Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth: A Conversation with Lewis R. Gordon
First published at State of Nature.
Written at the height of the Algerian war of independence, The Damned of the Earth (1961) is a controversial book. This is because its author, Frantz Fanon (originally from Martinique but later based in Algeria, where he worked as a psychiatrist and developed close ties with the Front Libération Nationale, FLN), unapologetically says what a Black man is not expected to say: the degradation inflicted upon native populations by colonialism can only be overcome by anti-colonial violence. Here I discuss with Lewis R. Gordon the multiple layers of this anti-colonial violence which has been (sometimes wilfully) misrepresented by (mostly white) critics. Beyond the colonial context, we also talk about the impact of Fanon’s ideas on oppressed people around the world, particularly Black Americans (starting with the Black Panthers, who called The Damned of the Earth "the handbook of the Revolution") fighting racism and injustice.
Lewis R. Gordon is a philosopher, musician, and global political intellectual. He is Professor of Philosophy with affiliation in Jewish Studies, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and International Studies at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor at the Unit of the Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa; and the Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in the Faculty for Economics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He also is the drummer for the band ThreeGenerations and a variety of jazz and blues bands in the New England area. His recent books include What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (NY: Fordham UP; London: Hurst, 2016) and the forthcoming Fear of a Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Books in the UK). He edits the American Philosophical Association blog series Black Issues in Philosophy and co-edits the UK’s Rowman & Littlefield International book series Global Critical Caribbean Thought.
Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961) is popularly known as The Wretched of the Earth, but you prefer to translate it as The Damned of the Earth. Apart from being the literal translation of "damnés," does the word "damned" give you more insight into the text?
Lewis Gordon: The word "damned" is not only appropriate but also offers insight into the text. The standard response to my objection is to appeal to the English translation of L’Internationale, Eugène Pottier’s 1871 poem that concludes with the line: "Debout, les damnés de la terre!" The well-known translation is, "Arise, the wretched of the earth!" It could also be translated: "Arise, the damned of the earth!" The preceding two lines (my translation) are: "The International / Will be humankind."
Fanon, however, was referring to the Haitian poet Jacques Roumain’s "Sales nègres" ("Dirty nègres") from his collection Bois-d’ébène (Ebony Wood). Fanon referred to this work in the fifth chapter of Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952). The reference point here is not "The International" but in fact the Haitian Revolution and its connection to revolution in the Third World or, in today’s parlance, the Global South. Roumain concludes his poem with a long list of subjects struggling against the days of being called "dirty nègres" to "dirty Indians," "dirty Hindus," "dirty Indo-Chinese," "dirty Arabs," "dirty Malaysians," "dirty Jews," "dirty proletarians," and concludes with "And there we stand / all the damned of the earth."
Now, dissecting both poems, we see an immediate difference between the role of the international as humankind and a list of humankind and the connection to "dirt." The word "human" is from the Latin word homo, whose origin relates to the word humus, which means "dirt" or "clay." Words such as "humility" and "humble" reveal the obvious connection of coming down to earth. This connection with earth and dirt reveals an influence or relationship with ancient African conceptions as found in, for example, the Hebrew language, where the word for human is adamah. It, too, is connected to the ground or earth. It specifically refers to red clay, akin to what happens when animals are slaughtered in a kosher way, with the blood flowing into the soil. It’s the origin of the name Adam, which literally means "red" as well as "human." A more radical archaeolinguistic effort points to the precursor of the Hebraic forms in ancient Kmt ("Egypt") to the god Atum (think of the possible pronunciation of the t as the English d), the god who created himself out of a mound of earth arising from Nun (the primordial Nothing or dark waters).
We now have the basis of stressing the importance of the word "damned." It’s from the Latin damnum, which refers to harm, hurt, or injury. The connection between the words damnum and adamah reveal a story of emergence from the earth and damnation or condemnation as a form of being pushed back into it. The human being, as we know, is a creature, in existential terms, of emergence, a creature with feet on the ground while reaching for the skies.
