Biography of the Week: Frantz Fanon

The Algerian political theorist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) analyzed the nature of racism and colonialism and developed a theory of violent anticolonialist struggle.

Frantz Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique. 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.

In his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon examined the social and psychological processes by which the white colonizers alienated the black natives from any indigenous black culture; he showed that blacks were made to feel inferior because of their color and thus strove to emulate white culture and society. Fanon hoped that the old myths of superiority would be abandoned so that a real equality and integration could be achieved.

Alienated from the dominant French culture, except for that represented by such radicals as the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, Fanon deeply identified with Algeria's revolutionary struggle for independence. He had secretly aided the rebels from 1954 to 1956, when he resigned from the hospital post to openly work for the Algerian revolutionaries' National Liberation Front (FLN) in Tunis. He worked on the revolutionaries' newspaper, becoming one of the leading ideologists of the revolution, and developed a theory of anticolonial struggle in the "third world."

Using Marxist, psychoanalytic, and sociological analysis, Fanon summed up his views in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), arguing that only a thorough, truly socialist revolution carried out by the oppressed peasantry (the wretched of the earth) could bring justice to the colonized. He believed that the revolution could only be carried out by violent armed conflict; only revolutionary violence could completely break the psychological and physical shackles of a racist colonialism. Violence would regenerate and unite the population by a "collective catharsis;" out of this violence a new, humane man would arise and create a new culture. Through all this Fanon stressed the need to reject Europe and its culture and accomplish the revolution alone.

Fanon, the antiracist and revolutionary prophet, never saw the end result of the process he described: full independence of his adopted Algeria. In 1960 he served as ambassador to Ghana for the Algerian provisional government, but it was soon discovered that he had leukemia. After treatment in the Soviet Union, he went to the United States to seek further treatment but died there in 1961.

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