The Algerian Revolution had broken out on November 1 five years prior, but François Maspero could not have known that Fanon would pass away in 1961, missing the chance to witness an independent Algeria by just three months. Nor could Maspero have suspected the immense interest that Fanon’s work would elicit 60 years later in the United States, a country that Fanon described as a “monster where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions.”
Scholars have recently turned to Fanon to understand racism in the United States, using his trenchant analysis to understand the dehumanization of Black people. In the process, however, some have extrapolated Fanon from the historical context from which he wrote, erasing the fact that his analysis was rooted in multiple genealogies and geographies. The tendency to domesticate Fanon’s work also shows how a concern for abstract “theory” can overlook political praxis. Reflecting on Fanon’s political commitments — and particularly the formative influence of the Algerian Revolution — is crucial for understanding how both international empire and domestic racism condition our political present.
Fanon’s complicated personal and political trajectory has made him a difficult figure to pin down. Born in Martinique, a French slave colony in the Caribbean, he grew up believing one of the central myths of the civilizing mission: that colonial subjects were fully French. Fanon was sufficiently convinced of the laudatory qualities of the Republic that in 1943, on the day of his brother’s wedding, he secretly left for France to enlist in the Free French Forces, eventually earning a medal for his bravery.
War shocked Fanon. Not only was he horrified by the racial segregation of the French Army, but he was also struck by many French citizens’ disinterest despite the acute threat to freedom that Nazi Germany presented. In a heart-wrenching letter to his family, he wrote: “I was wrong! Nothing here justifies this sudden decision to defend the interests of the French farmer when he himself does not care.”
Political developments in Martinique also failed to offer the kind of emancipatory horizons that Fanon so desperately sought out. In the 1940s, many leftist Caribbean intellectuals, including Fanon’s former teacher Aimé Césaire, pushed for equal representation with hexagonal France. Yet to Fanon’s dismay, in seeking to change Martinique’s status from a colony to a department, they argued for fuller integration with France rather than independence.
He stayed in France after the war to pursue his studies in psychiatry while also engaging in the cauldron of student activism that had gripped France since the interwar period. (Fanon himself was clubbed and trampled by the police during a protest in 1947.) His time in mainland France brought him in touch with the more intimate aspects of European racism. In his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), he recounts the moment when a little girl in Lyon pointed to him on a train, saying to her mother, “Look, Mom, a Negro; I’m scared!”
When Fanon tried to submit Black Skin, White Masks as the PhD dissertation required to obtain a doctorate of medicine, it was rejected, and Fanon quickly wrote something that conformed to the discipline’s standards. Dedicating the revised thesis to his brother, he ominously wrote, “I do not agree with those who think it possible to live life at an easy pace.” Two years later, in October 1953, he was posted to the Blida-Joinville psychiatric hospital in Algeria, where he had to rely on Arabic translators, which he thought “fundamentally vitiated doctor-patient relations.” Convinced that the practice of psychiatry had been complicit in colonial racism, he committed to breaking from colonial models that associated Muslims with a primitive form of existence. By all accounts, Fanon had a shaky grasp on the history of Algerian nationalism when the war broke out on November 1, 1954, but it was impossible for him to remain impartial. His patients included Algerian victims of torture as well as the French Army officers who had tortured them. He became a revolutionary himself, narrowly escaping an assassination attempt by the French Secret Services in 1959.
He took refuge in Tunisia, taking on a pseudonym and writing for the National Liberation Front’s official publication, El Moudjahid. In the last years of his life, he turned his attention towards spreading anticolonial revolution in sub-Saharan Africa, acting as the representative of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic in Accra. His best-known work, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), was a spirited call for decolonization, which he described as “an agenda for total disorder.” He dictated the work to his secretary after his leukemia diagnosis, with full knowledge that time was in short supply.
The book’s acerbic tone was difficult even for the most radical elements of the French Left. Asked by Maspero to review the book after its publication, the French anarchist Daniel Guérin responded that the conclusion, a searing critique of Europe, had laudable literary qualities but was “a bit delusional, and very far from the universalism of the proletariat (the genuine one) to which I remain faithful.”
