Psychiatrist Fanon studied the neuroses colonialism induces in colonized peoples (as well as in colonizers, to a lesser extent) in his first significant publication, Black Skin, White Masks (1952). Colonialism, he contends, can produce all manner of problems — including an inferiority complex that can lead to a desire to be white, a desire to marry a white person, passivity in the face of whites, extreme self-hatred, and a host of other debilitating mental states. The black man is in fact “phobogenic” — inheriting phobias from generation to generation (154).
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon recalls how he dealt with one black patient who was suffering from an inferiority complex. Ultimately, he concludes, the source of the illness was exterior to the man, and so to reassure the patient, to encourage him to be content with his life as it was, would be equivalent to the colonizer’s message of “keep your place.”
“If he is overwhelmed to such a degree by the wish to be white, it is because he lives in a society that makes his inferiority complex possible, in a society that derives its stability from the perpetuation of this complex, in a society that proclaims the superiority of one race,” Fanon writes. Because “that society creates difficulties for him,” the patient, if he wants to be cured, must stand up in opposition to it (100).
The argument remains that there are nonviolent methods of opposition: political action or peaceful opposition in the realm of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Fanon argues, even before his final call to violent rebellion, that these approaches do not work within the French colonialist structure, nor do they address the needs specific to African colonies. French colonial society is at its core Manichean, characterizing all that is white and European as good and all that is black, non-Christian, or African as evil, conflicted, and unintelligent — a system of thought that shuts down every attempt at reason from the very beginning. Fanon describes his own struggle with this Manichean outlook at length in the chapter “The Fact of Blackness” in Black Skin, White Masks. His attempts to argue against racism were futile because racism as an institution or a mode of thought had no basis in reason: “I had rationalized the world and the world had rejected me on the basis of color prejudice. Since no agreement was possible on the level of reason, I threw myself back toward unreason” (123).
Poets of the Negritude movement like Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire urged the black, colonized person to overcome his inferiority complex and assert his place in the world of men. Black Skin, White Masks consolidated the words of these revolutionaries into a single manifesto, and left it to the revolutionaries of 1952 to decide how they might attain their goal: “I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other. One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices” (229). The “them or us” mentality is already at play: even choosing not to act is an act of siding against not only one’s own freedom, but the freedom of one’s entire nation.
The stage is set for rebellion: the oppressed long ago ceased being ignorant of their own oppression, and now they have become the masters of their own dialectic. They know who oppresses them, they know the means by which they are oppressed, and they know why. “For once [the colonized] are in tune with their time,” writes Fanon nine years later in The Wretched of the Earth. “People are sometimes surprised that, instead of buying a dress for their wife, the colonized buy a transistor radio. They shouldn’t be. The colonized are convinced that their fate is in the balance” (40). Once they are fully acquainted with their situation, independence seems the only option, and violence, Fanon believes, is the only viable means to attain it.
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