Review: On Being Wretched

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Painting by Kinrod. Located at the Slave Theatre in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

Seeing as how I reference Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth repeatedly in these posts, I thought it might be appropriate to write a review. Though it was published in 1961, the book, in my opinion, is still very relevant for those interested in decolonization, liberty, and self-possession.

Scholar, professor, and post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha writes the foreword in Wretched. He mentions that a re-reading of Wretched is important now because Fanon’s “anger” is inspiring—anger is what propels societal, political, and self-change. Bhabha quotes a Fanon biographer, David Macey, who says that “without the basic political instinct of anger there can be no hope for ‘the wretched of the earth [who] are still with us’”(x). More on anger later.      

Bhabha mentions leaders and groups throughout history that had been inspired by Fanon’s writings on decolonization, which underscores how far-reaching and impactful his ruminations were. Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, the founding fathers of the Black Panther Party, read Wretched in 1966, and young Black revolutionaries “attentively watched” Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, Battle of Algiers, as it was “Fanon-linked.” Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist, passed around copies of Wretched to classmates and peers. Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army read Wretched in prison—and it has been said the text “set alight IRA passions.” Ali Shariati, a member of the Shiite revival of the 1960’s which inspired the Iranian Revolution, was also motivated by Fanon’s most famous work (xxvii).

It seems that Bhabha is most inspired by Fanon’s assertion that each generation must determine if they will succumb to enslavement or battle for liberty. That is why he believes the text is worth re-examining. Bhabha says: “Each age has its peculiar opacities and its urgent missions…What enables us to aspire to the fraught and fervent desire for freedom is the belief that human beings are capable of imagining what Fanon once described as a ‘time [that] must no longer be that of the moment or the next harvest but rather that of the rest of the world” (xii). Fanon’s advocacy of violence was discussed in the foreword as well. Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, critiqued Fanon’s assertion that violence was the only way to ensure socio-political freedom. Towards the end of his foreword, Bhabha asks if “violence is ever a perfect mediation.” More on violence later.

Fanon’s first chapter, “On Violence,” concerns the importance of strife in securing revolution and imagination. In this chapter he framed the ideology of the colonizer (in this case, France, as he was specifically involved in the liberation of Algeria from France during the Algerian Revolution) as well as the mentality of the colonized. Seeing as how the Western empire was formed due to violence, Fanon reasoned, the only event they will respond to is violence—political concessions masquerading as compromise do not work.“The colonized man,” according to Fanon, “liberates himself in and through violence” (44). Fanon also said that “the colonial regime owes its legitimacy to force” (42) and that “[d]eportation, massacres, forced labor, and slavery were the primary methods used by capitalism to increase its gold and diamond reserves, and establish its wealth and power” (57). He set up the living space of the colonized as a “shanty town” and “a disreputable place with disreputable people” who were not “born anywhere, from anything. It’s a world with no space [my emphasis]” (4). Here, and throughout the chapter (and the book, really), Fanon creates in the mind of the reader a visceral depiction of the life of the colonized. He said that “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations. In the colonies, the official, legitimate agent, the spokesperson for the colonizer and the regime of oppression, is the police officer or the soldier” (3). Fanon asserted that the colonizer “physically limits” the space of the colonized to establish the “totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation” (6). Colonial agents, because they recognize what can occur with violence, will readily endorse meetings with colonized intellectuals and businessmen to reach “mutually beneficial” agreements (which usually turn out to be concessions) to forestall violent eruptions. These meetings are also initiated to establish camaraderie between the colonized intellectual and the colonialist bourgeoisie (23).  In order to further underscore the stark contrast between the colonizer and the colonized, Fanon pointed out that history-making is in the hands of the colonizer. He discovers new worlds and rescues natives from darkness. He opined that the colonizer embarks on mythic quests to attain self-building, while the native, “listless” and “wasted away by ‘ancestral customs’ compose a virtual petrified background [my emphasis] to the innovative dynamism of colonial mercantilism [capitalism]” (14).

