Frantz Fanon: Understanding Colonialism

Tre Tellor, Contributor

“Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” 

These words are from Martiniquais psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon, in “On Violence”, the fifth chapter of his book, Wretched of the Earth. Too often, the discussion around Black History Month focuses on a specific set of people whose histories have been made palatable to a white audience. Fanon’s writing, however, confronts the brutality of colonialism in complete honesty. 

Fanon was born on the French colonial island of Martinique, with both his parents’ being the descendants of African slaves. Due to his family’s middle-class status, he was able to attend a prestigious high school on the island. After high school, Fanon studied in Lyon, France and became a psychiatrist. While in France, Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks, a book focused on the psychological effects of racism and colonialism in 1952. As the Algerian revolution began in 1954, Fanon went to Algeria and worked as a psychiatrist, treating French soldiers who had tortured and brutalized Algerians in the war as well as the Algerians who they had tortured. Fanon later quit and focused his energy on helping the Algerian people to win their war of decolonization against France. 

It was Algeria that particularly influenced Fanon when he wrote: “On Violence.” After witnessing the brutal treatment of Algerians in their struggle for decolonization, it is only reasonable that Fanon came to accept violence as the only effective answer to the violence of colonialism. Fanon argues that colonial violence is the result of colonizers’ racist attitudes and subsequent dehumanization of the colonized, which “turns him into an animal.” This creates a sense of anxiety and dread in the colonizer, who knows that at any minute, the colonized might lash out and take back what is rightfully theirs. The anxiety then results in the violence that we know all too well is a part of colonialism. Fanon also argues. However, that violence for the colonized can be cathartic and allow the colonized to finally free themselves “from [their] inferiority complex and from [their] despair and inaction; it makes [them] fearless and restores [their] self-respect.” 

While I personally do not see violence as a relevant or realistic answer to the problems of Black people in America today, it was the answer for many people across the African continent who wished to liberate themselves. While the contexts are different, many similarities can be drawn in Fanon’s work between the occupied colonies in Africa and the urban neighborhoods occupied by police who don’t live anywhere near the neighborhood they patrol. Fanon’s work speaks the uncomfortable pragmatic truth to power in his context. For that, he deserves to be remembered on every Black History Month.