Why Frantz Fanon Matters in the Struggle Against Racism

I speak from my standpoint—from where I live and interact with the world. I live in a senior complex, a spread of buildings near the outskirts of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Most residents are retired members of that liberal community with conservative values. A good many residents are disabled, and therefore dependent on the government for medical assistance or transportation. A few still work as grocery store clerks or home caregivers, but, otherwise, most are former members of the working class. Of those who hold college degrees, it is in nursing or business.

Outside this world, I walk or use public transportation. At the bus stops, terminals, and on the buses themselves, I am surrounded often by blacks. Young and old. Most in this population are poor, unemployed, or underemployed. If you listen to the phone conversations, and, often, you don’t have an option, you’ll discover that some are newly released from jail or prison. They have to check in with “they” parole officers or just complain to a friend about the “b” who won’t let them see “the kids.”  Or the “n” has some new “b” and “me and my kids. But that’s okay. Just wait…I’m gonna have me…” a job, a car, a house soon. Just wait and see. Former education is “done” whatever it might have been. I am black among blacks here on this bus or on this corner or in this discount store, but there are no brothers and sisters here. Certainly no love. No one here wants to hear from me about fear and the imagination of white Americans. The irony: many would wish to actually become white, if by magic, this transformation was made possible. In some cases, no other transformation would do.

The two worlds rarely met, except if one happens to be a social worker and the other a client. These are not the folks who usually show up at garden festivals, beer or cheese festivals or at any of the cultural events held at the UW Parkside, Madison, or Milwaukee. In a town like Kenosha or Madison, geography separates the two worlds. The white and the black. The latter is almost invisible, expect in the imagination of the former.

In the white world, an invasion is always imminent. “They” are always just out there, ready to break through the barriers that separate “us” from “them.” Everyone looks around at each other because everyone knows who the “they” and “them” is—what race is a threat to the stability of peace and order.

I present an unsettling image among the predominantly white location. Sometimes, there is, for a member of this population, a tense moment, if I, unexpectedly, appear in the laundry room or library. But, for the most part, my presence has been “accepted” or rather, is “tolerated,” (that is, after I asked to describe my cell phone or asked if I knew anything about Title 19), yes, I was “tolerated” so long as I remained in my place. My place? The usual location as a silent audience to their grievances about the “changed” world where it is tolerated to have “those people” who don’t work and don’t take care of their children. “Those people” steal; they live off public assistance. And who pays for this behavior? Absolute scum. No better than the “Mexicans” who come here and can’t speak English! The world can do without “those people” and them “Mexicans.”

I am present. My eyes catch the eyes of the speaker. And he or she never looks away. I have heard this diatribe before, only now, the speakers can refer to “those people” and the “Mexicans” openly, without fear of any consequences. It is as if I am viewing a horror film and can’t wake up. The film continues and the scenes and language is more chilling—yet it is all so calm. Matter-of-fact! I am the only one frightened by it all, yet I had better not express my anger, my resentment.

Yes, the times have changed, again. The clocks have swung back or forward. I see chains around the angles of Black men, women, and children, and I see other families boarding to trains to concentration camps.

I live among the two groups in disguise. Neither groups of workers, former workers, underemployed, or unemployed, separated by geography, would imagine that I am anything other than a “good” Negro, someone who wants to be “accepted” or someone who just wants to be “good” like the white folks.

I can’t be in neither world, however. I certainly can’t be black where I live or rather, where I “stay.” The only thing I can be is silent. While this existence can be distressing, it allows me the opportunity to see and hear what most of the Left here in the US are unwilling to acknowledge.

Here is the legacy of colonialism, enslavement, and segregation: White supremacy. Among the working class, among the liberal class, among blacks who consider themselves “escapees” from the wretched of the earth.

Today, still, whiteness, holds the privileged position in the privileged narrative, Master narrative. It is a narrative in which the lived experiences of Blacks can never be in the privileged position. On the ground, it is represented in the battles, played out daily—in those thousand cuts—in those social relations between whites and blacks.

And among blacks…

All the lived experiences of blacks are not “equal.” That is, some lived experiences are “privileged” or rather “preferred.” Those blacks who have relinquished their freedom to be accept the “values” and dictates of the Master narrative. From this community of the selected and handpicked, come the few who meet the narrative’s requirements and qualifications to serve the system. Selected and/or handpicked because you are not going in if you will challenge the systematic process of elimination. For this oppressed servant class, their rise from the “ghetto,” the “hood” or, politely, the “urban” community, their rise from the “criminal” world, that is, the ghetto, hood, or urban community, from drug user or prostitute, allows liberals to hold up these individuals as symbols of the “innocent” community’s goodness. The willingness of the oppressed servant to cleanse themselves from all crime and sin and exit the world of the guilty, the world of blackness, represents their ticket into a world whose foundation is the denouncement of the black lived experience. “You cannot ask to be accepted on ‘equal’ terms with white society irrespective of race when this society has structured its very mode of seeing in racial terms,” Hudis writes in Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (2015). The oppressed servant is seen as black and not black, for when good, he or she is as good as white. Not quite. But almost. However, when troublesome, the individual is bad. And the last thing the oppressed servant wants to be is troublesome.

