Frantz Fanon was a French psychiatrist turned Algerianrevolutionary of Martinican origin, and one of the most importantand controversial thinkers of the postwar period. A veritable"intellect on fire," Fanon was a radical thinker withoriginal theories on race, revolution, violence, identity andagency. This book is an excellent introduction to the ideas and legacyof Fanon. Gibson explores him as a truly complex character in thecontext of his time and beyond. He argues that for Fanon, theoryhas a practical task to help change the world. Thus Fanon's"untidy dialectic," Gibson contends, is a philosophy ofliberation that includes cultural and historical issues and visionsof a future society. In a profoundly political sense, Gibson asksus to reevaluate Fanon's contribution as a critic ofmodernity and reassess in a new light notions of consciousness,humanism, and social change. This is a fascinating study that will interest undergraduatesand above in postcolonial studies, literary theory, culturalstudies, sociology, politics, and social and political theory, aswell as general readers.
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Abbreviations for Fanon’s Works
An Abbreviated Biography
Answering Some Critics
1 The Racial Gaze: Black Slave, White Master
The Jew and Black Consciousness
The Triple Person: Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Lived Experience
Dialectical Impasses: Hegel and the Black
A Negative Dialectic?
The Black and Reciprocity
Unchaining the Dialectic
2 Psychoanalysis and the Black’s Inferiority Complex
Outside my Psychoanalytic Office: Fanon and Mannoni
One Hundred Thousand Massacred
Dream and Reality
3 Negritude and the Descent into a “Real Hell”
Césaire’s Remembrance of Things Past and “Return” to the Future
Senghor and Negritude Politics
Sartre’s Orphée noir
The Dialectics of Black Consciousness
Fanon’s Critique of Negritude
4 Becoming Algerian
The Algiers School
The Collapse of the Division between Politics and Psychiatry: Torture(rs)
The Deepening Violence
The Battle of Algiers
5 Violent Concerns
The Relativity at the Heart of the Absolute
The Qualifications of Violence: Descent from an Absolute
Dizzy on Violence
6 Radical Mutations: Toward a Fighting Culture
The “Absolute Originality” of Women’s Actions
Wiring Participatory Democracy
7 Crossing the Dividing Line: Spontaneity and Organization
The Subject/Object Dialectic
The Beginning of the End of Manicheanism and the Limits of Spontaneity
The Making of a Radical Intellectual
Appendix: Fanon’s periodization of the intellectual’s relation with rural society
8 Nationalism and a New Humanism
The Question of Nationalism
Fanon’s Theory of Nationalism: Two Types of Nationalism or Three?
: The Overworked Peasant and the Lazy Intellectual
Humanism and Ideology
Political Education: How National Consciousness can Deepen into a Humanism
What Type of Organization for the Postcolonial Future?
In Place of a Conclusion
End User License Agreement
Table of Contents
For Aidan’s Eye
Nigel C. Gibson
Copyright © Nigel C. Gibson 2003
The right of Nigel C. Gibson to be identified as Author(s) of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2003 by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishing Ltd
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All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purposes of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gibson, Nigel C.
Fanon : the postcolonial imagination / Nigel C. Gibson.
p. em. – (Key contemporary thinkers)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-7456-2260-7 – ISBN 0-7456-2261-5 (pbk.) 1. Fanon, Frantz, 1925–1961. 2. Fanon, Frantz, 1925–1961 – Political and social views. 3. Blacks – Race identity. 4. Racism. I. Title. II. Key contemporary thinkers (Cambridge, England)
CT2628.F35 G53 2003
320.5’092 – dc21
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by SNP Best-set Typesetter Ltd., Hong Kong
Printed and bound in Great Britain by TJ International, Padstow, Cornwall
For further information on Polity, visit our website: www.polity.co.uk
Key Contemporary Thinkers
Jeremy Ahearne, Michel de Certeau: Interpretation and its Other
Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School1929–1989
Michael Caesar, Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction
M. J. Cain, Fodor: Language, Mind and Philosophy
Rosemary Cowan, Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption
Colin Davis, Levinas: An Introduction
Simon Evnine, Donald Davidson
Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook, Simone de Beauvoir: ACritical Introduction
Andrew Gamble, Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty
Nigel C. Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination
Graeme Gilloch, Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations
Karen Green, Dummett: Philosophy of Language
Espen Hammer, Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary
Phillip Hansen, Hannah Arendt: Politics, History and Citizenship
Sean Homer, Fredric Jameson: Marxism, Hermeneutics, Postmodernism
Christopher Hookway, Quine: Language, Experience and Reality
Christina Howells, Derrida: Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics
Fred Inglis, Clifford Geertz: Culture, Custom and Ethics
Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction
Sarah Kay, Žižek: A Critical Introduction
Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Post-Modernism and Beyond
Valerie Kennedy, Edward Said: A Critical Introduction
Chandran Kukathas and Philip Pettit, Rawls: A Theory of Justice and its Critics
James McGilvray, Chomsky: Language, Mind, and Politics
Lois McNay, Foucault: A Critical Introduction
Philip Manning, Erving Coffman and Modern Sociology
Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes
Harold W. Noonan, Frege: A Critical Introduction
William Outhwaite, Habermas: A Critical Introduction
Kari Palonen, Quentin Skinner: History, Politics, Rhetoric
John Preston, Feyerabend: Philosophy, Science and Society
Chris Rojek, Stuart Hall
Susan Sellers, Hélène Cixous: Authorship, Autobiography and Love
Wes Sharrock and Rupert Read, Kuhn: Philosopher of Scientific Revolution
David Silverman, Harvey Sacks: Social Science and Conversation Analysis
Dennis Smith, Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity
Nicholas H. Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity
Geoffrey Stokes, Popper: Philosophy, Politics and Scientific Method
Georgia Warnke, Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason
James Williams, Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy
Jonathan Wolff, Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal State
Maria Baghramian, Hilary Putnam
Sara Beardsworth, Kristeva
James Carey, Innis and McLuhan
George Crowder, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty, Pluralism and Liberalism
Thomas D’Andrea, Alasdair Macintyre
Maximilian de Gaynesford, John McDowell
Reidar Andreas Due, Deleuze
Jocelyn Dunphy, Ricoeur
Eric Dunning, Norbert Elias
Matthew Elton, Daniel Dennett: Reconciling Science and Our Self-conception
Chris Fleming, Rene Girard: Violence and Mimesis
Paul Kelly, Ronald Dworkin
Carl Levy, Antonio Gramsci
Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler
Dermot Moran, Edmund Husserl
Jim Murray, C. L. R. James: Ideas in Social Movement
James O’Shea, Wilfrid Sellars
Nicholas Walker, Heidegger
This book could not have been written without the help, advice, and input of many friends, colleagues, and teachers over a number of years: Robert Bernasconi, Dave Black, George C. Bond, Drucilla Cornell, Mustafa Dhada, Raya Dunayevskaya, Emmanuel Eze, Irene Gendzier, David Johnston, Anne McClintock, Mahmood Mamdani, Manning Marable, Tony Marx, Jon Murphy, Edward W. Said, Ato Sekyi-Otu and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. The Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, Afro-American Studies at Harvard University, Africana Studies at Brown University, and the Institute of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College provided institutional support. Students at Columbia University and Emerson College have helped refine and clarify ideas, and Joy Hayton at the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, as well as Gail Tetreault at Brown, and Tabitha Lee at Emerson have been very generous with resources and time.
