Frantz Fanon and the struggle against oppression


The 50th anniversary and the untimely 1961 passing of Frantz Fanon is not an occasion in which to anoint him with mere requiems. Indeed, this commemoration, with unreasonable and unsettling intimacy, reminds us that Death is all-encompassing 100 per cent of the time, and the inevitable leveller of all, both great and small.

In this reasoning that Death might somehow visit our neighbours, but not us, I recall the tale of the serving-man in Baghdad who, sent to the market by his master, was dismayed to see Death there. Hurriedly returned in fright to his master, he was advised to flee to Tikrit, a city nearby. The master, annoyed at this inconsiderate Death, then goes to the market, demanding to know why Death had so frightened the servant. Death apologized, replying that he hadn’t intended to frighten the servant but was, in fact, quite surprised to see him in Baghdad, since they already had an appointment in Tikrit.

Death, though, despite its relentless ability to foil purpose and erase memory, is not 100 per cent in control. This is so because there are, among us, some whose passing occur long before they pass. Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, wrote: “Cowards die many times before their death …”

These are they whose passing is even more complete. Their presence in the face of unsettling injustice is as ineffectual as if they have never been.

There are also those who, despite the inevitable passing that might dim any memory left of them will, however, not be dimmed in their effectiveness. Their presence will endure, not necessarily in monuments of pigeon-stained marble, unconscionable philanthropy, nor disembowelled ritual, but in the sinews, flesh and blooded organelles of descendants who are also beneficiaries, knowingly or not, of the wholesale sacrifices made for the retail changes wrought.

In short, each human, in the process of being, eventually falls into one category or the other. In the former, life is a series of opportunities in which one remains the compromised observer. In the other, life is a series of opportunities in which one becomes an active participant, oft inadvertently. The difference between these two individuals – one for whom life has never risen, and the other for whom it has never fallen – is the fermenting which arises from the yeast of effort. Life most punishes us, not for failing as much as for aiming low.

Therefore, and specifically for those with more than passing concern for imperial systems such as colonialism, Fanon endures as one whose ideas ferment the leaven of anti-colonial resistance; an activating agent whose moral sensibilities and selfless character stand with justice, and withstand injustice.

As Claude McKay stated in his Harlem Renaissance poem, ‘If We Must Die’, “… oh, let us nobly die, so that our precious blood may not be shed in vain …”

And who was Frantz Fanon, as student, psychiatrist, author, and African-Caribbean francophone? He had, as teacher, another French-speaking African-Caribbean philosopher, Aimé Césaire, author of ‘Discourse On Colonialism’. Césaire, in this, a tome which every conscious human must read at least once in a lifetime, says, and paraphrased here: “a culture that creates more problems than it solves is a dying culture”.

Bob Marley, another Caribbean personality plus ultra, with direct reference to European colonialism asks, couched in the succinct summary, incisive analysis and prophetic poetry of his song, ‘One Love’, “is there a place for the hopeless sinner who has hurt all mankind, just to save his own?”

Colonial practices, like all other forms of imperial control, embody, at best, the erasure of patriotic memory and the imposition of cultural amnesia and, at worst, epochal genocide. In addition, colonialism eventually cannibalizes its own. Because, in order to “hurt all mankind” it must eventually hurt all …

Today, after centuries of pillage which has particularly despoiled Africa, Europe’s imperial powers visit on all mankind a historic convergence of two global calamities: one economic, the other ecological. Today, too, their middle-class scrambles between free-floating crises in unemployment, inadequate health care, underwater mortgages, uncontrolled uncertainties and galloping poverty.

As Malcolm X once put it, “the vultures have come home to roost”.

At its core, colonialism is the epitome of barbarity; one couched between a Feudalism of the Middle Ages, and a Neo-feudalism of the Digital Age.

Based on hierarchy, Feudalism is biased towards authority, towards power for the few, and towards the diminishing of rights for the many. In this system, the exercise of power extends downwards against the powerless, and ranges from the monarchs and lords of yesteryear, to today’s oligarchs and banksters of fractional reserve banking. This exercise of power creates an intricate network of obligatory situations that infringe on almost every basic human right. Eventually, what was initially seen as Feudalism’s demise against the then new force of the Industrial Revolution was really its morphing into the social rankings of class, race, gender, etc.

In short, the systems and politics of Feudalism never left. One can say that, in effect, these voyaged across the Atlantic with Columbus. In hindsight, these “solutions”, as Césaire scoffed, merely result in troubling systems of control more vast and subtle; controls necessary in creating, not citizens, but consumers.

Fanon in Black Skin White Masks, and The Wretched of the Earth proved explicit and prophetic about today’s fears. Many others, also marching to his drumbeat against injustice, from Steve Biko to Angela Davis, from Che Guevara to the Tamils struggling for independence and the Algerians battling French control, turned to Fanon’s ideas, ideas unequivocal in opposing force with force.

These ideas included the strategic uses of “language” both by the “reprobates against the wretched” and also by the colonized freeing themselves. His ideas still chime high-decibel. He said that to impose any foreign language, the cornerstone of every culture, was also to impose the aspirations of the oppressors against those of the oppressed.

Language was therefore actively used as a tool for and against colonialism. The colonizers, for example, legitimized their form of maintaining control as “force … as being defensive … and provoked”. They de-legitimized the struggles of the colonized as being “aggressive, offensive, and as provocations”. In short, the masters had control, not only of the culture inferred in the dominant language but also in who determined what the conjugation of language of control was to be, or not to be.

Lewis Carroll, in his 19th century, Through the Looking-Glass, follow-on from Alice in Wonderland has Humpty Dumpty dressing-down Alice: “When I use a word,” (he) said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Alice, incredulous, replies: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” replied Humpty Dumpty, “which (and who) is to be master – that’s all.”

Therefore, what in my opinion colonialism effectively wishes to do with language is to use it to sanctify iniquity, and to have the colonized endorse and defend their own demise. And what is memory? “The first act of resistance? Time which we can never leave; and place to which we can never return?”

In conclusion, celebrating Fanon’s contributions to justice is knowing how the rise of the consumer state occurred in tandem with declines in literacy, arts, and the humanities; why life does not have to be controlled by systems which specialize in mega-death; why we never pay fealty to dishonour nor genuflect to criminality and, finally, that the ultimate human struggle is between issues of morality versus those of any arbitrary power which knows its uses but not its limitations. For, as the simple actions taken by a Rosa Parks demonstrate, unlimited power is ultimately limited by morality.

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