The Wretched of the Earth at 60

Photograph Source: Tony Webster – CC BY 2.0

H. Rap Brown didn’t credit Frantz Fanon in his famed 1967 speech on violence, though he might have. He was in a hurry and cities were burning. Fanon laid the groundwork for Rap in his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, which inspired members of SNCC, plus Black Panthers, Weathermen and more. Near the peak of the Black Power movement, Brown Americanized Fanon and gave him an African-American inflection. “Violence is necessary,” he said. He elaborated, “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. Americans taught the black people to be violent. We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary. We will be free, by any means necessary.” That was the cry I heard everywhere, “By any means necessary.” That meant violence if need be.

Published 60 years ago in 1961 The Wretched of the Earth was one of the seminal works of the Sixties, in part because it came with an introduction by the French philosopher, novelist and Third World defender Jean-Paul Sartre. Like the names Marx and Engels, or Malcolm X and Alex Haley—the Black journalist who wrote Malcolm’s autobiography, and whose name is on the cover of Malcolm’s book—Fanon and Sartre have been linked in the pages of revolutionary history and legend for the last six decades.

The Wretched of the Earth was republished in paperback in 2004. That edition has Sartre’s original introduction, plus a new foreword by the Indian scholar Homi K. Bhabha. It’s also in a new translation by Richard Philcox. In a fiery essay at the back of the book, Philcox explains how and why he translated some of Fanon’s words, like “nègre,” which he calls “that word dreaded by all translators of French texts.

Philcox asks, “How relevant is Fanon today?” He thinks that Fanon was “wrong on many points,” including the revolutionary role of the peasantry, Pan-Africanism, and what has happened to Algeria, but he also concludes that he is relevant for his analysis of alienation and decolonization. Bhabha is more ambivalent and more abstract than Philcox when it comes to the question of Fanon’s message to contemporary readers. Bhabha writes that generations of readers come to Wretched, not for what the author has to say about violence but “for a more obscure reason, armed only with an imperfect sense of obligation toward the ideals they want to serve and the values they seek to preserve.”

I first read Fanon in the late 1960s, at about the same time that I saw Gillo Pontecorvo’s riveting pseudo-documentary The Battle of Algiers (1966). In part inspired by Fanon, I went into the streets to protest the war in Vietnam and the murder of Black Panthers. I committed acts of violence, like breaking windows and overturning police cars. On one occasion, I was the target of police violence. I was arrested, beaten and tortured, needed stitches in my head as well as time and help from friends to recover and be able to do simple tasks, like getting dressed and undressed.

I had not advanced the revolution, but I felt like I had broken through a barrier and had achieved a kind of personal liberation. When I met French author Jean Genet a few months after my arrest, I asked him what he thought about the bombings by the Weather Underground. He said that Weather bombs were miniscule when compared to the bombs of the U.S. His point was lost on many of my students who didn’t think that what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam was violent, but what radicals did when they set off explosions was.

For years I kept thinking about violence and revolution. I carried on a conversation with myself and with others. Once, when novelist Jim Harrison called me and wanted the name of a Sixties revolutionary to include in one of his books I ran through a whole list including Fidel and Che until I arrived at Fanon. “That’s it,” he said. “Thanks.”

Fanon was perfect for Harrison’s purposes. A Black man and a French speaker from a French colony in the Caribbean, he was a theorist of revolution and a man of action who had picked up the gun as well as the pen. Like Che, he was a doctor. Like Fidel, he hated Yankee imperialism, and like the early Mao he placed his faith with peasants not urban proletarians. A Marxist and a professional revolutionary, he didn’t want to be remembered as a Marxist or to become ossified as a professional revolutionary. Also, he never became the head of a country, or served in the government of a newly liberated nation. Fanon had flaws; he was a romantic, but he was as pure as they come. He died soon after his book was published and when French police raided Paris bookstores and seized copies of Wretched.

Mark Rudd, the SDS leader turned Weatherman turned pacifist, told me during a visit with him in New Mexico that revolutions, like the Algerian, that used violence, were undone by violence. That gave me pause and was food for thought, though Rudd’s comment didn’t resolve my own issues with violence. I wanted to believe that riots and confrontations with the police in the U.S. had helped to end the war in Vietnam.

