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Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)


French psychiatrist and revolutionary thinker, the "apostle of violence," whose writings had profound influence on the radical movements in the 1960s in the United States and Europe. As a philosopher born in Martinique, Frantz Fanon's views gained audience in the Caribbean islands along with Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, C.L.R. James, and Eric Williams. Fanon rejected the concept of Négritude – a term first used by Césaire – and stated that persons' status depends on their economical and social position. Fanon believed that violence is an inbult part in the struggle for national liberation.

"I do not want to be the victim of the Ruse of a black world.
My life must not be devoted making an assessment of black values.
There is no white world; there is no white ethic—any more than there is a white intelligence
There are from one end of world to the other men who are searching.
I am not a prisoner of History. I must look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction.
I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life.
In the world I am heading for, I am endlessly creating myself."
(Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, translated from the French by Richard Philcox,  Grove Press, 2008, p. 204)

Frantz Fanon grew up in Martinique amid descendants of African slaves, who had been brought to the Caribbean to toil on the island's sugar plantations. Frantz was the fifth of eight children. By the social-economic standards of the island, his family was not wealthy but belonged to the middle-class. His father, Casimir, was employed by the customs service; he died in 1947. Fanon's mother Eléanore Médélice, who was the dominating figure in the family, opened in the rue de la République a shop selling hardware and drapery. Five of the children went to France for higher education.

At the lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, where Fanon studied, one of his teachers was Aimé Césaire, whose Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939) made a great impact on the new generation of young West Indians. When he was growing up Fanon identified with Tarzan, the white man, in films in which the hero was abusing the natives, but in Paris, where he saw the film again, he identified with the blacks. In his teenage, Fanon became politically active and participated in the guerrilla struggle against the supporters of the pro-Nazi French Vichy government. He served in the Free French forces and volunteered to go to Europe to fight. For a period he was stationed at the house of the novelist Paul Bourget (1852–1935), spending much of his time in Bourget's old library.

In the Doubs region, near Montbéliard, Fanon was wounded in the back. He also took part in the Battle of Alsace. "If I were never to return, if you hear one day that I died fighting the enemy, comfort yourselves in any way you can," he said in a letter to his parents, "but do not sat that I died defending an honorable cause . . . There is nothing here, absolutely nothing to justify my speedy decision to anoint myself as the defender of a farmer's rights, when the farmer, himself, does not care a damn about those rights." (Frantz Fanon: A Portrait by Alice Cherki, translated from the French by Nadia Benabid, 2006, p. 12) After the war, Fanon studied medicine and psychiatry in Paris and Lyons.

Fanon attended courses taught by Merleau-Ponty and André Leroi-Gourhan. An intellectual with a broad range of interests, he read Lévi-Strauss, Mauss, Heidegger, Hegel, Lenin, the young Marx, as well as the works of Leon Trotsky. While in Lyons, he completed two plays, Les mains parallèles and L'œil se noie. Fanon's friends included Edouard Glissant, his younger compatriot, who studied philosophy and history at the Sorbonne. Fanon was, according to Glissant "extremely sensitive". Glissant debuted as a poet with Un champ d'îles (1953), Fanon's first major work, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), came out in 1952.

The book, analyzed the impact of colonialism and its deforming effects, had a major influence on civil rights, anti-colonial, and black consciousness movements around the world. Fanon argued that white colonialism imposed an existentially false and degrading existence upon its black victims to the extent, that it demanded their conformity to its distorted values. The colonized is not seen by the colonizer a human being; this is also the picture the colonized is forced to accept. Fanon demonstrates how the problem of race, of color, connects with a whole range of words and images, starting from the introspective look at the symbol of the dark side of the soul. "Both of us stand for Evil. The black man more so, for the good reason that he is black. Is not whiteness in symbols always ascribed in French to Justice, Truth, Virginity?" (Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann, Pluto Press, 2008, p. 139) Fanon examines race prejudices as a philosopher and psychologist, although he acknowledges social and economic realities. The tone of the text varies from outrage to cool analysis and its poetic grace has not lost anything from its appeal.

Fanon's thesis, The Disalienation of the Black Man, was rejected, but it formed the basis of Black Skin, White Masks. On the advice of an lecturer, he submitted a study of Friedrich's ataxia. After qualifying as a psychiatrist, Fanon worked for a brief period as a substitute physician at Colson, in the Antilles, but returned soon back to Paris, complaining of the closemindness of the place. He then joined the staff at Saint-Alban. His mentor was the psychiatrist François Tosquelles; they co-authored two papers about the use of electroconvulsive therapy. In the first of the papers, they described how they gave electroshock therapy to a middle-aged nun. ("Slaves of a cause": Psychological Theory and Practice of Frantz Fanon during the Algerian Revolution by Duncan Murray, University of Prince Edward Island, 2023, p. 36) In 1953, Fanon began to practice in a psychiatric ward in Algeria. He married in 1953 a young white Frenchwoman, Marie-Josephe (Josie) Dublé. They had one son, Oliver – he was Fanon's second child. In 1948, Fanon had become a father to a daughter, whom he acknowledged, but did not marry her mother. At Blida-Joinville's hospital, where Fanon was Chef de service, he applied the ideas of Tosquelles, an innovative practitioner of group therapy.

