Black skin, white masks

Black skin, white masks

Orakwue, Stella

Imagine Frantz Fanon, our psychiatrist-philosopher, writing it 50 years ago; imagine reading it then, too. Today, ask how far have we come; how far do we have to go? How much has changed? How much remains the same?

What are anniversaries for? Stocktaking? Commemoration? Commiseration? Misery? Raging despair and depression? Tears? Lamenting and regretting and blocking out? Anger and frustration? Quiet satisfaction? Smugness? 1-told-you-so-ness?

To stocktake when anniversaries arrive provides opportunities for one or more of the above feelings. But few anniversaries in our modern age call for jubilation. And there are many uncelebrated ones that deserve an entry pass into our increasingly locked away emotions.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks”.

Imagine our psychiatrist– philosopher writing it 50 years ago; imagine reading it then, too. Today, ask how far have we come; how far do we have to go? How much has changed? How much remains the same?

Anniversaries. Times to reconcile yourself to certain facts: some things will happen; some things just won’t. Looking backwards, provoked by the calendar, is useful only if it helps us to look and move forwards.

Here are extracts from “Black Skin, White Masks”, Chapter Five: The Fact of Blackness.

“And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened 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…Nausea.

I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’.’

All I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help to build it together… [But] My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recoloured, clad in mourning in that white winter day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly…

All round me the white man, above the sky tears at its navel, the earth rasps under my feet, and there is a white song, a white song. All this whiteness that burns me…

What? While I was forgetting, forgiving, and wanting only to love, my message was flung back in my face like a slap… I shouted a greeting to the world and the world slashed away my joy. I was told to stay within bounds, to go back where I belonged…

What! When it was I who had every reason to hate, to despise, I was rejected? When I should have been begged, implored, I was denied the slightest recognition? I resolved, since it was impossible for me to get away from an inborn complex, to assert myself as a BLACK MAN. Since the other hesitated to recognise me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known…

I slip into corners, and my long antennae pick up the catchphrases strewn over the surface of things – nigger underwear smells of nigger – nigger teeth are white – nigger feet are big – the nigger’s barrel chest – I slip into corners, I remain silent, I strive for anonymity, for invisibility. Look, I will accept the lot, as long as no one notices me!

Shame. Shame and self-contempt. Nausea. When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my colour. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my colour. Either way, I am locked into the infernal circle.

I turn away from these inspectors of the Ark before the Flood and I attach myself to my brothers, Negroes like myself. To my horror, they too reject me. They are almost white. And besides they are about to marry white women. They will have children faintly tinged with brown. Who knows, perhaps little by little…

I had read it rightly. It was hate; I was hated, despised, detested, not by the neighbour across the street or my cousin on my mother’s side, but by an entire race. I was up against something unreasoned… I would personally say that for a man whose only weapon is reason there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason…

I had rationalised the world and the world had rejected me on the basis of colour prejudice. Since no agreement was possible on the level of reason, I threw myself back toward unreason. It was up to the white man to be more irrational than I…

I walk on white nails. Sheets of water threaten my soul on fire. Face to face with these rites, I am doubly alert. Black magic! Orgies, witches’ sabbaths, heathen ceremonies, amulets. Coitus is an occasion to call on the gods of the clan. It is a sacred act, pure, absolute, bringing invisible forces into action. What is one to think of all these manifestations, all these initiations, all these acts…?

I embrace the world! I am the world!… The white man wants the world; he wants it for himself alone. He finds himself predestined master of this world. He enslaves it. An acquisitive relation is established between the world and him. But there exist other values that fit only my forms… Somewhere beyond the objective world of farms and banana trees and rubber trees, I had subtly brought the real world into being…

I rummaged frenetically through all the antiquity of the black man. What I found there took away my breath… All of that, exhumed from the past, spread with its insides out, made it possible for me to find a valid historic place. The white man was wrong, I was not a primitive, not even a half-man, I belonged to a race that had already been working in gold and silver two thousand years ago…

I put the white man back into his place; growing bolder, I jostled him and told him point-blank, `Get used to me, I am not getting used to anyone.’ I shouted my laughter to the stars. The white man, I could see, was resentful…

`Lay aside your history, your investigations of the past, and try to feel yourself into our rhythm. In a society such as ours, industrialised to the highest degree, dominated by scientism, there is no longer room for your sensitivity. One must be tough if one is to be allowed to live. What matters now is no longer playing the game of the world but subjugating it with integers and atoms.

`Oh, certainly…now and then when we are worn out by our lives in big buildings, we will turn to you as we do to our children – to the innocent, the ingenuous, the spontaneous. We will turn to you as to the childhood of the world.’

My cry grew more violent: I am a Negro, I am a Negro, I am a Negro.

I feel in myself a soul as immense as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers, my chest has the power to expand without limit. I am a master and I am advised to adopt the humility of the cripple.

Yesterday, awakening to the world, I saw the sky turn upon itself utterly and wholly. I wanted to rise, but the disembowelled silence fell back upon me, its wings paralysed. Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.”

(“Black Skin, White Masks” by Frantz Fanon, 1952 Editions du Seui4 Pluto Press)

Copyright International Communications Jul/Aug 2002

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