Fanon’s well-known skepticism of the French Left was perhaps well deserved. One of the central messages of the book is that a new world order, needed for the survival of humanity at large, would not emerge from the revolutionary traditions of Europe. “Come, comrades,” he wrote, “the game of Europe is definitively over, we must look for something else.”
The Algerian Revolution, and Fanon’s analysis of it, was indeed untimely in Wendy Brown’s sense of the word, which defines untimeliness as a “a way of reclaiming the present” in order to “contest settled accounts of what time is.” Fanon called on Algerians to upend the temporality ascribed to the colonized. If Europe lived in the stream of progress, certitude, and technical rationality, the natives were drenched in the past, steeped in indolence, and living under the weight of a religious stupor. Like much of Fanon’s writings, his psychiatric insights help explain his political calls to action. He first commented on the question of time in his clinical writings, noting that his patients — those who were experiencing the depths of depression — indicated “an indifference concerning time.”
This observation led Fanon to argue that psychiatric institutions should establish timetables for action. As Fanon’s patients started to relinquish any notion of punctuality, he imposed guidelines that would jolt them into action. Just as it was imperative for the psychiatric patient to enter the temporality of daily routines, Fanon encouraged subjects of the colonized world to enter historical time and therefore establish themselves as sovereign actors.
In The Wretched of the Earth, he writes that colonized Algerians “are in tune with their time,” implying that the revolution had imposed the necessary temporal structure on their actions. He offers the following example: “People are sometimes surprised that, instead of buying a dress for their wife, the colonized buy a transistor radio. They shouldn’t be.” If observers expected Algerians to spend their extra money on frivolous items, as they might have in the past, they were sorely mistaken. The radio was powerful precisely because it allowed colonized Algerians to enter a historical time shared by multiple actors across the Third World, offering a perspective wider than the immediate concerns of local (or even national) events.
The radicality of Fanon’s demands for Algerian sovereignty went against the consensus of the European Left in the 1950s, helping us to understand why Maspero expressed doubts about Fanon’s manuscript in 1959. Even the French Communist Party, who denounced colonialism, stopped shy of calling for independence. By a curious twist of logic, the party distinguished between the “right” to self-determination and the obligation to divorce. Algerian independence was a profound shock for France. It transformed French legal, political, and even philosophical certitudes. The theorist Robert Young suggested that the Algerian Revolution helped usher in post-structuralism, as observers were forced to wrestle with the epistemological uncertainties that resulted from anticolonial struggle. In a similar vein, Jean-Luc Nancy argued that Algeria’s independence shaped the political thought of Jacques Derrida, who was himself born in Algeria.
In the United States, the country that Fanon derided as a “nation of lynchers,” his work was read for different ends. Fanon’s insights were studied by the Black Panthers in the 1960s and were fundamental to their articulation of Black Power. In the 1980s and 1990s, a generation of postcolonial theorists drew on his writings to understand the subjectivity of the colonized and the social divisions at the heart of the colonial world. Most recently, his work has been invoked by scholars working on anti-Blackness. While scholars based in France have been more interested in his concrete political engagements, American readers of Fanon have advocated for a more theoretical, and less biographical, interpretation of his work.
Some commentators have invoked Fanon to argue that Blackness is synonymous with social death, a concept first delimited by sociologist Orlando Patterson to explain how enslaved individuals are treated as objects rather than people. The school of thought, known as Afro-pessimism, also holds that Blackness is synonymous with the ontological condition of the slave. Afro-pessimism has entered the activist mainstream after the murders of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Michael Brown, among so many others. Commentators have also linked the phrase “I can’t breathe” and Fanon’s observation that people revolt due to the fact that it has become “impossible […] to breathe.”
Yet Fanon compelled his readers to decenter the Global North. Indeed, his much-repeated statement about being unable to breathe is not uttered in response to the plight of a Black person living in the United States or in Europe. Instead, it follows his rejection of Négritude’s ahistorical rendering of Black civilization in light of the French effort to hold onto their colony in Vietnam in the 1950s. He writes: “It is not because the Indo-Chinese discovered a culture of their own that they revolted. Quite simply this was because it became impossible for them to breathe, in more than one sense of the word.”
