Why Frantz Fanon Changed His Name: On Adam Shatz’s “The Rebel’s Clinic”

Robert J. C. Young reviews Adam Shatz’s “The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon.”

Why Frantz Fanon Changed His Name: On Adam Shatz’s “The Rebel’s Clinic”

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 464 pages.

HOW DO WE explain the relentless succession of biographies of Frantz Fanon? As Anthony Alessandrini noted in his review of Adam Shatz’s The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon (2024), there have now been many biographies of Fanon—Shatz’s is at least the 10th to appear since Fanon’s death in 1961. It’s undoubtedly the best even as it takes its place in the proliferation of books driving Fanon’s remarkable international afterlife and the many translations of his work into different social and political environments. For a man who himself had virtually no interest in biography and left behind remarkably few archival traces, it is as if the repeated narrative of Fanon’s migrations comes to substitute for his inner life—which, as Shatz observes, remains oddly elusive.

Or is it precisely the need to discover that absent inner self that produces the repetition compulsion of Fanon biographies? How can someone whose inner being seems so out of reach touch us so deeply as we read him? Can that missing inner self be related to the fact that Fanon denied that he had an unconscious—so that all his readers feel compelled to substitute their own? Every biography of Fanon prompts the same unanswered question: how can we access Fanon other than through the reflective mirrors of hearsay, or the affect his writings produce in readers?

Widely acclaimed by reviewers, Shatz’s The Rebel’s Clinic is the first complete biography of Fanon to appear since those of David Macey and Alice Cherki in 2000. In the intervening years, scholars have continued to research and recount Fanon’s life, while the shrinking number of those who knew him have continued to publish their memoirs. The great strength of the new biography is that Shatz assimilates and articulates all the biographical information about Fanon that has emerged from these many accounts that have appeared over the last 25 years. Shatz has also carefully read the collection of Fanon’s previously unpublished and uncollected writings that appeared in 2015, which for the first time demonstrated the principal place that psychiatry held in Fanon’s thinking and practice. Fanon’s psychiatry had often been a virtual blank in accounts of his work, even though he continued to practice until the penultimate year of his life. Most readers of Fanon assumed, however, that his psychiatry was peripheral—so much so, in fact, that it was difficult initially to get publishers interested in the idea of a collection of his psychiatric and other writings at all—until the 2015 volume appeared and revolutionized our understanding of the man. With The Rebel’s Clinic, Shatz for the first time puts psychiatry in its rightful place in Fanon’s life and thought—at the center.

Shatz’s other great advantage is that he has no particular ax to grind. Whereas many of Fanon’s interpreters seek to project Fanon as the man who they would wish him to have been—a committed Marxist, an Afropessimist, a Lacanian psychoanalyst—Shatz judiciously steers his way through all of Fanon’s complex dimensions without his own prior agenda. And for the most part he gets Fanon exactly right—his undying commitment to French republican universalism, his rejection of the idea of madness as a form of freedom, his early sympathetic understanding of the dire existential situation of the North African migrant workers in Lyon, his constant exploration of the dynamic situation of Blackness in Western society combined with his early rejection of negritude, whether conceived in terms of Africanness and African history (à la Léopold Sédar Senghor) or via the history of slavery (à la Aimé Césaire). What we discover instead is Fanon himself, in all his pathos, courageous commitments, and contradictions.


Helpfully assuming that his reader has little knowledge of the now vanished world in which Fanon lived from 1925 to 1961, Shatz adroitly sketches in the intellectual and political contexts of his early years in Martinique, his army service in North Africa and Europe during World War II, his postwar years in France studying medicine and psychiatry in Lyon and Saint-Alban with François Tosquelles, his three years as a resident psychiatrist at Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria, and his final years with the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Tunis, Tunisia, and Accra, Ghana. Shatz shows how Fanon fundamentally understood everything through the lens of his ideas about psychiatry. A country, such as colonial Algeria was and how he imagined it could be, was simply the bad or good version of the psychiatric institution.

