Psychiatrist, writer and anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon
Psychiatrist, writer and anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon. Photo: Frantz Fanon Archive/Disclosure

*By Eugenio Lima

Re-embarking in this Fanon world was very intense. I remembered things I had forgotten and little by little I was rebuilding everything, from my first reading, in 2014, until today.

The first time I returned to Frantz Fanon's book was when I decided that it would be my preparation for the mediation of the debate “Arte e Sociedade: a Representação do Negro”, in May 2015, at Itaú Cultural in São Paulo. The debate was held in response to public manifestations regarding the play. The Train Woman, from Os Fofos Encenam, accused of racism. I want to make it clear that mediating such a meeting was not an easy activity, nor was it pleasant. On many occasions, the paradoxes and contradictions of the “mediator” role made me very uncomfortable. Despite understanding everything as part of a great historical process and knowing that the debate had a catalytic impact on the discussion of racism in Brazilian society and its relationship with culture and art, this event brings me an acid and Orphic memory.

Black skin, white masks, by Frantz Fanon, published by Ubu in 2020 (320 p.). Photo: Disclosure
Black skin, white masks, by Frantz Fanon, published by Ubu in 2020 (320 p.). Photo: Disclosure

It is from this arbitrary starting point that I begin my journey with the book Black Skin, White Masks, from 1952, which today has a new edition in Portuguese made by Ubu Editora, which is exquisite. The reading of this edition, translated by Sebastião Nascimento with the collaboration of Raquel Barreto, begins with the preface by Grada Kilomba, follows with complementary texts by Francis Jeanson and Paul Gilroy, the afterword by Deivison Faustino and ends with the text by Homi K Bhabha. It is an incredible journey that creates an intense mesh of context, reflection, criticism and beauty and brings out the magnitude and complexity of Fanon's work. Reading this book is an immersion in the author's thinking and there's no way to get away unscathed. His writing hurts, burns and throws us into a whirlwind of thoughts and sensations.

In addition, there is the matter of time that operates on the work, making reading, sometimes, a very difficult exercise, because, in the face of so much conceptualization, how to find one's own reading? How to look for something in the work itself that reverberates beyond itself? And, above all, if there are several possible readings of this exquisite book made from different schools of thought and action, who are you, reader, in this dialogue with Fanon?

No, dear reader/dear reader, I too, like the author, do not come armed with definitive truths, or rather, “I do not arrive armed with categorical truths”. What I want to make clear is that to read Fanon is to face a split, to walk in an intense universe of desires, urgencies, tensions between culture and class, race and sexuality, irony and poetry, voice and writing, among many other things. It is to be crossed by tensions that precipitate the rupture. There is no way to look for decisive statements or any general theory of colonial oppression. From my point of view, the questions raised are an intellectual and poetic spurt. Reflecting on them is always lacking, it is asking: What happened? And then gather the countless pieces of yourself scattered across the floor. As Homi K. Bhabha says in his brilliant text Remembering Fanon, I, The Psyche and the Colonial Condition:

“This extreme social alienation – this end of the 'idea' of the individual – produces, in Fanon, a relentless urgency for a conceptual form appropriate to the social antagonism of the colonial relationship. His work is divided between the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, a phenomenological affirmation of the Self and the Other, and the psychoanalytic ambivalence of the unconscious – its passage from love to hate, from master to slave. In his ill-fated and desperate search for a dialectic of salvation, Fanon explores the extremes of these modes of thought: Hegelianism restores hope in history; the existentialist evocation of the 'I' recovers the presence of the marginalized; and the psychoanalytic structuring sheds light on the “madness” of racism, on the pleasure of pain, on the agnostic fantasy of political power” (p. 3).

I know that there is still a long way to go before we can actually deconstruct racist ideas. However, rereading Fanon is standing on the mountain of horrors of the colonized world. It's looking at a society that was/is (?) enslaved for 400 years, received almost 40% of the world's slave trade, had the largest port in the history of modern slavery, which still today builds apartments with maid's quarters (senzalas in the apartments), which kills, kills, kills and continues to kill its children and its black youth and which has the largest black population outside of Africa.

