Frantz Fanon: A Biographyby David Macey
Born in Martinique, Frantz Fanon (1925–61) trained as a psychiatrist in Lyon before taking up a post in colonial Algeria. He had already experienced racism as a volunteer in the Free French Army, in which he saw combat at the end of the Second World War. In Algeria, Fanon came into contact with the Front de Libération Nationale, whose ruthless struggle
Born in Martinique, Frantz Fanon (1925–61) trained as a psychiatrist in Lyon before taking up a post in colonial Algeria. He had already experienced racism as a volunteer in the Free French Army, in which he saw combat at the end of the Second World War. In Algeria, Fanon came into contact with the Front de Libération Nationale, whose ruthless struggle for independence was met with exceptional violence from the French forces. He identified closely with the liberation movement, and his political sympathies eventually forced him out the country, whereupon he became a propagandist and ambassador for the FLN, as well as a seminal anticolonial theorist.
David Macey’s eloquent life of Fanon provides a comprehensive account of a complex individual’s personal, intellectual and political development. It is also a richly detailed depiction of postwar French culture. Fanon is revealed as a flawed and passionate humanist deeply committed to eradicating colonialism.
Now updated with new historical material, Frantz Fanon remains the definitive biography of a truly revolutionary thinker.
“Macey’s richly informative and engaging biography provides the historical, social and cultural context that is essential for understanding this passionate and courageous intellectual.”—Washington Post
“A prodigiously researched, absorbing book about the mind and the passion of a twentieth-century revolutionary.”—New York Times Book Review
“... stands in a class of its own. It is unmatched in its care and attention to detail, in its author’s knowledge of the multiple intellectual, cultural and political contexts in which the man moved”—New Humanist
“Not just a lucid and well-researched account of the man and his works, it is one of the best books about contemporary history to have been published in recent years.”—Literary Review
“Invaluable to scholars ... an excellent guide.”—Publishers Weekly
“A valuable and comprehensive introduction to the man and his work. David Macey is certainly someone who knows Fanon and the context extremely well and he writes lucidly and informa- tively. For anyone interested in the Algerian war, colonialism or Fanon himself, this really is a must-read.”—Morning Star
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Read an Excerpt
Early in May 1962, a French journalist working for the daily LeMonde arrived in Ghardimao, a small Tunisian town only a fewkilometres from the border with Algeria. Once a French military base,Ghardimao was now the headquarters of the Algerian Armée deLibération Nationale (ALN) (National Liberation Army) and the situationthere was tense. Two photographs decorated the otherwise bleakwalls of the political commissariat. They were of Fidel Castro and FrantzFanon. In the last week of June, Paris-Presse's Jean-François Khan alsotravelled to Ghardimao to report on the situation there. He too saw aphotograph on the wall. It was of Frantz Fanon, 'the pamphleteer fromMartinique'. Algeria's long war of independence was virtually at anend; the Evian agreements had been signed by the French governmentand the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne (GPRA)(Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic) on 18 March and aceasefire had come into effect the following day. Relations betweenAlgeria's 'forces of the interior' and the 'frontier army' penned behindthe Morice Line of electrified wire entanglements, floodlights and minefields,had long been strained and were now almost at breaking point.Tensions between the GPRA, headed by Ahmed Ben Bella, and ColonelHouari Boumédienné's ALN were also dangerously high. Khan wasconvinced that a coup led by Boumédienne was in the offing. He wasboth right and wrong;Boumédienne's Armée Nationale Populaireentered Algiers in triumph on 9 September 1962, but the coup againstBen Bella did not occur until 1965. Boumédienne remained in poweruntil his death in December 1978; Ben Bella remained in detentionuntil 30 October 1980. He then spent ten years in exile, returning toAlgeria only in September 1990.
The djounoud (soldiers; the singular is djoundi) Khan met in theirstark concrete barracks were dressed in Chinese-style uniforms andwore neither decorations nor insignia of rank. They did not salute theirofficers, and addressed them in French with the familiar tu. Khan askeda young officer what would happen if 'certain leaders' attempted to puta brake on their revolution. The officer was young perhaps in his thirties handsomeand romantic-looking, but his tone was harsh and hisanswer brooked no argument: 'We would eliminate them.' The journalistconcluded: 'If one had to find an ideological name for themystical faith that inspires these men, it would have to be "Fanonist".'