All this is part of an important premise of the culminating argument of The Damned of the Earth. Fanon argues problems occur when human beings are pushed outside the sphere of human relations. Human beings, he argues, can only live in human worlds. Thus to push them out is to create a form of non-living being, which he calls "zombification." Failure to address human problems — which for him means to be forced outside of human relations — in human terms is a form of damnation. Humanisation is, for Fanon, a fight against damnation. This struggle involves taking responsibility for the human condition, which is, for him, an ascent into new concepts while keeping both feet on the ground of our humanity.
Fanon begins The Damned of the Earth by telling us: "Decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon." In other words, since decolonisation is an encounter between two mutually antagonistic forces (the coloniser and the colonised), it cannot be resolved in a peaceful manner. Like the Hegelian life and death struggle in which a battle must be fought before a space can be carved out for reciprocal recognition, true independence can only be achieved if it is wrenched from the hands of the coloniser. Does this mean that, say, Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, which completed its process of decolonisation without violence, never really became independent? Or that, say, ANC’s South Africa, which opted for a negotiated settlement, remains shackled to its former oppressors?
Fanon would argue that both Ghana and the Republic of South Africa are countries of ongoing violence. "Peaceful transition," we should remember, simply means whites are not harmed or that their harm is minimal. One could destroy the lives of multitudes of black people in colonial and postcolonial societies under the designations "peace" and "nonviolence." That’s certainly the case in the United States not only with regard to black people but also indigenous peoples.
Here, we should bear in mind Fanon’s critique of Hegel’s argument about recognition. Fanon argues it’s irrelevant to the colonial context. In fact, recognition exacerbates the harm since it entails measurement of the self through the standards of those who degrade colonised peoples. The goal of anti-racism and anti-colonialism, as Fanon saw it, isn’t recognition. It’s to make racists and colonisers irrelevant. That involves creating a system in which their power is so minimal that it doesn’t matter. Former colonisers could busy themselves with self-cultivation or power over themselves if they wish, but their ability to assert power over others would be gone. They would, in short, be powerless in such terms.
Fanon’s assertion of fighting is twofold. The first is logical. If settler colonialism were presumed just, then to eliminate it would be an assault on justice. But if colonialism were unjust, then to do nothing about it would be the maintenance of injustice. This is where dialectics come in. A problem with colonialism is the construction of the world into contraries. This observation is where Hegelian thought is relevant. Each group is absolutely and universally separated as in the case of a Manichean ideal. They are not in relation with each other. These two "purities," falsely defined as "peace," suffer impurity as the model of violence should they interact. Since the separation masks an entrenched connection of force, then breaking that link brings into appearance that which should supposedly not appear. That is logically violent, since it violates the sphere of legitimate appearance. To avoid such violence, what is best is to maintain the system of colonisation. Put plainly, there is no way to decolonise a colonial society without some groups losing. It really is a zero-sum game.
The second consideration is practical. Fanon here joins the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century revolutionary feminist Chinese anarchist He-Yin Zhen, who argued that women cannot be "given" freedom since that would be an affirmation of the "right" of those who grant it. Freedom must be taken. She argued for equality as a goal many should unite behind, but that women shouldn’t depend on men for its fruition and legitimation. Similarly, Fanon argued that Euromodern systems of justice should make it clear that colonised, enslaved, and racially degraded peoples are due reparations, but that the Euromodern countries that drew their wealth from such peoples won’t respond to moral obligation. Their retreat, harkening back to our early remarks about damnation, is that they only do such for people they recognise as human. But even more, and this is where He-Yin (Chinese last names are placed in order before the first names) and Fanon meet in practical terms: morality is meaningless without the political power to act on its application in the public sphere. Thus, the task of acquiring political power falls on those dominated by unjust systems whether they want it or not. In other words, an outcome of colonialism is that political responsibility supervenes moral responsibility.
In practical terms, then, He-Yin and Fanon are saying to the damned of the earth: don’t hold your breath, don’t wait — act and understand that your actions will be interpreted as violent whether you intend so or not. You’re wasting time trying to prove nonviolence because it is, in the end, irrelevant. We should bear in mind, however, that although this is a broad conception of violence, the more narrowly forceful kind premised on physical assault is something both thinkers detested but did not reject. This is because they saw doing nothing about physical violence while espousing nonviolence as problematic, even hypocritical. True rejection of violence is to do something about it. Fanon’s admission is that doing something about violence puts one in direct contact with it. Violence is sticky. Addressing it entangles one into it. One ends up embodying violence.
