Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

by Sunit Singh

Image: Cover to the new Philcox translation of
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008)


Originally published in the Platypus Review.

New York: Grove Press, 2008.

It is no coincidence that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs [1952], hereafter BSWM), since in this first book, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre [1961], hereafter W of E), fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM.[1] The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM).[2] The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology,[3] reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.

The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM.[4] Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of — or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about — Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.”[5] The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works — a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization” — as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation.[6] The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update — although by no means always — these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else.[7] The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of modern psychoanalysis, was a key influence in the theory of racism and black disalienation that Fanon develops in Black Skin, White Masks.

Sigmund Freud (1926), a key influence in the theory of racism in Black Skin, White Masks

“The black man,” confesses the didactic narrator in the introduction, “wants to be white. The white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man” (xiii). This attempt to “achieve the rank of man” is complicated by the fact that under capitalism we share a common lot — alienation. Moreover, in the case of the black man, this alienation results in a double bind, the “first economic, then the internalization or rather epidermalization of this inferiority” (xv). Genuine disalienation, the narrator contends, “implies a brutal awareness of such socioeconomic realities,” but a solution to racism needs to be “found on the objective as well as the subjective level,” since “reality demands total comprehension” (xv). An individual black man, in other words, can no more overcome racism by desperately plunging himself into the “black hole” of a mythic or cosmic black civilization as if it is simply a matter of the “salvation of the soul” than a neurotic can will himself to health with knowledge alone (xv). After all “what is so often called the black soul is a construction of white folk” (xviii). There is then another uncomfortable realization tied to this conclusion that the totality — capitalism — must itself be transcended: “There is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white” (202). But, paradoxically, the obverse, that whiteness is the flipside of blackness, is false. This is the central claim of BSWM that stands at both ends of the book. For the black man, admits the narrator, offers “no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (90).

BSWM starts with the observation that the isomorphic relationship between the races results in “a massive psycho-existential complex” (xvi). A “cure” can only be had if one analyzes racism as a symptom. Fanon argues that “only a psychoanalytic interpretation” can transfigure the significance of the symptom so as to make life more livable. That is, if we bracket the socio-structural causes of racism, then we can attack the psychopathology of race. Anti-black racism often serves to alibi poverty or class differences, but to confuse anti-black racism as the cause of structural disparities is to misunderstand the particularity of modern racism, which is also why a psychoanalytic explanation of racism differs from a sociological one, despite the fact that its object of analysis is the same. A psychoanalytic treatment of racism takes as its concrete concern the affective satisfaction that blacks as well as whites obtain from anti-black racism. One manifestation of this “double narcissism” is that the “white man is locked in his whiteness, the black man in his blackness” (xiv). Fanon thus develops an analysis of racism rather than race — the naturalization of race is the object of this critique. The role of the analyst is to assist the analysand to “‘consciousnessize’ his unconscious, to no longer be tempted by a hallucinatory lactification, but also to act along the lines of a change in social structure” (80). To simply identify oneself politically as either black or white is to eschew the hard work of analysis.

Cover to Fanon's Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952)

Cover to Fanon’s Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952)

The ambitiousness of BSWM is rooted in its attempt to deal with the ways in which the psychical or fantastical reality of race might be more consequential than the empirical one. Because the connotations with the color black are purely negative, blacks share the stereotypes as much as whites, so disalienation can never mean a simple negation of what is black. Jean-Paul Sartre had made a similar claim about anti-Semitism, which, in a sense, “overdetermines” the Jew. Assimilation, nevertheless, eludes the black man, who is burdened with the “fact of blackness,” with history. Here the new translation substitutes “the lived experience” of the black man for the “fact of blackness.” Now “the lived experience” is much closer to the French l’expérience vécue, itself a translation of Erlebnis from the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Lived experience (Erlebnis), which is made up of acts (being-in-the-world) in which consciousness/the body that is faced with the world/other, differs from the notion of experience (Erfahrung) at the heart of Bildungsroman or self-development. But while there is no ahistorical “fact” of blackness, Erlebnis remains a descriptive category in BSWM, which means it cannot be arrayed against cumulative experience or Erfahrung. Fanon as a Martiniquan who is a French citizen does not feel himself to be black, subjectively, but then the realization comes that objectively, the Martiniquan is seen as black. This “fact” comes as an existential shock to Fanon. He writes, in the words of the old translation,