Recently, I have turned to the popular idea of nonviolent resistance to authority. What struck me about the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were how relatively peaceful they were and how violent the police were and have been and still are. In the era of George Floyd, as we might call it, it was clear that Rap Brown was right when he said “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.” But he was wrong when he argued that the violence that America “had taught black people” would be used to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary.”

This spring, I turned to The Wretched of the Earth for reasons of nostalgia. I wanted to reread a book that had played a key part in my own political and intellectual growth, along with Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary and some of Sartre’s fiction, including the story “The Wall,” which introduced me to existentialism. Sartre’s introduction to Wretched is still powerful, as when he writes that, “In the colonies, truth displayed its nakedness” and also when he insists, “When the peasant lays hands on a gun, the old myths fade…a fighter’s weapon is his humanity.”

Sartre derives many of his ideas about violence from Fanon, though Fanon is more nuanced than Sartre, as when he notes that, “The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor.” Paulo Freire makes much the same point in Pedagogy of the Oppressed where he notes that when the oppressed becomes the oppressor he often becomes even more oppressive than his own oppressor. The idea didn’t originate with Freire. The novelist Emily Brontë makes much that same observation in her mid-nineteenth-century masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, a kind of meditation on love and tyranny and healing.

Fanon saw that the oppressed often attacked their allies and their friends. Indeed, he didn’t shy away from what we’d call “black on black crime.” He saw that Algerians “robbed each other, tore each other to pieces, and killed each other.” That was part of the nature of colonial societies.

RereadingWretched,I could see that Fanon had paid attention to world historical events for decades before he dictated the book to his wife Jose in the last few months of his life when he was dying of cancer and was being treated in the U.S., a place that he called “That country of lynchers.” Rap Brown would have said, “Right on, brother.”

Fanon talks a great deal about the Third World and the First World, the gap between the imperial centers and the periphery, but he also pays a lot of attention to the Cold War and its impacts on colonization and decolonization. Fanon takes a global perspective and casts his gaze across large areas of the earth, including Cuba, Kenya, South Africa, Iran and Algeria, and also at the anti-colonial movements in those counties.

He doesn’t have anything to say that’s illuminating about the Russian or the Chinese revolutions, nor does he have much to say about the roles of women in the colonial world or the parts they play in national liberation movements. That’s a flaw. He does talk about the rape of Algerian women by French soldiers and the impacts on the Algerian women and their husbands.

Fanon is prescient about the power, in the colonial world, of statues to European generals and engineers. He has an appealing sense of what sounds like bitterness when he says, “we should place DDT, which destroys parasites, carriers of disease on the same level as Christianity.” He also sees paradoxes and contradictions and pinpoints the ways that colonizer and colonized are inextricably connected, though also profoundly alienated from one another. “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World,” he says at one point, though he also insists that the colonist “fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.”

In part five of Wretched, he draws on his own experiences as a doctor and as a psychiatrist. He describes the toll that resistance to colonialism took on individual anti-colonialists, including anxiety, insomnia, and obsession with suicide. As Bhabha explains, “It is Fanon’s great contribution…to frame his reflections on violence…in terms of the body, dreams, psychic inversions and displacements.”

Fanon the doctor saw what Fanon the advocate for revolutionary violence pushed to the side: the trauma of the struggle for liberation. As he knew, the end of colonialism would erase some psychological disorders, but the struggle to end it would lead to other disorders, including paranoid delusions. “Any colony tends to become one vast farmyard, one vast concentration camp where the only law is that of the knife,” Fanon writes at the end of part five. In 1944, inside a concentration camp, Fanon saw men kill each other for a morsel of bread.

Today, anyone who has grown up in what’s called “the inner city,” is well aware of Fanon’s ideas about violence, crime, criminality and incarceration. They probably have not read Wretched, but the ideas in Wretched have made their way into the inner city. Young men and women growing up black and brown and poor know that they’re not inherently sick, neurotic by their nature or innately evil. It’s the society itself that’s to blame, and it’s the society itself that has to change to reach what Fanon called for: the “total liberation that involves every facet of the personality.” Thank you, Dr. Fanon.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.