I picked this up when everyone on my Instagram feed was recommending White Fragility, a book by a white woman who spent two decades making her living by talking about diversity to corporate audiences.
It was really interesting reading Fanon alongside Black Against Empire, a book about the Black Panther Party which I've yet to finish (but will pick up again now that I'm down to reading 4 books at once--eep). The Wretched of the Earth apparently influenced the Panthers to a large degree, and it's easy to see why in sections like "On Violence" and "The Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness." I remember reading about founding members of the Panthers considering Black Americans to be a colonized nation within the so-called United States, which allowed them to adapt Fanon's discussion of Algerians finding their way in battling the French colonizers to their own confrontations with the American State.
But Fanon's relevance as a revolutionary Marxist, anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist thinker extends beyond the 60s counterculture, right up to today. Fanon writes that "The colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations" within the first three pages--this was playing out a few streets over, night after night, as uprisings were cut off and nearly kettled in wealthier neighborhoods by a youthful, racially-diverse crowd led by Black activists. And yet, as spokespeople arose, Fanon would be there to warn that "Those [colonizer] values which seemed to ennoble the soul prove worthless because they have nothing in common with the real-life struggle in which the people are engaged. And first among them is individualism. The colonized intellectual learned from his masters that the individual must assert himself...wealth lies in thought. But the colonized intellectual who is lucky enough to bunker down with the people during the liberation struggle, will soon discover the falsity of this theory. Involvement in the organization of the struggle will already introduce him to a different vocabulary. 'Brother,' 'sister,' 'comrade' are words outlawed by the colonialist bourgeoisie because in their thinking my brother is my wallet and my comrade, my scheming." A powerful lesson for NGO advocates or ambitious activists hoping to go pro, and one my generation--particularly hung up on optics--would do well to learn.
As uprisings continued, I saw Fanon's discussion of the colonized revolutionary having "nothing to lose and everything to gain" echoed in video of a woman saying that her neighbors were not "destroying [their] city" because they weren't allowed to own any of it. Saw the "colonialist bourgeoisie" introduce " a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence" and "The very same people who had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was that of force, now [deciding] to express themselves with force."
It seemed oddly prescient that when I picked the book up again, in early 2021, I was reading that "In fact, any national liberation movement should give this lumpenproletariat maximum attention. It will always respond to the call to revolt, but if the insurrection thinks it can afford to ignore it, then this famished underclass will pitch itself into the armed struggle and take part in the conflict, this time on the side of the oppressor." How could Fanon have foretold a bunch of boat owning Trumpers taking private jets to the Capitol to storm the doors, suddenly fighting The Blue they supposedly Backed?
"National unity crumbles, the insurrection is at a crucial turning point. The political education of the masses is now recognized as an historical necessity," Fanon writes later. And educate us he does. "...hatred is not an agenda," he writes on the next page, "It would be perverse to count on the enemy who always manages to commit as many crimes as possible and can be relied upon to widen 'the rift,' thus driving the population as a whole to revolt. Whatever the case, we have already indicated that the enemy endeavors to win over certain segments of the population...During the struggle the colonists and the police force are instructed to modify their behavior and 'become more human.'" Paint "Black Lives Matter" on a crosswalk. Encourage the cops to take pictures with the protesters. Joe Biden has been elected. What you've seen is "not who we are." We are ready to heal; to come together. We rocket towards 500,000 dead in a pandemic. Bars can now stay open late!
Fanon gives us warnings: "The objectives of the struggle must not remain as loosely defined as they were in the early days. If we are not careful there is the constant risk that the people will ask why continue the war, every time the enemy makes the slightest concession...the occupier can easily phase out the violent aspects of his presence."
Ultimately, though, he also gives us hope. "Our greatest task is to constantly understand what is happening in our own countries. We must not cultivate the spirit of the exceptional or look for the hero, another form of leader. We must elevate the people, expand their minds, equip them, differentiate them, and humanize them...It is as "Césaire said: 'To invent the souls of men.' To politicize the masses is not and cannot be to make a political speech. It means driving home to the masses that everything depends on them..."
It sounds like a tall order, and it is. It's challenging. It's why a book by a white diversity trainer who asks descendants of colonizers to look inward and study their thoughts and feelings (which isn't a bad thing to do in itself!) in order to facilitate corporate synergy is celebrated in the media, and Fanon is relegated to the past, the Panthers a footnote in mainstream reviews of the 60s counterculture.
But the lessons here are concrete. They are necessary, and laid out unflinchingly. Most of all, they can be studied and learned by anyone. As Fanon assures us "You can explain anything to the people provided you really want them to understand." I owe him a great deal for his explanation.
Published Nov. 8, 2004 by Grove Press.