Fanon: Culture and Colonization

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Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was born on the island of Martinique, a French colony. His father was a descendant of African slaves. After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Fanon became a member of the Resistance opposing the colonial Vichy regime in Martinique. At the age of 17, he joined the Free French Army and fought the Nazi occupation. At the end of World War II, Fanon attended the University of Lyon. In 1951, he passed his qualifying exams in psychiatry and did his residency at Saint-Alan-Limagnole Hospital. In 1953, he became the head of the Bilda-Joinville Hospital in Algeria. Fanon played a major role in the Algerian rebellion against French colonialism. In 1954, he joined the Front de Liberation Nationale.
Colonialism and Culture:
Fanon’s analysis of colonialism and its impact on colonized subjects detailed in his books Black Skin/White Mask and The Wretched of the Earth has had a major impact on anti-colonial resistance worldwide. Fanon argues persuasively that culture is a major element in the resistance to colonialism. In Fanon’s view, indigenous culture is a vital component of decolonization. It is both a link to the past and a different way of thinking about the world. Indigenous culture both challenges colonial ideology and reasserts the identity of indigenous peoples. The basic problem is that indigenous culture is almost certainly distorted and to some degree perverted by the hegemonic belief systems imposed on a society by colonizers. Laws, religion, and systems of education put in place by colonial powers leave deep scars on indigenous cultures. As Fanon notes:

The colonial situation calls a halt to national culture in almost every field … By the time a century or two has passed there comes about a veritable emaciation [starvation, or thinning out] of the stock of national culture. It becomes a set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress and a few broken-down institutions. A little movement can be discerned in such remnants of culture; there is no real creativity and no overflowing life. The poverty of the people, national oppression and the inhibition of culture are one and the same thing. After a century of colonial domination, we find a culture, which is rigid in the extreme, or rather, what we find are the dregs [left-overs] of culture, its mineral strata. The withering away of the reality of the nation and the death-pangs of the national culture are linked to each other in mutual dependences.” (Fanon, 2005: 237-38).

What Fanon is illustrating is the impact of colonial powers on culture itself. Colonization distorts the natural development of culture and interrupts the normal course of cultural development. New experiences which would have shaped cultural development are interrupted or totally stopped by the imposed hegemony of the colonizers. In a myriad of ways the power of the colonizers, whether military or economic, is used to define tradition and meaning. The colonizers embrace those aspects of traditional culture that serves their interests while at the same time interrupting its development. Additionally, colonial powers restrict and limit interpretations of indigenous culture to create an imagined and socially constructed cultural purity. The net result is the vitality of the culture and cultural development are lost while superficial aspects which serve colonial rule are maintained and often exaggerated. Indigenous culture is often inextricably linked to the physical world, but colonial occupation distorts this relationship through resource extraction, forced agricultural development, and often military occupation. This impacts everyone and everything natural, both physically and socially. It is the eventual revolt against colonization that revives cultural development:

It is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation… We believe that the organized undertaking by a colonized people to re-establish the sovereignty of that nation constitutes the most complete and obvious cultural manifestation that exists. It is not alone the success of the struggle, which afterward gives validity and vigor to culture; culture is not put into cold storage during the conflict. The struggle itself in its development and in its internal progression sends culture along different paths and traces out entirely new ones for it. The struggle for freedom does not give back to the national culture its former value and shapes; this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between [people] cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people’s culture. After the conflict, there is not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of the colonized…” (Frantz Fanon, 2005: 244-45).

It is the actual act of revolution and the ensuing struggle during which colonial culture becomes a target of resistance that culture begins to flourish again. New means of communication and expression emerge from the resistance. The reality of colonization is confronted with a reinterpretation of traditional structure. Anti-colonial insurrection is political, economic, and cultural. Indigenous literature, crafts, songs, dances, and ceremonies reemerge in the context of political struggle.

While at the beginning the native intellectual used to produce his work to be read exclusively by the oppressor, whether with the intention of charming him or of denouncing him… now the native writer takes on the habit of addressing his [her] own people… This may be properly called a literature of combat, in the sense that it calls on the whole people to fight for their existence as a nation…


On another level, the oral tradition-stories, epics and songs of the people-which formerly were filed away as set pieces are now beginning to change. The storytellers who used to relate inert episodes now bring them alive and introduce them modifications which are increasingly fundamental. There is a tendency to bring conflicts up to date and to modernize the kinds of struggle which the stories evoke, together with the names of heroes and the types of weapons. The method of allusion is more and more widely used. The formula “This all happened long ago” is substituted by that of “What we are going to speak of happened somewhere else, but it might well have happened here today, and it might happen tomorrow”. The example of Algeria is significant in this context. From 1952-3 on, the storytellers, who were before that time stereotyped and tedious to listen to, completely overturned their traditional methods of storytelling and the contents of their tales… Colonialism made no mistake when from 1955 on it proceeded to arrest these storytellers systematically. “The contact of the people with the new movement gives rise to a new rhythm of life… Well before the political or fighting phase of the national movement an attentive spectator can thus feel and see the manifestation of new vigor and feel the approaching conflict. He will note unusual forms of expression and themes which are fresh and imbued with a power which is no longer that of invocation but rather of the assembling of the people, a summoning together for a precise purpose. Everything works together to awaken the native’s sensibility, and to make unreal and unacceptable the contemplative attitude, or the acceptance of defeat… The conditions necessary for the inevitable conflict are brought together. (Frantz Fanon, 2005: 240-41).

