Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Frantz Fanon's Phenomenology of Black Mind: Sources, Critique, Dialectic

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Frantz Fanon's Phenomenology of Black Mind: Sources, Critique, Dialectic

Article excerpt

One may, no doubt, expect that given the title of my essay, my intention is to present something of an overview of the thought of Frantz Fanon. As the title would suggest, Fanon's 1952 Black Skin, White Masks is the specific object of such a description, a project that has had more than a few adventurers. After all, Fanon himself makes no secret of his intellectual debt to phenomenological existentialism. In fact, though, while my essay is something of an overview, one that focuses on Fanon's Black Skin (and I mean that not only as a quick reference to his book), my endeavor amounts to something more than collecting phenomenological bric-a-brac of so revolutionary a thinker and practitioner as Frantz Fanon, on this, the fortieth year of his death, which occurred not far from here, at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland, under CIA guard. (It is also important to note, for purposes that will become apparent later, that last year (2000) marked the fortieth anniversary of the death, in Paris, of Richard Wright, a black radical intellectual who had also come under the same kind of surveillance by U.S. watchdog agencies as Fanon. Wright and Fanon died a year apart at the beginning of what the United Nations designated as "the Africa Decade," under circumstances that remain murky to this day. The circumstances of their deaths, in countries from which each had exiled themselves, could not have been more revealing of the diasporan dialectic that made black thought so revolutionary and international a dimension of the postwar world.)

In the end, I may or may not have succeeded in escaping the kind the arbitrariness that so often attends scholarly adventures into the Fanonian dialectic. For it is also no secret-and Fanon is one of those rare twentieth century intellectuals who makes us alive to this at a visceral level-that he had to have been passionately in search of a liberatory method to have so seamlessly gone from the kind of restless postwar veteran and French Caribbean intellectual who could never "return to his native land," to the radical clinical psychiatrist in revolutionary Algeria, to the self-identified African revolutionary theoretician whose thought would become synonymous with Third World liberation. One does not, in other words, go willy-nilly making phenomenological bricolage out of such compelling philosophical commitments without risking some critical blow-back. That polemic is for another time however. The expectation that my essay is an overview is, nonetheless, not misplaced. It is simply that by calling it "Frantz Fanon's Phenomenology of Black Mind," I mean nothing so essentialist or essentializing as negritude, toward which Fanon had at first an understandably ambivalent attitude that then evolved with his growing revolutionary commitments into a scathing critique. Nor have I in mind the kind of postmodernist eclecticizing of Fanon that anachronizes the revolutionary content of his thought. I have something else in mind. I

Without adequate preparation, the Negro of the Western world lives in one life, many lifetimes .... The Negro, though born in the Western world, is not quite of it; due to policies of racial exclusion, his is the story of two cultures: the dying culture in which he happens to be born, and the culture into which he is trying to enter-a culture which has, for him, not quite yet come into being; and it is up the shaky ladder of all the intervening stages between these two cultures that Negro life must climb. Such a story is, above all, a record of shifting, troubled feelings groping their way toward a future that frightens as much as it beckons.

Richard Wright, Introduction to George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin

Merleau-Ponty's "flesh of the world" is an elemental fact that makes all apparent facts actual facts. Fanon's "black skin," too, is the flesh of the world, one that is caught up in other worlds of apparent and actual blackness. Merleau-Ponty's "flesh of the world," in other words, is Fanon's "fact of blackness. …

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