Shatz also devotes a chapter each to the three books that Fanon published in his lifetime. At times for A Dying Colonialism (1959) and even The Wretched of the Earth (1961), this takes the form of paraphrases that inevitably diminish the works’ visceral power—to read a paraphrase can never be as exciting as to read Fanon in his own words. The exception to this is his excellent analysis of Fanon’s most opaque if also most engaging book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), where Shatz succeeds in giving the book a coherence that has eluded most of its readers, suggesting that it was Fanon’s response to two then-recent works—Césaire’s extraordinary poem of negritude, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (revised edition, 1947), and (taking a cue from Matthieu Renault) Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). Whereas Fanon’s deeply ambivalent relationship to Césaire is well documented, the inspiration he took from Beauvoir will come as a surprise to many readers, particularly those who have castigated Fanon for his sexual politics. Shatz shows how we are drawn into engaging with Fanon’s process of autobiographical self-discovery, recounting his attempts to find a theoretical framework that would enable him to understand his lacerating experiences of racism in France so that he could become impervious to their vicious, undermining psychic effects. Shatz draws compelling links with Fanon’s 1952 essay “The North African Syndrome,” in which the author recounts how he came to understand the malaise of the Kybelian immigrants in Lyon, written off by French doctors as malingerers. Fanon understood that their illnesses were not fake but the product of their existential situation as migrant male factory workers living far from home, lacking their own forms of cultural support. He understood because he recognized in them what he felt himself.

Though Fanon read widely in psychoanalysis, Shatz stresses correctly that he was a psychiatrist, not a psychoanalyst as he is often described (in the United States, the second printing of The Wretched of the Earth was subtitled A Negro Psychoanalyst’s Study of the Problems of Racism & Colonialism in the World Today). Shatz accepts rather too easily, though, the suggestions by Fanon’s former intern, Alice Cherki, and secretary, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, both of whom became psychoanalysts in later life, that Fanon was moving in the same direction and would have followed the same path they did. But there is nothing in Fanon’s late lectures on the meeting between society and psychiatry, for example, that suggests he had come any closer to psychoanalysis, certainly not to embracing Freud. Shatz himself mildly reproves Fanon for taking his distance from Freud, but the more interesting question is why, as a Black Martinican in Lyon, Fanon developed an aversion to him. By contrast, he was an early and sympathetic reader of Lacan, but as his Lacanian interpreters who emerged in the 1990s failed to notice, the Lacan that Fanon read was the early Lacan, before he became a critical icon. As Shatz notes, Fanon’s comments on him were “subtly mocking.” For a Black man in a racist or colonial society, madness could never be celebrated as a form of freedom.


After its superb account of Black Skin, White Masks, Shatz’s book shifts its focus toward Fanon’s political life in North Africa. Shatz is particularly strong and original with respect to Fanon’s role in the FLN in Algeria, Tunisia, and West Africa. He provides a superb, unparalleled account of Fanon’s 1960 trip to the Congo to try to save Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. By the end, the self-created FLN militant had cast his lot with a ruthless anti-colonial fighting machine that was as happy to take out its own leaders, potentially even Fanon himself, as its colonial enemy. There is a certain pathos about all this, including his compensatory swerve towards Pan-African revolution. And then came the discovery that he had developed leukemia.

Fanon wrote virtually nothing about himself in relation to the war in Algeria. Never considered one of the main opposition leaders, he is rarely mentioned by historians of the war except as a commentator on it. People tend to assume that he was famous in his own time, but Fanon remained virtually unknown until the publication of The Wretched of the Earth. As his stature has grown since his death, so has the importance of his role in the war. While Shatz makes effective use of the journal kept by the political martyr Mouloud Feraoun, his framing source is the work of Algerian historian Mohamed Harbi, whom he also interviewed. While these sources provide rich inside information, Shatz also reproduces some of Harbi’s rather questionable views of Fanon. Harbi was a dogmatic Marxist-Leninist, which did not sit well with his colleagues within the FLN, and his insistence on the proletariat as the only revolutionary class led to him ridiculing Fanon for his belief that the peasantry constituted the foundation of the Algerian Revolution.