There are innumerable examples of what Fanon is talking about in the history of colonialism. But, for our purposes three should suffice: Colonialism and Christianity in Africa; Slave Revolts; and the Zapatistas.
Colonialism and Christianity in Africa:
Although it is not widely recognized in the United States, most of human history occurred in Africa (Chengu, 2015). The other fact that is not well recognized is that for thousands of years African women were equal to, if not more powerful, than men. Most prosperous African societies were matriarchal. What changed all of that was European colonialism and its use of Christianity to create an oppressive patriarchal system of control. The earliest societies were created by and organized around economic, social, and spiritual doctrines put forth by women. They were the basis of leadership in those matriarchal societies. None of this is surprising. Early civilizations revered women because they created life, a belief that was the underpinning of gender equality in Africa. The rituals and cultural underpinnings of matriarchal societies in Africa abhorred violence. Redistribution, fair exchange, and fecundity were basic social concepts. Appropriation and violence were virtually nonexistent (Chengu, 2015).
As early as 10,000 BCE, women in Africa initiated horticultural development along with crop and livestock cultivation. It was this remarkable turn in human history that created the conditions for the accumulation of surpluses, trade, and wealth (Chengu, 2015). It also created the most important innovation in human history: food security. And it was food security that made population growth, and subsequently civilization possible. Major matriarchal civilizations in Africa included the Nigerian Zazzau, Sudanese Kandake, Angolan Nzinga, and Ashanti of Ghana. “From ancient legal documents, we know that women were able to manage and dispose of private property, including: land, portable goods, servants, slaves, livestock, and financial instruments, such as endowments and annuities” (Chengu, 2015:para. 9). Professor of Ancient African History, Barbara Lesko, details how anthropologists who study African history and records of early travelers and missionaries tell us, “everywhere in Africa that one scrapes the surface one finds ethnohistorical data on the authority once shared by women.” (Barbara Lesko, 2008:39).  In fact, “in the 1860s, the colonial explorer and Christian missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, wrote of meeting female chiefs in the Congo, and reported that in even the most rigid of the monarchical systems of traditional Africa, there were either one or two women of the highest rank who occupied a position on par with that of the king or complementary to him” (Chengu, 2015:para. 11). In the years just before colonization, African women were equal to men. The immense value of women’s labor in producing and processing food created and maintained their rights in domestic, political, cultural, economic, religious, and social spheres. “Because women were central to production in these pre-class societies, systematic inequality between the sexes was nonexistent, and elder women, in particular, enjoyed relatively high status” (Chengu, 2015: para. 9).
But colonialism changed everything. As Fanon tells us: “Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.” (Frantz Fanon, 2005:237).  For centuries Christianity had acted as an ideological shield to protect colonialism. In Africa and South America, the expansion of Christianity was the ideological sword that justified an invasion, war, slavery, and the expropriation of natural resources. Colonialism was dependent on massive violence and Christianity was the justification for that violence. Patriarchal Christianity brought to Africa the monogamous nuclear family unit, whose sole purpose was to pass on private property in the form of inheritance from one generation of males to the next (Chengu, 2015). Under Colonial Christianity, the nuclear family is founded on the domestic slavery of the wife. In fact, if one looks at the etiology of the word “family” it is clear that it derives from the Latin word “famulus” which is a domestic slave. “Familia”, for example, is the total number of slaves belonging to one man. Christianity also brought to Africa the “concept of the Victorian woman: a woman who should stay in the private domain and leave the “real work” to the men” (Chengu, 2015: para.24). As a result, African women were excluded from the new religious, political, and socioeconomic systems.
Slave Revolts:
Culture and economics also played a major role in rebellions formed by slaves against European slave traders and owners. For instance, in the early 1500s in Brazil, rebelling and escaping slaves established clearly demarcated liberation zones which they were able to defend against incursions by colonial troops. In Central and South America, as well as on some Caribbean islands, escaped slaves were granted sanctuary by indigenous people and even in some cases by pirate communities. When the thirteen North American colonies fought to secede from British rule in the late 1700s, the British responded by freeing Black slaves. Around 100,000 slaves fled their Southern plantations and fought with the British. Many of those slaves continued to fight on after the British defeat while many others fled across the border to Canada. Others were captured by slave patrols and either returned to their “owners” or offered up for sale. In 1791, Haitian slaves rebelled against French rule and defeated French military forces. In 1812, white militias led by American “heroes” like Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett attacked Seminole communities in Florida because they had offered sanctuary to runaway slaves. Despite early massacres of native people and freed slaves, the Seminole Wars lasted through 1835 when U.S. militias finally withdrew.
