Mishra is a celebrated author and journalist. He is the winner of many prizes and additionally writes for The Guardian. If he reviews a work by Fanon in the New Yorker (6 Dec 2021), there must be some anticipation of interesting observations.
Is our anticipation rewarded?
It is a little unedifying that he begins the review by quoting Sartre and then a review by Hannah Arendt before even mentioning anything by Fanon. He states that Fanon’s renown was based on Sartre’s preface. Now Fanon and Sartre were close colleagues, but even Sartre would not dare suggest that his preface was the cause of the renown of Fanon’s book. Mishra is unaware that Fanon was then widely known in the French left circles, having written several earlier works including ‘Black Skins, White Masks’. Further, Fanon was part of a celebrated Black intellectual Francophone tradition that included Antenor Firmin, Aime Cesaire, Anta Diop, Senghor.
Mishra then discusses Hannah Arendt and mentions that she ‘mostly ignored Fanon’s text, with its many pages on the degeneration of anti-colonial movements and ist case notes about psychiatric patients in Algeria.’ This goes beyond incompetent. Hannah Arendt executes the first of many academic outrages against Fanon by stating that all we need to read is Sartre’s preface. She did not ‘ignore’ Fanon’s text. There is no evidence she ever read it. (Question: why use Fanon’s name at all if you wish to review Sartre?) She never grasped the arch of Fanon’s thought. Mishra fails to call out Arendt serious lapses of the academic protocol, which is not surprising as he is about to make grave breaches of his own. Consider: Sartre is a celebrated author and has his own ‘projets’. A preface by Sartre is a work of Sartre’s. How could Sartre demean himself by summarising Fanon’s work as a preface to excuse the reader the trouble of reading the book?
No philosopher takes Mishra’s work seriously, so Mishra cannot believe that any would/ could take Fanon seriously, and so he makes no effort to understand Fanon other than reading other flimsy reviews.
Mishra then mentions that Fanon became popular among Black Americans during the time of the Black Panthers and was ‘advocating violence’. This becomes a double libel as it then equates both Black Panthers and Fanon as advocates of ‘violence’. This is of course absurd. At the time of Fanon’s writing, the advocates of ‘violence’ were the French colons/settlers who sought to maintain French rule in Algeria by violence. Even going to the length of attempting to assassinate the French President. For Fanon, the requirement for violent struggle is for a disciplined armed struggle not individual acts of violence. While individual acts of violence are the nightmare of the settlers they are not actually effective in producing change. In the US the advocates of violence were the US police forces. Black Panthers were better known in the Black community for their food distribution rather than their arms distribution. Black pride and cultural affirmation might provoke a violent response but was not itself violence. Exercising the US second amendment right to bear arms is not itself an act of violence.
Let us take a minute to clarify Fanon’s argument. Fanon starts with Hegel’s observation that the slave and master are both co-creations. Without the master, there is no slave, and without the slave, there is no Master. They are created at the same time and are therefore destroyed at the same time. So when Fanon looks at the state of the native population and the violence within that community he says it cannot be understood without referencing the world of the settlers. Without the natives, there are no settlers, and without the settlers, there are no natives. The humiliation that the native experiences when he comes into the settler quarter is bottled up and explodes when he returns to the native quarter. He dare not express his anger while in the settler quarter. Many visible symbols of power and the ubiquity of armed police makes even sudden movements dangerous. It is this analysis that Black Panthers said opened their eyes. What they had seen as inexplicable inter-Black violence they now understood as the release of deep anger. It also gave them the rationale for redirecting that anger at the source and away from internal expression.
The second step is more biographical. Fanon found that many of his patients were French torturers suffering nightmares and psychological trauma from the effect their day job was having on them. The very act of defending the state of terror was having a degrading effect on the settlers and their agents. This colonial enterprise was having a collectively dehumanising effect. More to the point was the question: what was Fanon’s role as a psychiatrist here? Was it that he was expected to pull these people, who were falling apart from the degrading acts they were doing everyday, to pull them back together again so that they could go back to work and continue their degrading (to themselves) activites? Was this a morally tenable position for him? In the end, he felt he had to choose.
Let us also address the issue of ‘Blackness’. Fanon’s was neither Algerian nor ethnically related to Algerians who were either Berber or Arab. His support for the Algerian liberation movement was simply a political act. It was not an act of racial solidarity. This reveals a great misunderstanding of Fanon. Fanon learnt of Hitler while a teenager in Martinique. He immediately thought this was a force that needed to be fought. It was not a simple matter of volunteering into the French Army. He and his friends had to risk their lives and a military blockade to join the opposition to Vichy. When the chance arose, Fanon voluntarily enlisted with the Free French to fight Hitler. This was not recruitment or conscription but a political act.
By quoting out of context, Mishra has Fanon on the one hand excusing Western racism: ‘Fanon urged the colonised to ‘stop accusing’ their white masters.’ while at the same time claiming “In Fanon’s view , the Western bourgoisie was ‘fundamentally racist’”. If that is not an accusation what is? These views would seem incompatible but such a portrait gives the impression that Fanon was not a clear thinker despite his close study of Hegel and Western philosophy up until his contemporaries such as Sartre. That image of incoherence is the point of all this misquotation.
He makes other subtle statements that mislead and are completely inaccurate. Mishra stated:’Fanon was working as a psychiatrist in a hospital in Algiers. Confronted in his day job with both French police torturers and their Algerian victims…’ This of course is nonsense. The French colonial state would not pay for the treatment of those they tortured for being ‘suspected terrorists’ nor admit they had been tortured. Fanon saw the ‘natives’ secretly at night and the torturers during the day.
There are other ‘astonishing’ statements. For example, Mandela is made a disciple of Ghandi, despite the fact that Ghandi’s movement in South Africa, Natal Indian Congress, specifically excluded Africans. These are simply invented and undocumented claims.