Khan's 'Fanonists' did indeed eliminate their enemies. AsBoumédienne's tanks swept into Algiers, they left corpses in their wake;an embittered Ferhat Abbas, who was the GPRA's first president, laterremarked that this was the only war ever fought by Boumédienne and hisdjounoud. Khan's spontaneous association of Fanon with 'mystical' violencesets the tone for much of the subsequent discussion of the man andhis work. Fanon came to be seen as the apostle of violence, the prophetof a violent Third World revolution that posed an even greater threat tothe West than communism. He was the horseman of a new apocalypse,the preacher of the gospel of the wretched of the earth, who were at lastrising up against their oppressors. Although this image of Fanon is by nomeans inaccurate, it is very partial. The Fanon who advocated the use ofviolence in his Les Damnés de la terre, which was published as he laydying far from Algeria, was the product of the most bloody of France'swars of decolonization. There were other Frantz Fanons.
Frantz Fanon had been dead for six months when Khan visitedGhardimao, and it is possible that some of the djounoud he met therehad been part of the honour guard that saluted Fanon's body as it layin ceremony in the field hospital. Fanon did not die, as might reasonablyhave been expected, in combat or at the hands of an assassin,although he did survive at least one assassination attempt. He died ofleukaemia in an American hospital, and his body was flown back toTunis in a Lockheed Electra II for burial on Algerian soil. At 14.30 on12 December 1961, a small column crossed the border into Algeria.For the first and only time in the war of independence they had beenwaging since November 1954, the FLN and ALN were able to buryone of their own with full honours:
On the Algerian border. Two ALN platoons present arms as the coffin enters national territory. The coffin is placed on a stretcher made of branches, raised and carried up the slope by fifteen djounoud. An astonishing march through the forest begins, while two columns of ALN soldiers stand guard on the hillside and in the valley floor to protect the path the column is following. The forest is majestic, the sky dazzling; the column moves along silently and in absolute calm, with the bearers taking it in turn to carry the coffin.
Gunfire can be heard in the valley, further to the north. Very high in the sky, two aircraft fly over. The war is there, very close at hand, and at the same time, things are calm here. A procession of brothers has come to grant one of their own his last wish.
In a martyrs' cemetery. Once the site of an engagement, now in liberated territory. The grave is there, carefully prepared. Speaking in Arabic, an ALN commandant pronounces a final farewell to Frantz Fanon, who was known to everyone present: 'Our late lamented brother Fanon was a sincere militant who rebelled against colonialism and racism; as early as 1952, he was taking an active role in the activities of liberal movements while he was pursuing his studies in France. At the very beginning of the Revolution, he joined the ranks of the Front de Libération Nationale and was a living model of discipline and respect for its principles during all the time that he had to carry out the tasks with which he was entrusted by the Algerian Revolution. During one of the missions he carried out in Morocco, he was the victim of an accident which probably brought on the illness that has just carried him away. He continued to work unrelentingly and redoubled his efforts, despite the illness that was gradually gnawing away at him. Realizing that his health was obviously deteriorating, the higher authorities advised him on several occasions to cease his activities and to devote himself to treating his illness. He answer was always the same: "I will not cease my activites while Algeria still continues the struggle and I will go on with my task until my dying day." And that indeed is what he did.'
It was then the turn of the GPRA's Vice-President Belkacem Krim tobid Fanon farewell:
In the name of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, in the name of the Algerian people, in the name of all your brothers in struggle and in my personal capacity, I bid you farewell.
Although you are dead, your memory will live on and will always be evoked by the noblest figures of our Revolution.