It is all about the individual and not the collective experience of the black lived experience in the US. The oppressed servants justify the “good” of the community of innocents. You see, after all, they want to be human, like us! Never will be quite—however!  Whiteness is naturally alluring. It is purity itself. The “values” of this innocent community are, after all, righteous. And Fanon again: To escape the pain of being black, there is only one way out, he writes, and that “leads into the white world.” Every minute of every hour, of every day, the individual on the run is preoccupied “with attracting the attention of the white man.” The concern then of such an individual becomes (not of the community from which he escaped, but, as Fanon writes, of  “being powerful like the white man,” of exerting a “determined effort to acquire protective qualities—that is, the proportion of being or having that enters into the composition of an ego” (Black Skin, White Masks). You should not expect this individual turned oppressed servant to challenge the Master narrative. This individual will not speak against the practice of excluding the lived experiences of the repressed. This individual becomes an expert in the practice of repression.

And so the first and foremost task of the oppressed servant is to serve as gatekeepers. White liberals serve in this role too. But if they can have a black as an intermediary, all the better. Blacks as gatekeepers uphold the values of whiteness as well as enforce the continued repression of the excluded lived experiences of black people—directly. Often far more brutally since neither the narrative or any member of the innocent community wants to be labeled “racist.” That label is reserved for, say the KKK or skinheads. Or now, Donald Trump and the like. Abroad, the US Empire uses dictators to destroy democratic movements by people whose lives are made unbearable. Internally, the oppressed class/dictators lead the black community to the well every four years to press the level for the selected democratic candidate, and then make sure there is no rebellion when the well comes up dry, as it usually does.

The oppressed servant class not only facilitates the Master narrative by helping to maintain the continued narrative subjugation of certain lived experiences deemed criminal or aggressive or militant. Inarticulate. Uneducated. Simply, the wrong class! The lived experiences of those excluded are too loud, too angry, as if there is some proper way to shout when someone steps on your foot. Treated as children, they are urged to remain in their place and remain quiet. Humble, even! The presence of the oppressed servant class legitimizes the continued assault on the lived experiences of other blacks. Any opposition (difference) from within the black community is quickly challenged by the oppressed servant often at the behest of their white counterparts. As a doctoral candidate in the 1990s, I was asked my opinion regarding some issue by a white woman professor only to be quickly denounced because the only other black PhD, I was informed, held a different opinion. A few years ago, a similar scenario told place at a public library in Madison, Wisconsin. There, the librarian asked my opinion about living in Madison as a black. Next to her, sat an older black male librarian. When I gave my opinion, I was told that the black librarian did not feel the same way about life as a black in Madison. Honesty? There is a forfeiting of freedom for the kind of empty “freedom” promoted by the Master narrative, here and abroad. I remember the look I received from the black librarian, a look that mirrored the Look—and it was as chilling as a look from an avowed member of the KKK.

White supremacy, so the narrative goes, does not hinder the progress of Black America. You cannot blame the lack of opportunities, the lack of education, or the prevalence of miseducation, or the high incarceration rate on white America. We are innocent! We are not allowed to see the struggles of the black lived experiences, of those excluded, expect in the media. More recently, when we hear from the mothers, fathers, siblings of those individuals shot dead by the police.

And, of course, white supremacy is the essence of the Master narrative; consequently, the other gatekeepers, the police, are innocent.

There is no real outcry from even white liberals for these dead black bodies, for these family members left to grieve because these dead blacks are not innocent. Not even human.

Is there the practice of sacrifice? A ritual in which the black lived experience must be sacrificed in order to maintain the Master narrative? Yes. It is the sacrifice of democracy and freedom for all parties, but in particular of black lives.

For our black librarian, the consequences of giving up his given freedom for freedom would be perceived as grave for him. There would be the danger of being expelled from the community of the innocent. Whereas for the white librarian, a slight shift to the left would be interpreted as “reaching out,” as any “good” humanitarian liberal in contrast to a truly racist Klan member or someone, again, like Donald Trump.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of us in my generation by challenging, as we called it, the “status quo,” were, in fact, challenging the Master narrative. It was the era of Black Power. Angela Davis. The Black Panthers. Many of us, in our corner of the world, starting with our own families, rejected our place in that narrative. We know what happened. The system went after our leadership and supplanted it with the selected and handpicked. Our leaders went to prison or were exiled and many were murdered outright. A message was sent to our generation and to the subsequent generations of blacks: Don’t dare try to question, challenge or overthrown racial order, power, in the US!

