Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book 44, Martinique: "Black Skin, White Masks" by Frantz Fanon

I also had to read extracts from Fanon's Wretched of the Earth in college. But I remember nothing from it, except that he was angry.

Black Skin, White Masks was his first work: in fact, it was supposed to be his doctoral thesis while he was studying psychology in Lyon, but of course it got rejected and ignored till maybe the '80s when it became an important text on racial liberation worldwide.

The title's actually misleading. Sure, some of it's about black folks trying to appear white. But really, it's about the entire caboodle of fucked-up psychology that's emerged in the world due to the interaction of black and white people after colonialism: something few psychologists cared to consider before then.

Fanon's alarmed by how the popular unconscious has ended up swallowing a particular negative image of the black person: the Negro = the genital, the Negro = everything base and deadly and evil when it appears in your dreams. He documents cases where white folks suffer from such neuroses, rape phobias/fantasies and tormenting delusions of tom-tom drums; images of cannibals and Bushmen in the Pathé documentaries; barbarians and faithful servants in comic books. Then he talks about how these images have twisted even the colonised Antillean peoples, who have no alternative mythology: they dream of themselves as white, as young people it is with a rude shock that they realise they are black and thus forever the shit of the earth.

Obvious stuff, you may think. Maybe it was original when he wrote it back in 1952, but today we know all this stuff: we've read in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink how insidiously racial types have imprinted even the most well-meaning of us, causing even black students to do worse in standardised tests if they're reminded of their race beforehand.

And yet Fanon says it with such passion, such anguish, and such poetry, in between his overloaded Freud-and-Lacan-quoting academese that it's different: it does awaken insights once again to the slippages of race that happen even today, even for me as a majority race Chinese Anglophone in a successful Asian technocracy.

Which brings me to three bizarre things:

1) According to Wikipedia, Black Skin, White Masks has been hugely influential even among Tamils and Palestinians. And yet Fanon clearly states that he wrote the book specifically with the Antillean black person in mind, and the educated, upper-class Antillean black person in particular, one with the wherewithal to actually go to France and make a fool of himself trying to fit in.

Antilleans aren't prototypical blacks, he notes: they see themselves as far whiter than, say, the fearsome Senegalese soldiers, and thus feel superior. Which is of course nonsense, but that's how colonisation's warped everyone's minds.

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2) The book is surprisingly sexy. Chapters Two and Three are all about the cultural clashes that result when black women shack up with white men, and black men shack up with white women: the desire to whiten oneself through sexual conquest and/or codependency. But of course, the delusions work the other way, too: Fanon reports the case of a French prostitute who would experience an orgasm at the very thought of making love to a black man, until she actually started to have sex to black men, and discovered them to be pretty much the same as white men.

He ultimately concludes that the archetypal equation of the black race with sexuality means that all white women who fear black men ( as well as all white men who hate black men) secretly want to snog them. He doesn't approve of homosexuality much, by the way. Product of his times.

3) The book is surprisingly literary. As evidence for his described neuroses, Fanon quotes at length not just from psychiatrists but also from Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas and Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Orphée Noir and even autobiographies by hack writers.

Is this good science? Maybe not. But it's also through the literary language of spiritual liberation that he voices the courage necessary for the black man to discover selfhood and dignity in the closing chapters. Really beautiful stuff: maybe I should've reread Césaire's Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal for this country segment after all.

Representative quote: I, the man of color, want only this:

That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another. That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.

The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.

Next book: Derek Walcott's Omeros, from St Lucia.

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