When Robert Nesta Marley asked Africans and people of African descent to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”, one would argue the Rastafarian prophet was channeling his inner Frantz Fanon.
In fairness, many Pan-Africanists channel their inner Fanon without actually knowing much or anything about Fanon.
To many minds, he is the 20th century’s best black anti-colonial philosopher, an honour Nkrumahists may have a thing or two to say about.
But what Fanon means for us today is best captured by academic Lewis Ricardo Gordon: “[Fanon] is influential not only because of the originality of his thought but also because of the astuteness of his criticisms. He developed a profound social existential analysis of antiblack racism, which led him to identify conditions of skewed rationality and reason in contemporary discourses on the human being.”
If you are conversant with the struggle of civil rights activists and African independence leaders, you would have to understand Fanon was looking beyond them.
Not that he belittled their work. Au contraire, Fanon himself fought in the Algerian War of Independence, a country he chose as his home aside from his native Martinique.
But Fanon is different from civil rights activism and the African independence charge in a way that he was a scholar more concerned with what centuries of white domination had done to the mind of the black person.
He sought to deconstruct the makings of both the reality and rationality of the black person. For Fanon, the problem of the black person was effectively an identity crisis.
“The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves,” wrote Fanon.
Making use of methodic psychoanalysis as well as historical critiques, Fanon theorized that blackness was created fundamentally as inferior to whiteness. European enlightenment purposefully subjugated any identity that was not their own.
Colonisation, Fanon added, was not just an invasion of African spaces, but of minds too. Colonisation was, therefore, violent activity meant to perpetuate the understanding of white supremacy.
Indeed, Fanon proposes that what slavery and colonisation did to black people is akin to mental illness. So, are white people also mentally diseased by the idea of their supremacy.
In Black Skin, White Masks, he writes: “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.”
To live in this world as a black person, according to Fanon, is to move from a point where your humanity has been distorted, if not destroyed, and forced to operate in a world that was conceptualised around what whiteness wants.
Essentially, this is not our world, and that is why we are forced to wear white masks over black skins. This is the psychopathology caused by white domination.
Subsequently, Fanon asked for violence, something for which he has sorely been misunderstood.
For him, violence by a black person against the facts of his existence is to seek to dishonour and disrespect those things that whiteness confounded us to.
“Violence is man re-creating himself,” the philosopher intentionally put it.
This is the point from which Fanon expressed his frustration with privileged black people who prefer respectability rather than causing trouble against the system.
He argued that the middle-class among black people seek to live in the comfort of their material gain, dismembering themselves from the sufferings of the masses.
The cost of remaking the society seems too hard for the privileged so they choose the easy way out, Fanon explained.
Fanon advocated a socialism of redistribution. For him, giving people the material means to re-invent themselves was what black people needed to embrace.
He did not live long, aged just 36, but Fanon made a lot of disciples.
Black Panther founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, took inspiration from Fanon. And so did Stokely Carmichael, Ayikwei Armah and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Even beyond the sphere of black peoples, Fanon has found modern-day proponents among South American and Asian leftists.
If ever it was fair to chronicle the history of black and leftist philosophy in modern times from the greatest to the least, Fanon should be hovering around the top.