“Frantz Fanon Is Understood Differently in France and the U.S.”

Journalist and literary critic Adam Shatz is the American editor of The London Review of Books and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books. This month, he is publishing The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, a stimulating biography of the psychiatrist and writer who was born in Martinique in 1925 and died in the United States in 1961.
Frantz Fanon, ca. 1952. © Frantz Fanon Archives/IMEC

“I don’t like Frantz Fanon to be chopped into little pieces,” said Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, his assistant, to Adam Shatz. “Those who see only one aspect of his work and personality […] missed the indissoluble whole: psychiatrist and revolutionary; writer and man of action; West Indian and Frenchman; Algerian and African.” The Rebel’s Clinic, set to be translated into French in March, is dedicated to this plurality. Frantz Fanon was a controversial icon who lived many different lives: a soldier in the Free French Army during World War II; a medical student in Lyon; a psychiatrist in Algeria; and an anti-colonial activist with the National Liberation Front (FLN). From his childhood in Martinique to his death in a hospital in Maryland, the author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961) became a leading figure in the fight against racism and colonialism, a thinker calling for a new world whose work continues to be read, enjoyed, and studied today.

: Do France and the United States have a different approach to Fanon?

Adam Shatz: There is no single French approach to Fanon, nor is there a single American approach. Nonetheless, Fanon’s work is understood differently in France and the United States. In the U.S., Fanon is widely read in universities – in courses on postcolonial studies, Black history and literature, sociology, African studies, political science, and so forth. He is, in fact, a part of the canon, owing to his insights on racism, psychiatry, decolonization, revolution, and the problems of governance in post-colonial states after independence. In France, Fanon remains far more controversial for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that he was a French citizen who, after serving in the French army in the war against fascism, aligned himself with Algeria’s national liberation movement against French rule. As a result, he has never been “assimilated” in the manner of, say, his countryman and mentor Aimé Césaire, who, for all his criticisms of colonialism, believed that Martinique should remain a département of France. What’s more, Fanon’s critique of French universalism, his embrace of a Muslim-led fight for independence, and his advocacy of armed struggle make him a troubling figure for some people in France: a reminder of the anguish and torment of the Algerian War, and of France’s still unmastered conflicts over Islam, race, and integration.

How did Fanon’s revolutionary thinking develop? And what was the role of enclosed spaces, such as mental institutions, clinics, and even “the prison of race,” in this process?

Fanon developed his ideas in a series of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “extreme situations” – the arrival of the Vichy regime in Martinique; World War II, during which he saw that even Free French Forces were contaminated by racism and colonial hierarchy; and the Algerian War of Independence, during which he treated both victims and perpetrators of torture. He was also profoundly influenced by his work as a doctor. First in Lyon, where he treated North African workers suffering from psychosomatic ailments that, as Fanon saw it, were the result of social alienation and racism; then at the hospital in Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole, in the Lozère département, where he interned with the great Catalan psychiatrist François Tosquelles, a practitioner of an innovative school of social or institutional psychotherapy; and finally, in North Africa, where he observed the psychological injuries inflicted by colonial oppression and violence.

Frantz Fanon climbing aboard a ship with, behind him, journalist Redha Malek, a member of the FLN and the future prime minister of independent Algeria. © Frantz Fanon Archives/IMEC

As a psychiatrist, which “symptoms” of the world he lived in did he diagnose?

Broadly speaking, Fanon discovered what he called “sociogeny” – a region of the unconscious where the psychic wounds of racism, violence, and oppression were deposited. Although Fanon was an admirer of Freud, he believed that the “family romance” model of psychic constitution failed to explain how individual subjects were formed under colonial oppression, where the “father” was not so much the biological father as the colonial master.

Over the course of his reflections on racism, Fanon became a critic of Negritude. Can you explain why?

Fanon was a great admirer of Césaire’s poetry, and of his essay Discourse on Colonialism (1950). He often quoted Césaire’s work, and claimed that it was Césaire who helped West Indians to discover that they were, in fact, Black – people of African descent, and not simply French people who happened to have black skin. Fanon’s main disagreements over the philosophy of Negritude were with Léopold Sédar Senghor, who adhered to an essentialist vision of Blackness (unlike Césaire, for whom Blackness was a form of invention, not the restoration of African culture). But Fanon broke with Césaire over the question of départementalisation. He believed that West Indians would only be free if they gained independence from France.

What is the singularity of Fanon’s thinking about race, being a Black man, and universalism?

