In Black Skin, White Masks – first published in 1952 – Frantz Fanon offers a potent philosophical, clinical, literary and political analysis of the deep effects of racism and colonialism on the experiences, lives, minds and relationships of black people and people of colour. At the end of Black History Month in the UK, Leonardo Custódio reflects on the enduring relevance of Fanon’s classic work, here published in a new edition featuring an introduction by Paul Gilroy. 

This book review has been translated into Mandarin by Maya Nim (LN340) and Li Yiheng (Finance and Accounting) (Mandarin LN340, teacher Lijing Shi) as part of the LSE Reviews in Translation project, a collaboration between LSE Language Centre and LSE Review of Books. Please scroll down to read this translation or click here.

Black Skin, White Masks. Frantz Fanon (trans. by Charles Lam Markmann). Pluto Press. 2017 [1952].

The Enduring Relevance of Black Skin, White Masks

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Frantz Fanon’s classic Black Skin, White Masks is a book of enduring relevance. For that reason, this new edition from Pluto Press is definitely welcome. Fanon’s self-reflexive, philosophical, poetic, literary, arguably clinical and, above all, political analysis is still a powerhouse. It remains a fundamental part of the contemporary constellation of intellectual and activist struggles and discourses working to denounce and contest the effects of racism on the lives and minds of black people and people of colour.

My own ignorance – or ‘alienation’, in Fanon’s terms – fits as illustration of the continued resonance of Black Skin, White Masks. The first time I – a highly educated black man from a former colony living in predominantly white Finland – heard about Fanon’s work was in late 2016. At the time, I had written a response to black Brazilian feminist academics and activists who have extensively analysed the relationship between systemic racism and the solitude of black women in our country. In a blog post, I reflected about how I consciously and unconsciously reproduced racist patterns of behaviour as I grew into adulthood. In reaction to this, a Brazilian colleague asked me: ‘have you read Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks? You should.’

Her exigent tone made sense when I read one of the book’s previous editions. I was unaware that a book had theorised about the uncomfortable facts of racism I had experienced or reproduced as a privileged black individual in the deeply white-normative and racist Brazilian society. Despite being the largest African diaspora in the world, most things considered ‘normal’ and ‘positive’ in Brazil – including physical appearances, manners, music, religion, language, politics and other arenas of social relation and power – reflect the historical European colonialism and the contemporary hegemony of North American and Western European values attached to neoliberalism. In contexts like Brazil and other postcolonial societies, those who denounce racism tend to be seen as over-sensitive and radical. In many cases, people of colour learn from an early age that racism exists, but hard work, ‘proper’ education and ‘good’ behaviour are key to avoid suffering from it. Most importantly, people of colour also internalise and reproduce racist attitudes. In other words, the problems Fanon originally analysed in 1952 remain today, six decades later.

Image Credit: May Day 2015 (Nancy Sims CC BY 2.0)

One of the highlights of the new edition of Black Skin, White Masks is Paul Gilroy’s introduction. Even though the experiences of people of colour in contexts of white predominance are still recognisable in the present moment, Fanon’s argumentation feels sometimes dense and difficult to navigate, particularly for those unfamiliar with scholarship in psychology, psychiatry and philosophy. In this sense, Gilroy’s introduction puts Fanon’s work in historical context and analyses how it resonates today. Gilroy also tackles some of the book’s argumentative, philosophical and even translation weaknesses to warn us about how ‘its rhetorical, poetic and surrealist elements should be read and interpreted with the greatest of care to retain the complexity and style of the original’ (x). Gilroy’s introduction, together with the previous forewords by Homi K. Bhabha (1986) and Ziauddin Sardar (2008) – also available in the new edition – help new general, academic and/or activist readers to Fanon’s first published book.

To reflect on the impacts of colonisation and whiteness on black people from the colonies (Fanon specifically focuses on the Antilles, where he is from), Black Skin, White Masks combines literary analysis, reflections on lived experiences and critical approaches to scholarly literature, especially from psychology and philosophy.  In the first three chapters, Fanon examines how these impacts of colonisation can be observable in language and, controversially, in interracial relationships. I consider these chapters important because they problematise the internalisation and reproduction of whiteness among postcolonial black people. In Chapter Four, Fanon critically examines an essay by M. Mannoni to question the author’s idea that colonisation happened because of a sense of inferiority and even a pre-existing unconscious desire among black people to be colonised and dependent on white Europeans. In Chapter Five, Fanon shifts towards patterns of resistance to whiteness among black people who develop and embrace black consciousness. In Chapters Six and Seven, Fanon reflects on symbolic, material, interactional and sociopsychological factors to develop a ‘psychopathological and philosophical explanation of the state of being a Negro’ (6, emphasis in original). All in all, in addition to describing the book as a ‘quest for disalienation’ (192), Fanon concludes the book with a call for black and white people together to ‘turn their backs on the inhuman voices which were those of their respective ancestors in order that authentic communication is possible’ (199).