Born into a large family, you experienced at a very early age the privations and humiliations which colonialists and racists inflict upon oppressed peoples. Despite these difficulties, you succeeded in becoming a brilliant student and then began an equally brilliant career as a doctor, especially at the psychiatric hospital in Blida. But even while you were at University, your desire to be a serious student did not prevent you from taking part in the anti-colonialist struggle; the heavy obligations you faced as a conscientious doctor did not interfere with your militant activities on behalf of your oppressed brothers. Indeed, it was through your professional activities that you arrived at a better understanding of the realities of colonialist oppression and became aware of the meaning of your commitment to the struggle against that oppression. Even before our Revolution was launched, you took a sustained interest in our liberation movement. After 1 November 1954, you flung yourself into clandestine action with all your characteristic fervour, and did not hesitate to expose yourself to danger. More specifically, and despite the dangers you could have encountered, you helped to ensure the safety of many patriots and party officials, and thus helped them to accomplish their missions.
Responding to the call of your responsibilities, you then joined the FLN's foreign delegation.
Résistance algérienne and then El Moudjahid then benefited from your precious help, characterized by your vigorous and accurate analyses.
Various international conferences, and especially those in Accra, Monravia, Tunis, Conakry, Addis-Ababa and Léopoldville provided you with an opportunity to make known the true face of our revolution and to explain the realities of our struggle. The many messages of sympathy that have been sent to the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic since the announcement of your death bear testimony to the profound influence you exercised as you performed your duty.
Because of the brilliant qualities you displayed in all these activities, the Algerian Government designated you as its representative in Accra in February 1960.
You devoted your life to the cause of freedom, dignity, justice and good.
Your loss causes us great pain.
In the name of the Provisional Government of Algeria, I offer your family our most sincere and most fraternal condolences.
I also offer our thanks to the representatives of those friendly and fraternal countries who, by being present at our side, have expressed their wish to join us in our mourning.
You will always be a living example. Rest in peace. Algeria will not forget you.
The speeches made at Fanon's funeral provide an accurate picture ofhow he was viewed by his Algerian comrades at the time of his death.Both Krim and the unnamed commandant (the rank is equivalent tothat of a major in the British army) were speaking in all sincerity, butthey had known Fanon in only one context. They never knew the childwho was born in Martinique in 1925, and who was always marked bythe experience of being born in that place and that time. They knew thededicated revolutionary, but not the equally dedicated psychiatrist.They were familiar with a polemicist, but not with the young man whoonce wanted to write plays. Fanon was always reluctant to talk abouthimself, and it is by no means certain that he told his Algerian brothersthat he had fought with the French army during the Second World Warand had been decorated for bravery.
Granting Fanon his last wish to be buried on Algerian soil hadnot been an easy task. It had involved some delicate negotiations withthe Tunisian government, with the US State Department and even theCIA, whose agent Ollie Iselin was present at the funeral. The bordercrossing itself was made with the help of local people, without whom itwould have been impossible for the funeral party to evade Frenchpatrols. Three days after the burial, ALN intelligence officers learnedthat most of the French officers responsible for the sector had beenrelieved of their functions: 'Fanon had won his last victory.' For thosewho knew Fanon, the revenge must have been sweet; on the very daythat the news of his death had reached Paris, the publisher's stock of LesDamnés de la terre had been seized by the police on the grounds that itwas a threat to national security. This did not prevent it from becomingan international bestseller and making Fanon the most famousspokesman of a Third Worldism which held that the future of socialism oreven of the world was no longer in the hands of theproletariat of the industrialized countries, but in those of the dispossessedwretched of the earth.
Fanon was buried a mere 600 metres inside Algerian territorybecause French static defences made it impossible to take his coffin furtherinto his adopted country. On 25 June 1965, his remains wereexhumed and reinterred in the martyrs' cemetery in the hamlet of AinKerma, where a tombstone was at last erected. His family's requests tohave Fanon's body returned to his native Martinique have always metwith a negative response from the Algerian government. After the suicideof his mother on 13 July 1989, Fanon's son Olivier requestedpermission to have his father's remains interred with hers in Algiers,where she was buried as 'Nadia', the name she used when she andFanon were living in semi-clandestinity; she could not be buried in aMuslim cemetery under her Christian name Josie. This time, the refusalcame from the people and local authorities of Ain Kerma; in their view,Fanon is their martyr and his grave is inviolable. Fanon's body still liesin the far east of Algeria.