Especial thanks go to Raymond Guess, Michael Mallick and Lou Turner; Teodros Kiros who read and commented on the whole manuscript; Lewis R. Gordon, who generously shared his office at Brown; and to Anthony Appiah and Skip Gates who made me welcome at Harvard. Friends and family, Patrick Deer, Neville Hoad and John Lawhead nurtured the project in its early days, as did Richard Barnes, of course. Kate Josephson encouraged the project and its author, and also advised me on matters psychoanalytic. Steven Mendel provided mental health and Seven Stars bakery provided sustenance. With great thanks to Alessio Assonitis who comforted me during the worst period of “Aidan’s eye”; and to Marcelo Vazquez and Cecelia Blanco who never left our side at that terrible time. And to Aidan who lost his eye to retinoblastoma, but remains the wonder in my eye. I promised that the book be dedicated to that lost nearly four-year-old eye and so it is. Finally, to the memory of “Bantu” Steve Biko, for it was through Steve Biko that I met Frantz Fanon.
Sections of several of the chapters have been reworked and substantially revised from earlier essays. Part of chapter 1 appeared as “Dialectical Impasse: Turning the Table on Hegel and the Black,” Parallax, no. 23 (2002); part of chapter 2 is based on my essay in Contested Terrains and Constructed Categories: Contemporary Africa in Focus (Westview Press, 2002); and different sections of chapter 6 first appeared in earlier forms as “Jammin the Airwaves and Tuning into the Revolution,” in Fanon: A Critical Reader (Blackwell, 1996), “Beyond Manicheanism: Dialectics in the Thought of Frantz Fanon,” Journal of Political Ideology, no. 12 (1999), and “The Oxygen of Revolution: Gendered Gaps and Radical Mutations in Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism,” Philosophia Africana, no. 8 (2001).
The author and publishers are also grateful to Grove/Atlantic, Inc. for permission to reproduce copyright material from Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York, 1967) and The Wretched of the Earth (New York, 1968), and to Monthly Review Press for permission to quote from Fanon, Studies in a Dying Colonialism (New York, 1967) and Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays (New York, 1967).
Black Skin, White Masks
(New York: Grove Press, 1967), translation by Charles Lam Markrnann of
Peau noire, masques blancs
(Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952).
Studies in a Dying Colonialism
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), translation by Haakon Chevalier of
L’An V de la révolution algérienne
(Paris: Maspero, 1959).
The Wretched of the Earth
, preface by Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Grove Press, 1968), translation by Constance Farrington of
Les Damnés de la terre
(Paris: Maspero, 1961).
Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays
(New York: Grove Press, 1967), translation by Haakon Chevalier of
Pour la révolution africaine. Écrits politiques
(Paris: Maspero, 1964).
When Frantz Fanon died on December 6, 1961, world politics was quite different. A newly independent Africa was emerging. In 1960, 16 African countries gained their independence, and freedom for Algeria, Fanon’s adopted land, seemed near. At the same time, the world was locked in perhaps the most frozen moment of the Cold War. Yet, despite the passage of 40 years, the end of the Cold War, and a new stage of global consciousness, the oppressed of Fanon’s book, and the dispossessed and discontented of today, speak in remarkably the same language of revenge and envy. The Manichean morality of an eye for an eye, of unequivocal notions of justice and injustice, remains a dominant term of world politics. What has not changed since Fanon’s time are the world economic inequalities between rich and poor, with the Manichean framework of thinking and the feelings of desperation and despair that it expresses. Indeed, perhaps those feelings have become more pronounced as we have moved from the epoch of anticolonial struggle to a period of “the West and the rest,” when alternatives to the increasing inequalities of capitalist globalization seem increasingly distant.
In this book I argue that Fanon’s understanding of the colonial world is not Manichean. His categories are not simple binaries of Black and White (I have capitalized these terms throughout), of colonized and colonizer, and of victim and perpetrator. Despite the characterization of The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la terre) as a handbook of violence, underlined by Jean-Paul Sartre’s influential introduction, Fanon is not simply a glorifier of violence. While he recognized the psychological and symbolic importance of the anticolonial violence in the context of the exponential imbalance of colonial violence, he indicated that violence was also a problematic. Here, I investigate this problematic in the context of Fanon’s powerful critique of narrow anti-imperialist and nationalist politics, arguing that only a very distorted reading of his work could conclude that he believed liberation emerged solely from acts of violence. However, over the past two decades, the Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth, the political theorist of national liberation and its pitfalls, has been eclipsed by the Fanon concerned with race and representation. Another important preface, this time written by Homi Bhabha to the edition published in London of Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs), proved influential by reinterpreting Fanon’s work in term of the ambivalences of identity, shifting the focus away from the social and economic “realities” of colonial rule.1
If earlier political analysts had privileged the apparent economic simplicity of a violent zero-sum game between colonizer and colonized, the literary and cultural theorists of the 1990s avoided it, while privileging the apparent ambiguities of identity of Black Skin. In my mind, both approaches are seriously limited. Over the past few years works such as Lewis R. Gordon’s Fan on and the Crisis of European Man and Ato Sekyi-Otu’s Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience have challenged this view. This book follows in this critical vein and considers Fanon’s oeuvre as a whole. The problems Fanon addresses do not take place in a vacuum, but arise from distinct historical and social situations and the way people think about them. Thus, like other radical thinkers, Fanon engages the world around him in a quest to understand it and to change it. Fanon’s move to Algeria, discussed in chapter 4, is a nodal point of the book. Chapters 1 to 3 concentrate on issues developed in Black Skin, chapters 5 to 8 address problematics of the anticolonical revolution.