In 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN) started its open warfare against French rule. After three years in Blida-Joinville, Fanon walked away from his job. He allied himself with the Algerian liberation movement, that sought to throw off French rule. Fanon visited guerrilla camps from Mali to Sahara, hid terrorists at his home, and trained nurses to dress wounds. After acquiring a Libyan passpost by the Tunisian consulate in 1958 in which his name was "Omar Ibrahim Fanon", he traveled as a diplomat representing the FLN. It has been claimed that he converted to Islam. He worked briefly as an ambassador of the provisional Algerian government to Ghana and edited in Tunisia the magazine Moudjahid. While in Accra Fanon met the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961). The were the same age and had the capacity to work tirelessly.

During this period, Fanon also founded Africa's first psychiatric clinic. Much of his writing concentrated on the Algerian revolution, including the essays published in L'An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne (1959), in which he calls for armed struggle against the French imperialism. Fanon himself did not live long enough to witness Algeria's independence.

Les Damnés de la Terre (1961, The Wretched of the Earth) took an aim at Seghorian ideas of "the collective negro-African personality". Fanon argued that "to emphasize an African culture rather than a national culture leads the African intellectuals into a dead end." (Ibid., translated from the French by Richard Philcox, Grove Press, 2004, p. 152) Every culture is first and foremost national. Despite his reservations about the politics and culture of Négritude (or perhaps just because of that?), Fanon was elected to the executive of the Société Africaine Culture.

Fanon survived the slaughter in 1957, in which the F.L.N. killed 300 suspected supporters of a rival rebel group, he suffered a temporary paralysis, when his jeep was blown up by a mine in 1959, and he survived an assassination attempt in Libya. After a 1,200-mile intelligence expedition in 1960, from Mali to the Algerian, Fanon was seriously ill and he was diagnosed of having leukemia. When he went to Moscow, the Soviet doctors promised him a five year reprive.

Sartre and Fanon met at lunch in Rome in July 1961 and talked till eight the next morning. Fanon, who knew he had only a short time to live, allegedly said, "I don't like people who spare themselves". (Frantz Fanon by Pramod K. Nayar, Routledge, 2012, p. 24)

In October 1961, Fanon was brought to the United States with the help of a CIA agent. He was hospitalized in the National Institute of Health, in Washington, D.C, where he received a blood transfusion. Fanon died under a Muslim name on December 12, 1961, from double pneumonia. Maintaining his sense of humor right to the end, he quipped that frequent blood transfusions were turning his dark-complected skin white. "Last night they put me through the washing machine again," were allegedly his final words. (Frantz Fanon: A Spiritual Biography by Patrick Ehlen, 2000, pp. 165-166) On the day of his death, the French police seized copies of The Wretched of the Earth from the Paris bookshops.

Many conspiracy theories circulate about Fanon's last days. The CIA agent who had taken care of him and his family said, that he tried to be a good Samaritan and avoided political discussion. The CIA case file on Fanon is still classified. After negotiations, Fanon's body was flown back to Algeria by the U.S. Air FCorce to be buried on Algerian soil. Josie Fanon, his wife, committed suicide in Algiers in 1989. A year before her death, Josie had witnessed from her balcony riots and shootings of civilians in the street below. "Oh, Frantz, the wretched of the earth again," she had sighed on a telephone, speaking to her friend Assia Djebar. (Frantz Fanon: A Biography by David Macey, Verso, 2012, p. 504)

The Wretched of the Earth, based on Fanon's experiences in Algeria during the war of independence, was called by its publisher "the handbook for the black revolution". "In guerrilla warfare, in fact, you no longer fight on the spot but on the march. Every fighter carries the soil of the homeland to war between his spare toes. . . . The people from the north march toward the west, those on the plains struggle up to the mountain. No strategic position is given prefence." (Ibid., p.  85) The book became one of the major works of the Black Liberation Movement. Fanon explored the class conflict and questions of cultural hegemony in the creation and maintenance of a new country's national consciousness. Differing from Lenin, Mao, and orthodox Marxists, Fanon did not maintain a belief in the messianic role of the Communist party in the (proletarian) revolution. It is the lumpenproletariat, the people outside the official party organization, that constitutes the spearhead of the revolutionary movement. "So the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed, and the petty criminals, when approached, give the liberation struggle all they have got, devoting themselves to the cause like valiant workers. These vagrants, these second-class citizens, find their way back to the nation thanks to their decisive, militant action." (Ibid., pp. 81-82)

Jean-Paul Sartre's preface to the book upset many French intellectuals. Especially Fanon's chapter on violence created much debate: "At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their selfconfidence." (Ibid., p. 51)

Pour la révolution africaine. Écrits politiques (1964, Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays) demonstrates, among other things, that Fanon never wanted to take the position of a political leader. Basically, not born in Algeria, he was a foreigner. Moveover, when he was alive, his books were not widely read in Algeria, where they were banned.