There is a memorial to Fanon in the town where he was born. Thewhite-walled Cimetière de la Levée in the Martinican capital of Fort-de-Franceis the resting place of many of the town's notables, and is knownlocally as the 'cemetery of the rich' the poor are buried in theCimetière du Trabaud on the hill on the other side of the CanalLavassoir. French cemeteries are urbanized cities of the dead, and havenone of the verdant charm of the traditional English graveyard. TheFanon family grave stands at the intersection of two asphalted paths andcontains the remains of his parents, his brother Félix and his sisterGabrielle. Their photographs appear on the memorial plaques on theplinth inside the white marble construction. Frantz Fanon's memorial isin the form of an open marble book. The left-hand page bears a photographand the inscription: 'To our brother Frantz Fanon, born 20July 1925 in Fort-de-France, died 6 December 1961 in Washington(USA)'. The facing page is inscribed with the final words of his firstbook: 'My final prayer: make me always a man who asks questions.'The grave is well tended, but it has not become a place of pilgrimage.
Over seventy years after his death, Fanon remains a surprisingly enigmaticand elusive figure. Whether he should be regarded as 'Martinican','Algerian' 'French' or simply 'Black' is not a question that can bedecided easily. It is also a long-standing question. Just four years afterhis death and a year after Boumédienne's coup, a Swiss commentatorcould write with some justification that
The men who run Algeria today would have little use for Fanon's exhortations; and the Algerian 'masses' would make a Martinican negro feel foreign in ways he would never have experienced in Paris. The prophet of Algeria's national revolution would have found himself an exile from his chosen homeland, in search of another revolutionary war with which to identify himself.
Despite Krim's assurance that Algeria would never forget him, Fanonhas never really become part of the pantheon of Algerian nationalism,even though he was posthumously awarded the Prix National desLettres Algériennes in 1963, and even though copies of Les Damnés dela terre were given as school prizes in 1964. The standard historybooks studied by Algerian schoolchildren contain photographs andshort biographies of the heroes of the FLN's revolution, but Fanon isnot counted amongst their number. In 1965, a group of Algerian studentscomplained that it was impossible to find Peau noire, masquesblancs in any bookshop in Algiers. The hospital where Fanon workedin Blida bears his name, and an Avenue du Dr Frantz Fanon (formerlythe Avenue du Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny) was inaugurated inAlgiers in March 1963. There is a Lyceé Frantz Fanon on the edge ofthe city's Bab El Oued district, and yet in 1982 a group of teachers atthe University of Algiers could complain that it was still necessary to ask'Who is Fanon?' because there had been nothing on either the radio orthe television to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death. For theyouth of Algeria, 'Fanon' was no more than a name inscribed in capitalletters on public buildings or street signs. The names of streets andinstitutions do not necessarily indicate that the memory of theireponyms is still alive. Even when Fanon is remembered in Algeria, thememory can be clouded by partial amnesia and ignorance. FannyColonna, who taught at the University of Tizi-Ouzo until she wasforced by the rising tide of violence and xenophobia to leave for Francein the early 1990s, recalls meeting school students who had read Fanonin their French class but did not know that he was black.
The reasons for Fanon's partial eclipse in Algeria are political and ideological.The insistence that, as the old slogan put it, the revolution had'only one hero: the people', is designed to play down the role of specificindividuals, as well as to mask internal divisions behind a façade ofunity. The Algerian historiography of the war was for a long timedesigned to legitimize the one-party rule of the supposedly monolithicFLN, and the appearance of revisionist studies that began to show thatit was a murderously divided party that killed some of those it officiallyvenerated as heroes, is a recent phenomenon. The nature of Algeriannationalism itself is an obstacle to a serious re-evaluation of Fanon'srole. Ever since its birth in the 1930s, modern Algerian nationalism hasbeen defined as 'Arab-Islamic', and it is very difficult to absorb a blackagnostic into that nationalism. Within two years of independence, itcould be argued by certain Algerians that 'Fanonism' was an alien ideologywhich was foreign to Islam, and therefore to the Algerian nation,and that Fanon could not be Algerian because he was not a Muslim.In the 1970s, similar points were being made by Mohammed El Milli,a graduate of Cairo's Al-Azhar University and Director of Informationfor the Algerian Ministry of Information and Culture. El Milli onceworked with Fanon on the FLN's newspaper El Moudjahid, but he wasat pains to stress that Fanon owed much more to the Algerian revolutionthan it owed to him. Attempts to turn Fanon into 'a key figure inthe Algerian FLN' or 'one of the chief theoreticians of the Algerianstruggle' are simply not consonant with Algerian perceptions orAlgerian realities. Nor are they consonant with either contemporary orhistorical accounts of the Algerian revolution, none of which givesFanon a leading role.