Black Skin (BS) and The Wretched of the Earth (WE) appear quite different in that they reflect different experiences of French colonialism. The former discusses the problematic of an inferiority complex derived both from assimilating Frenchness in prewar Martinique and the experience of being Black in the years immediately after the war in metropolitan France; the latter is a product of a revolt against European colonialism in a settler colony. It might be argued that The Wretched reflects a more Manichean reality, and that Fanon’s insights into the ambiguity of postcoloniality in Black Skin are the ones that really provide the basis for any lasting analysis beyond Manichean thinking. I will argue that taking Fanon as seriously as a consistent theorist necessitates a different approach.
In Black Skin Fanon insists that he does not come to proclaim “timeless truths.” His analysis is rooted in the temporal: “Every human problem must be considered from the standpoint of time.” The point is not simply historical, or solely contextual, but one of praxis: “The future should be an edifice supported by [the] living … This structure is connected to the present to the extent that I consider the present in terms of something to be transcended [dépasser]” (BS, 12). It is in this spirit that I approach Fanon.
It has not been hard to categorize Fanon – he has been subject to myriad categorizations from Africa’s philosopher king, to a prophet of violence; he has been understood as a Sartrean, a Marxist, a Hegelian, a Lacanian, a negritudist, a socialist, a Pan-Africanist, a founder of postcolonialism – but it is harder to place Fanon’s originality. Most recently, Fanon’s idea of lived experience (see chapter 5 of Black Skin) has been productively engaged as an attempt to engage Fanon on his own terms, for instance by Gordon and by Sekyi-Otu.2 This is an important development which I entertain here. However, can Fanon be understood simply in terms of a totality of lived experience? Alone, the concept of “lived experience” is unable to overcome the duality of self and the world. For Fanon, the issue was not simply to describe the world of experience. What needed to be overturned was the situation itself, and in doing so the protagonist could become self-determining. Concerned with understanding the “inferiority complex” among middle-class Blacks, Black Skin is quite a different work from The Wretched, where the concern about inferiority complexes hardly makes an appearance. What makes Fanon’s work of a piece is Fanon’s dialectic. That is not to say that the dialectic is worked out theoretically in Black Skin and simply applied to his later work. Fanon’s dialectic itself undergoes development, takes on concretion, in terms of the Algerian revolution: both its radical possibilities and its internal problematics, such as in his prescient critique of the limitations of national consciousness. Nevertheless, his abhorrence of bourgeois society is quite unmistakable in Black Skin, which concludes that “intellectual alienation is a creation of bourgeois society … a closed society in which life has no taste, in which the air is tainted, in which ideas and men are corrupt” (BS, 224). And it is not inconsequential that Fanon begins his conclusion of Black Skin with a long epigraph from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaireof Louis Bonaparte (written as a response to Bonaparte’s coup in 1851 and as a summary of the 1848 revolution in France), about the need for revolutions to strip themselves of the past, for it was precisely this suffocating, corrupt nationalist bourgeoisie that became the problematic of The Wretched.
Fanon was not a central figure nor a leader of the FLN (Front de la Libération Nationale – National Liberation Front). He was not involved in leadership decisions. He was not an important diplomat, though he did represent the provisional government of Algeria in Ghana. He was not a military strategist, though he did embark on an important reconnaissance trip to open up a new front in the south-west. Fanon’s day-to-day activity as a member of the FLN was as a journalist, or perhaps more precisely a propagandist of the Algerian revolution, for El Moudjahid. Many of his articles are addressed to the French left, imploring them to do something to help the Algerian struggle against the French. Fanon’s collection, Studies in a Dying Colonialism (DC) (L’An V de la révolution algérienne – Year Five of the Algerian Revolution)3 is, I argue, a masterful rearticulation of the dialectic of lived experience in terms of revolutionary transformation; an attempt to communicate the construction of a new Algeria to a largely French audience. Yet just as Black Skin is a theoretical polemic, The Wretched is an attempt to make a theoretical intervention into the emerging postcolonial Africa. Grounded in the Algerian revolution, the work offers new beginning points to such old issues as agency and organization, and the role of the intellectual in social movements. Fanon’s theorization of the organization emerging from within the anticolonial struggle intimates his vision of the post-independence future. While the concept of lived experience gives tremendous insight into Fanon’s life and work in order to make sense of his theoretical legacy, to understand Fanon’s ability to sum up a period which had still not ended at his death, to comprehend the trajectory of Africa’s decolonization, an idea of a dialectic is required.
Born in Fort-de-Prance, the capital of Martinique, in 1925 to middle-class parents, Frantz Fanon grew up speaking and thinking of himself as French. In high school he took classes with the negritude poet, Aimé Césaire, who had made the shocking declaration that it was good to be Black. Before finishing school, Fanon, who had had enough of the Vichy rule in Martinique, as well as its racist sailors in dock at Fort-de-Prance, joined the resistance. He left Martinique in 1943 to fight for the “Free French,”4 returning to Martinique in 1945 to help Césaire in an election campaign for mayor of Fort-de-Prance on the Communist ticket. The war had a radicalizing effect.
