Fanon, phenomenology, race

RP 095 () / Article

ʻThe black man is not. Nor the white.ʼ1 Thus Fanon in the concluding section of Peau noire, masques blancs (1952), in my translation. It is quite impossible to work with the existing versions, the most obvious index of that impossibility being the unfortunate decision to translate the title of Chapter 5 as ʻThe Fact of Blacknessʼ and not as ʻThe Lived Experience of the Black Man.ʼ2 Indeed, the point of Fanonʼs exercise in sociodiagnostics is to demonstrate that there is no ʻfactʼ of blackness (or, by the same criterion, whiteness); both are a form of lived experience (expérience vécue; Erlebnis). To mistake a lived experience for a fact is to betray Fanonʼs text to such an extent as to make it almost incomprehensible.

The black man and the white man are not. And yet they are, and the reality of their being is Fanonʼs starting point: the black man trapped in his blackness, the white man in his whiteness, both trapped into their mutual and aggressive narcissism.3 What, then, brings them or calls them into being, or sentences them to non-being? Writing of his childhood and emergence from it, Fanon remarks: ʻI am a negro [nègre], but naturally I donʼt know that because that is what I am.ʼ4 I am going to use nègre in French because of the ambiguity of its political semantics and because there is no single English equivalent: it is distinct from both noir (black) and the more recent  homme de couleur (man of colour) and covers the whole semantic field  from ʻnegroʼ to ʻniggerʼ, the precise meaning being determined by context, the speakerʼs position or even the speakerʼs tone of voice.

Fanonʼs comment that he had to be told what he was is at one level a fairly banal example of  the bracketing out of facticity in favour of simply being: at home, he remarks (meaning, presumably, in Martinique), the black man does not, has no need  to, experience his being-for-others.5 Judging by my own experience, it is, for example, perfectly possible to grow up in a uniquely white community in the north-east of England without knowing in any real sense that you are white. There is no need to know that, and it is well known that fish have no sense of wetness. I am not suggesting that there is some equivalence between a white childhood in the northeast and a black childhood in Martinique, merely that we may have to be told who and what we are, that we may not know it ʻnaturallyʼ. Perhaps being-for-others is, in ethnicity as in other domains, a precondition for self-knowledge. Fanonʼs sense of not knowing what he is because  that is what he is, is to a large degree an effect of his being Martinican, and there is considerable textual evidence to indicate that Peau noire could not have been written by anyone but a Martinican.6 It is deeply rooted in the Martinican experience, in the experience of people who were French citizens and not colonial subjects, and who occupied a curious position within the racial hierarchy. One of the islandʼs more peculiar exports was the French-educated black civil servant and citizen who ʻadministeredʼ black subjects in the African colonies, and who was in a sense neither black nor white. Fanon found himself in that anomalous position as a young soldier at the end of the Second World War: he was neither indigène nor toubab, neither ʻnativeʼ nor ʻwhite manʼ. Fanonʼs ʻblack manʼ is Martinican, or in other words a ʻWest Indian who does not think of himself as black; he thinks of himself as West Indian. Subjectively, intellectually, the West Indian behaves as a White. But he is a  nègre. He will notice that once he is in Europe, and when they talk about  nègres, he will know that they are talking about him as well as about the Senegalese.ʼ7 Talking about the nègre is one way of calling him into being and of giving him a position akin to that of other marginal groups. One recalls Adornoʼs lapidary remark in Minima Moralia: ʻAnti-Semitism is the rumour about the Jews.ʼ8 And one recalls the advice given to a very young Fanon by his philosophy teacher in Martinique: ʻWhen you hear them talking about the Jews, prick up your ears. Theyʼre talking about you.ʼ9

One of the agencies that lets Fanon know he is a nègre by talking about him is of course that child who, one cold day in Lyon, fixes him with its white gaze, thus reducing him to a state of complete being-forothers. The child does not in fact speak to Fanon or tell him anything. The child turns to its mother and says ʻTiens, un nègreʼ (ʻLook, a nègreʼ).10 The form of the utterance is structurally similar to the ʻsmutʼ described by Freud in that it requires the co-presence of three parties: ʻIn addition to the one who makes the joke … a second who is taken as the object of the hostile or sexual aggression, and a third in whom the jokeʼs aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled.ʼ11 For the mother, the final yield of this exchange is embarrassment rather than pleasure, but verbal (and perhaps sexual) hostility or aggression is certainly involved


1. Frantz Fanon,  Peau noire, masques blancs, Collection Points, Seuil, Paris, 1975, p. 187.

2.  Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, Grove Press, New York, 1967.

3. Fanon, Peau noire, p. 7.

4. Ibid., p. 155.

5. Ibid., p. 89.

6. To take only one example; Fanon uses the expression souventefois (ibid., p. 73), which to a French reader looks like either a misprint or an odd condensation of souvent and mainte fois. It is quite simply the Martinican–Guadeloupean Creole form of souvent (often).

7. Ibid., p. 120.

8. T.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, Verso, London, 1978, p. 110.

9. Fanon, Peau noire, p. 98.

10. Ibid., p. 90.

11. Sigmund Freud,  Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Pelican Freud Library, Vol. VI, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976, p. 143.