into Capitol Hill because they didn’t see a verdict they agreed with. There was no specific objective to their mission: it was simply destruction for the sake of destruction. They held the attention of the world and yet the petulance of these people wasn’t met with uproar to anywhere near the same degree as that which the world witnessed during protests during the BLM resurgence of 2020. These people weren’t handled in a violent way by the police, who in many videos were seen to literally move out of the way so as not to obstruct the trespassers’ paths. This is simply because they were white. The double standards are too blatant to go unobserved!

Oh, and we still have men speaking for women. Another example from a few years ago in the most powerful country of the West: old men in suits sat round a table and smiling for the camera as they signed away the reproductive rights of women, in the name of God.

My basic understanding is that minority groups are still being marginalised in all aspects, and as a brown lady myself, I can attest to the fact that daily racism is still experienced and observed by many of us who don’t fit the “middle-aged white cis man” archetype. I don’t have all the answers as to how we can change the status quo (and I never proclaimed to), but reading Fanon again has made me refine my own personal list of objectives that I hope to share with my local community and support groups:

We the people should be demanding authentic (not tokenistic), diversified representation on TV, in the media and in the workplace. We should be critiquing our leaders and the powers that be, signing petitions, contacting our local MPs and showing solidarity with our local grassroots organisations. We should be acknowledging the androcentric, Eurocentric bias indoctrinated into our societies. We should be reforming our curriculums, instead of bequeathing the same spiel down to future generations. We should be challenging biased and toxic ideology with educated dialogue.

(I would also like to add that, if you are a middle-aged white cis man, you should understand that your position and experiences as a middle-aged white cis man do not in the slightest equip you to speak for people of colour or for women/people of a different gender assignment. Your job is to listen and to observe the very valid and real experiences of people outside yourself, and to query how you can contribute towards a world that treats minorities better.)

Here are some powerful quotes from the text that have resonated with me and, I hope, resonate with you too:

“We know that it is not a homogeneous world; we know too that enslaved peoples are still to be found there, together with some who have achieved a simulacrum of phoney independence, others who are still fighting to attain sovereignty and others again who have obtained complete freedom but who live under the constant menace of imperialist aggression. These differences are born of colonial history, in other words of oppression.” (pages 9-10)

“We must achieve revolutionary socialism all together everywhere, or else one by one we will be defeated by our former masters.” (page 9)

“Violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of these enslaved men at arm’s length; it seeks to dehumanise them. Everything will be done to wipe out their traditions, to substitute our language for theirs and to destroy their culture without giving them ours.” (p. 13)

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