Sunday, August 17, 2014

Precis #2: Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

          In the excerpts from Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon discusses the various effects racism can have on the black individual. Through the references to the body in the excerpts from Chapter 5: The Fact of Blackness, Fanon reveals that “the black man is locked into his body… the body is no longer a cause of the structure of consciousness, it has become an object of consciousness.” In other words, the body the black man is ultimately trapped in is not his own; it is constructed and imposed upon by the white man.
            With centuries of colonization, slavery and other forms of oppression—all thanks to the white man—haunting his past, the black man has often been reduced to a mere work animal, fetishized for his body as just another type of donkey to pull a cart. Fanon does recognize the origins of this more “traditional” portrayal of the black man’s body by referring to the white man as the “predestined master of the world…he enslaves it.” However, Fanon’s portrayal of the body also adds another element: that in modern times, even if oppressive systems of the past are no longer in practice, the white man still gets the final say in who the black man is and what he embodies: the white man “gave me a name and thus shattered my last illusion [of self].” The black man’s body may no longer be physically enslaved, but it is still a slave to the white man: the black man’s skin and appearance continues to render him victim to a slew of racial stereotypes and ill societal treatment.
          This residual oppression can be seen in the scene where the little boy on the train points Fanon out as a “frightening” Negro to his mother. Fanon’s body becomes a burden, as he takes on responsibility for his body, race, and ancestors; any sort of individual presence that Fanon might have had in that moment disappears and he is now “an object…[his] body was given to [him] sprawled out, distorted, recolored.” The diction Fanon uses is reminiscent of some sort of literal refiguring of his physical body, a painful reconstructive surgery changing who he truly is into something he was not before. By referring to this process as “an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered [his] whole body with black blood,” Fanon is able to convey the painful experience of being on the receiving end of this racism so ingrained in a society where even an innocent-seeming kid could be the one to hurt him.
To those that come from different backgrounds—whites in particular—the simple comparison of the psychological and emotional hurt to act of inflicting physical pain conveys much more than perhaps a more academic explanation could accomplish. This, coupled with Fanon’s intimate first-person narrative reminiscent of a stream-of-consciousness technique, intensifies the understanding of the black man’s pain that might have been reached otherwise. Though the black man has been fetishized and taken for unfeeling body-shaped matter rather than a feeling, thinking, individualized human being, Fanon seems to be reclaiming the meaning of the body by drawing on the universality of pain and fragility; we all feel pain, and we all bleed. Fanon’s writing reads not just as a text explaining the experience to the reader, but pulls them in and recreates it for them. The same words that cut him cut the reader; the same actions that hemorrhage his body bruises the reader’s.
            It’s definitely debatable whether or not Fanon’s project of reclaiming the meaning and freedom of the black man’s body was successful or not, but I would argue that due to the ending of the chapter, it isn’t instantaneously successful. Fanon refers to the artificial white-assigned portrayal of the black man body as his “negritude” and with “tears in [his] eyes…put its machinery back together again.” There is a tone of hopelessness, especially in referring to the sets of assumptions placed on him because of his black skin in a somewhat mocking manner (“negritude” literally means “negro-ness”) and recognizing it all as some “mechanical” drudgery and yet rebuilding it regardless (with the “intuitive lianas” of his own hands, no less).
But perhaps Fanon isn’t calling for instantaneous success: there are also moments where it is clear that Fanon is utilizing his body for his own purposes of resistance. His cry of “I am a Negro…[grows] more violent,” and the phrase—though it seems self-defeating at first—seems like a reclaiming and redefinition of a term heavy with connotative force. In addition, he likens the power of his speech to “speaking hands” that are tearing “at the hysterical throat of the world”; this aligns the influence of his work to the reclaiming of the body by translating the intellectual/ideological struggle into the terms of a physical struggle. At the very least, Fanon is able to explore, question, and perhaps even challenge some of the issues associated with and surrounding the symbol of the black man's body in Black Skin, White Masks.


Jo Hodaly said...

Thanks for writing, AC. This precis does a good job of consolidating Fanon's ideas of blackness. However, do you think that Fanon's work can seem un-academic? Don't you think that in an anti-colonial writing, that his experience as a subject of colonialism is less valid academically, particularly as an act of testimony? In what way can one talk about the personal effect of racist, colonialist oppression without referring to one's own experience? One must always look to what the writer's stake may be, and how they bring it to the fore. I suppose I just was unsure about the "meaning and freedom of the black man's body." I feel that academia contains racist, imperialist tendencies that have defined how people think about academia. Perhaps I'm interested if/how you would consider academia a colonized/colonizing environment/practice.

Kerri Chen said...

The analysis of the quotes and aspects of Fanon's work were clear and insightful, great job! One thing that came to mind after reading your piece was a question. I know that you were concentrating your analysis on the dynamics of White-Black social relations, but how do other races factor into these interactions? More often than not we encounter other people that we do not know in public settings. What role do you think these other factor play in the context of this text?

AC said...

@jo you bring up a lot of good points about the racist and imperialist tendencies of academia - I agree with you there. However, I'd you can forgive my ignorance, I'm a little confused about how that necessarily relates to the quote from my precis: can you please elaborate?

Stylistically I'd compare Fanon's work to Zora Neale hurston's "How It Feels to be Colored Me" -- both containing a fair amount of personal experience but also something you take seriously in an academic arena. I will admit that I read Fanon's work more like a literary work (almost like I'd read fiction, in fact) than an essay you'd find in a sociology journal though.

Sydney Rock said...

This was an excellent precis! Your writing is clear and skillful, and I really appreciate your analysis of the way in which Fanon challenges the overdetermination of the black body.

Re: Jo's questions:
Academia can definitely be a colonizing practice/space in a number of ways. I think a lot about how we locate ourselves in the texts that we produce (and the texts that we read) and the way in which academia has historically disallowed writing that was based on personal experience. At the same time, academics have long taken the experiences of people of color and used them as the raw material out of which to produce theories, justify imperialism, etc. What is so powerful to me about Fanon's text is that he directly describes his own experiences and takes those experiences as inherently valid and worthy of academic inquiry. His position with regard to including his experiences comes on page 12: "Many Negroes will not find themselves in what follows. This is equally true of many whites. But the fact that I am a foreigner in the worlds of the schizophrenic or the sexual cripple in no way diminishes their reality. The attitudes that I propose to describe are real. I have encountered them innumerable times." For me, the importance of Fanon's work is the way in which he expands the possibilities of what an academic text might look like as well as what it might do.

AC said...

@Kerri thank you! Could you clarify your question with specifics? I don't know if I understand :(