I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: “Sho’ good eatin’.”…But I did not want this revision, this thematization. All I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help build it together. (112 CLM)

If we compare the last bit of this passage in the new translation its valence is suddenly more opaque: “I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all, yes, above all, the grinning Y a bon Banania” (92). Absent from the new translation are the tom-toms (le tympan), which still somehow deafen the narrator, even when the verb défoncer means to batter or smash in. How, one might ask in exasperation, is one to decipher the reference to “Y a bon Banania,” an advertisement for a French chocolate drink mix that uses a grinning black caricature that is not unlike Aunt Jemima, without so much as a footnote?

Photograph of Frantz Fanon

Photograph of Frantz Fanon

These issues aside, the realization that one is black induces “nausea,” shame, and it locks the black man in an infernal circle that makes it impossible for “either side to obliterate the past once and for all” (96, 101). But much like the Jew who once stood in as the symbol of humanity, the black man is now forced to do the same; the struggle for disalienation carries within it the emergent universal category of man. The black man thus finds himself faced with the task of transcendence. He is only a rational subject whom others can recognize in spite of this blackness. However the extent to which the black man is an object of racism he cannot be a subject. “The black man is a toy in the white man’s hands” (119). Elsewhere, quoting René Étiemble, the narrator observes, “the white man will always be able to find a specious argument: shameful, dubious, and thus doubly effective” (149). There is then a bad-faith quality to racism that delivers it its affective charge. And Fanon is interested in inquiring: What kind of a subject (with a weakened or hyper-cathected ego) needs the affirmation of the other?

The only way out of this dual narcissism is to liquidate history so that one can recognize that what is attributed to the other is what one should attribute to oneself. The book ends with the words: “Was my freedom not given to me to build the world of you? At the end of this book we would like the reader to feel with us the open dimension of every consciousness” (206, translation modified). Fanon urges that the same affect that is enlisted in racism (which, when it is negative and destructive is what we refer to as authoritarianism) is, when it is turned inside out, the dynamic invested with the hope of destroying racism — the denied, twisted investment in the other that racism plays on is the same affective source for the obliteration of racism! The interracial utopian vision in BSWM is that this transformation needs to occur within the context of capitalism. This is what it means that “whiteness” is the black’s “destiny.” Fanon attempts to hook the temporal core of psychoanalysis explicitly to the Marxist conception of emancipation.

Disalienation will be for those Whites and Blacks who have refused to let themselves be locked in the substantialized “tower of the past.” For many other black men disalienation will come from refusing to consider their reality as definitive…In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to sing the past to the detriment of my present and my future. (201)

Here, in order to underscore the idea that overcoming the narcissism at the core of racism requires one to break the repetition compulsion of the neurotic symptom, Fanon cites Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) to the effect that the socialist revolution draws its poetry from the future. His emphasis on the role of the individual fits this interpretation: On the one hand, the fact that individuals mediate society means racism can be overcome in a future based on the elements that are already available; on the other hand, “race” is a reified category that identifies individuals with society.[8] “I am not a prisoner of History….I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention in life….And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom” (204–205).

