Saturday, 10 September 2016

Black Skin, White Masks: Review, Context, and Summary

I used the Get Political version, which is online free.

Summary and Context

I'm going to start with a skeletal chapter-by-chapter break down of the book so that you can see what might catch your eye, it's non-fiction but still, spoiler alert:

  1. "Introduction" - very poetic, can be wonderful if that intrigues you, but don't let it turn you off if you don't like it.  Not necessary for understanding the book but if you skip it may serve well as a capstone at the end.
  2. "The Negro and Language" - very insightful, describes why colonized peoples take on the language of their oppressor with a great deal of imagery and anecdote.  Extremely clear writing and gets points across.  Very rewarding chapter.
  3. "The Women of Colour and the White Man" and "The Man of Colour and the White Woman" - have been accused of sexism, if read in a gender neutral lens showing different ways people adapt their relationships in racial hierarchies it offers some interesting observations.  Both are in direct response to works of fiction.
  4. "The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized Peoples" - written in direct response to certain psychoanalytic theories in vogue at the time which are extremely racist.  I suggest the chapter to get a sense of just how racist people were back then, however otherwise only a very close reading will be very fruitful aside from for completeness sake because the theories he criticizes are simply too obviously insanely racist to gain traction today I hope.
  5. Usually translated "The Fact of Blackness" - the literal translation which I prefer is "The Lived Experience of Blackness" which exposes the phenomenological character of the chapter.  A little hard to parse because he reverts to a semi-poetic style, but has a lot of depth upon close reading.  Very rewarding chapter.  Deals with black nationalism as well as phenomenology of race, and I've heard it interpreted as presenting a view different from his more mature works.
  6. "The Negro and Psychopathology" - the longest chapter, most heavy on psychoanalysis, but also delves deeply into phenomenological experience.  It has a lot of dubious things (I think I recall penis envy coming up), a lot of things hard to understand without Lacanian background as well, but there are some interesting things - the focus on black sexuality, black and white family structures in relation to society, and blackness in the collective unconscious.  I agree with his critique of Jung's universality of the collective unconscious.
  7. "The Negro and Recognition" - Takes multiple perspectives (Hegelian, Adlerian) and applies them to the Martiniquan situation.  I find that the Adlerian section, especially the brief comparison of traditional and colonial schemata, expresses most simply the thesis of the book up to this point.  The Hegelian section offers nearly his own version of the master-slave parable from Phenomenology of Spirit, which might be worth being generally familiar with.  While the rest of the book is interesting for its observations, this section expresses his substantive theses most directly.
  8. "By Way of Conclusion" - very poetic, very readable, expresses his prescriptions on how to act on all the information that he's brought up throughout the rest of the book, and (not by name) criticizes the black history being produced by Césaire and others using a generally Marxist line of criticism.
The following are philosophers and intellectuals that Fanon devotes a particularly significant amount of time to: Jean-Paul Sartre (especially Anti-Semite and Jew), Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, Du Bois, Hegel, Adler, and Aimé Césaire.  Understanding them definitely helps but isn't required, but maybe read an article or two on them from the SEP/IEP/REP.  One could also read the various authors he criticizes but that is mostly unnecessary.

It is hard to understate Fanon's importance to philosophy.  If one were to see what names a group of philosophers would come up with related to philosophy of race, Fanon would be among the first.  It is telling that the majority of the black authors he cites are fiction writers and poets primarily (the exception being the sociologist Du Bois), he's groundbreaking within the Western tradition.

All of this, and it wasn't even by choice.  He never intended to write a book of philosophy here, there are moments where he clarifies the philosophical issues involved only to say they are outside the scope of his project.  This is unsurprising since the book was originally meant as his PhD thesis for his education in psychoanalysis.  Nevertheless, the work has influence beyond its scope.  It does address phenomenological questions of direct relevance to philosophy, but it is also constantly a source of inspiration for understanding the process of decolonization as a whole.


It is hard to completely wrap your head around a book with such a different angle on our world.  Say what you will about the alien environment of Plato or Aristotle, there's one thing that most philosophy students have in common with those authors: being from the upper or upper middle classes.  Marginalized groups are still finding a hard way into the discipline, a problem showing very little sign of improving.

And yet, when Fanon tells story after story of experiences or the approach of individuals to a situation, one can't help but believe it.  Even if you later think about it and pick out strange details, gender biases, etc you still will find the ideas hard to shake.  We have tended in the modern day to dismiss the details of chapters such as "The Woman of Colour and the White Man", and yet in modern India there is a fashion industry designed around pale women.  As pale as you can get.  It may not be via having children with white men in order to move up the social ladder as Fanon accuses women, but even when he is at his most prejudiced there's still a kernel of truth about the relationship between our body image and our race.

There's always the danger when reading this sort of material of becoming immediately caught by the narrative, it's like a Dan Brown novel, even after the fiction has lost all connection to reality there are still people going around today that they think Dan Brown has uncovered mystical truths about early Christianity.  We are simply more likely to accept bizarre conclusions if they're told as part of a narrative.  However this is why I suggest taking an analytical lens to the work: see what he wants you to accept and see how much of it is him being a good storyteller and how much of it is actually convincing.

In the case of this work however, I think that for the most part he succeeds at his aims: he leaves me convinced of his explanation of the numerous symptoms he addresses: veneration of talking proper French (because Martinique was a french colony), admiration of lighter skin tone, a sort of 'impostor syndrome' for black lovers of white men and women, self-loathing among colonized peoples in general, and numerous other examples.  He also briefly delves at many points into a reciprocal illness among white people, though the case is less convincingly made for this, he does point out symptoms that do seem to indicate some pathology: the sexualization of black people, especially men, and perhaps racism in general.  The very persistent nature of that sexualization is perhaps the best argument I've ever seen for using psychoanalytic tools of diagnosis because it does appear to be a sort of sexual obsession.

Every time that he tries to address theory directly he seems to be making a very reasonable contribution to the understanding of the topic, whether it be Adler (the colonized person's schema in Chapter 6), Jung (the collective unconscious in Chapter 5), or the hilariously racist analysis that he knocks down in Chapter 4.

His description of the lived experience of blackness is powerful, and I don't doubt it for a second since it is essentially a description of his experiences first hand.  Passages like this stick with me:

“Look, a Negro!” It was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by. I made a tight smile.
“Look, a Negro!” It was true. It amused me.
“Look, a Negro!” The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.
“Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” Frightened! Frightened! Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible. (Pg 84)
This all fits very well with Sartre's analysis of the Look (which would make sense given how much he draws on Sartre) for those familiar with that, although I do not recall if Fanon ever draws the connection explicitly.  Regardless, it is a very fascinating phenomenological investigation, worth poring over again and again if you can find the time.

This brings me to another relevant question, how is it as a written work?  And I can say with a great deal of assurance that I have no hope of surpassing the literary merit of this work.  It is poetry at times, and when it is not poetry it is striking with its descriptions of events and experiences.  I made warnings about narrative earlier, those were only very necessary because as far as stories go, this one is fascinating.  Take passages like this:

It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because “quite simply” it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe. (Pg 176)
This sort of line is all too characteristic of Fanon.  They are what should attract the attention of not just philosophers, but writers and literary critics.  They're what makes his final call to revolution so complete, you can feel his passion coming out of the page.

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