To Be Open October 9, 2007Posted by alexis in Uncategorized.
In 1951 Frantz Fanon wrote the essay “On the Lived Experience of the Black” also translated as “Being Black” when it appeared in the translated version of Black Skin/White Masks in 1967. As you read this essay remember that it was written after World War II (when many theorists where struggle to define “humanity” after the devastating public manifestations of systematic statist racist genocide in Europe). Also remember that this was published before fellow Martinican theorist (and indeed mentor to Fanon) Aime Cesaire published “Discourse on Colonialism” in Presence Africaine in 1953. In “Discourse on Colonialism”, Cesaire explicitly says that the holocaust was neither an isolated incident (and we see this through the persistance of genocide in Europe as Theo mentioned) nor a new phenomenon. Cesaire insists that the holocaust was simply the first manifestation in modern Europe of a genocidal practice that Europeans had been engaging in for centuries. He calls that practice colonialism. The timing of Fanon’s piece is important because it comes after…and is able to critique French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre’s theoretical equation of anti-semitism with anti-black racism as well as Sartre’s celebratory introduction of what we would now call the breakthrough/crossover text of the Negritude movement: Black Orpheus a collection of essays by the main writers of the Negritude movement including the holy trinity of Negritude, Leopold Senghor(Senegal), Aime Cesaire (Martinque), and Leon Damas (French Guiana). Fanon is critical of Sartre’s appropriation of the energy of this Negritude movement and he is suspicious of the dynamic that makes black poetry in French marketable to a French audience…he is also suspicious of the function of an introduction of a white established figure to make that happen.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Negritude movement it was basically a literary, theoretical and political movement developed by black people from French colonies in the Caribbean and Africa who had access to the highest levels of French education. The Negritude movement was a response to racism and colonialism, and while the Negritude poets and writers were in conversation with black American writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright “Negritude” was a conversation that happened mostly in French. Though most histories of Negritude neglect the role of women, preferring to focus on the “holy trinity” mentioned above, I think it is important to remember that Paulette and Jane Nardal hosted the “salon” events that allowed these conversations to exist (and they introduced these young french students to the harlem renaissance writers) AND they founded some of the most important publications to the movement. Without the Nardal sisters the black french literary scene may have never emerged. Remember that.
Fanon, a Martincan psychoanalyst and former student of Cesiare wrote “On the Lived Experience of the Black” while living in France and experiencing the difference between racism as colonialist exclusion experienced via the poverty and self-hatred on the majority black island of Martinique and the everyday contact with white supremacist racism in the majority white “mother country” of France. Later, when Fanon moved to Algeria (also a French colony at the time) to work with mental patients who were being traumatized by the explicit colonial repression excercised during the long war of colonial resistance he would write about collective anti-colonial experience more explicitly in his most widely read work The Wretched of the Earth.
“The Lived Experience of the Black”, written in the first person reveals the struggle to describe black interiority…the fact that black people are indeed people with complex emotions…in a racist context that would assume all black people to be the same because of their status OUTSIDE of the human…while also trying to develop a viable black collectivity. Fanon’s narrative seems stream of consciousness, but it is actually highly structured walking the reader through a set of attempts at subjectivity that are all thwarted by acts of white racism.
Fanon starts with the insistence that he is a person. He attempts to define his personhood as his physical relationship to his surroundings…but as soon as this is articulated Fanon’s experience of himself “in triplicate” because white passengers refuse to sit near him on the train and therefore change his relationship to public space makes this theory untenable. Fanon further attempts to counter the irrationality of racist hatred with the rationality of humanism, but he no sooner articulates this than he remembers the countless works of scientific racism that attempt to use enlightenment science to prove the inferiority of black people (think of The Bell Curve as the latest work in this genre).
Fanon seeks to apply Sartre’s resistance to anti-semitism in the wake of World War II to the situation of black people but realizes that unlike ethnic hatred anti-black racism operates at the level of the body. Anti-black racism means Fanon is “enslaved upon sight”.
Finally Fanon embraces the ideology of Negritude, he cites poets and writers from the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude movement and revels in the bodacious boldness of the words, he celebrates black people’s essential closeness to nature until he remembers what Sartre has said in his intro to Black Orpheus, which is basically that Negritude’s primitive and childlike power will remind (white) humanity of it’s roots and save them from the vulgarity of progress. Fanon cannot accept this appropriation. He can no longer celebrate a “primitivism” that only reinforces white assertions that black adults remain “childlike” and that black existence represents some earlier moment on the path to civilization that white people have already marched past.
So here we are. Every attempt to create a black subjectivity that is not limited by white racism has failed. Time and again Fanon constructs an impermeable strategy that gets shattered by the lived experience of racism. Ultimately Fanon says “I define myself as an absolute tension of opening,” which I take to mean that the “black” experience is not something that Fanon can define, but is rather a necessary critique, a possibility of life and transformation in the face of hatred and violence. Blackness is actually this process of falling apart again and again but building a next moment somehow.
I am excited to know what you think of this essay (and what you think of my reading). Is Fanon’s “Lived Experience of the Black” specific to a historical moment? Is it radically changed in a post-colonial/neo-colonial moment? Is this “opening” a viable definition of blackness. I.e. is it okay for blackness to never congeal into a fixed definition?
My eyes and hands wait (open) for your responses.