Promotional article for Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks

Promotional article for Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

BSWM makes clear that emancipation from the psychopathology of racism would mean emancipation from “History” which is itself the manifestation of capital. The collapse of the utopian framework of BSWM in W of E amounts to an affective disorientation over what is versus what ought to be the relationship between the struggles against oppressions of various kinds that are reproduced in the context of capital, that therefore also contribute to its reproduction, in the struggle to overcome capital. As the narrator in BSWM cautions, “[a] long time ago the black man acknowledged the undeniable superiority of the white man” (202). This superiority was synonymous with capitalism, but insofar as the aim of the black man shifts from trying to achieve a “white existence” to “culture,” so much the worse. He asks in frustration: “What am I supposed to do with a black empire?…I am French. I am interested in French culture, French civilization, and the French,” “[all] I wanted…[was] to be a man among men” (179, 92). After all, “I should like nothing better” than to drown in “the white flood composed of men like Sartre and Aragon,” since as a man “the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass” (179, 200). The fact is often overlooked, in light of the uncritical enthusiasm for Third World nationalism in W of E, but Fanon supported but Fanon supported départementalisation over independence for Martinique after World War II. His call to arms in W of E, “come comrades…let us flee this stagnation [of Europe] where dialectics has gradually turned into a logic of the status quo,” fit a wider trend on the Left which sought to locate the future of socialism in Third World movements. This shift, which renders the utopianism of BSWM implausible, is useful negatively, in provoking a critical recognition of the ways in which the Left abandoned the aim of emancipation. The limitations of a spatial “fix” to the temporal dynamic of capital are all the more salient in light of historical failures of decolonization to achieve autonomy or autarky in the ex-colonies. These failures obscure, putting it simply, what the black narrator of BSWM advocates, namely the rejection of ontology. The Arab like the black Martiniquan had the right to refuse being in the name of becoming. Yet the reification or naturalization of race is surely what Fanon’s final prayer in BSWM is intended to stave off: “My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions” (206). It is thus in the poetry of BSWM rather than in the fervent cries of W of E that Fanon represents what the Left should aspire to be, namely “hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” [9] P


[1] His other, more minor works include, A Dying Colonialism (L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne [1959]) as well as Toward the African Revolution (Pour la Révolution Africaine [1964]).
[2] All references to the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967) are indicated by the abbreviation CLM.
[3] See Homi K. Bhabha’s influential essay “Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 40–65.
[4] W of E was lauded by the New Left Islamist Ali Shariati as an inspiration for the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Yet Fanon the Marxist probably stood no chance once the mullahs turned their ire against their leftist counterparts who were treated as atheistic interlopers in their revolution. Fanon is also often remembered as a mujahid (warrior) of the Algerian War. However there is no space in the martyrologies of the Arab-Islamist FLN for Fanon. He occupies a liminal space even in Martinique, where Aimé Césaire, the chief theorist of the negritude movement Fanon critiqued in BSWM, made it clear: “He chose. He became Algerian. Lived, fought and died Algerian.” Even within France the “68ers” completely overlooked Fanon in their enthusiasm for the “revolutions” then afoot in China and Vietnam. For more on the ambivalent ways in which Fanon is remembered see the excellent biographical work by David Macey, Frantz Fanon (New York: Picador, 2000).
[5] Richard Philcox contributes an afterword, “On Retranslating Fanon, Retrieving a Lost Voice,” to The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 241–251.
[6] A more complete consideration of the awkward relationship between existentialism and phenomenology in BSWM is beyond the remit of this review, but if the earlier Markmann translation was weighted toward existentialism, in the new edition Philcox sometimes veers in the opposite direction. For example, in the conclusion, Fanon writes, “Je suis solidaire de l’Etre dans la mesure où je le dépasse” (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952], 186). Markmann had translated this as “I am a part of Being to the degree that I go beyond it,” capturing the reference to Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness [1943]), whereas Philcox translates this sentence much more freely as “I show my solidarity with humanity provided I can go one step further” (229 CLM; 204).
[7] We should be thankful that the translator breaks the model first adopted in his retranslation of W of E, where “negro” is substituted with “black man” whenever the speaker refers to West Indians or Africans and “nigger” is retained only when the colonizer refers to the same, or else the entire thrust of BSWM would be lost.
[8] For a suggestive article on this subject, see Amanda Armstrong, “On the Relationship Between Psychoanalysis and Emancipatory Politics” Platypus Review 2 (February 2008).
[9] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry (Indianapolis: Bob-Merrills Company, 1904), 90.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

  1. Yea, Fanon came before the storm… he spoke out of a deep need rather from some abstract philosophical project. Seeing things up close and deadly he wrote books from the bleeding lips of his own being… even if we find indelible traces of brokenness in his notions, we still appreciate the heroism of his stance in saying it.

  2. Pingback: A Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality theory | The Charnel-House

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