He had fought, he had been injured, he had been decorated, but more importantly he had realized that it was not only Vichy France that was racist but French civilization itself. Stationed in North Africa, he experienced the French race–caste system with the Whites at the top and the Senegalese, the first to be sent into battle, at the bottom.
The center still beckoned and in 1947 Fanon left Martinique. While reading philosophy, he studied psychiatry at Lyon medical school, defending his thesis in 1951. His first idea for a thesis, what he called a “sociodiagnostic” of Antillean alienation – Black Skin was turned down by his academic sponsors. Black Skin describes the “lived experience of the Black” (discussed in chapters 1 and 2 below), whose body image is associated with the absence of human value through the White (racial) gaze: In France “I discovered my Blackness, my ethnic characteristics; I was battered down by tom toms, cannibalism, spiritual backwardness, fetishism, race defects, slave ships and above all Y’a bon Banania” (BS, 12).5 Fanon refused an easy answer. He embraced negritude but was mindful of its definitions of a Black “essence” (see chapter 3 below).
After medical school Fanon took a position at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algiers, and tried, with limited success, to put some of his radical ideas about hospital reform into practice (see chapter 4). The failure of the experiments led to a fundamental reorganization of his thinking and practice. Though Fanon did not make a detailed study of Arab culture (Fanon’s mostly fruitless attempts to learn Arabic heightened his sensitivity to issues of language), he did investigate culturally sensitive approaches that resulted in the establishment of the first “day hospital” in Africa. A year after he arrived at Blida-Joinville, the Algeria war of liberation began (November 1954). Finding it increasingly difficult to practice psychiatry in the context of increasing militarization, violence, and torture, Fanon resigned his position and left Algeria in December 1956. Renouncing French citizenship, he became a full-time revolutionary and editor of El Moudjahid. His analyses of the changes that the Algerian revolution had wrought on social relations and on society were collected in L’An V, which was published in 1959 (see chapter 6 below). In 1959 Fanon became the FLN’s permanent representative in Accra, Ghana. A year later he took part in a field trip to Mali with the intention of opening up a third front and developing anticolonial solidarity across the Sahara. That same year, however, he was diagnosed with leukemia. His experiences in the Algerian revolution, his knowledge of its political tendencies and debates, his observations about Ghana, alongside the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected Prime Minister of the independent Congo in 1960, provided the backdrop for his final book, The Wretched of the Earth (see chapters 5, 7 and 8 below). The work was finished after a ten-week explosion of intellectual energy in May 1961. His was an “intellect on fire”6 that would only be extinguished by his death at the end of the year.7
Though Fanon’s formal training was in medicine and psychiatry, he also studied philosophy, and throughout his life he continued an engagement with some of the “great” thinkers of European modernity such as Hegel, Marx, Freud, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, testing their ideas through a confrontation with the dehumanized situation created by racism and colonialism (see chapters 1 and 2 below). Fanon’s humanist project was to understand as well as to abolish the divisive and hierarchical zones that divide, fragment, and destroy human beings. Thus the thesis of this book is a fairly simple one. Though often remembered for his powerful descriptions of, and prescriptions for, a violent engagement with colonialism and its logic, his project and goal is to get beyond Manicheanism both in its colonial form and as an anticolonial reaction. By Manicheanism I mean a binary system of thought that paints the world as split between good and evil. Its roots go back to the religion of Mani (third century of the common era), which viewed the creators of the world, God and the Devil, as still fighting it out.8 Manichean consciousness appears to be a “rich” kind of knowledge, but is in fact quite impoverished.9 The roots of racial and colonial Manicheanism in the modern period are found in the European Enlightenment,10 which viewed Europe as the center of the world and the bringer of light to “distant regions.” Both Kant and Hegel developed this idea, describing the “Negro” as childish, lazy, indolent and slow, lacking in history and humanity, and needing coercive measures such as chattel slavery to force them to be productive. In the colonialist’s eyes, the native is a bit of laziness stretched out in the sun, thick-skinned like a crocodile, who only responds to force. Colonial thought, from travel literature of the nineteenth century to administrative and psychological services of the twentieth, was built on Enlightenment categories embellished by imperial scientism. It painted the native as the quintessence of evil, and the colonizer as the apogee of good: “The Negro is a being, whose nature and dispositions are not merely different from those of the European, they are the reverse of them,” said the author of an inquiry into a revolt in Haiti written in 1792. Thus Blacks needed to be treated only with violence and abuse: “Kindness and compassion excite in his breast implacable and deadly hatred; but stripes, and insults, and abuse, generate gratitude, affection and inviolable attachment.”11 A few years later the ideas of the French revolution reached the shores of Haiti, and under Toussaint L’Ouverture a proclamation of liberty and equality was unfurled. The slaves won their freedom and the historical right to be part of the modern world.12
Violence not only described the rosy dawn of colonization, but was at the heart of the settler colonist regimes.13 Anticolonial thought was often an inversion of colonial Manicheanism – that what was good for the colonized was bad for the colonialist. While Fanon appreciated the power of this inversion, especially as it was expressed positively by the negritude poets like Césaire, on the one hand, and by the peasantry or the laborer on the other, his theoretical contribution was to problematize the Manichean certainties and at the same time try to develop new concepts out of this problem. By attempting to get beyond Manicheanism, Fanon was part of an emerging postcolonial debate about subjugation and subjectivity, about discourse and agency, about power and identity, about tradition and modernity, avant la lettre. His employment of the terms “Black” and “White” and “native” and “colon” are also attempts to understand them: not to be defined by them but to challenge and get beneath them.
Fanon contested the European liberal humanist view of the subject, arguing that in the colonial situation, the natives, the tribespeople, the masses, the peasantry, and so on, are so utterly dehumanized by the violence of colonial reality and its discourses that they seem unable to articulate their own thoughts. Yet he did not abandon the concept of subject nor that of subjugated knowledge. He is not simply a critic of colonial discourse, understanding that the colonized and colonizer are caught up in a complex web of relations; and though silenced, the native is not completely silent. Colonialism wills itself to be totalitarian and the foundation of a new way of life, but paradoxically its hegemony is based purely on force – it always prefers the military option – going to great lengths to separate the native and the European. And so it turns out that colonialism is not, in fact, as omnipresent as it first appears. Cultures that were practiced before colonial domination have been destroyed, but just as importantly, they have remained. Yet what remains is also drawn into the Manichean vortex produced by colonialism, making even the most retrograde “precolonial” cultural practices “anticolonialist.” Aware of this dilemma, Fanon emphasized the reinvigoration of culture during a liberatory struggle which gives birth to new social practices and the recrafting of a possible national identity (see chapter 6 below).