Shatz misses the fact that the early 1960s marked the time, among Third World anti-colonial activists, when Soviet-style Marxism was rapidly giving way to an interest in the ideas and activism of Mao Zedong, the leader of the first communist revolution in a nonwhite, non-Western society. Fanon’s stress on the political role of the peasantry was not just his personal delusion, as Shatz and Harbi suggest; it was becoming the mainstream form of Marxism adopted across the world by anti-colonial revolutionaries, from Che Guevara to Amílcar Cabral. Fanon’s interest in Maoist perspectives toward the end of his life, especially the notion of the peasantry as a revolutionary force, may explain why there were more works by Mao in his library than by any other author. In a country of peasants such as Algeria, where the vast majority of the Indigenous population was illiterate in French, Fanon’s focus on the peasant warrior was hardly a delusion. And his stress on the role of the peasantry was key to cementing The Wretched of the Earth as the theoretical text of Third World anti-colonial revolution.

Shatz does provide a nuanced discussion of Fanon’s always controversial essay on violence, pointing out that Fanon understood the concept in relation to his own enthusiastic use of electroshock therapy in psychiatry, though he doesn’t draw our attention to the awkward fact that the French army was torturing Algerian revolutionaries by putting electrodes on their genitals. Conceptually, Fanon’s argument about violence was in many ways simply a rewrite of the philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s famous reinterpretation of Hegel’s master-slave struggle for recognition. Shatz points out that, from the first, Fanon’s views on violence in The Wretched of the Earth were not often distinguished from the far more extreme sentiments to be found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to the book.

Shatz invokes Hannah Arendt approvingly at points, without mentioning that the reception of Fanon’s views on violence was mediated in the United States by her own 1970 book On Violence, in which she aligns Fanon with the Black Panthers and characterizes their views on violence as being founded simply in “deep hatred.” Arendt didn’t just neglect to take the historical situation of reciprocal violence in Algeria into account when discussing Fanon’s essay, she seems to have deliberately misconstrued his argument in order to assimilate it into a decontextualized Black brotherhood of irrational rage. Commentators such as Arendt have long criticized Fanon for talking about violence without apparently feeling any corresponding need to criticize France and other imperial powers for practicing violence on the rest of the world for over 500 years.


Given the proliferation of biographies of Fanon, it’s a shame that Shatz does not offer some self-reflection on what it means to produce another one, particularly in view of the difficulties all biographers of Fanon have had to encounter. At one point, Shatz comments, “Or so legend has it, and legend is, frustratingly, often all that we have to go on.” As the example of Arendt testifies, vague memories, misleading claims, and gossip about Fanon are relayed from book to book, creatively elaborated in each retelling. From the beginning, the history of Fanon has always been about the absence, loss, and creation of information about him. His biographer is heavily reliant on the words of others, often the secondhand words of others—hearsay, rumors.

For a man with so many biographies, there is surprisingly little documented factual information available about Fanon. Aside from his printed works, few archival traces remain. Most of Fanon’s own materials have been lost. No typescripts survive of any of the three books published in his lifetime: the only existing typescripts are two of his three plays, neither complete; only a single handwritten manuscript survives, a brief daily journal. Of the 53 letters he is known to have sent, only 26 still exist physically. One other is now considered likely not to have been written by Fanon at all but rather a creative invention by its alleged recipient, Ali Shariati. When my co-editor, Jean Khalfa, and I published this letter, which we back-translated from the Persian, in an edited collection of Fanon’s unpublished writings titled Alienation and Freedom in 2018, we, too, fell into the trap of invented Fanon legend.

The biographer has to rely on memoirs of those who knew Fanon, or interviews with those who knew him, or earlier biographers’ accounts of those interviews, or odd stories of those who may (or may not) have met him. Few of the incidents reported can be corroborated or have more than one witness. There is usually only one source for the information we have. Although Shatz thanks an assistant for fact-checking his book, it’s actually hard to check many “facts” about Fanon. A typical example is the claim made in 2016 by Félix Germain, professor of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh, that Fanon would slap his wife Josie. Germain’s informant was the Beninese writer Paulin Joachim, who worked as a journalist in Lyon in the early 1950s, where he could certainly have known Fanon. But Joachim died in 2012, which means that no one can double-check the story with him directly, and no one else has made the incendiary allegation. Everything regarding Fanon seems to disappear—his manuscripts, his letters, the tapes of his lectures to FLN soldiers, the human sources who created his legend, not to mention the elusive inner self at the center of it all.