There are intellectual risks in readings of Fanon that make him eminently “timely” by situating his work exclusively in the temporality of American politics. They downplay the long history of Black scholars — such as Angela Davis and James Baldwin — who reflected on the violence inflicted against North Africans in Paris to theorize racism in the United States. They also flatten the racialization of Black people; as Jemima Pierre’s 2012 book The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race argues, for example, centering models of race developed in the diaspora minimizes the complex history of modern Africa.
At the same time, some of Fanon’s American interlocutors have argued that anti-Blackness must be understood as a singular object defined by the racial epidermal schema. But Fanon was too careful an observer to merge all experiences of Blackness into a common mold. For example, in the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, he is categorical that we must account for the different forms of racism encountered by those who came to France from the French Caribbean (who had French citizenship) and those who came from Africa (who did not). He was also too indebted to Marxism to abandon economic analysis altogether.
To claim that Blackness was experienced in the same way everywhere, or that Black social life could be understood only through an ontological absence, ignores Fanon’s revolutionary praxis and deprives us of important theoretical tools to understand the present. Moreover, it illustrates how theories emanating from the American academy risk becoming the only legible frame of reference for understanding race and racism in the Global South.
The field of “Fanon studies” in the United States has been relatively uninterested in the Algerian Revolution, which was a central conjuncture for Fanon’s thought. The philosopher and critic David Marriott terms it a “civil war” (repeating a French perspective incompatible with that of an anticolonial revolution). He also characterizes the writings on Fanon by the Algerian-born Alice Cherki, a psychiatrist who worked with Fanon and centers their shared struggle for Algerian independence, as “unduly biographical.” Whereas Cherki views Fanon’s relationship to psychoanalysis as rooted in a realization that the existing models of psychoanalysis (notably those developed by Octave Mannoni) were undergirded by colonial racism during his time in Algeria, Marriott insists that these ideas were derived from a concern with the conditions by which the “black can only perform itself as a sovereign subject with a capacity for power.” This reading leaves little space for the fact that heated debates between Mannoni and Fanon occurred at a time when, as Cherki insists, Fanon had “firsthand knowledge of the direct interaction with the suffering body and alienated self of another human being.” This firsthand knowledge, of course, came from his experience in North Africa.
We should take Fanon seriously as a theorist, of course, without reducing him to the facts and circumstances of his life. But at what point do the insurgent social forces that shaped his life and thought trouble the interpretations of scholars writing from American universities? After all, concrete struggles have long been a precious site for generating “theory.” Fanon insisted that the Third World had valuable lessons for the rest of humanity. He was desperate to find inspiration from the process of decolonization occurring in the Global South.
Indeed, when Maspero was compiling a list of Fanon’s articles for republication in September 1963, following his death, he wrote to Rédha Malek, future prime minister of Algeria, who had been Fanon’s comrade at El Moudjahid. Malek clearly felt this query overlooked the profoundly collaborative vocation of the journal. An annoyed Malek told Maspero that The Wretched of the Earth was a continuation of the themes that the editorial team had debated throughout the revolution. He noted this comment was not meant to “reduc[e] Fanon's personal contribution in any way, the point is to situate him in the concrete context in which he so marvellously integrated himself.” Malek’s insistence on the collective nature of Fanon’s work — and its rootedness in concrete struggle — was perfectly captured by Fanon himself, who often used the phrase “we Algerians” when speaking in public at the end of his life.
Malek rightly foresaw the danger of abstracting Fanon’s work from the praxis of the Algerian Revolution. He also resisted the temptation of labeling him the “theorist” of the Algerian Revolution. This was a common stance among Algerian intellectuals and comrades, whose voices have been curiously excluded from discussions on Fanon in the United States. Instead, there is a tendency to treat Fanon as a singular figure, removed from the exchanges that necessarily shaped his body of work.
