The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Chapter 4 : On National Culture | Summary

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Summary

As the postscript states, Frantz Fanon originally gave this chapter as a speech to the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers in Rome in 1959. To an international group of artists and writers he laid out reasons why an international black culture is not viable. He ultimately believes only the struggle for nationhood can form the basis of culture.

Fanon starts by discussing the way "the native intellectual" reacts to colonialism. Colonialism does not just hold "a people in its grip." Colonialism also "turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it." In turn, native intellectuals research the past and find proof of a rich and glorious history. But in doing so the native intellectuals recover the past of Africa or of black people all over the world. Such efforts include the 20th-century literary movement known as Negritude. The Negritude movement sought to create a literature separate from European culture, with its own values drawn from black life and culture.

Fanon is sympathetic to these efforts. He values the cultural sphere, saying the efforts of native intellectuals are "not a luxury but a necessity." But ultimately, he finds limitations in Negritude and other attempts to define a global black culture. He says the problems confronting black American writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes are different from those of someone like Léopold Senghor. (Senghor was a leader of Negritude and the first president of Senegal.) The United States and Senegal are historically distinct, and they have different national cultures.

Fanon rejects Negritude and similar efforts because they accept the colonial worldview. In the book's first chapter he had remarked, "The colonial world is a world cut in two." Negritude accepts this division and just turns the hierarchy upside down. Also, native intellectuals are drawn to the idea of a universal black culture because they learned to value universalism in their European-focused educations: "The native intellectual will try to make European culture his own." Fanon sees becoming a Europhile native intellectual as attractive but doomed.

According to Fanon, rather than imitate European culture or promote a global black culture, native intellectuals must realize their culture is national. He quotes the Haitian poet René Depestre and Guinean poet Fodéba Keita as examples of poetry born of national struggle. He also believes national culture cannot give birth to the nation. Poetry will not free the nation. The struggle to free the nation creates national culture.

Analysis

Marxists are sometimes accused of having too mechanistic a view of history. Their belief in dialectics makes them expect history to follow a lockstep pattern. This is not the case with Fanon's first three narrative chapters, but it might be the case with this chapter. Fanon is aware of the richness of the Negritude literary movement. In his homeland of Martinique he was taught by one of the leading figures of Negritude, the poet Aimé Césaire. Although Fanon is internationalist in his outlook, he nonetheless rejects Negritude. He refuses to promote a global movement before there is a nation. That is, for there to be an international literary movement, the component parts must be independent nations. He refuses to proceed out of order, having black writers participate in a black international movement except as representatives of duly formed, independent postcolonial nations. He turns his back on not only Negritude, but on any other cultural succor that could come from the African diaspora. The concept of African diaspora is based on the term diaspora, meaning the dispersion of a people to parts of the world other than their homeland. The term African diaspora was used by scholars as early as the 1950s and 1960s, although the Negritude writers did not use it. There is an order to things, for Fanon: first the nation, then the international cultural movement.

However, Fanon's hardheadedness has its benefits. Anyone following Fanon's ideas cannot mistake writing literature for political action. Fanon was well aware literature could have political dimensions. His praise for Depestre and Keita shows this. But he was adamant that building a nation—undertaking a revolution—could not be done by proxy, in novels and poems.

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