In the cities of the North, large populations of African-Americans were forming and included urban slaves as well as those who had escaped slavery on plantations. By the 1830s, significant numbers of these escaped slaves were being repatriated to the plantations due to a widespread fear that too many escaped slaves were benefitting from schools and their education and could become a potential problem. The slavery issue was now becoming both a political and economic problem for Northern elites. A slave-based Southern economy was retarding the growth of an industrial base in the North and was threatening both capitalist expansion and plans for imperialist expansion. The feudal economy of the Southern states was limiting capitalism in two major ways. First, a major relocation of settlers was essential to seize and then hold the new territories of the American West. In addition, new immigrants from Europe and freed slaves were needed both to work in the expanding industrial base and to consume its products. Between 1830 and 1860, over 5 million European settlers immigrated to the United States. When the Civil War erupted between the United States and the secessionist South many of those immigrants and escaped slaves fought for the Union Army. Both the diminution of the slave population and the industrial might of the Northern states doomed the Southern system of feudalism and slavery. After the war, newly emancipated slaves still living in the South staged occupations of land and work stoppages. The victorious Union offered limited and restricted property rights to freed slaves while simultaneously using its occupation forces to constrain any mind of militancy. African-American military units were either disarmed or sent off to fight a war of imperialist expansion against the indigenous people of the plains. But even limited legal rights for African-Americans were too much for many Southerners. Thousands joined groups like the Ku Klux Klan and waged a terrorist campaign against blacks. Thousands of blacks were killed to prevent them voting in state elections. Eventually, during the administration of Rutherford Hayes, military occupation was withdrawn from the South, which resulted in the passage of Jim Crow laws which essentially instituted a system of apartheid for the next century. That system of legal slavery was not challenged until the 1950s and the beginning of a fight for civil rights.
The Zapatistas:
A classic example of the importance of culture to resistance and decolonization can be found in Mexico’s Zapatista revolt, which for the last two decades has transformed and reinvigorated the Chiapas region of Mexico. The Zapatistas have understood the importance of culture as a means to unite different social movements into a powerful resistance and as a means to raise awareness of and confidence in their revolt. The Zapatista rebellion has resulted in the creation of politically autonomous, self-organized zones which, among other things, have significantly raised the status of women in Mexican society and given women powerful political and economic positions in the movement. In addition, the Zapatista rebellion has inspired at least a dozen new guerilla movements throughout Mexico. The success of those movements has been remarkable considering the heavy U.S. involvement in funding and training for the Mexican military under the pretext of the drug war. The provision of modern, heavy military equipment and weaponry by the U.S. to promote counterinsurgency has failed to curtail Mexican insurgencies.
The United States is concerned about the potential economic impact these insurgencies could cause, particularly to agricultural production and relocated U.S. manufacturing centers along the Texas border. However, this is not a new concern. During the Mexican Revolution of 1917, 35,000 U.S. troops were moved to the border. At the beginning of the Zapatista revolt in 1994, the U.S. more than doubled the number of Border Patrol agents on the Texas border and tripled the budget of Immigration and Naturalization Services. The Texas-Mexico border is now a heavily militarized zone featuring constant patrolling and checkpoints on all roads and highways. All of these military efforts have been buttressed with racist anti-immigrant laws.
Mexicans, both living in Mexico and those across the border in the United States, are vital to U.S. economy because they are a major source of exploitable manual labor.  Mexico is clearly an important strategic point of U.S. colonization and Mexican people are clearly an equally vital factor in decolonization campaigns.
Culture and Anti-Colonial Struggle:
Fanon argues that culture is a powerful weapon in the anti-colonial struggle. As resistance to the colonizer gains strength it revitalizes and enhances traditional culture, usually adding new forms of expression to traditional understandings. It is both culture and vicissitudes of the political economy which eventually lead to resistance and rebellion:

Colonial exploitation, poverty, and endemic famine drive the native more and more to open organized revolt. The necessity for an open and decisive breach is formed progressively and imperceptibly and comes to be felt by the great majority of the people. Those tensions which hitherto were non-existent come into being. International events, the collapse of whole sections of colonial empires and the contradictions inherent in the colonial system strengthen and uphold the native’s combativity while promoting and giving support to national consciousness (Fanon, 2005: 238).

Gary Potter, Ph.D.
Professor, Criminal Justice
Eastern Kentucky University
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