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Frantz Fanon: the man behind the mask

By ucyow3c, on 1 October 2015

pencil-iconWritten by Marchu Girma and Dauda Barry

Professor Lewis Gordon speaks to attendees

Professor Lewis Gordon speaks to attendees

It’s a Saturday, and yet the infamous Pearson Lecture Theatre at UCL (named after Karl Pearson, the ‘father’ of Eugenics) was filled with excitement. The long awaited conference and workshop on Frantz Fanon organised by the UK Sartre Society and Rethinking Existentialism project, was about to begin.

We were a widely diverse group from all walks of life and from near and far. To my right sat a sister who travelled all the way from Amsterdam just for this conference, while to my left was a brother and a student from the University of Leeds. We made this journey and sacrificed our Saturday to hear something new about Fanon.

The honoured guest, Professor Lewis Gordon, an expert on Fanon, was a very down-to- earth, softly spoken academic, wearing a t-shirt that said: “If you do not stand for something you will fall for anything.” He stood in the centre of the room, shoe-less, and spoke to us as if we were long lost friends.

The main topic of his lecture was Fanon’s thoughts on violence. At the age of 14, Fanon witnessed an autopsy of a dead woman. This became a defining moment in his life. For Fanon, it was not a corpse that was being dissected but a woman who was being violated. Later, when attending medical school, he found the act of performing an autopsy difficult. His professor’s advice was to think of it as if it were ‘a dead cat’.

Professor Gordon eloquently made the point that for Fanon, it was never ‘a dead cat’. Every time Fanon participated in ‘violence’, whether it was on the autopsy table or in the battlefield, he deeply felt he was sullying his soul. For Fanon, no matter the personal cost, he could never take the humanity away from a person.

His professor’s advice to essentially not think of the person as a ‘human’ would absolve him of the guilt of committing violence against a human being. That is why history has shown the dehumanisation process of a set of human beings as the precedent for genocide to take place: Europeans refused to recognise the humanity of enslaved Africans during the Maafa (the African Holocaust); Hitler called Jews (and other ethnic groups) “untermenschen”, which translates roughly to “the subhumans”; in Rwanda, lynch mobs referred to Tutsis as cockroaches – this has a worrying resonance for us today, as migrants and refugees are being labeled cockroaches by journalists in the mainstream media.

One of the most important aspects of this conference was the space given to young academics racialised as Black. A thirty-minute private meeting was held between Professor Gordon and a group of young Black academics – this space allowed them to have a more personal and informal interaction with a Black scholar.

We are all aware that it’s a fine line to thread: how can one be critical of a system and also seek validation for ones work from such a system? How can we dismantle institutions that invented eugenics and until present time promote whiteness as being the norm, while still being part of those institutions? History has shown that these institutions will fight fervently to maintain the status quo and keep the truths unheard. Paradoxically, it is these same institutions that will also celebrate the legacy of great Black intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon.

In the words of James Baldwin: “Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience you must find yourself at war with your society,” an awakening moment that many of us had to face and still face in our daily lives as we navigate the campuses of these institutions.

Professor Lewis Gordon’s latest book, What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought, is an excellent introductory book for those who want to begin to learn about the work and life of Frantz Fanon. It succinctly explains the dual consciousness theme that Fanon raises in Black Skin, White Masks. This dual consciousness was a further development of ‘double consciousness’, a term coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in his masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk.

According to Du Bois, double consciousness refers to the dichotomy of being African and African-American, the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others in the mirror”. While for Fanon, dual consciousness characterises the experiences of the colonised peoples and their daily struggles and trials of having to live in the limbo of their native culture and the culture of the colonisers.

Meeting Professor Gordon was an inspiration and made us question and reflect on the society and institutions that we are a part of and how the present generation still faces the same challenges that the previous generations faced, the only difference being the subtlety and political correctness of modern times.

“O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”

These were the closing remarks of Frantz Fanon in one of the most acclaimed books of the twentieth century. 54 years after his last breath, Frantz Fanon’s unapologetic and fearless words and praxis still inspire and give hope to millions of people from the four corners of the earth.

Where injustice of any type exists, whether it is motivated by racism or capitalism, then his words still ring true and resonate with the souls and minds of the damned of the earth.

Listen to a portion of a conversation with Professor Lewis Gordon.

Listen to all speakers at the UK Sartre Society Conference 2015.

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