Originally published during the last days of the French occupation of Algeria, The Wretched of the Earth is a powerful and scholarly psycho-sociological book written by Algerian psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon. The book delves into the international plight of oppressed people; to be more specific, it describes the European (French) brand of oppression and its effects on Afrikan people. Fanon’s book confronts issues of: 1) hegemonic oppression, 2) the positive employment of violence by the oppressed, and 3) critiques the violent ideological superstructure that inflicts violence upon its subjects daily. Fanon offers new definitions for commonplace terms, such as violence and oppression in order to elucidate the revolutionary tenets outlined in The Wretched of the Earth.
Frantz Fanon’s work is monumental because it was one the first well-known works concerning Afrikan liberation, which offered psychological and sociological empirical data to support his claims concerning the use of violence as a positive means, to remove the boot of the oppressor from the throat of the oppressed. Before a thorough analysis of the main points in Wretched of the Earth may be presented, it is paramount that one first understand the time-frame in which the data was collected and the book written. It is crucial to understand the events that prompted Fanon to author such a profound work.
Born in Martinique in the year 1925, Frantz Fanon went on to study psychiatry in France. Upon completing his education in 1941, Frantz Fanon was stationed in a military hospital in Algeria, during the Algerian struggle for liberation from the French. It is in this hospital that Frantz Fanon was able to conduct psychological research on the patients. He found that many mental illnesses consist of an impairment in one’s epistemological perception. Epistemology is a component of one’s worldview, or how they perceive reality (Kambon, 1998); we can then assert that an alteration in how one is certain of knowledge, has inherently altered their individual reality and social reality. Fanon further uncovered that this same distortion in “how one knows what they know” is common among those who have experienced violence firsthand and those who experience violence from a third party; which in Fanon’s opinion, is colonization in its most rudimentary form.
From the year 1830 up until 1962, France had imposed itself as an imperial power on Algeria, and had become known around the world for their peculiar brand of social domination (Fanon 1961, 2004). For example, the French and several other European nation-states, not only impose a system of economic deprivation and isolation, they also control or heavily influence the culture of the colonized. So instead of appreciating one’s own culture, music, clothing, food, dance, art, social customs and mores, the oppressed tend to adopt the culture of their European oppressor. It must also be noted that this style of oppression, or bombardment to alter one’s reality to fit the survival thrust of one’s oppressor, is a characteristic of European-style domination. According to Marimba Ani, renowned African-centered psychologist, Europeans have a need to control which rises from the very core of their existence or, their asili (Ani, 1994). This need to control manifests itself in different ways, but in the international context, it is often seen as the propagation of Eurocentric values or culture (i.e. White Supremacy).
The Algerians were able to gain their liberation through relentless armed struggle, which began in 1954 with the Algerian revolutionary vanguard of that time, Front de Liberation Nationale. Published in 1961, the Wretched of the Earth captured the liberation issues that presented themselves before, during, and after, the revolution had commenced. Although previous studies had been implemented during the first two World Wars about war and its effects on mental health, Fanon’s work was unique in that it focused more upon the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer, and how this relationship inevitably causes some form of mental imbalance. Fanon eloquently illuminated the idea that psychiatrists are commissioned to help their patients readjust to society. But in a colonial situation, it is the society not the citizen, which is ill. Frantz Fanon says“...colonialism is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person attributes of humanity.” As aforementioned, it is characteristic of Europeans to force their colonial subjects to alter their reality in order to complement the European racial survival thrust of control and domination. Fanon’s critique of European dominated society is still relevant in modern society, almost 50 years after Wretched of the Earth was originally published.
Within Wretched of the Earth, Fanon advances several sociological concepts in effort to explain the socio-political situation in Algeria during this time. He draws from Karl Marx’s theory of humanism, which describes how laborers are forced to move and act in certain ways, in capitalist society. Marx develops the theory of alienation which describes how humans are dehumanized and mechanized in capitalist societies. Fanon was able to apply this theory in his explication of how the colonized have their freedoms removed from them by economic means within a capitalist system. In essence, the indigenous people become strangers in and of their own land and are afflicted with the malign disorder of cultural misidentification (Kambon, 1998). Cultural misidentification, as described by Dr. Kobi K.K. Kambon is an “ abnormal-unnatural circumstance in which we identify with a group that is not our indigenous cultural group, because of this psychological impairment the group will have a conception of reality that is not their own. In order for this cultural incarceration to be effective, new language and customs must develop to reinforce the dehumanized state of the colonized (Fanon, 2004). In modern America, this European social practice was evident in the Jim Crow era of the 19th and 20th centuries, the apartheid era in South Africa in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and many more instances in which violent European patriarchal rule was imposed. This new language that is specifically designed to psychologically demean its targets, often becomes internalized by the very it people it was originally intended to hurt. This type of behavior is exemplary of cultural hegemony; for example, after Afrikans had been unlawlfully transplanted to the United States, they were called “nigra”, “negro” or “nigger” , which served as a term to distinguish their low status within American society, and a way to disconnect Afrikans in America from the Afrikan still residing on the continent. In modern times, Afrikans have adopted these oppressive terms into their own culture and have accepted the conditions of their psychological and cultural enslavement as being normal and in some cases, beneficial.