It is to face the past that does not pass.

It is to be aware that the “state of exception” in which we live is the rule.

It is to understand on a daily basis that in the colonial world in which we live, the cause is the consequence, that myths such as the “Human Being” and “Society” lose their support base and that life turns in a vicious and delusional circle.

“It is a fact: whites consider themselves superior to blacks. One more fact: blacks want to demonstrate to whites, whatever the cost, the richness of their thinking, the comparable power of their mind. How to escape it?” (Frantz Fanon)

Psychiatrist, writer and anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon
Psychiatrist, writer and anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon. Photo: Frantz Fanon Archive/Disclosure

Evidently, in this space, it will not be possible to discuss how slavery and racism shaped and shape Brazilian society, as well as all the countries of the American continent created from the enslaved “black labor”, or about why the Haiti, the only country in the Americas to declare independence and abolish slavery at the same time, has suffered massive boycotts and been systematically destroyed throughout history.

"What's mine

one man, prisoner in white

one man, who defies the white screams of white death

(TOUSSAINT, TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE)”.

Aimé Césarie, Diary of a Return
to the Homeland (1939, p. 46)

I want to make it “clear” that my biggest challenge in reading Fanon was to understand what it means for an identity not to exist in your own language, whether written or spoken. This same language in which I write maintains practically intact the relations of power and violence that constituted it. Portuguese preserves its white colonial and patriarchal heritage at the center of its political dimension. The words we use define the place of an identity and for us, black men and women and all subaltern and racialized humanities, the first battle to exist is in the field of language. As Racionais MC's already said: “This shit is a minefield”.

There is a strong perception that I have to exist immersed in a language that separates me, “denigrates” and “Jews” me, in a language in which the universal is masculine – in fact, Fanon himself was heavily criticized for the universalization of the masculine as the subject of human thought. All these mechanisms keep us away from the full recognition of racialized humanities, which were and are transformed by the racial hierarchy of the colonial project into subaltern humanities, without full agency in the world of the living.

But if the presence is not inscribed in the language, the extermination is. Black and indigenous genocide in Brazil is a reality.

Black skin, white masks, by Frantz Fanon, published by Ubu in 2020 (320 p.). Photo: Disclosure
Black skin, white masks, by Frantz Fanon, published by Ubu in 2020 (320 p.). Photo: Disclosure

Like me in this article, Fanon writes in the language that sets him apart, that tries to whiten him, and that ultimately annihilates him. And that, our dear Lima Barreto already knew:

“[…] Language is the highest manifestation of a people's intelligence, it is its most vivid and original creation; and, therefore, the political emancipation of the country requires, as a complement and consequence, its idiomatic emancipation.”

Lima Barreto, Sad end of Policarpo Quaresma (1915, p. 26)

It is no accident that Black Skin, White Masks begins with a poem/introduction, in which concepts, poetics, manifestos and desires intersect. It is not by chance that the first chapter is entitled “Black and Language” and that its first sentence is: “We give fundamental importance to the phenomenon of language”. The struggle is, above all, to survive in the face of language that denigrates, whether to exist as a subject (agent in the world of the living), or as a symbolic representation.

The following are some of the Fanonian words that have crossed the ages:

“To speak is to be able to use a certain syntax, it is to take possession of the morphology of another language, but it is above all to assume a culture, to bear the weight of a civilization.”

“[…] The problem we face in this chapter is the following: the whiter the Antillean Negro will be, that is, the closer he will be to the real man, the more he has incorporated the French language. We are not unaware that this is one of man's attitudes towards Being. A man who possesses language therefore possesses the world expressed by that language and implied by it. You can see where we want to go: there is an extraordinary potency in the domain of language.”

Finally, I leave here the invitation for you to dive into this journey of no return that is to read and reread Black Skin, White Masks and support the crossing of the force of language.


*Eugenio Lima is Dj, actor-MC, theater director, researcher of Afro-Diasporic culture, founding member of Núcleo Bartolomeu de Depoimentos, Frente 3 de Fevereiro and Coletivo Legítima Defesa.

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