Both directly and indirectly, the impact of Fanon's thought can be seen in such writers and Senegal's Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007), Kenya's Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (b. 1938), and Zimbabwe's Tsitsi Dangarembga (b. 1959). A controversial thinker, Fanon's views were criticized by Hannah Arendt, who argued: "The rarity of slave rebellions and of uprisings among the disinherited and downtrodden is notorious . . . To identify the national liberation movement with such outbursts it to prophesy their doom – quite apart from the fact that the unlikely victory would not result in changing the world (or the system) but only its personnel." ('On Violence' by Hannah Arendt, in Democracy: A Reader, second edition, edited by Ricardo Blaug and John Schwarzmantel, 2016, p. 572)

Noteworthy, Fanon himself challenged the perception of him as an "apostle of violence." Fanon made a distinction between "pseudo-indepencence" and national liberation, the total destruction of the colonial system. He satirized in The Wretched of the Earth the consequences of simply replacing white colonial rulers with black African bourgeoisie who have been trained by Europeans and imbibed the colonizer's ways of life: "In its decadent aspect the national bourgeoisie gets considerable help from the Western bourgeoisies who happens to be tourists enamored of exoticism, hunting and casinos. The national bourgeoisie establishes holiday resorts and playgrounds for entertaining the Western bourgeoisie. This sector goes by the name tourism and becomes a national industry for this very purpose." (Ibid., p. 101)

For further reading: Fanon by D. Caute (1970); Colonialism and Alienation by Renate Zahar (1974); Frantz Fanon by L. Gendzier (1973); Frantz Fanon: Social and Political Thought by Emmanuel Hansen (1977); A Critique of Revolutionary Humanism: Frantz Fanon by Richard C. Onwuanibe (1983); Holy Violence by B. Marie Perinbam (1983); Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan (1985); Fanon: In Search of the African Revolution by J. Adele Jinadu (1986); Fanon and the Crisis of European Man by Lewis R. Gordon (1995); Fanon: A Critical Reader, ed. by Lewis R. Gordon (1996); Fanon's Dialectic Experience by Ato Sekyi-Otu (1997); Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (1997); Fanon for Beginners by Deborah Wyrick (1998); Rethinking Fanon, ed. by Nigel C. Gibson (1999); Frantz Fanon: A Life by David Macey (2000); Frantz Fanon: A Biography by David Macey (2001); Frantz Fanon: A Portrait by Alice Cherki,Nadia Benabid (2006); Fanon by John Edgar Wideman (2008); Meditations on Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth by James Yaki Sayles (2010); Frantz Fanon by Pramod K. Nayar (2013); Frantz Fanon, My Brother: Doctor, Playwright, Revolutionary by Joby Fanon (2014); What Fanon Said: A  Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought by Lewis R. Gordon (2015); Whither Fanon?: Studies in the Blackness of Being by David Marriott (2018); Fanon, Education, and Action: Child as Method by Erica Burman (2019); Frantz Fanon: Literature and Invention by Jane Hiddleston (2022); Frantz Fanon: The Politics and Poetics of the Postcolonial Subject by Alejandro J. De Oto ; translated by Karina Alma (2022); Fanon, Phenomenology and Psychology, edited by Leswin Laubscher, Derek Hook, and Miraj U. Desai (2022); Camus and Fanon on the Algerian Question: An Ethics of Rebellion by Pedro Tabensky (2023); Frantz Fanon: Combat Breathing by Nigel C. Gibson (2024); How We Walk: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of the Body by Matthew Beaumont (2024) - Films: 1967, I dannati della terra, prod. Ager Cinematografica, dir. Valentino Orsini, with Frank Wolff, Marilù Tolo, Serique N'Daye Gonzalez, Carlo Cecchi; Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996), prod. Mark Nash for the Arts Council of England, dir. Isaac Julien, with Colin Salmon (as Frantz Fanon), Halima Daoud and Noirin Ni Dubhgaill

Selected works:

  • Peau noire, masques blancs, 1952
    - Black Skin, White Masks (translated by Charles Lam Markmann, 1967; Richard Philcox, 2008)
  • L'An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne, 1959
    - Studies in a Dying Colonialism (translated by Haakon Chevalier, 1965)
  • Les Damnés de la Terre, 1961 (foreword by J. P. Sartre)
    - Damned (translated by Constance Farrington, 1963) / The Wretched of the Earth (US title, translated by Constance Farrington, 1963, 1965; Richard Philcox; introductions by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha, 2004)
    - Sorron yöstä (suom. Hilkka Mäki, 1970)
  • Pour la révolution africaine. Écrits politiques, 1964
    - Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays (translated by Haakon Chevalier, 1967)
    - Poliittisia kirjoituksia (suom. Eetu Viren, 2017) 
  • Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference, and Desire, 1995 (edited by Ragnar Farr)
  • The Wretched of the Earth, 2021 (60th anniversary edition; translated from the French by Richard Philcox; with commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha and Cornel West)

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