Subsequently, the Left has created its own hierarchy, mirroring that of the system and its ordering of the “intellectual” vs the grassroots activists, white vs black or Latino/a, the recognized vs the unrecognized. We cannot figure out ways to be more inclusive, more democratic. There is this curious cycle, I have observed over the last 40 to 45 years. When the young whites left the movement in the middle 1970s, they left to establish families and stakes in the system, and on their return, in their retirement years, their presence often displaces long-term activists. I would imagine that the current crop of young white activists will tire of it all, return home, and we will see them in another 40 years. The presence or rather “movement” of these generational activists often diverts attention from the lived experiences of Black people and their struggles. Those struggles are daily and constant, ever present whether or not these individuals attend conferences or study the works of Karl Marx or Frantz Fanon.

In fact, for the most part, blacks are trying to survive the policies that have made a joke of “education” and have deepened poverty, unemployment and underemployment. Gentrification has scattered black Americans here and there, establishing new migration patterns and a life lived in places in which we just stay. Temporarily. A life of stress have led to the spread of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. And with these illnesses comes an entanglement with the medical and pharmaceutical industries, both more driven by profit than by resolving illness.

Shame prevents many from questioning the way things are—let alone understanding the existence of what seems invisible—that is, that Master narrative. Many just simply withdraw to wait on God or the other “god,” the government. Many of either class, cannot even permit themselves to identify with the Black Lives Matter movement. Racial inequality and injustice is too painful for one class to acknowledge. For the other, to contemplate racial inequality and injustice would threaten the status quo that permits them to perch on an already precarious branch of that socially constructed tree as opposed to scrounging for an existence on the ground below. The sharp division among the Black lower economic class and Black elite (intellectual or nonintellectual) makes it impossible for either to trust the other. Certainly, the question of love is out of the question!

So is empathy—outside the family. Concern for the Family—with a capital F, the human family, the survival of the species, is best left up to “God” or to governments. Whites left the Civil Rights movement and went home to the family. “American values” became “family values”–and most whites climbed the same ladder, one family at a time—never, if ever, looking down.

On the other hand, we, a people who once linked our struggles in the US to those of the Palestinians, to the South Africans, to the rebels fighting for freedom and democracy in Spain—we have now been desensitized to the struggles and sufferings of others. The message to the masses today is: Worry about yourself. Your own family. God will see to the others or the government. Others are not your concern. Drones can fall on the homes elsewhere, so long as they don’t fall on your home! Those others are “foreign” and therefore, “terrorists”! The sacrifice of empathy. The sacrifice of a social conscious. The sacrifice of activism.

Bad guys are bad, and good guys are good! We know what we are told, and we believe it!

The violence that haunts the black lived experience is the violence of this Master narrative. It persists while segments of our population are stripped of their humanity at birth.

***

As for Fanon…I do not think he would be surprised to see the legacy of colonial alive and well. And I wonder what he would think if he viewed video of the Jewish “ghettos” in Nazi Germany and listen to the rhetoric around racial difference today. I think Fanon would agree with Rosa Luxemburg, the Left, in particularly the Marxists in the US after the McCarthy era, have been missing in action.

I usually refuse to offer solutions. White men do it all the time. They have the solution to everything. And they are often willing to sell it to you, if you just come to their talks or buy their books.

I try to think in terms of education. Although I am painfully aware that for many of us Blacks reading is a luxury. Nonetheless, I can offer other books to read. Literature when it is good is usually in opposition to tyranny. When taught well, it is one way to explore ways to counter and ultimately destroy this Master narrative.

It is no surprise that it advantageous to teach literature in such as way as to serve the Master narrative. The selected and handpicked, white or black, have the qualifications to befuddle any good piece of literature. Or that profound and enlightening literature can be eliminated all together. We have to ask ourselves, then—what is left out and why?

Along side Fanon’s works and Peter Hudis’ Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades, I can think of two books, among many. Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga, written in 1988, set in the Rhodesia of the 1960s. And Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, set in a fictional town met to represent Wilmington, North Carolina, and Paula Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow.

Dr. Lenore Daniels

Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literature, with a specialty in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola University, Chicago. Her publications include scholarly articles for The Canadian Women’s Studies Journal, The Griot, and Americana. She has served as a writer for several community newsletters and co-editor for Chicago Alliance for Neighbourhood Safety Newsletter. Currently, she writes a commentary for The Journal, Platteville, Wisconsin and the Black Commentator.

One thought on “Why Frantz Fanon Matters in the Struggle Against Racism

  • yohijo@hotmail.com'
    June 29, 2016 at 1:02 pm
    Permalink

    This is a powerful piece, demonstrating that we are not living a post-racial era. Thanks to Trump, it is no more a secrete anyway.

    Reply

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