In his autopsy of the war of independence, Ferhat Abbas, who wasthe GPRA's first president and was for a while quite close to 'this psychiatrist-doctor',does not accord him any great importance in eitherorganizational or political terms. Even as a roving ambassador forthe Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria, Fanon hadlittle power. Ambassadors for self-proclaimed provisional governmentshave little or no internationally recognized authority; Fanon did nothave a diplomatic passport and travelled on short-term tourist visas. Hewas never a member of the FLN's ruling body, the Comité de coordinationet d'exécution, or of the Provisional Government established inSeptember 1958. A colleague who worked with him in both Algeriaand Tunisia recalls one of the inevitable discussions in Tunis in whichAlgerian exiles speculated about what they would do 'after independence'.Someone half jokingly told Fanon that he would becomeMinister for Health. He was certainly better qualified than most in theFLN and even the GPRA to hold that position, but a touchy Fanonsnapped that he did not want to be a minister. He was a psychiatrist,and he wanted to go on being a psychiatrist in an independentAlgeria. Fanon himself certainly did not see himself as the AlgerianRevolution's chief theoretician and he has been cast in that role bydefault. The Algerian Revolution did not produce a Lenin, a Mao or aHo Chi Minh. There was 'only one hero' and in a sense, this was a revolutionwithout a face. For many outside Algeria, Fanon became its faceor perhaps its mask. The mask of 'chief theoretician' conceals as muchas it reveals about both Fanon and Algeria.
In Martinique, Fort-de-France has its Avenue Frantz Fanon, as doesthe neighbouring town of Le Lamentin. There is a Centre CulturelFrantz Fanon in the suburbs of the capital, and a dilapidated ForumFrantz Fanon on the Savanne once hosted open-air events and meetings.The town of La Trinité has a Lycée Frantz Fanon. Yet, here too,it was possible to complain in 1991 that 'For a very long time, Fanonhas been marginalized by everyone, including the MartiniqueCommunist Party.' Here too, it could be said that even the generationof 1968 completely eclipsed Fanon, so great was the enthusiasm forrevolutions that had taken place elsewhere in China and Albania. Fanonis an uncomfortable presence in Martinique, and particularly in Fort-de-France.It is difficult to reconcile the existence of an 'Avenue FrantzFanon' and the inevitable evocation of the wretched of the earth, withthe street names that invoke a republican and abolitionist tradition (ruede la Liberté, rue Lamartine, rue Victor Hugo, rue Marat ...) in sucha way as to suggest that the history of Martinique began with the finalabolition of slavery in 1848. A slightly different note is struck by thename of a street in the Terres-Sainville area, just outside the centre.Here, the rue de la Pétition des ouvriers de Paris recalls that, in 1844,the Parisian working class petitioned for the abolition of slavery in theFrench colonies, but it still suggests that Martinique's history centres onParis. The statue in front of the Palais de Justice or court house depictsVictor Schoelcher (1804-1893), the parliamentary architect of abolition:'the liberator frozen in a liberation of whitened stone'. In apaternalistic gesture, his right arm is draped around the shoulder of ablack child; his left hand points the way to freedom. This is 'whiteFrance caressing the frizzy hair of this fine negro whose chains have justbeen broken'. Only the graffiti on Schoelcher's plinth suggest that hisstatue might not tell the whole story: 'Death to the colonists'.
Excerpted from Frantz Fanon by DAVID MACEY. Copyright © 2000 by David Macey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
David Macey translated some twenty books from French to English. He was the author of Lacan in Context, the acclaimed The Lives of Michel Foucault, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory and Frantz Fanon: A Biography. He died in October 2011.
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