Mishra has no knowledge of the deep tradition in African scholarship that ancient Egypt was Black African which today is symbolically associated with Cheik Anta Diop but was in Fanon’s day more associated with Firmin. Mishra quotes out of context Fanon as saying: ‘In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilisationm unjustly ignored..’ and describes this as a rejection of Black cultural history. Elsewhere in Wretched of the Earth Fanon states clearly that it would be great to have knowledge of great African philosophers at the time of Plato, but he asks how would that help the children worked to death on plantations in the Caribbean? For Fanon, the duty is to fight exploitation and death today.
More astonishing is Mishra’s claim that nothing has changed since Fanon’s time. This beggars belief. Since Fanon’s time all the liberation movements existing at that time had succeeded. Apartheid ended in South Africa and the South African army was defeated with the help of Cuba and Soviet Union, and the divestment movement, whose hammer blows after the fall of the Soviet Union were the final nails in the system.
Since Fanon’s time the neo-liberal consensus has swept the world, wreaking havoc everywhere. But this havoc is coming home to America. Third world style inequality and poverty and poor health for the many and a rule by the plutocracy is evident. The rise of China, Japan, the little Tigers and Brazil’s emergence as the world’s 6th largest economy – all this is NOTHING?
Mishra then begins his form of psycho-analysis. He claims that Fanon’ as a Westernised Black man who grew up oblivious of his Blackness’. Clearly, Mishra has not ever visited the Caribbean, nor has he delved into the actual history of Fanon’s life. Life in Martinique was never ‘color-free’ in Fanon’s lifetime. Instead of Fanon volunteering to fight with the Free French he has Fanon’ like many Black men from French colonies, fought with the Allied Forces during the second world war.’ This is slanderous. To then add ‘It was only in postwar France, where he went, in 1946, to study psychiatry, that he discovered he was little more than a ‘dirty nigger’ takes false journalism to a new level. First, Fanon had experienced racism in the French army, he had been stationed in France during part of the war and was decorated. He witnessed some serious outrages: Black Caribbean nurses volunteered and came to the war front to look after French wounded and were raped by the same soldiers they had come to help. He came back to France to study medicine and later took up psychiatry. His description of the treatment of Black people in France was not a confession. His position in the French medical world does not equate with ‘dirty nigger’. He was given medical positions of serious respect.
It is fashionable among some critics, to take Fanon’s treatment of the Black experience as confessional. This is absurd. It would render his analysis entirely invalid. We have a trained psychiatrist and scholarly intellectual. Just like a songwriter, he cannot turn personal experience directly into an art form. But who would think of interpreting Guernica as an expression of Picasso’s personal experience?
He makes Fanon out as someone who started off ‘loyal to France’ rather than loyal to his political beliefs. If he had been loyal to France as such perhaps he should have accommodated to The Vichy regime rather than fled to the opposition.
Some of Mishra’s statements about the non-white world in general beggar belief and have zero historical basis. Mishra writes: ’Many other Asian and African leaders of decolonization had a similar intellectual and political awakening. Educated in Western-style institutions and inhabiting the white man’s world these men were often the first in their countries to be directly exposed to crude racial prejudice’. Probably wisely he does not name names. The Dutch slaughter of Banda population in Indonesia in 1600’s, Portuguese behaviour in West and East Africa in 1600’s apparently never happened and colonial India was a peaceful and equitable society from which Ghandi had no reason to rebel. The British invasion of Hong Kong and the institution of the popular regime ‘no dogs or Chinese’ never happened. Did I mention the slave trade and that Martinique was an ex-slave plantation?
Mishra manages a new low in ‘direct quotation’. He claims as evidence of how Africans view something the words of a fictional African in a novel by an author of Indian descent (VS Naipul). One can imagine taking a fictional Indian in a Chinese novel and saying this is evidence of how Indians think.
Let’s look at Mishra’s conclusions. He claims that contrary to what Fanon hoped, most countries like China are obsessed with ‘catching up’ with the West. Most futurologist discuss and disagree about WHEN China will overtake the US in technology. There is simply no evidence that China wants to copy the US or Europe. Behind this really silly statement is a deeper misunderstanding. The West of Fanon’s time was a contradiction. It tore humans apart and had to be resolved by a new way of being human, a new way of relating and treating each other. This resolution he called ‘the new man’. But the duty to bring about this resolution belonged to all humans not merely to the victims. The role of white westerners in fighting against imperialism and apartheid is part of Fanon’s vision of change. Sartre is not an external party.
It is one of the curiosities of contemporary times that non-white people writing about Black people feel entitled to abandon academic and journalistic standards and are accepted when they do so. Appalling opinions are now subcontracted to tame non-whites as false flags, and there appears a particular interest in fomenting a divide between Indians and Africans. I think we can guess the unspoken sub-text: prove you are one of us by distancing yourself from these uncouth Africans. Show us you have outgrown that silly Pandit Nehru view of a coalition.
Whatever his motives Mishra’s basic disregard for all journalistic and academic standards is breathtaking and only equalled by the tolerance of his editors at the New Yorker, who, no doubt are fully aware of his misdemeanours. They are not carefully concealed. I have never come across a short work with quite so many factual errors. Perhaps there is an award somewhere for this density of errors.
Without endorsing Hansen’sopinions his work does provide a better preview of Fanon’s thought for those unfamiliar with any halfway decent analysis of his thinking.
Emmanuel Hansen ‘Freedom and Revolution in the thought of Frantz Fanon’ Africa Development Vol 2 Issue 1, Feb 1977 Codesira
Emmanual Hansen ‘Frantz Fanon: Portrait of a Revolutionary Intellectual’ Transition no. 46 1974
updated 15 Dec 21