The theoretical problem of getting beyond the categories of race is powerfully expressed in Black Skin. Unwilling to be defined by the Other, Fanon does not shy away from it. In other words, there is a moment in Black Skin when Fanon embraces Black consciousness as an absolute and doesn’t want anyone else to tell him otherwise. The force of Fanon’s representation of the Manichean reaction has led many to think that he is in fact simply its advocate. But, in Fanon’s mind, it is only by embracing the reaction to White construction of the Black, or the colonial construction of the colonized, that one can deconstruct it and thus begin to get beyond it. Though the reaction to the Other’s construction remains within the terms of the first – as a reactive action – it is only through a critique of this necessary kind of action that one gets to a new moment of self-knowledge and thereby an ability to explode Manicheanism. The experience is both psychologically and intellectually liberating. This move, I hope to show, is dialectical and historical. At first, that is in Black Skin, Fanon refuses to be “bogged down” by history, to be a slave of slavery. He proclaims that “I am my own foundation” and he insists against Sartre that such a move is profoundly dialectical. Yet it is through his involvement with the Algerian revolution that Fanon’s dialectic, with its emphasis on immanence and subjectivity, is a celebration of the genius at once of invention and of liberation.
My emphasis on Fanon’s critique, rather than dismissal, of Hegel’s dialectic underlines how Fanon’s dialectic is developed in response to the colonial Manicheanism, a dialectic of liberation which aims at real social change. I consider Fanon’s dialectic as a movement through absolute, irreconcilable contradictions. In contrast to a static inert binarism, I want to emphasize how the unstable, critical, and creative element in Fanon’s thought is produced in an almost debased struggle with Manicheanism. But such a conceptualization of dialectic, I argue, puts in question the apparent parallelism between Fanon’s description of the static colonial/racial Manicheanism and his description of the creativity and movement of national liberation. In other words, there is a difference between the colonial period – where the settler is the unceasing cause, the sole subject of history – and the period of national liberation, where “the ‘thing’ which has been colonized” becomes a historical protagonist. To recognize the difference between the settler’s logic and the native’s subjective response turns on fleshing out the meaning of a dialectic of revolution in Fanon’s thought.
Fanon’s engagement with Freud and psychoanalytic theory will also be explored. Because, in the Manichean world of race, there is no possible agreement on the level of reason, Fanon chooses “the method of regression” (BS, 123). If Fanon’s dialectic of self-consciousness includes a movement backward, that movement is also expressed psychoanalytically.14 In the colonial situation, Fanon maintains that the native acts in a way akin to a neurosis. If dream formation is the retrogressive movement of a desire, tracing the dream backward reveals the source of the neurosis. It is not Blacks who are neurotics, but the anti-Black society; yet it is an analysis of the neurotic, who happens to be Black, that gives insight into the sociodiagnostic of the quest for recognition. There symptoms are expressed in racial terms. In Black Skin, the dream of magically turning White reflects the Martinican reality that one is White above a certain financial level (BS, 44). In The Wretched, the native still desires to take the place of the colon and achieves freedom during sleep in dreams of running, jumping, and in expressions of muscular activity. Similar to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Fanon looks to sociogeny, while emphasizing human activity. Yet for Fanon, an understanding of Black experience must highlight the social environment, not the family environment, if one is going to get to the source, because every neurosis is a product of a cultural situation (reflected in books, films, comics, and so forth). Thus, in Martinique, the Oedipus Complex does not exist because the family structure is cast back into the id and the absence of the father is connected with the presence of “the colonial father,” represented, for example, by the statue of the White general who “freed” the slaves.
While Fanon argues that the clinical analysis has to be primarily economic (BS, 11), it is expressed symptomatically in neuroses. In Freudian terms, economics is understood as a psychic energy that is driven inward when not allowed expression. In a racist society, the channeling of that energy results in an annihilation of presence. Thus, rather than recognition, the slave experiences nonrecognition. The dialectic appears blocked off. Yet driven to “know thyself,” Fanon plumbs the painful depths of negritude, which provides him with a glimpse of an alternative (see chapter 3 below).
Fanon’s appreciation of dialectic as lived experience, namely the actual experience of Blacks living in a racist society, allows him to embrace apparently contradictory positions and work them out. Fanon confronted each alienated situation that he faced – whether in Martinique, France, or Algeria – by getting so thoroughly and deeply involved in it that he was able to analyze the situation without being taken over by it. This is the essence of his conception of the dialectic of experience. Lived experience is central to Fanon’s critique of the internalization of the racial gaze in Black Skin, yet Fanon wonders by the end of the book how it will be possible to uproot the “inferiority complex” and abolish alienation. Some have argued that violence provides the missing link. I maintain that it is Fanon’s conception of lived experience, when considered in the historical epoch of anticolonial struggle, that provides the creative principle. I argue that Fanon translates lived experience of this struggle as a “radical mutation in consciousness.” Without a change in consciousness, violence alone can only lead to barbarism. As with other conceptions, Fanon’s claims about change – radical mutation affecting social relations, including those inside the family, as well as attitudes to technology, like the radio, or to dress, like the issue of veiling – have been controversial (see chapter 6).