If Fanon is also touted as representing a radical break with European philosophy (or “delinking,” to invoke the current academic jargon), some Algerian thinkers argued the opposite. Mohamed El-Mili, who worked with Fanon and Malek at El Moudjahid and was close to Islamic modernist circles, was adamant that Fanon’s secular humanism was much closer to the French Left than to the ideologies of some of his Algerian comrades. In 1971, writing in Arabic, El-Mili chided Fanon for his belief that decolonization could represent a clean break with the past. He speculated that “if Fanon had been a Muslim or permeated by Arabic, or Islamic culture, then his position on the past would have been different.” A similar critique came from the well-known Algerian sociologist Abdelkader Djeghloul, who defended a dissertation on Fanon in France the same year.
For both of these intellectuals, despite their very different ideological commitments, Algerian nationalism came from longstanding traditions rooted in culture and language. They insisted that Fanon was mistaken in predicting that an independent Algeria would result in a tabula rasa. They also believed Fanon — despite his anticolonialism — was a product of the French Left who realized the limits of this perspective thanks to his time in Algeria. Ultimately, they argued, the Algerian Revolution produced Fanon as a thinker rather than the other way around.
Fanon was also nothing if not strategic: when he came to grasp the fratricidal nature of revolution, which had resulted in the murder of his confidant Abane Ramdane in 1957 by Algerian comrades, he said nothing, putting the need for national unity first. One can only imagine Fanon’s disappointment when El Moudjahid peddled the falsehood that Ramdane had died due to injuries sustained in battle with French troops.
According to Alice Cherki,“Fanon had not only lost a dear friend, but this death had also exposed the erosion of the revolutionary mandate of the war of liberation.” If this was the case, however, Fanon never recoiled from the strategic necessity of protecting the unity of the revolution or defending its reliance on violent methods. Speaking in Ghana in December 1960, he went so far as to proclaim: “We have had traitors whom we have liquidated,” citing this fact as an example of the indominable Algerian will towards independence. If he was willing to make such stunning personal sacrifices for the Algerian Revolution, this was not because he had turned his back on the Caribbean nor because he no longer cared about the anti-Black racism that he experienced in France. Instead, his engagements stemmed from a profound commitment to thinking about various forms of oppression on a global scale.
In light of Fanon’s own concern for the concrete interventions of his writings, do Afro-pessimist readings offer us effective political strategies to confront the multiple crises currently facing the United States? Some scholars writing from Black studies, notably Nick Mitchell, have argued that they do not. Mitchell points out that Frank Wilderson III ignores how class structures the social world, including the academy from which many of us write. In other words, it matters that one language of white supremacy is economic. A cursory look at the history of tuition raises at the University of California reveals that when public education became more racially diverse, it also became economically unfeasible for the majority of students.
Afro-pessimism tends to ignore class for a blanket conception of Blackness, but there is another issue here: many of the structures that reproduce racial inequalities in the United States (including a general divestment from public education and the development of policing techniques) are linked to the history of American empire in the Middle East.
The connections between the American “war on terror” and the Algerian Revolution were not lost on the Pentagon, who screened the classic film The Battle of Algiers (1966) in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. US military leaders like David Petraeus were inspired by the writings of French military officer David Galula, who had developed the theory of counterinsurgency warfare in order to quell anticolonial uprisings in Algeria (as well as Indochina). Yet rather than follow the ways in which American empire is inscribed in the long history of Western violence in the Middle East and North Africa, or study the relations between racism and colonialism, current readings of Fanon reduce Algerian history to a darkroom where Fanon’s insights on anti-Blackness were developed. The resulting images are necessarily overexposed, erasing important details to focus solely on the elements that can be used to theorize from the American academy.
Recentering Fanon’s thought in the heart of empire robs us of the rich ambiguities of his writings, which trouble any neat parallel between the national (or racial) group to which we belong and the forms of solidarity that we decide to adopt. This does not mean that we should turn our attention away from what Fanon called the “monstrous” nature of racism in our own country. Instead, it is a warning against using his writings as a blunt tool to erase the global horizons of emancipation.
Muriam Haleh Davis is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Markets of Civilization: Islam and Racial Capitalism, published by Duke University Press in 2022.
Featured image: Carl Newman. Abstract. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Henry Sayen and Miss Ann Sayen on behalf of Helene Zaun Newman. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed October 25, 2022.