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  • Frantz Fanon and the Négritude MovementHow Strategic Essentialism Subverts Manichean Binaries
  • Cynthia R. Nielsen (bio)

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon recounts how his subjectivity as a colonized other was constructed and how a politics of white assimilation contributed to his self-fragmentation.1 With white social and cultural norms imposed at every turn, the black colonized subject must wear a white mask—a mask whose foreignness and forced application produces in the colonized subject a deep sense of alienation and homelessness. Although Fanon is attuned to social forces at play in systemic racialized contexts, he, nonetheless, refuses to deny the black person’s freedom and agency. In other words, Fanon recognizes that the colonized person in some sense actively participates in and thus accepts aspects of her white-scripted history. For example, throughout the book, we find comments such as, “I transported myself” and “I gave myself up as an object”—all of which acknowledge Fanon’s own participation in his social construction as a colonized subject (Fanon, Black Skin 92). Clearly, the colonized person’s internalization of the white narrative occurs as a result of great duress and extreme psychological and emotional pressures created by the dominant society. Granting this, Fanon rejects vehemently the claim that human freedom and the power to resist is extinguished even in systemic oppressive social contexts such as those in which colonized and enslaved persons dwelt. Although constrained and severely limited, the oppressed retain the ability to choose, to act as a free agent, and to resist and (re)configure their subjectivity. Fanon’s insistence on this point has political, ethical, and philosophical import, as it highlights the fact that the colonized, enslaved, or otherwise subjugated and exploited person is not a mere thing determined from the outside. To the contrary, just as several contingent factors coalesced to create the historical situation in which the colonized subject finds herself, other equally contingent factors—including the oppressed engaging in intentional subversive acts and resistance strategies—can emerge and help to bring about socio-political transformations, even if gradual, partial, and local.

Moreover, as I shall argue, Fanon, like his teacher Aimé Césaire, understood that the process of decolonization and subject re-narration would occur over a period of time and in various stages. By studying Fanon’s complex relationship to the Négritude movement and by highlighting his appropriation and critique of its themes and variations, Fanon’s resistance tactics come into sharper focus. That is, contrary to worries of Fanon promoting a reactionary racialized essentialism, I argue that Fanon’s employment of essentialized narratives can be interpreted as a variant of (what Spivak calls) strategic essentialism. In short, Fanon, like Césaire, understood that different historical moments require different resistance strategies. His recognition of the need to adopt for a time essentialized narratives for therapeutic and up-building purposes, coupled with his understanding of the [End Page 342] productive nature of socially constructed identities signals a movement beyond a mere reactionary response still trapped within a binary Manichean framework. With this sketch in view, I turn first to Fanon’s retelling of his own experience of social construction, and then I move into an analysis of Fanon’s complex relation to the Négritude movement.

Fanon’s text, Black Skin, White Masks, is more than an account of alienation and angst. It is also a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, as well as an unflinching affirmation of freedom as a distinguishing mark of human being and experience. Listen closely to Fanon’s own refusal to be bound by and imprisoned within the white narrative.

I find myself one day in the world, and I acknowledge one right for myself: the right to demand human behavior from the other. And one duty: the duty never to let my decisions renounce my freedom. . . . I am not a prisoner of History. I must not look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction. I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life. In the world I am heading for, I am endlessly creating myself.

(Black Skin 204)2

These emancipatory proclamations...