Since his death in 1962, criticisms have been directed at Fanon’s analysis of the Algerian revolution and by implication his theory of social change. In its crudest form, the argument is that Fanon could not possibly understand Algeria, Arabs, or Islam, because he was neither Algerian nor Muslim.15 Fanon’s idea of “lived experience” could not apply because the Algerian does not experience colonialism on the basis of corporeal identity.16 Yet the importance of lived experience of the body-subject is not reducible, I believe, to an essential identity. In The Wretched, corporeal experience is expressed spatially, physically hemming the native into “spaces of terror.” According to Fanon, these spaces are policed not only by the colonial regime but also by malevolent spirits which are able to keep the people in their place. In their minds this “unreal world” is even more powerful than colonialism. As the colonial regime is challenged, the consciousness of these spatial restrictions breaks up. Additionally, his analyses of the dying colonial body, and the importance of a new, lively motion in the corporeality of the colonized, are not simply speculative but based on his observations of dehumanization among the colonized, gained in his work with his patients and with torture victims (see chapter 4 below) and observations during the war of liberation (see chapter 6).
For Fanon, lived experience is empirical and phenomenological. Even if one feels like a foreigner in the world, it doesn’t diminish the reality of the world, nor does the reality of the world diminish the feeling of alienation. One does not have to experience torture to understand it, nor does one have to be born in Algeria to empathize with the plight of Algerians under French colonialism. Additionally, what was “Algeria” under colonial rule is contested and open to discussion. As late as 1936, in a debate about assimilation with France, Ferhat Abbas maintained that “the Algerian fatherland” did not exist.17 Others responded that it did. Some emphasized Islam,18 while others questioned Islam as synonymous with Algerian identity, and still others insisted on a more secular vision.19
During the Algerian revolution, Fanon identified himself as an Algerian, and constructed himself as an Algerian revolutionary. He regarded revolution and Algeria as synonymous, and was not interested in discovering an “essential” Algeria outside of that equation. While this might have put him in the political minority, the position is internally consistent. What is trickier is a general problem that includes Fanon, namely, the relationship of the intellectual and the masses. Fanon makes an important contribution to this question, highlighting how it is the intellectual’s consciousness of separateness that is the key to discerning the work to be done. In other words, it is the degree to which the intellectual realizes his or her estrangement from “the people” that fruitfully problematizes the identity of lived experience with knowledge and representation.
Ironically, some of the criticisms of Fanon have remained within the same Manichean frame that he was attempting to break out of. Many of the very issues Fanon was trying to address – the pitfalls of national consciousness, the problematic of Black consciousness, the deficiencies of spontaneous action, the issue of inferiority complexes, the ideas of “modernity” and “tradition”20 – have been turned back on him. He has been damned from both sides. For example, it has been argued that Fanon is uncritical of “tribal chiefs,”21 on the one hand, and that he was a political authoritarian who ran roughshod over ethnic difference, on the other.22 It is argued that Fanon overestimated the degree of change taking place in gender relations,23 or that he was a cultural conservative upholding traditions like the veil.24 Some conclude that Fanon, away from the political center, had very little influence on events in Algeria.25 Others damn Fanon for having too much influence.26
Many of these criticisms share the problem not only of decontextualization, but also decontextualization of the sources. My approach is to flesh out Fanon’s understanding, not the events themselves, still openly contested over 40 years on.27
Fanon was a critic of European racism and African decolonization in a period of radical possibility after World War Two. To begin to grasp Fanon’s project, it is absolutely essential to historicize his experiences and his intellectual contexts, and though he still has much to say in our age, he is very much a product of his time and place. In the preceding pages I have alluded to the general question of context. I use the term tentatively, aware of the ongoing debate indebted to Quentin Skinner’s work28 where the invocation of “context” and “intentionality” often function as rhetorical short-hand (or sleight-of-hand) for truth claims. In this forensic context (as it were), my underlying argument could be easily construed as a proposal to supply a fuller intellectual and social context for Fanon and thereby produce a superior understanding; one possessing a greater degree of “reality” because it incorporates subjective intention in a Skinnerian sense – that is, understanding the historical meaning of the text by considering what the author was trying to do in the political (social and ideological) context in which he was writing. I hope it becomes clear in the following that this definition does not exhaust what I am doing. John Keane’s point that political argument often comes “into its own only during crisis conditions” finds an echo in Fanon, who developed theory in such a crisis condition where “conventional beliefs and unargued assumptions begin to disintegrate.”29 During such destabilized and potentially creative situations, the very notion of context determining the meaning of a text comes into question.30
The similarities of experiences under colonization meant for Fanon that the African struggle against colonialism, whether that was British or French, had to take a national form. Other identities such as regional, ethnic, racial, or religious would degenerate into xenophobia and racism. Whether identity has to be national (with a citizenship open to all) in the postcolonial world is open to discussion, but no other unifying concept has yet emerged to challenge Fanon’s point. Nevertheless, for Fanon, national consciousness was not the goal but only the ground upon which a new humanism could develop. Part of his critique was that the national bourgeoisie was an unproductive class, a huckstering caste, already senile, who would rip off rather than “develop” the nation.31 This insight has been proved empirically, yet how did Fanon envision development? Critical of the national organizations which treated the people in a similar fashion to the colonists, Fanon promoted a decentralized organization, staffed by ethically upright and patient militants, where “development” would be a problematic; a long-term human endeavor involving the mass of people in discussion.
Today, globalization and economic liberalization has often engendered a reduction of nation-states to enforcers of transnational organizations and networks of global capital. In quite a different time, Fanon claimed that the end of colonialism would be truly expressed in the reformation and recreation of a vibrant national culture which had its basis in revolutionary transformation rather than ethnic identity, with a future constructed by all who wanted to play a positive part. In other words, it was not the development of a juridical nation, but a social individual that was at issue. To argue that such changes did not occur because of the bulwark of “tradition” or the strictures of the world market does not undermine Fanon’s normative argument. For Fanon, anticolonial nationalism was limited as a united front against a common enemy. It was the question of what happened after colonialism ended that needed to be answered creatively. He attempted to address this by developing new concepts and initiating new forms of communication and “political education,”32 which in the postcolonial society, would be fermented from the bottom up. Fanon died too early to see the concrete outcome of the anticolonial struggle, but he left important critical indicators (see chapter 8).
