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Revisiting Fanon: Lessons for Critical Race & Decolonial Struggles – presentation

Tonight Free University of Western Sydney is hosting a screening of Concerning Violence, the Goran Olsson film which uses archival footage of anticolonial struggles to contextualise Chapter 1 of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Omar Bensaidi and I will be chairing the discussion. Here is the presentation we have prepared with the text below.

1. Fanon Biography

Frantz Fanon was born on the French Colony of Martinique on July 20, 1925.
He was a psychoanalyst and social philosopher known for his writings on behalf of the national liberation of colonial peoples. His critiques influenced subsequent generations of thinkers and activists. His family occupied a relatively high social status and therefore, he was surrounded by an environment whereby members of this social stratum tended to strive for assimilation, and identification, with white French culture. Fanon was raised in this environment, learning France’s history as his own, until his high school years when he first encountered the a black philosophy, taught to him by Aimé Césaire, Martinique’s other renowned critic of European colonization.

He volunteered for the French army during World War II, and then, after being released from military service, he went to France, where he studied medicine and psychiatry from 1945 to 1950. In 1953 he was appointed head of the psychiatric department of a government hospital in Algeria, then a French territory. As a black man searching for his own identity in a white colonial culture, he experienced racism; as a psychiatrist, he studied the dynamics of racism and its effects on the individual.

The following year, 1954, marked the eruption of the Algerian war of independence against France, an uprising directed by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and brutally repressed by French armed forces. Working in a French hospital, Fanon was increasingly responsible for treating both the psychological distress of the soldiers and officers of the French army who carried out torture in order to suppress anti-colonial resistance and the trauma suffered by the Algerian torture victims. Already alienated by the homogenizing effects of French imperialism, by 1956 Fanon realized he could not continue to aid French efforts to put down a decolonization movement that commanded his political loyalties, and he resigned his position at the hospital.

During this period, he was based primarily in Tunisia where he trained nurses for the FLN, edited its newspaper el Moujahid, and contributed articles about the movement to sympathetic publications.

He took up a diplomatic post in the provisional Algerian government, as the ambassador to Ghana, and used the influence of his position to help open up supply routes for the Algerian army. It was in Ghana that Fanon was diagnosed with the leukemia that would be his cause of death. Despite his rapidly failing health, Fanon spent ten months of his last year of life writing the book for which he would be most remembered, The Wretched of the Earth, of which the first chapter, “Concerning Violence” is the basis for this film. The book is an indictment of the brutality and savagery of colonialism which he ends with a passionate call for a new history of humanity to be initiated by a decolonized Third World.

He died a few months later in December, of 1961, just 4 months before Algeria had fought and won its independence from France. At the request of the FLN, his body was returned to Tunisia, where it was subsequently transported across the border and buried in the soil of the Algerian nation for which he fought so valiantly and single-mindedly for during the last five years of his life.

2. On ‘Concerning Violence’

Background to the film:
Made by Swedish documentary filmmaker, Goran Olsson.

Concerning Violence is the 1st chapter of Frantz Fanon’s 1961, The Wretched (Damned) of the Earth.

Olsson is known for his 2011 film The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which remixed archival footage of ’60s and ’70s black radical organizing in the U.S. Like that film, Concerning Violence is a collage of European (mostly Swedish) documentary footage of African national independence movements in what are now the states of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and others.

Fanon has generally been understood as advocating violence as the only method of overthrowing colonial rule and achieving self-determination for the colonised peoples.

Olsson wants to examine what that meant in practice, by harshly examining the realities of violence and asking when can we justify violence and when must we denounce it. Does the over-bearing violence of colonialism mean that the only way to meet it is with a violence of equivalent proportions?

Like Fanon himself, the answer is not straightforward. There are always costs to be paid on both sides, but the film recognises that the first shots are not fired on a neutral terrain. In other words, when it comes to colonial oppression, the decks are very unevenly stacked and arguably even the most heinous acts of violence perpetrated by the colonised are a drop in the ocean when related to those of the coloniser.

3. Why Violence?

Frantz Fanon’s work on the black condition, the colonial relation of domination and anti-colonial struggle impacted upon movements around the world. Only in France and Algeria was his work lost for many years.

The black-Jewish thinker Lewis Gordon is one of the most important scholars of Fanon. He discusses Fanon’s relationship to violence.

In this quote he talks about what is seen and what is not seen.

Visibility and dehumanisation are key themes in Fanon’s work. As David Goldberg has shown, in relation to Fanon, black and racialised people are made invisible in the sense that harm towards them is not seen/recognised. Here too, in Gordon’s wuote, we see that we see violence when it is enacted against white people (or white infrastructure/property, etc.) but we do not see the daily violence endured by black people.

In the first film made by Goran Olson, he includes an interview carried out with Black Panther party member Angela Davis when in jail in 1972 by a Swedish documentary team. In this clip, she makes clear that to ask about black violence is to not see the everyday nature of the violence endured by black people.

4. Reason, Relationality

Remember Eric Garner who died saying ‘I Can’t Breath…’, a tragic gasp that became the chant of the Black Lives Matter Movement?

The inability to breath was Fanon’s explanation of the colonised’s violence. In other words, the colonised did not revolt because they had a natural propensity to violence. That, as Gordon explained, was the colonisers’ explanation for their violence, an explanation which entirely discounts the fact that violence already existed in the colonial spaces, indeed was the very premise – the basis – upon which colonial regimes were built.

Fanon shows us (1st quote) that because humanity is based on relationality, the primary effort of racial/colonial domination is to take the Black/colonised person outside of this fundamental human relationship. This effectively means that the colonised can be seen as outside of humanity – as non-human.

Once established as non-human, the colonised person is seen also as outside the realm of reason/rationality. Fanon argues that the aim of decolonisation is to reclaim reason from the domain of the coloniser/white people.

Western thought has presented the view that Reason begins in the west and that non-western people do not think in rational terms; this was used to legitimise their domination under colonialism (works similarly in systems of racial domination which rely heavily on paternalistic narratives of ‘assimilation’ and ‘integration’).

The project of reclaiming reason, in which Fanon was engaged, had the aim of bringing forth what Lewis Gordon calls ‘more truthful accounts’. In other words, it is necessary to see the world from the ‘underside’ in order to see it in its entirety. If we only see the world from the perspective of the west/whites/colonisers we will only see it partially. This is what Du Bois teaches us with his concept of double consciousness which allows Blacks in the US to have what he called ‘second sight’.

Hence, we can understand violence as the necessary step towards forcing a realisation of the fact that Reason is not the sole domain of the coloniser. It is because colonial logic constructed the colonised as incapable of reason that their acts are associated with violence (unreason) while the violent acts of the colonisers are made reasonable, or necessary. It is this truth that Fanon tries to unveil.

Alana Lentin