Frantz Fanon’s work is literally and figuratively pivotal, as he serves as link between classic European social thinkers such as Marx and Engels, and succeeding Afrikan-American social thinkers such as Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing and Dr. Bobby Wright. In Wretched of the Earth, Fanon simultaneously advances a well-established social theory while creating a new school of thought that prominent figures such as El Hajj Malik Shabazz and Huey P. Newton would later become proponents of. Many people argue that the Black Power Movement in America was the product of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. I would argue that the Black Power movement in America was spawned from the political climate of the world during the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. During this time many Afrikan countries had begun to fight for and successfully attain their freedom from European colonial powers. Writers such as Frantz Fanon should definitely be credited with providing the scholarly literature for figures such as Bobby Seale, H. Rap Brown, etc. to couch their anti-colonial arguments within.
It is indeed an understatement to say that Frantz Fanon’s work differed from that of his intellectual counterparts , simply because at that particular time there were very few writings concerning the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. Even though some scientific studies had been conducted and recorded, before Fanon’s work there had not been a scholar of Afrikan descent who elaborated the issue of oppression and violence from an Afrikan centered perspective. Fanon explicitly criticized the current social theories and models that were created by Europeans, because there only purpose was to provide a skewed explanation of society in order to maintain the despicable and tragic status quo.
After reading Wretched of the Earth, I was able to conclude that the main point of the document is the neutrality of violence. Fanon states many times throughout the book that violence is the only language that the oppressor understands. This illustrates his approving sentiment concerning the use of violence to achieve liberation. According to Fanon’s model, violence is a means for the oppressor to gain initial control over his intended subjects. After violent tactics have been used, the colonizers are able to gain control over the legislative bodies and political seats - thus giving them power to steer the fate of the colonized. Next, the oppressors are able to use their power over the ideological superstructure of society to oppress and alienate the colonized. Not only is the societal superstructure controlled by the colonizers, they routinely impose their culture on the indigenous group which leads to a hegemonic oppression in which the people begin to not only accept their restricted state of existence, but begin to act in ways in which support the survival thrust of the oppressor. The oppressed essentially become willing and active participants in activities that facilitate their downfall, as explained by Italian social-thinker and political prisoner, Antonio Gramsci, in his exposition on hegemonic behavior. A relevant example of such behavior can be seen in the gang culture of Afrikans in America. Street gangs are the only groups of young Afrikan-American men and women who are armed, disciplined to a moderate degree, and trained for urban-guerrilla combat. Yet these culturally misoriented souls continue to use their skill and military power to kill one another. It is obvious that gangs do exhibit many Afrikan worldview characteristics, however their materialistic and self-destructive orientation attributes to countless murders of Afrikan people, and millions of dollars in free labor for the prison industrial-capitalists.
Lastly, violence is routinely employed by the colonizer to continually renew fear, and inherently deter the oppressed from proactively pursuing social reform. However, I find in Fanon’s model, the failure to articulate, explicitly, white supremacy and its goal. It is crucial to point out that hegemonic oppression and the alienation of oppressed people in capitalist societies are unique to European dominated social systems. Also, the dehumanization of colonial subjects is also a unique characteristic of European-styled oppression. According to Dr. Kobi K.K. Kambon, the axiological perspective of Europeans causes them to see themselves and others as opposing each other, in constant battle with one another. Furthermore, it seems that one must revoke humanization from an agent, in order to mechanize them. This mechanization and alienation are both advantageous conditions for capitalist societies.
As a budding sociologist, I was delighted to review, analyze and critique the work of such a central figure in modern social science. Also, the Wretched of the Earth spoke directly to the situation of Afrikan people in America. For many years, the Afrikans in America have been the underclass in their society. They have experienced each of the aforementioned phases of European dominated oppression, yet remain unable to marshal a counter force to that of the oppressive American government. Amos Wilson, famous Afrikan-centered psychologist, has built upon the works of scholars like Frantz Fanon and has asserted the immutability of power. In his book “Blueprint for Black Power: Economic Imperative for the 21st century”, he discusses the need for Afrikans to develop their own economic community in America, as most Afrikan social thinkers would agree. However, the issue of military might must be addressed, for it is impossible to be seen as a legitimate world power without any military reinforcements or aid. Just as the oppressors employ violence to constrict and stifle, the oppressed must realize that they too can employ violence in a positive manner. As I conduct further research, I will be keenly searching to understand the cause of the failure of the oppressed, and specifically Afrikans in America to employ violent tactics successfully.
There is absolutely no way Afrikans in America will be able to achieve economic independence unless they have a skilled, dedicated, and disciplined militia to protect their financial interests. Where the positive employment of violence is concerned, we must continue the dialogic process, described by Paulo Freire, as a way for individuals to advance to new consensus about the issues that concern their everyday lives (Freire, 1970). Frantz Fanon has left his intellectual posterity with a rough guide for national liberation. Now, it is up to the coming generations to assume the vanguard for the ultimate goal of undeniable freedom, justice, and equal consideration amongst all people within our global society.
Ani, M. (1994). Yurugu: an African-centered critique of European cultural thought and behavior. New Jersey: African World Press.
Fanon, F. (2004). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
Kambon, K.K.K. (1998). African-black psychology in the American context: an African-centered approach. Tallahasse: Nubian Nation Publications.
Wilson, A.N. (1998). Blueprint for black power: a moral, political, and economic imperative for the 21st century. Brooklyn, NY: Afrikan World InfoSystems.