For Fanon, active resistance was the first stage toward self-discovery, and he was well aware that in its early stages anticolonial action was an inversion of colonial Manicheanism and remained within its framework. The native, formerly battered and dehumanized, jealous, resentful and angry, simply wanted to take the place of the colonizer. Fanon understood this envy but did not judge it.33 In fact the native’s reaction, insofar as it is an understanding that colonialism is a zero-sum game, expressed the truth. Colonialism kept control through violence, but in Fanon’s Freudian economy the native’s reaction, which had become internalized, was forced to emerge somewhere. Unable to attack the source, natives “beat each other up.” “Traditions,” including religions, often appease, exhausting the pent-up emotions by appearing even more frightening than colonialism. While such “traditions” serve the function of bringing colonialism down to size, once the period of decolonization has begun they could become a barrier to new cultural developments.
Fanon warns of the barbarity and the tragedy of a political program built on revenge, saying that such a program is a disgraceful thing. Yet he explains how the sense of deprivation and humiliation, the jealousy and the rage, in the context of political and social repression, produce such reactions. These reactions cannot be dismissed simply as politically childish. In fact, sadly, they express a truth and an understanding of the appalling thing about anticolonial violence, that for a community it can be laden with meaning and restore a sense of self-respect. Thus rather than ending the cycle, counterviolence and counterterror, the bombings and shooting merely reinforce the aggressiveness. If in the past the gangster became a hero, today it is the suicide bomber. Fanon’s idea of violence engendering counterviolence, which not long ago seemed to have aged so badly, is now (for instance, in Israel/Palestine) considered “prescient.” We remain within a zero-sum Manichean vortex. It is not that a lack of value is assigned to life, but that for the “native,” life is already a living death. Rather than resolving this problem, globalization, with the increasing inequalities of the haves and the have-nots, has simply sharpened the resentment and valorized memories of resistance.
At a different point in history, namely the period of decolonization, the problem, Fanon argued, was to gain control of this anger, to explain it and channel it. This channeling demanded a new kind of intellectual work and political education. Today the alternative new humanism, what Fanon called the working out of new concepts, while not on the horizon, seems all the more necessary. If Fanon was an idealist, he was deeply rooted in the “real world” (see chapter 2). Not simply the product of a historical context, Fanon was a visionary whose view of human reciprocity was intimated in the radical mutation of consciousness engendered by the social revolution. That the revolution degenerated does not negate its truth; it simply makes Fanon’s critique of its pitfalls all the more compelling. In L’An V he attempted to record the social transformations engendered by the Algerian revolution, and though he argued later, in The Wretched, that more than recording was required, he never abandoned the liberatory vision. Rather than an artifact of a previous time, Fanon’s work, 40 years after his death, still remains compelling. The goal of this book is to bring Fanon’s thought back to life and present the vitality of an “intellect on fire.”
For my part, I refuse to consider the problem from the standpoint of either-or … what is all this talk of a black people of a Black nationality. I am a Frenchman. I am interested in French culture, French civilization, the French people. We refuse to be considered “outsiders,” we are fully part of the French drama.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
When Frantz Fanon arrived in France in 1947 the nation was in flux; shaken by the war, it now faced radical movements for change, including a new “Third World” struggling for independence, as well as the solidifying of the Cold War into spheres of influence. Two years after the end of World War Two French radical critics, no longer outsiders, were becoming a dominant group among the literati and public opinion.1 The participants in Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel’s master/slave dialectic of the late 1930s (Aron, Bataille, Breton, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, among others) were part of this emergent intelligentsia, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s Les Temps Modernes was the journal of discussion2 and Présence Africaine, founded in 1947,3 expressed the bringing of the African presence into the very center of French civilization.4 The African “presence,” putting Western civilization on trial, represented a new kind of postwar anticolonial militancy, while Paris “became one of the theaters in which the political and cultural future of Africa was being prepared.”5 In the French constitution of 1946 colonialism disappeared, replaced by a new union of citizenship and parliamentary representation supposedly ending forced labor and the colonial education. Yet the reality of this union was made clear in Madagascar a year later when 100,000 Malagasy were slaughtered.
Black Skin was written in this context. Published in 1952, with references to philosophy, politics, literature, psychoanalysis, film, and popular culture, combined with what seems like an authorial and autobiographical “I,” it can create in the reader a certain uneasiness. Nevertheless, the book represents Fanon’s profound ability to both synthesize and critically engage phenomenological and psychoanalytic theory through the prism of race.6 In fact, Fanon’s methodology in Black Skin is fairly straightforward; race becomes the lens through which social relations and theories of the time are judged. The honesty of his approach is illustrated in his description of the “lived experience” of the Black who “has two dimensions,” two ways of being, “one with his fellows, the other with the White man.” In other words, Blacks behave differently among Whites than among Blacks. This behavior is not ontological but a product of colonial relations. Among Whites, the Black experiences no intersubjectivity, no reciprocity. The Black is simply an object among other objects. Why is this? How does it happen? These are two questions Fanon tries to ask and which express his quest for reciprocal human relations.7
The specific subject of Black Skin is the disalienation of the Antillean who, mired in a “dependency complex,” wishes to turn White. Fanon’s conceptualization of alienation is essentially medical, a neurosis (see BS, 204), but he employs it in a social context so that donning a White mask is equated with a false self, an inauthentic self in Sartre’s terms, or a false consciousness in Marxian terms. Establishing a process of “disalienation” moves Fanon away from a medical model toward a radical social conception of praxis, which is based on a belief that human beings are reflective and actional, beings of praxis. Black Skin can be seen as a painstaking examination leading in myriad ways to the same conclusion, namely the necessity of uprooting the conditions that cause alienation. Disalienation calls for a nihilation, the ripping away of the masks and a reintegration of the human being’s presence:
I have been led to consider their alienation in terms of psychoanalytical classifications. The Black’s behavior makes him akin to an obsessive neurotic type, or, if one prefers, he puts himself into a complete situational neurosis. In the man of color there is a constant effort to run away from his own individuality, to annihilate his own presence. (BS, 60, emphasis added)
Because the Black needs White approval, it is impossible to defend against the lack of reciprocity through ego withdrawal. Consequently the Black’s behavior – which is not necessarily neurotic – appears neurotic.