The singularity of Fanon’s thinking about race lies in its powerful combination of anti-racist critique and anti-essentialism, along with the depth of his psychological insights into the lived experience of Black people, both in White majority societies and in the societies of the Antilles. Few writers have conveyed with such visceral force the experience of being transformed into a racial “other” under the White gaze. And yet, for all his emphasis on the cruelties of racism and the psychological injuries that it inflicts, he remains defiantly hopeful that not just racism, but race itself, can be overcome in the act of collective struggle and social transformation. Universalism is not a given; it is an aspiration.

Frantz Fanon and the medical team at the Blida Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, where he worked from 1953 to 1956. © Frantz Fanon Archives/IMEC

What are the main issues that Fanon developed in his work? Why were his books so groundbreaking, but also misunderstood and rejected, especially in France?

The central question in Fanon’s writings, from his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, to his final work, The Wretched of the Earth, is: How can racially oppressed and/or colonized groups, whether West Indians, Africans, or Algerians, take their destiny into their own hands, become collective subjects, achieve freedom, and initiate what he called a “new history of man”? He is an astute and discerning diagnostician of racism and colonial subjugation, but he always writes with the aim of moving from theory to practice. Black Skin, White Masks was mostly ignored in France when it was published, because it looked at racism through a largely psychoanalytic lens, and because Fanon was not writing as a Marxist or exponent of Negritude; it was only after his death that the book found a wider audience. Even then, his insistence that France, and not just the colonies, was a racist society, ran afoul of French readers who believed the Republic was innocent of structural racism – that racism was largely confined to settlers, as Octave Mannoni had argued in Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (1950). As for The Wretched of the Earth, the French state regarded the book as a work of subversive literature, written by the enemy, and banned it as soon as it was published. Why? Because of Fanon’s connections with the FLN, and because he made the case that the colonized can achieve full freedom only by taking up arms against the colonizer – an argument that Sartre echoed in even more fervent language in his notorious preface.

What led Fanon to support the FLN and why did he feel Algerian, even though he could not become an Algerian citizen?

Fanon arrived in Algeria in late 1953 and observed the horrors of colonial segregation and apartheid under French rule, the humiliations to which the so-called indigènes were subjected. He had already worked among Algerian immigrant workers in France, and knew where he stood. When the war of independence broke out in November 1954, he sided immediately with the rebels. Within months, he had made contact with the FLN, through progressive Christian networks in Algiers, and soon he was providing a sanctuary for fighters at the psychiatric hospital in Blida. He believed – somewhat wishfully – that a new, decolonized Algeria would be a multi-ethnic society, composed of Arabs, Berbers, French people, and Jews, and that one merely had to join the struggle in order to be Algerian. His commitment to what he considered the “Algerian Revolution” was, in his view, what made him an Algerian, what allowed him to write, “we Algerians.” But he was not, and never could be, an Algerian. There was a current within the FLN that shared his vision of Algeria, but it was a minority and lost out to a more powerful Islamic-Arab current.

A sign paying tribute to Frantz Fanon during Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis, November 2015. © Tony Webster

According to Fanon, what was the strategic and psychological use of armed struggle?

Fanon was a Hegelian, a close reader of Hegel’s analysis of the lord and bondsman, or the “master-slave dialectic.” Freedom had to be fought for – violently – or it was not worthy of the name. Freedom could not be granted. It was for this reason that he viewed the abolition of slavery in the West Indies to have been a spurious freedom. Violence was also strategic, in the context of anti-colonial struggle, since it sharpened the binary opposition between settler and native and forced everyone else to decide which side they stood on. What’s more, the “counter-violence” of the oppressed – the original violence, after all, was that of colonial conquest and rule itself – inevitably provoked a violent response from the colonial authorities, a response that would ultimately drive the colonized into the arms of the anti-colonial army.

Even though our world is different from his, how can Fanon’s writings help us understand the present time?

We live in a largely post-colonial era, but the asymmetries of power and economics that divide the West from the rest continue to haunt the world. And Fanon’s description of a “world cut in two” continues to resonate in places defined by sharp differences in access to land, resources, and power, from the French banlieues to the Gaza Strip. His insights into racism – or what is often called “White nationalism” today – have retained their power. Fanon also had an unusually strong grasp of the “dream life” of racism and oppression. The colonized, he wrote, is a persecuted man who dreams of becoming the persecutor. Fanon stood on the side of history’s victims, but he understood that victimhood does not make people noble – sometimes quite the opposite. If people are brutalized and humiliated, their response can assume violent and ugly forms. So while he believed that violence was necessary in certain contexts, Fanon also warned that racism, hatred, and revenge could never nurture a liberation struggle – and that post-colonial states could end up reproducing colonial structures of oppression. There is a utopian side to Fanon’s writing, but also a sense of tragedy, and this tension imbues his writing with its unique force.

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon
by Adam Shatz, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 23, 2024.

Interview published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.