As a black man raised in a postcolonial society myself, reading Black Skin, White Masks has been an emotional and illuminating experience, especially because I realise how my own lifetime contradictions in a white world have for so long blinded me from even knowing about the book’s existence. For me, Fanon’s book remains a relevant companion to more recent work, such as those of black feminist writers like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name but a few who write in English across a very diverse body of literature. In fact, it would be interesting to see how, if still alive, an older Fanon would react to those who identify sexism, especially towards black women (e.g. Bergner 1995), and homophobic tones (e.g. Moore-Gilbert 1996) in his first book. Impossible hypotheses aside, Fanon’s book has remained relevant because it provokes people of colour and white people to confront the powerful ways in which structural racism affects minds, relationships and everyday politics in a world that remains extremely unequal and violent in terms of racial relations.

Leonardo Custódio is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Social Research (IASR) at the University of Tampere, Finland. He tweets @_LeoCustodio_ .

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Review translated by Maya Nim (LN340) and Li Yiheng (Finance and Accounting) (Mandarin LN340, teacher Lijing Shi) 

Frantz Fanon的经典小说《黑皮肤,白面具》(Black Skin, White Masks)是一本传世佳作。因此,这次由Pluto Press出版的最新编辑版绝对大受欢迎。Fanon的文字具有自省性,哲学性,诗性,文学性,客观性, 甚至带有陈述性,特别是书中展现的深刻的政治分析至今仍启迪人心。对于那些专注于剖析种族歧视对非裔在生活和精神上的影响的现代学家和积极运动分子而言,Fanon的作品至今仍对他们的研究有巨大的影响力。



Image Credit: May Day 2015 (Nancy Sims CC BY 2.0)

Paul Gilroy的导言是《黑皮肤,白面具》这新版中亮点之一。尽管有色人群在白人为主的社会背景下所经历的现实在当今社会仍然显而易见,Fanon的辩论有时显得令人费解。对心理学,精神病学和哲学理论不熟悉的读者来说,这本书的思维观点似乎难以理解。为此,Gilroy把Fanon的写作置于它当时的历史背景中,并且分析其对当今的重要性。同时,他解决了书中的某些在议论,哲学,甚至翻译上的弱点。旨在提醒读者们,必须细心地阅读和解读这本书, 从而保存原文的复杂性和写作风格。Homi K. Bhabha (1986) 和 Ziauddin Sardar (2008) 在新版的序言与Gilroy的导言同样有益。它们帮助普通的新读者,甚至学者和/或活动家们, 更清楚地理解Fanon原版的精髓。

为了反思殖民主义和崇白的意识形态对殖民地黑人的影响,《黑皮肤,白面具》结合了文章分析,对生活经历的反思和对学术文学的批评方法, 尤其从心理学和哲学角度去分析。Fanon的分析聚焦于他的出生地 — 安的列斯群岛。在前三章中,他研究殖民主义的影响如何在语言,甚至在更有争议的混合种族交往中清晰可见我认为这几章节都是《黑皮肤,白面具》的关键部分。它们的重要性在于指责后殖民地的黑人对于崇白意识形态的内在化和促进的行为。Fanon在第四章中剖析M. Mannoni的一篇文章。他质疑Mannoni关于殖民主义是由于黑人的自卑感,预先存在的甚至无意识的被殖民和依赖白人的意愿。在第五章,Fanon把焦点转移到对抗崇白意识形态的模式和发展, 以及全面接受黑人意识的非裔。此外,Fanon在第六章反思象征的,物质的,互动的和社会心理性的某些因素。旨在对“作为黑鬼的现实发展”建立一个“带有精神病理性且哲学性的解释”。总而言之,除了逆转疏离之外, Fanon在结论中呼吁,为了最真诚的沟通,黑人和白人群体必须合作,并抛弃他们来自各自祖先的成见。

作为一个成长在后殖民社会的黑人,拜读《黑皮肤,白面具》的确是一个非常感性及启发性的体验。特别是当我终于意识到我在白人社会的矛盾。生活在这样的社会中几乎让我对这本书视而不见。依我看来,Fanon的书仍能够作为新近作品的有力补充,包括类似Angela Davis, Bell Hooks和 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie的非裔女权主义作者。这里就不一一赘述 。她们的作品也是各种文化作品的一部分。此外,有意思的是,如果Fanon还活着,一个年长的他会如何回应于他第一版书所描述的性别歧视。抛开不可能的假设,Fanon的作品仍然具相关性。它激起不同肤色的读者更深入地思考结构性的种族主义如何影响到心态,人际关系和日常政治。尤其就种族关系而言,这个社会依然充斥着暴力和极度不平等

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