Fanon also saw violence as a cleansing force through which the colonised overcomes his inferiority complex and recreates his humanity. But is it not possible that this "cleansing" violence might develop into pathological violence?
Let me contextualize Fanon’s position. Fanon’s experience of standing up for himself against white French sailors stationed in Martinique in his teenage years during the period of Vichy rule in France and his subsequently fighting against the Germans in WWII offered him first-hand understanding of naked emperors. Fanon experienced fighting white men as human beings instead of gods. It’s an experience he wanted his brothers and sisters, frozen in fear in the presence of whites, to have. Additionally, his wartime efforts were premised on his hopes of having fought on the right side. Subsequently seeing French soldiers devoting fascist practices to preserving French colonies was, then, for him a source of post-traumatic stress. The German practices in WWII were, after all, a continuation of Euromodern degradation of people in its colonies cultivated in specifically German form in, for example, Namibia.
With regard to seeing violence as "cleansing," then, we should here think of the medical function of catharsis and the political significance of tragedy. I wrote about this in Fanon and the Crisis of European Man (1995) and What Fanon Said (2015). Aristotelian tragedy is premised on catharsis, where unhealthy societal tendencies are purged. Fanon’s experience of standing up for himself in his adolescent years meets this criterion, though the people against whom he was fighting were hardly "innocent" or "noble," which are important features of tragic contexts: suffering must be brought upon heroic characters. Hegel’s depiction of tragedy transforms this insight on virtue into a conflict of opposing conceptions of right in which a higher resolution is achieved in the conflict. Before the conflict, they stand as contraries, but in the conflict, they encounter contradictions.
Bringing all this together, Fanon saw inaction as unhealthy. Failure to act cultivates institutions of a group of human beings above humanity. It creates delusional notions of gods above and sub-humanity below. In a world of only gods and sub-humanity, there is no human being or, more accurately, a diminishing of human reality and consequently dignity. Bringing them back to their humanity is for those with delusions of godlike status a violent experience and for those treated as animals an affirmation of their humanity. This is one of the disasters of Euromodernity, whose reach, as we know, is global. The tragedy is already staged in a system where innocence suffers. The good among both will suffer. Colonialism, enslavement, and racism are tragic so long as we understand that that the suffering of the damned is ignored or, for the most part, doesn’t matter. It is a lived reality of not mattering.
The scene is illuminated, however, through bringing nuance to Fanon’s understanding of violence. Fanon’s argument is ultimately a critique of violence through demonstrating how avowed nonviolence is a form of complicity with a maintained system of violence. He turns that critique inward onto liberation fighters as well. He does this in two stages. The first is to show how the postcolonial bourgeoisie emerged from the struggle for independence. Their skill-set is organically linked to decolonisation, so to speak. They are thus entangled in continued violence. Their legitimacy is premised on promising to continue the decolonial struggle. The problem with that is that it would contract the people to violence. It is, in fact, contracted violence. In liberal terms, a violence contract. Their skill set is thus locked into a particular moment of struggle but unsuitable for what subsequent generations need.
That’s why Fanon says each generation has a mission to fulfil or betray. Having fulfilled a struggle for national independence, it’s important for a postcolonial society to ask what new kinds of struggles are to come. Those require different skill sets. That’s why at the end of the book Fanon asks for new concepts to set afoot a new humanity. Before doing so, he adds weight to his argument by offering portraits of violence during the struggle for liberation. His examples are of people, children and adults, on the anti-colonial side of the struggle. They are horrific. If his goal were to romanticize Arab and Berber Algerians, those case studies would be counterproductive. They are, however, productive where the goal is not to romanticize violence.
When Fanon writes that "the violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world… that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native," he makes the coloniser the primary agent of violence. Is the "counter-violence" of the colonised simply a reproduction of the coloniser’s violence? If so, are the colonised "cleansing" and "re-creating" themselves with a violence that has not originated from them and is therefore imprinted with the identity and values of the coloniser?
