Student questions about Fanon

Frantz Fanon, on Wikimedia Commons, by Pacha J. Willka, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Frantz Fanon, on Wikimedia Commons, by Pacha J. Willka, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

In Arts One this week we’re discussed Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952). I asked students in my seminar group to write down some questions they have about the book, or topics they’d like to discuss. Since we won’t get to all of them in class today, I’m posting them here for the students to be able to refer to and think about.

There were some that we talked about a bit on Wednesday, so I’m not including those. I also didn’t include some of they were pretty similar to ones already on the list.

General questions related to the text

  • Do all of us have to wear a “white mask” to some extent? How does the seeming need for a mask in Fanon’s time compare for its need in Western society today?
    • How does the awareness of one’s own mask affect the way that one perceives the masks of others?
  • Can this text be applied to other racial/ethnic/marginalised people (i.e., Chinese-Americans or Jewish people)? What about women?


Questions specifically about the text

  • Is Fanon the narrator throughout? (Who is talking in Chapter 5, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”?)
    • Christina’s additions: What is the significance of the use of the first person singular in this chapter? What does it do? Does it help you to perhaps be able to connect with the experiences related there better (or not)?
    • Note that in much of the text, Fanon uses the first person plural, “we,” but in Chapter 5, in the conclusion, and in some parts of the intro he uses “I” (e.g., intro xi-xii, xvi); also uses “I” on 67, 200 (maybe elsewhere).
      • What do you make of these different choices of pronouns in the text? Might he be trying to do different things rhetorically or otherwise by using “we” some places and “I” in others?
  • I still don’t fully understand how the whites are also alienated. What are they alienated from?
  • What is the main idea of this book?
  • How does Fanon’s discussion in this text demonstrate a conformist attitude amongst the black and/or white people?
    • Is the conformism the fact that they try to fit into the white culture?
    • Or is it perhaps that they so easily accept the “livery” that they are forced to wear?
  • How can we reconcile the idea of realizing an existentialist blank slate among all of humanity as a solution to racism with Fanon’s comments about people needing an external outlet for their aggression and the other seemingly universal psychological tendencies that lead to racism?
  • How relevant is the psychoanalysis portion of the book if psychoanalysis isn’t really practiced today and is mainly conjuctural?
  • What is Fanon’s view of being vs becoming? It seems like he agrees more on being and that the black man always “was.” Does this contradict with his ideas on existentialism?
  • Does all the poetry distract from his rationalism and “scientific” views?
    • Christina: note, though, that he says he’s not going to try to be objective (67, 200), so at least objectivity is not part of his purpose (still, rationality does seem to be).
      • What do you think the purpose of the quotes from poetry are in Chapter 5?
      • Just as FYI, some of the theorists of négritude worked through poetry to try to create a new, positive black identity (among other kinds of texts), and Fanon is quoting from some of them here.
  • What lies beneath the “black skin” (the idea of “blackness” invented by white colonial bodies)? Is it something achievable, or is it like Plato’s Form of the Good or Kierkegaard’s theory of Faith (incomprehensible/impossible to articulate)?
    • What is Fanon’s theory of what is at the centre of a person (under the masks)? Is it freedom? I’m not quite clear on this.
  • If there is no black identity, is the negritude movement based solely on skin color? If so, isn’t it trapping the black man in his skin and the views of others?
    • What happens to African cultural roots present in the Americas if there is no common black identity?
  • Fanon seems to berate the woman of colour in Chapter 2 despite the fact that he says the “stigma” towards black people is socially constructed. Was this a form of misogyny or was there some overarching purpose in how he said what he did?
    • Christina: Does he also criticize the black man looking for the love of a white woman in chapter 3, in the same way? Or does the woman of colour seem to be more criticized?
    • Christina: I noticed also a cringeworthy section on p. 134, where he talks about a fear of rape being possibly a desire for rape. This is related, I think, to the psychoanalytic view of a defense mechanism called “reversal,” where an unconscious desire or fantasy is switched into its opposite in order to get past the “censor” (Freud’s term) that will not allow the unaltered unconscious content into consciousness. Still, it suggests at least a lack of understanding of the deep horror and violence of rape.
  • When Fanon criticizes Mannoni in Chapter 4, is it mainly because of the fact that Mannoni describes the dependency complex as a precolonial problem? (Where Fanon argues that it’s because of white society that the inferiority complex exists among blacks.)
    • Christina’s reply: Yes, that’s definitely one part of it. See, e.g.,
      • 65: we can’t endorse this sentence of M. Mannoni: “The fact that when an adult Malagasy is isolated in a different environment he can become susceptible to the classical type of inferiority complex proves almost beyond doubt that the germ of the complex was latent in him from childhood.”
      • 66: why does Mannoni “want to make the inferiority complex exist prior to colonization? Here we see the mechanism at work in psychiatry, which explains there are latent forms of psychosis that become evident following a traumatic experience.”
        • It’s like saying varicose veins are caused by weak vein walls rather than standing for 10 hours a day
      • “The reactions and behavior born out of the arrival of the Europeans in Madagascar were not tacked onto pre-existing reactions and behavior.” (75)

      Fanon criticizes Mannoni for not paying enough attention to how it’s the colonial situation that is the root cause of the neuroses.

      • “When the white man arrived in Madagascar he disrupted the psychological horizon and mechanisms. …. Since a new element had been introduced, an attempt should have been made to understand the new relations” (77).
        • “The arrival of the white man in Madagascar inflicted an unmistakable wound. The consequences of this European irruption in Madagascar are not only psychological, since, as everyone has said, there are inner relationships between consciousness and social context” (77).
      • “As for the ‘dependency complex’ of the Malagasy, at least in the sole form in which we can understand and analyze it, it too originates with the arrival on the island of the white colonizers” (88).

      But Fanon also criticizes Mannoni for not recognizing that with colonization came a new identity for the colonized (see next point, below).

  • What does Fanon mean by the “Malagasy no longer exists”? (77)
    • Christina’s reply:
    • Earlier in the chapter Fanon says that “…since Gallieni the Malagasy has ceased to exist” (74)
      • Joseph Simon Gallieni was made French governor of Madagascar in 1896; in 1897 he outlawed the Malagasy monarchy and exiled the queen
      • I think Fanon means here that whatever identity they had before being colonized has disappeared, and what they have now is a creation of their interaction with the colonizers: ““What Monsieur Mannoni has forgotten is that the Malagasy no longer exists; he has forgotten that the Malagasy exists in relation to the European” (77).


Finally, I have a few questions too, that I’d be interested to talk about (but I doubt there will be time in class today!)

My questions

  • What do you make of the first line, about not expecting an explosion today b/c it’s too early or too late?
    • He talks about explosions and fragmentation elsewhere too:
      • In chapter 5, the narrator says that when he is fixed by the white gaze he loses his temper: “I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me” (89)
      • “The black man is a toy in the hands of the white man. So in order to break the vicious circle, he explodes” (119).
      • He talks about being “dissected” by the white gaze on p. 95
    • Is the reference on p. xiii to no longer shouting related to there not being an “explosion today”?
  • In Chapter 5, the narrator talks about how “the image of one’s body” under the white gaze is “an image in the third person” (90). Then, later, he says that he experienced his body no longer in the third person, but in “triple”: “I existed in triple” (92).
    • What interpretation can you give to the “third person” and existing in “triple” here?
  • Fanon says on pp. 2 and 21 that when one speaks a language one also appropriates a culture. How might this be the case? Do you agree?