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Frantz Fanon’s Call to Anti-Colonial Violence
(Released October 2011)

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  by Erin McCoy  

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Only three years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign of nonviolent dissent achieved the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States, psychiatrist and black Martinique native Frantz Fanon endorsed a very different method of rebelling against oppression. Fanon had served as a propagandist and subversive in the Algerian uprising against colonizing France, propelled by what years of research and observation had taught him about the psychological state of the colonized person. Fanon himself came from a territory of France, and through his interviews with colonized peoples he concluded they were often subjected to violence, physical and emotional, which led them to develop all varieties of neuroses, from inferiority complexes to the desire to be white. In his book The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fanon outlined the cure to colonialism, which he believed induced mental illness in the colonized and colonizers alike — and that cure was “pure violence.”

Wretched of the Earth

Frantz Fanon on the cover of an English translation of Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth)

Fanon described the colonialist system as a Manichean world built by the colonist, where all that is white is good and all that is black is bad — and the colonized is helpless to battle this lack of reason with a reasoned argument in return. Instead, to throw off the shackles of colonialism, Fanon argued that colonized peoples have no other choice but to meet colonists’ physical and emotional acts of violence with a violence of the same magnitude, until “the last become first” (Wretched of the Earth 10). Fanon further believed violent rebellion has the capacity to cure the ailments of the colonized while unifying a people as a basis for a new nation.

Scholars today continue to find new applications for Fanon’s work — whether in the study of the psychological effects of racism on minority groups (Sanders-Phillips) or in the analysis of Islamic militants’ justification for their violence (Zulfiqar). Fanon’s writings influenced the Black Power movement in America — a country he detested for its poor treatment of blacks — and were read by prisoners during South Africa’s Apartheid and impacted members of the Irish Liberation Army (7). Yet while Fanon’s ideas can be applied outside the context that incubated them, at least one scholar has warned that “when speaking of violence, Fanon was very context specific” (129) Therefore it is necessary to understand what experiences led Fanon to reject the colonialist system and how his work as a psychiatrist formed the foundation for his revolutionary message.

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