On Frantz Fanon and African-American Literature


Postscript to "Transcending the Absurd drama" (interview in Eurozine, 6/12-2021)

Göran Dahlberg: Let us end this discussion by dwelling a bit further on the African American connections. There must be a whole array of issues bringing together African American Literature and Fanon's body of work?

This is of course an enormous question. There are most certainly a great number of thematic links between Fanon and African American writers. Apart from the most obvious ones-the question of alienation, the persistence of the color line, the experience of being black, and the quest for dignity in the face of dehumanizing injustices-there are other compelling similarities worth highlighting.

For one thing, numerous African American writers grapple, much as Fanon, with the question of how to understand the mechanisms of oppression. The topic has been part of African American literature from its early beginnings-from William Wells Brown to Harriet Wilson and Frederick Douglass-to its modern-day expressions in writers such as Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead.

What were the institutional, judicial, and ideological underpinnings of American slavery? How are racism, sexism, and economic exploitation interwoven?

"The truth I happen to be most interested in," says Toni Morrison, "has to do with the nature of oppression, and how people survive it, or don't."

Another common issue is the question of how to deal with the anger that is the result of constant debasement and brutalization. Fanon never hid his unrelenting rage against colonial oppression and racism. To the contrary: the very first sentence of Black Skin, White Masks points out that an "explosion" must be expected. This prophetic passage (especially read in the light of the imminent Algerian War), bears a striking resemblance to the opening lines of Langston Hughes's poem Harlem (1951):

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-

And then run?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Or does it explode?

Indeed, anger is a powerful political force, and the question of the impending explosion resonates throughout African American literature. We have known at least since Homer testified to the rage of Achilles that anger can drive people to war or lead to horrible acts of self-destruction. This theme is pushed to the forefront, time and time again, by writers such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka. Not to mention James Baldwin, who repeatedly speaks of a looming "explosion," most notably in his masterpiece The Fire Next Time (1963).

Perhaps nobody has delved deeper into the question of anger and rage than Audre Lorde. In poems, speeches and essays, she elevates the explosive feeling into a key subject, worthy of profound philosophical and political consideration. "My response to racism is anger," she states during a conference in 1981. "I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste." At the center of her examination, we encounter the idea that anger can be put to use for empowerment, growth, and collective mobilization. Not least for black women who suffer from an abounding arsenal of anger in the face of both racism and sexism. In her view, anger carries great potential for effecting a radical upheaval of the repressive conditions black women live under. On the condition, she adds, that we learn "how to orchestrate these furies so that they do not tear us apart."

Lorde's line of reasoning echoes with Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, where he counsels the colonized subjects to direct their fury against the common enemy instead of channeling it through "fratricidal struggles."

A third crucial point of connection revolves around the reverberations of the past in the present.Many protagonists in African American novels struggle to overcome the historical trauma of slavery, marked as they are in the here and now, by crimes committed against their ancestors in the past. They weep before their forebearers' skulls, bewildered in the face of the seemingly impossible task to make straight a time that is out of joint. In a public conversation with Margaret Mead in 1970, James Baldwin claimed that his entire life had been determined by the slave trade. We are trapped in history, in repetition and resurrection. The dead walk again on the legs of the living, bringing back to life the agonies of chains, fire, rape, and castration.

Several of the most notable protagonists of African American literature seem to embody this entrapment in the grinding workings of history-for example, Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) or Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987).

The desire for an uncomplicated past tends to clash with the irrepressible memories that dwell between the world and the subject - to paraphrase the title of the 1935 poem by Wright, famously referenced in Ta-Nehisi Coates's acclaimed Between the World and Me (2015).

As we have seen, Fanon tends to be, at least on occasion, rather optimistic on this point. It is, he argues, possible for humans to recapture, re-evaluate and transcend the past through their choices in the present. We are not mere products of the history that precedes us. "I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny." In a way, Fanon's optimism brings to mind Ralph Ellison's assertion that while it might be impossible to choose your relatives, you can at least choose your ancestors.

Certainly, there are some decisive contrasts between Fanon's writing and African American literature, perhaps less in terms of the issues these bodies of work evoke and more about the divergent backdrops. It is difficult to grasp the precise meaning of Fanon's contentions without taking into account the specificities of French colonialism, the Negritude movement, the Algerian War, and the struggle for African unity. African American literature of course comes out of its specifically US American setting, shaped by slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the American Dream (or "American Nightmare," in Malcolm X's inversion), the civil rights movement, and Black Lives Matter.

Needless to say, we have to be careful not to reduce Frantz Fanon or any of the aforementioned writers to spokespersons for some immutable black experience or essence. These thinkers and artists should be read, studied, and taught in the same manner as we read, study, and teach Homer, Shakespeare, Hannah Arendt, or Nawal el Saadawi. That is, in their capacity as explorers of the ways that history, politics, desire and freedom intertwine to inform our destinies in all their fragility, horror and beauty.