This is part of the problem raised in Black Skin, White Masks. There, similar to Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein, those created by colonialism are locked in imitation. They are created but do not create. That’s why Fanon concludes Black Skin, White Masks with asking his "body" to make of him a man who "questions." Notice Shelley’s creature is also a long question. The creature compels the reader to ask, "What is he?," and he, too, interrogated Victor Frankenstein, his creator, the many people who shunned him, the sea captain to whom the story is told, and ultimately, himself to answer the question, "In reality, what am I?"
In The Damned of the Earth, however, Fanon realises the error of narcissism. Black Skin, White Masks was locked in narcissism because of its context of psychiatry and therapy. A therapist’s relation to a client or patient is one in which the latter’s world is supreme. In that world, it’s proverbially "All about me." What’s lost, however, is the realisation that anger at colonialism, enslavement, and racism is a sign of health. A healthy response is to fight it. It is to go "out there" and do something.
"Fighting," however, has many connotations. We already know this with regard to how gender affects conceptions of fighting. We could add maturity to this. Mature fighting requires understanding that the question isn’t about the self but instead about what may matter more. Transcending the self requires commitment to things greater than the self, which already points to humility. Political fighting involves thinking about power-to instead of power-over. The first is mature and cultivates freedom. The second is immature and fosters oppression and resentment. The first requires taking responsibility for building a different and possibly better world — or at least a mature one.
Thinking back to Frankenstein, the creature only saw creativity in his creator, Victor Frankenstein, whose name, by the way, means victory over freedom or freedom’s victory. So long as the creature is dependent, he is not free. That’s why his path was to the purification of fire and Fanon’s in Black Skin, White Masks was to tears (purification from water) and then questioning (openness). In The Damned of the Earth, Fanon realized it’s not about him. The question is to be committed to freedom and reality beyond the self. He thus understood that the task was to create without yoking future generations to the image of the creator. His critique of the postcolonial bourgeoisie was that they were locked in imitation. The task was to stop imitating and start building institutions and relationships indigenous to a different future.
In On Violence (which was written in response to the student revolts and the Black Power movement of the 1960s and never mentions Algeria at all), Hannah Arendt criticised Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to The Damned of the Earth for going much farther than Fanon himself in its "glorification of violence." Leaving aside the validity of her claims, how do you evaluate Sartre’s preface? Does it take the book in a direction not intended by Fanon?
It does, but that’s not in and of itself bad. Fanon asked Sartre to write the foreword for a variety of reasons. It certainly wasn’t to sell books. The first edition of Fanon’s L’An V de la révolution algerienne (Year V of the Algerian Revolution, 1959) was sold out within two weeks of its publication despite its being banned in France. Banning it no doubt helped its sales. Fanon was famous. I think in addition to the critique of romanticising violence in the chapter on colonial disorders Fanon was also concerned about purist models of revolution. He wanted postcolonial societies to be "homes" for everyone. Everyone knew who Sartre was, and they also knew he was white. The meeting of the two men in this text posed concretely what naysayers would deny — namely, their ability to unite on a common cause.
Fanon was, however, aware of how much Sartre hated his own class — think of how cheeky he was in his famous 1945 lecture "Existentialism Is a Humanism" — so he was no doubt unsurprised by the buttons Sartre pushed. Sartre never wrote banal forewords. Think of Orphée noir (Black Orpheus, 1948). Sartre could never resist speaking his own mind. So, Sartre’s foreword is his point of view, and he offered an important argument, which is that Euromodernity didn’t have a moral high ground on which to stand. It was suffering from an existential legitimation crisis, as I formulated it in Fanon and the Crisis of European Man (1995). It still is. When one has to force false history on people for one to appear legitimate, one affirms one’s illegitimacy.
Sartre, however, was no prophet. Third World, now Global South, elites continue to want Euromodern idols of recognition. Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize, but most Global Southern elites, even those who argue against epistemic colonisation, would happily accept it, and some, even worse, would prefer it and other Euro-centered prizes over those offered by their own communities.
There is a pervasive masculinity in Fanon’s work. Does this not close off his emancipatory theory to colonised women?