Fanon himself had no interest in biography or autobiography, least of all his own. The most authoritative text is perhaps his brother Joby’s book Frantz Fanon, My Brother: Doctor, Playwright, Revolutionary (2014), since he had the advantage of having access not just to his memories of his brother but also to many letters and manuscripts that have since mysteriously disappeared. The very first attempt at biography, which Shatz does not mention, was a 1971 “biographical note” by Giovanni Pirelli, heir to the Pirelli fortune, who became involved in documenting the Algerian Revolution and knew Fanon well in Tunis. He begins it with the statement, “Given the scarce and fragmentary nature of published sources, this present biographical note was prepared using principally oral testimony.” It is the only biography in which Josie Fanon is listed as a primary source. Pirelli also compiled the first bibliography of Fanon’s work, indeed the only bibliography since it was so extraordinarily comprehensive that it has never been superseded—all critics and biographers have relied on it ever since. Take Fanon’s first publication, for example—a 1948 issue of a student newspaper in Lyon called Tam-tam, a biographical “fact,” solemnly repeated by every biographer of Fanon, information about which we owe to Pirelli alone, since no one alive has ever seen a copy and no trace of it has ever been found. I have been looking for it for over 25 years.


The Rebel’s Clinic is a remarkable achievement. But it must be said that there is one serious omission in Shatz’s portrait: Fanon the poet and playwright, aspects of his work that make him as likely to be taught in a literature department as in Black studies or sociology. The importance of what Fanon says is so deeply bound up with the intimate, evocative, and passionate way he says it that his readers find themselves internalizing his ideas viscerally, as affect. His whole oeuvre is one vast prose poem. While acknowledging the power of his language, Shatz never stops to examine how Fanon achieves the extraordinarily powerful effects that captivate every reader so immediately, or how his early literary writing might have honed his later polemical skills. Shatz omits discussion altogether of Fanon’s deep engagement with 20th-century French poetry and classical drama, recounted so memorably by Raymond Péju, who is left unmentioned. According to Shatz, Fanon’s language works only when he is describing concrete situations, which means that he remains oblivious to the literary elements of Fanon’s texts.

The most dramatic indication of this blind spot comes when Shatz completely dismisses Fanon’s dramatic writings. “His plays, as sterile as they were grandiose,” Shatz writes, “could have been written by any number of melancholy young literary men in France.” This condescending dismissal misses the fact that Fanon, as a poet and playwright, was not just any young Frenchman of his time: he was a Black Martinican with a significantly different background and set of life experiences from the average literary Frenchman. The problem with Anglophone readers of Fanon’s plays, such as Shatz or Kwame Anthony Appiah, is that, lacking familiarity with the long tradition of French surrealism, from Lautréamont in the 19th century to the early work of Aimé Césaire in the 1940s, they find Fanon’s poetry incomprehensibly alien. Yet French surrealist poetry constituted a formidable affective force, particularly when deployed by radical anti-colonial Black Martinicans such as Césaire and Fanon.

Moreover, while a casual observer might assume that Fanon became an Algerian revolutionary almost by chance, simply as a result of where he happened to take a job as a doctor in 1953, one of his early plays (from 1949), in fact, was concerned with a violent rebellion overthrowing an authoritarian regime controlled by outside forces, the very situation with which, at the end of his life, Fanon would come to identify so strongly. “Before he was a revolutionary,” Shatz writes, “Fanon was a psychiatrist.” But this play, written before Fanon became a psychiatrist, indicates that the reverse was in fact the case: he was, at least imaginatively, a revolutionary from the get-go. For a biographer to consider this extraordinary anticipation of rebellion and revolution—the two words used in the title of Shatz’s book—of no apparent interest is certainly curious, and leaves a whole dimension of Fanon’s literary and psychic life unexplored. Fanon’s “inner life will always elude us,” Shatz remarks, and several reviewers have lamented its absence in Shatz’s book. But it is on full display, if you choose to find it, not just in Black Skin, White Masks but also in his two other white masks, his early plays.