In the second chapter, “Grandeur and the Weakness of Spontaneity,” Fanon spoke about the need to galvanize action among the poor (or the lumpenproletariat) as well as how to wage a successful attack on colonialism. Leaders of the nationalist parties roaring for independence must inspire and motivate the lumpenproletariat, for Fanon believed them to be the key to waging a successful war—for they were the ones in shanty towns, the ones with nothing to lose. In the “Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness,” Fanon focused on the mindset of the colonized intellectual / businessman. The colonized intellectual, schooled in the Western tradition, takes control of the former colony when the Western power gives up command. The West, however, is careful to choose colonized elites that will uphold the interests of the former colonial power. Fanon said that “the national bourgeoisie assumes the role of manager [my emphasis] for the companies of the West and turns its country virtually into a bordello for Europe” (102). He also lamented the totalitarian nature of single-party politics established after independence. He asserted that “[a] country which really wants to answer to history, which wants to develop its towns and the minds of its inhabitants, must possess a genuine party. The party is not an instrument in the hands of the government. Very much to the contrary, the party is an instrument in the hands of the people” (127). Having learned a lot about the prevalence of dictatorship in post-colonial Africa as well as the deference African leaders cede to the West in order to maintain their personal opulence (generally at the expense of the people they govern) in my M.A. program, Fanon’s predication in this chapter was quite familiar to me, and I was impressed in particular by this chapter because of all he seemed to know about the complexity of the colonized-intellectual dynamic.

In “On National Culture,” Fanon challenged the artist to create work that accurately depicted the plight of the colonized. He asserted that the artist cannot create a great work without truly engaging in the struggle. He quoted Sékou Touré, a Guinean nationalist (and a former president of Guinea) in his chapter’s opening, who said that “[i]t is not enough to write a revolutionary hymn to be a part of the African revolution, one has to join with the people to make this revolution. Make it with the people and the hymns will automatically follow” (145). He also argued that “culture” does not truly exist in colonized spaces. “National liberation and the resurrection of the state are the preconditions for the very existence of a culture [my emphasis]” (177). As much as I love Fanon, I’m not going with him here. I know what he was saying: the colonized existence is marked by the colonizer—all things are defined in a Black-White dichotomy which strangles any consideration for a complex, truly liberated version of life, of love. But can we ignore the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Arts Movement? Can we ignore the Hugheses and DuBoises and Zora Neale Hurstons of the world? He did say that there exists a space for “combat literature,” because “it informs the national consciousness, gives it shape and contours, and opens up new, unlimited horizons” (173). Perhaps I am looking at culture through too narrow a lens. If colonized people are ruled by a bald dichotomy, a suppressive regime, then economies and policies will never sprout fruitfully. I’ll go there. But colonial regimes will probably never be erased. So I would suggest a conscious handling of these moments. When we bite into yams a la Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, when we write transformative pieces like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Black Art” and when we conceive of progressive policy like Ten Point Plans, we need to go as far as we can with it. Also, we have to understand that our work may impact somebody else. So perhaps it’s not going to revolutionize every body in the world the moment it is written / spoken / performed / viewed. The power art has to galvanize agents of change and freedom is inarguable. The question should be, in my opinion, “how can we further political and economic doctrine that helps and engages working people existing in a colonial space?”

The final chapter focuses on psychological casualties of war. He documented a series of patients dealing with various psychological disorders that developed from participating in the war. Even though Fanon acknowledged the oddity of putting this chapter in his text, I think what the chapter does is locate for the reader the realities of war. He also talks about the common myths / misconceptions / widely held truths that are associated with Blackness. One of his White peers, Dr. Carothers, believed that most Africans were “lobotomized Europeans” (227). He also told Fanon that Africans, or these “‘instinctive beings’ who blindly obey the laws of their nature [my emphasis] must be strictly and pitilessly regimented. Nature must be tamed [my emphasis], not talked into reason’” (228). I add this just because it accurately frames the way the White medical establishment looked at Black bodies (see the book Medical Apartheid and / or the work of J. Marion Sims).
Fanon called the reader a “comrade” in the book’s concluding section and argued once again for a charge into battle. He reminds the reader that “[f]or centuries Europe has brought the progress of other men to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure’” (235) and warned the reader / comrade not to follow in Europe’s footsteps.