On this matter, many women should speak for themselves. It does for some, and it doesn’t for others. The majority population of most meetings on Fanon I’ve attended are women of all kinds, though Jewish women are the largest among those designated "white." Fanon rejected patronising anybody, which meant his penchant for critique spared no one. This list of women who love and use Fanon’s work reveals an overwhelming number from colonised peoples. I’ve heard many say his thought was emancipating. There is investment, as we know, in insisting that the sources of colonisation for colonised women are the colonised men in their lives. Colonising white men are conveniently left off the hook, and the door is left open for colonising white women to do their bidding through assertions of "solidarity."
In the end, there are double standards on Fanon. Hannah Arendt’s writings are pervasively masculine, and so, too, to some extent are Simone de Beauvoir’s. There are women-hating feminist writings, as African critics such as Nkiru Nzegwu and Oyèrónké Oyewùmí and the Jamaican Sylvia Wynter, among others, have shown. There are also people who attack Fanon but offer ideas from masculine, Eurocentric white men without hesitation. Hypocrisy abounds.
There are also problematic conceptions of masculinity at work in some of the critical scholarship. Why, for example, isn’t Foucault "masculine"? Why couldn’t his homosexuality be masculine homosexuality? Fanon’s masculinity is such that he declared at the end of the fifth chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, the text that functions as Exhibit A in such criticisms, of his having been brought to tears at his realisation of the failure manifested in his investment in Negritude. I’m still trying to find another male philosopher who admits to an outpour of emotion brought on from anything.
I have, however, been critical of Fanon about his attributing to Nietzsche ideas clearly drawn from Beauvoir. I’m critical of him on other matters such as his reading of the blues. But we should bear in mind that criticism and critique are not identical with dismissal. Fanon never wanted to be patronised, which is why he didn’t patronise women. We shouldn’t patronise him through failing to bring criticism and critique to his thought.
The Damned of the Earth became a handbook for the Black Power movement in the United States. Considering that it was written in the context of the Algerian war of independence, what made it resonate so much with Black Americans in the 1960s?
The Algerian war of independence was only one among many contexts in which it was written. Think of the experiences acquired by the Fanon who wrote The Damned of the Earth versus those of the young man who wrote Black Skin, White Masks a decade earlier. Fanon had participated in two international Black Writers’ conferences with many of the greatest Black writers of his time, had overseen building medical institutions in Algeria and Tunisia under extraordinarily challenging conditions, participated not only in the Algerian war of independence but also those with whom the country was allied, served as ambassador of Algeria to countries in West Africa, which entailed learning the inner workings of espionage and the de facto policies of most countries involved in the fate of the then Third World, participated in too many anti-colonial conferences and forums to mention here, toured Soviet medical facilities, trained physicians, spies, and soldiers, and somehow found time also to write academic papers.
The "context," so to speak, was the proverbial "big picture." The Damned of the Earth resonated with Black Americans because it spoke to the underside of Euromodernity. Black Americans back then, and many today who have not suffered what Michael Tillotson in his book Invisible Jim Crow (2011) calls "resistance to resistance," were aware of the double standards of Euromodern society. They, along with Indigenous peoples, were aware that the system was not on their side. That awareness stimulated a potentiated double consciousness attuned to the system’s contradictions. They longed for what Richard Wright called ‘Bigger Thomas," the person of colour, woman or man, who stood up to the system, spoke truth not only to power but also to the people who must rise against destructive power and build alternative, constructive models. Fanon was fearless because he didn’t take himself too seriously. He took the problems seriously. The book’s brilliance, commitment, erudition, power, and truth spoke to, through respect for, their intelligence.
What is the significance of Fanon’s thought for Black activists today?
Its significance is manifold. I’ll only speak to two points, since I’ve said much above. The first is his insight on failure. One worries about failure when one’s ego is supreme. When one puts that to the side, one is aware of being part of something larger than oneself. Thus, personal failure is not identical with political failure. The greatest failure, Fanon argues, is to do nothing. Acting changes relationships. Even where one group is beaten down, others could rise from systemic power having been diverted away from them. Enslaved ancestors fought. They didn’t know what would result. Yet subsequent generations can see what could never have been had their ancestors failed to act. In other words, a future depends on what we often cannot know or understand today.
This leads to the second, though not exhaustive, insight. Fanon urged us, through action, to reject mimicry. Discover our mission, he insisted, and think, through our commitments, what we could fulfil instead of betray.