There are other ways of finding Fanon too. Contrary to what Shatz tells us, Algerian governor-general Robert Lacoste did not respond immediately with an expulsion order when Fanon sent in his resignation letter from his post at the Blida-Joinville Hospital. Why did the response take nearly six months? A different issue arises with respect to one of Fanon’s few surviving documents, his “vrai faux” Libyan passport (a real passport with false information), which is invoked prominently at the beginning of Shatz’s book (in a description of Fanon’s trip to Mali) and at the end, when he arrives in the United States for leukemia treatment. What Shatz doesn’t mention, however, is that, while Fanon made his Mali trip in November 1960 and flew to the US in October 1961, the last stamp in the passport is dated September 12, 1960. I discovered recently that, when Fanon flew to Washington, DC, on October 3, he used a second passport in which his nationality had become Tunisian, his name now not Omar Ibrahim Fanon but simply Ibrahim Fanon, the same name he used at the hospital in Washington.

Among many other issues, this raises the question of why, when he was being tracked by the French secret service and pursued by La Main Rouge, who made at least one assassination attempt on his life, Fanon used his own surname on his passports and therefore necessarily on his airline tickets rather than the pseudonym Farès, a surname his wife Josie used in her official documents. Why did Josie use a pseudonym but not Fanon? Why did he change his first name on his passports but not his second, thus leaving him easily identifiable?

One practical reason was that it would have been suspicious to arrive in the United States as a Libyan or Tunisian with the first name “Frantz.” But his play The Drowning Eye (1949) points to the possibility of a deeper reason that touches the psyche of a man who became obsessed with denying his French identity. The main character, who seems to be a version of Fanon himself, is called François; the translation of his name from the German “Frantz” to the French “François” draws our attention to the way that, when pronounced aloud in French, “Frantz” sounds indistinguishable from “France.” Fanon’s strong sense of himself as a Frenchman was psychically embedded in him to an excessive degree because his own name was in fact “France.” The France with which the young Fanon identified so strongly (“I am French,” he announces in Black Skin, White Masks) was his own name. He then became aware, upon going to France, that white Frenchmen did not see him as properly French, and he experienced the trauma of being betrayed not just by his country but also, in some sense, by himself. His name, in short, stood for who and what he was not. He reacted by taking on the identity of another country, Algeria, an identity he insisted on with such unrelenting forcefulness that the French Tunisian writer Albert Memmi found it “scarcely believable.”

Shatz recalls that Sartre and Beauvoir found it somewhat embarrassing that Fanon sometimes spoke as if he was himself the leader of the Algerian Revolution. The name he chose to take in his second passport, instead of Frantz or Omar, was Ibrahim (Abraham), which, significantly enough, means “leader.” With his new name, he would therefore be known to his Algerian brothers as Leader Fanon. At a deep psychic level, everything involved in his renunciation of his French name related to his changing relations with France. He deliberately chose not to hide behind a pseudonym in his passport but to flaunt his change of identity, perhaps first of all to himself. But he would have known, too, that every time he was tracked by the French secret service (especially when he traveled, as he sometimes did, on Air France), he was sending them—and his symbolic father, France—a defiant message about his change of political and national identity. If the first words he learned to spell at school were “Je suis Français,” then his new name, Ibrahim Fanon, was an angry riposte: I am no longer Frantz (i.e., “France”) and thus no longer French.

LARB Contributor

Robert J. C. Young is Julius Silver Professor of English and Comparative Literature at New York University. With Jean Khalfa, he is the co-editor of Alienation and Freedom (Bloomsbury, 2018), a collection of previously unpublished or untranslated psychiatric, political, and dramatic writings by Frantz Fanon. His book Fanon Questions is forthcoming.


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