On Anger:

It seems that Fanon is consistently referred to as “angry” by others in this text. Perhaps he was angry, but I find it interesting that this Black psychologist-writer-man is described as “angry,” when “the colonist has always shown [the lumpenproletariat] the path they should follow to liberation” (42). The path, for Fanon, is violence. It seems that when the dispossessed get mad, they’re “out of control,” but when the possessed launch wars and pass oppressive doctrine they are “opening new policy paths” and being economically savvy. Anger is good, in my opinion. Anger can fuel one’s desire to disrupt. But what Fanon warns against is letting anger inform policy. “Hatred,” as he said, “is not an agenda.” And it’s not. So look, was Fanon angry? Yes, most definitely. Was his passion an agenda? No. So next time “Angry-Black-something-or-other” is wafting around in the air or jumps out of somebody’s mouth in an accusatory manner, let’s ruminate on the context and let’s ask questions. Is the accused letting their anger get the better of them? Or are they using that ire constructively? (or Well damn, maybe they just had a bad day!)

On Violence:

Fanon, the phantom of terror, might be only the most intimate, if intimidating, poet of the vicissitudes of violence.” –Homi K. Bhabha

Bhabha asks: Is violence ever a perfect mediation?
He then asks us “Is it not simply rhetorical bravura to assert than any form of secular, material mediation can provide a transparency of political action (or ethical judgment) that reveals ‘the means and the end’?” (xl). Clearly, when Fanon talks about violence, he is talking about war. For me, however, I think violence can be interpreted in multiple ways. The violence of biting into yams, for example, caused Brother Jack’s eye to pop out, which caused a breakdown in ideology. The violence of imagining can inspire political progress, collective epiphanies, and open windows of liberation. Perhaps we are so cynical we cannot conceive of a mediation that can provide a transparency of political action. Is war the answer? Maybe. Sometimes. In partnership with the violence of imagining. Never. Always. I don’t know. What do you think?


Painting by Kinrod. Located at the Slave Theatre in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

Bhabha says that “Fanon’s vision of the global future, post colonialism and after decolonization, is an ethical and political project—yes, a plan of action as well as projected aspiration” (xvi). Sometimes projects stall, sometimes projects get shifted—but a project allows for improvisation, mistakes, imagination, truth, and love. A project is exactly what I want to be working on. I think when we look at the world as a project, we can conceive of a mediation that can provide a transparency. I am careful to avoid a conception of mediation that presumes perfection, however. But I think as long as we’re working on projects, which have no space for lies and compels us to tell the truth, we can conceive of all the damn mediations we please. I’m not interested in cynicism, which prides itself on being current and dispassionate. I’ll be embarrassing and earnest, because projects love that! “‘New’ national, international, or global emergences create an unsettling sense of transition, as if [H]istory is at a turning point” (xvi). Sure, an absolutist sense of progress will curtail burgeoning visions, but if we let go of that monocratic version of revolution I think we can arrive at that turning point. There is no perfect mediation; there is a project.

*above painting is by Kinrod.


Biting into Yams: Biting into Freedom?

Biting Into Yams: Biting Into Freedom? Part 2 

On Kinrod and The Slave Theatre:

Hip Hop USA Sneaker Artists Work to Save the Slave Theater Event

Brooklyn retailers eye Bed-Stuy theater

What Ever Happened to the Slave Theatre?

An Inheritance Dispute Threatens the Slave Theater

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The Author

Interdisciplinary dreamer. Part Moonchild, part Ram, part fickle mistress.


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