The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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Frantz Fanon | Biography

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Early Influences

Frantz Fanon was born on July 20, 1925, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, then a French colony. He was a psychiatrist and philosopher who wrote about the effects of colonization on colonized peoples. He wrote passionately in favor of the liberation of the French colony of Algeria, and in favor of the liberation of colonized peoples generally.

Fanon attended school in Martinique and at age 18 left to join the Free French forces in World War II (1939–45) to serve with others who wanted to continue to fight the Germans after they occupied France. After the war he remained in France, studying medicine and psychiatry at the University of Lyon. During this time he was also exposed to the Marxist and existentialist ideas that shaped his thinking about colonial struggles. Marxist ideas are those promulgated by 19th-century German philosopher and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818–83). He believed the conflict between classes—what he called "class struggle"—was the essential engine of history. Class struggle determined the course of the world. Existentialism is a philosophy that focuses on the human condition, particularly the inevitability of death and the struggle for freedom. Existentialism developed from the cultural commentary of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55). However, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) came to be associated with the movement, which had a strong influence in Europe from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Psychiatry and the Algerian Cause

After completing his studies at the University of Lyon, Fanon briefly returned to Martinique and then went back to Paris. In 1953 he took a job in the French colony of Algeria as chief of the psychiatric ward of the Blida-Joinville Hospital. The following year he observed firsthand the attempts by Algerians to gain independence from the French and the resulting violence. The French Army attempted, through torture and armed combat, to repress the National Liberation Front (FLN, from the French Front de Libération Nationale), an Algerian political party founded to fight French colonial rule. As a staff member at the Blida-Joinville Hospital, Fanon treated both French soldiers and Algerian natives for trauma and other combat-related problems. His work at Blida-Joinville gave him a window into the ways colonial power affects the minds of the colonizer and the colonized.

Being on the hospital staff meant Fanon was also a member of the colonial government, a position he found increasingly untenable. He was required to treat French officers in charge of torturing Algerians and, thus, indirectly aid French efforts to crush colonial independence. In 1956 he resigned from the hospital and moved to Tunisia, one of Algeria's neighboring countries. There he supported the Algerian cause by editing the FLN newspaper El Moudjahid and training FLN nurses.

Although Algeria's formal independence did not come until 1962, in 1960 Fanon accepted a position with the provisional FLN-led government, serving as Algeria's ambassador to Ghana.

Writing

Living in France just after World War II brought Fanon into contact with a blunt, stark racism very different from the skin-color-based prejudices of his home country, Martinique. He developed his insights into colonialism and racism in his book Black Skin, White Masks (published in French in 1952 and in English in 1967). Black Skin, White Masks analyzes the effects of colonialism and racism on the consciousness of the colonized. He also looks at the way blackness is portrayed by white society as abnormal, leading to a sense of inferiority.

Fanon's most influential book was The Wretched of the Earth, initially published in French shortly before his death in 1961, with an English translation published in 1963. The book begins with the proposition that colonizers use violence to maintain their power. Fanon proposes that the colonized must choose how to use this violence, whether to absorb it or turn it back on their colonial masters. Fanon is also critical of the governments of former colonies for leaving international relations of oppression unchanged. His other book is A Dying Colonialism (published in French in 1959 and in English in 1965), a collection of essays he wrote as editor of the FLN newspaper El Moudjahid.

Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia in 1960. He traveled to the United States to be treated but died the following year on December 6 in Bethesda, Maryland. Fanon's legacy as a champion of the liberation of oppressed and colonized peoples continues to inspire and influence postcolonial studies today.

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