Frantz Fanon: A Short Revolutionary Life But Enduring Legacy

Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist, intellectual and revolutionary whose involvement with the National Liberation Front earned him honorary Algerian citizenship and a reputation for being one of the most prominent voices in the struggle toward decolonization.

Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist, intellectual and revolutionary whose involvement with the National Liberation Front earned him honorary Algerian citizenship and a reputation for being one of the most prominent voices in the struggle toward decolonization.

Fanon was born in Fort-de-France, Martinique on July 20, 1925. Martinique was, at the time, a French colony. Considered the crown jewel of the French Caribbean, the island’s black elite (to which Fanon’s family belonged) tended to strive toward assimilation with white French culture. The young Fanon grew up in this environment, with colonial-era history textbooks that famously referred to nos ancêtres, les Gaules (“our ancestors, the Gauls” — obviously an inaccuracy on an island whose population largely traced its origins to Africa, via the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade). However, upon enrolling at Lycée Schoelcher, the most prestigious high school in Martinique and, arguably, the Caribbean, Fanon was introduced to the philosophy of negritude, which his teacher Aimé Césaire helped establish.

His encounter with negritude would deeply impact the young Fanon. The negritude movement was born in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s as the result of black Francophone writers from various corners of the colonial empire joining together through the French language to assert their cultural identity. Although the concept of negritude first appeared in a series of articles penned by the Martinican sisters, Jeanne and Paulette Nardal, it was the trio of male authors, Léon Gontran Damas, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire who would come to be known as the founders of the negritude movement. The three men met in Paris when they were studying there and founded a journal called L’Étudiant noir (French for “The Black Student”). Inspired in part by the Harlem Renaissance, Damas, Senghor and Césaire sought to articulate a specifically black identity in a move that both rejected the bourgeoisie assimilationism of many of their peers and, more profoundly, the entire colonial project with its mission civilisatrice, or civilizing mission.

For Fanon, his introduction to this revolutionary way of thinking triggered a lifelong engagement with the question of racial identity and the struggle for independence and decolonization. While Fanon was attending Lycée Schoelcher, France fell to the Nazis and a collaborationist Vichy regime was established both in metropolitan France and on Martinique. Disgusted by the harassment and sexual misconduct the Vichy soldiers perpetrated against black Martinicans, Fanon fled the island as a dissident to join the Free French forces stationed on the nearby island of Dominica, which was then under British control.

While enlisted, Fanon was sent to Casablanca and later transferred to an army base in Béjaïa, Algeria before crossing into France. During his time in the military, Fanon was exposed to a new variety of anti-black racism. For example, when Free French forces crossed the Rhine to liberate Germany, photojournalists were present, and thus many regiments — including Fanon’s — were “bleached” of all non-white soldiers.

After the war ended, Fanon returned to Martinique, where he completed his baccalaureate and worked for Aimé Césaire’s parliamentary campaign. Then, Fanon set sail for Lyon, France to study medicine and psychiatry. While abroad, Fanon began studying and writing about the negative psychological effects of white colonial subjugation upon black people. He presented his analysis in a doctoral dissertation titled “Essay on the Disalienation of the Black,” but this work was rejected by the University of Lyon at which he was a student. This text would later become Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon’s seminal anti-racist humanist book, published in 1952 by Éditions du Seuil.

Fanon completed his residency in 1952 and spent one year practicing in a small village near Mont St-Michel before accepting a position as the chief of staff at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria where he would work until he was deported in 1957.

The year after Fanon arrived in Algeria, the Algerian War of Independence broke out. The National Liberation Front (FLN) led the charge and was brutally repressed by the French armed forces. Torture was regularly employed by the French — and Fanon, as a psychiatrist, would see first-hand the traumatic effects of torture on both the victims and the torturers themselves. As a result, Fanon became increasingly radicalized, finally resigning from his post to join the FLN and dedicate himself to Algeria’s fight for independence.

Still in his early thirties, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia. After seeking treatment in the Soviet Union, he returned to North Africa, where he dictated his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth. Published in France shortly after Fanon’s death, the work seeks to legitimize revolutionary violence in service of decolonization by arguing the people who are denied any humanity are not bound by any humanistic principles in their struggle for dignity.

Fanon traveled to the United States to seek medical care in 1961 and passed away on December 6 of the same year. He was just 36 years old. Although his life was short, his legacy has been long indeed.