Fanon’s attempt to get out of the bind of the inferiority complex is at first psychoanalytic, but then he immediately declares that because the Black’s alienation is not an individual question, his approach will be “sociodiagnostic,” entailing “immediate recognition of social and economic realities” (BS, 11). Thus, diagnostically and proscriptively, the analysis shifts from the individual to the social realm. Thus we begin with Fanon’s engagement with the phenomenologies of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and especially Hegel’s master/slave dialectic before moving to psychoanalytic theories.
The Black is a “crucified person,” maintains Fanon, who “has no culture, no civilization, ‘no long historical past.’” Thus stripped, the existence and Being of the Black is an inferiority complex (BS, 216, 34). Such a complex is created in every people experiencing the death of their own local cultural originality (BS, 18). Civilization is solely French and the Antillean’s culture is French.8 On the scale of humanity, those who write and speak proper French are more civilized. In Paris the Martinican is at the top of the Black pecking order, but it is a Black pecking order. The Antillean is seen as Black but the intradistinction of the Antillean pecking order means that the Guadeloupan tries to “pass” as Martinican. The Senegalese is at the bottom and on the other side is the White, the transcendental Other.
Speaking “proper” French is a symbol of authority. Dialect not only places one geographically and socially, but it is a way of thinking. The problem was exemplified by the Martinican in France. Here was a group of people who had grown up speaking, thinking, and looking French. How could Antilleans look French? Because they believed they were, having fully internalized French culture. They had grown up reading Tarzan stories and talking about “our ancestors the Gaul,” identifying themselves not only “with the exploiter and the bringer of civilization,” but with “an all-white truth” (BS, 146–7). At school in Martinique children wrote essays like little Parisians: “I like vacations because then I can run through the fields, breathe fresh air, and come home with rosy cheeks” (BS, 162 n25). The young educated Martinicans considered themselves White and dream themselves as White. Though Lacan’s “Mirror Stage” is clearly suggestive here, it was Sartre’s analysis of The Anti-Semite and the few that provided an important beginning for Fanon’s thinking through of this problem. What attracted Fanon to Sartre’s work was both his phenomenological descriptions and his call for action. Authenticity is manifested in revolt, not by accepting the objectification of oneself by others.9
The Jew is a Jew because the Jew is determined by the Other, argues Sartre: “the Jew has a personality like the rest of us, and on top of that he is Jewish. It amounts to a doubling of the fundamental relationship with the Other. The Jew is over-determined.”10 For Fanon this spoke directly to the problematic of the Black.
Fanon found resonances with the types plotted in The Anti-Semite and the Jew. He drew out similarities between the anti-Semite and the racist as a Manichean, irrational type and he explicated the French democrat’s insistence that the Jew should assimilate in terms of racism. He found equally important Sartre’s description of the Jew’s attempted flight from others and himself. Alienated from his own body, and “his emotional life has been cut in two,” the Jew pursues “the impossible dream of universal brotherhood in a world that rejects him.”11 Sartre argued that Jewish authenticity could not mean assimilation. Assimilation would amount to inauthenticity because it cannot be realized as long as there is anti-Semitism. The same could be said of the goal of assimilation of the educated Black, the évolué, into a racist society. It leads to the inferiority complexes analyzed in Black Skin.12 The assimilation proposed by the White liberal (Sartre’s democrat) is, as Steve Biko put it, like “expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master’s son to remove all the conditions leading to the former’s enslavement.”13 A nonracial approach pretends that racism doesn’t exist and ignores its denigrating and derisive psychological effects. In contrast to assimilation, authenticity means realizing one’s condition and asserting one’s being as “untouchable, scorned, proscribed” and standing apart.
Sartre’s claim that the Jew derives pride from humiliation might seem a strange and psychologically damaging basis for subjectivity, but “this haunted man [is] condemned to make his choice on the basis of false problems and in a false situation.” Truth is mediated by the anti-Semitic situation. The choice is between the anti-Semite’s congenital lie and the Jew’s own lie which, in an anti-Semitic society, acquires a dimension of truth. The possibility of authenticity, therefore, can only be fully understood by understanding inauthenticity as a flight from the accusations of Jewishness through a Jewish type of anti-Semitism.14 This flight powerfully prefigures the action of the educated and alienated Black évolué in Black Skin whose life is nothing but a long flight from others and from themselves. As Sartre says, “he has been alienated even from his own body; his emotional life has been cut in two; he has been reduced to pursuing the impossible dream of universal brotherhood in a world that rejects him.”15
To be a Jew is to be “abandoned to the situation of a Jew,” yet to “realize one’s Jewish condition” in an anti-Semitic world requires a struggle. The authentic Jew fights and “makes himself a Jew, in the face of all and against all.” Just as inauthenticity is a flight from the world, authenticity can only be realized in the world and though every response has to begin with the individual, there can be no authentic response to anti-Semitism at an individual level. Thus made social by the anti-Semite, the Jew becomes the social man par excellence, because “his torment is social.”16
Putting the Black in the place of the Jew and racist in place of anti-Semite, Fanon felt the power of Sartre’s argument. The authentic Jew is condemned to make a choice and “ceases to run away from the obligation to live in a situation that is defined precisely by the fact that it is unlivable … [and] derives pride from his humiliation.”17 What is a Jew? The Jew is one whom others consider a Jew. To Sartre’s famous quip, “it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew,” Fanon adds that it is the White who makes the Black.
How could the Antillean Black make a choice? In the Antilles18 the Black was French but in Paris the Black found it impossible to be French because, despite arguments to the contrary, Frenchness was equated with Whiteness. The Black was at best a “Black.” The characteristic “wandering” diasporic Jew, “never sure of his possessions,” found its apogee in the Black who had been systematically enslaved and uprooted.
Authentic assimilation is created not from external pressure but through an openness to the Other as a meeting of equals. In other words, an assimilation which risks self-certainty, which tears off the mask, but in which the self is challenged and sustained. Action implies risk, and authenticity requires giving up insularity. Authenticity needs to be grounded in the historical context, which itself is changing and changeable. Stasis would indicate the end of authenticity.
At the beginning of Black Skin
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