Summary of Introduction and Chapter 1
In the “Introduction” to Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon lays out what he seeks to accomplish in the book. He announces that he will explore the experience of Black men in racist societies, but he does not come with “timeless truths.” That means he isn’t going after a complete philosophy of human nature or the order of societies. Rather, he wants to explore a specific, historical problem: how modern racism in postcolonial societies dehumanizes white and Black people alike. He will do so by exploring the psychology of both white and Black people in racist societies. Only through psychology, Fanon says, can we completely understand the problems faced by people in racist societies.
Alluding to what he will discuss in relation to Black men, Fanon says that “the black is not a man.” By this, he means that Black people do not experience themselves as human. Because racism dehumanizes Black people, they live in a sort of “nonbeing” in which they question the very reality of being a human. In order to achieve the feeling of being human, Black people aspire to be white, according to Fanon. White people are the only humans; Black people try to be white in order to be human. But the white person, too, by dehumanizing others, is “sealed in his whiteness” like the Black person. Whites, too, fail to become fully human, because of the dehumanizing they do to others.
Fanon thinks this dynamic is primarily visible on a psychological level, in the inferiority and superiority complexes experienced by Black and white people, respectively. But he says this psychological component derives from a primarily economic process. In racist societies, Black people are poorer than white people. Black and white people internalize this economic hierarchy as a hierarchy of social and human value. A feeling of inferiority develops from economic depravation.
In Chapter 1, “The Negro and Language,” Fanon also explores how language perpetuates this feeling of inferiority in Black people. Here, Fanon explores the experience of colonized people who migrate to the colonizer’s country. For instance, France colonized the Antilles, a group of islands in the Caribbean. In the colonial context, the French language is the language of power and culture. French comes to stand for civilization and education. In turn, the colonized people of the Antilles aspire to learn French in order to become assimilated to the culture that stands for superiority. It is in language that Black people first experience the desire to become white.
When Black people from the Antilles come to France, they are faced with the impossibility of this task. Learning French is not enough to become white, because French society will always make the Black person realize their French is inferior. Black people are held to a higher standard than other immigrants. When dealing with Russians or Germans who come to France and speak French poorly, French people forgive them because they remember that Russians and Germans have a language of their own. But French people assume that Black people do not have a language or culture of their own. Therefore, the Black person who cannot speak French perfectly is considered not simply un-French, but uncivilized.
One way in which Black people from Antilles may try to counter this dynamic, Fanon explains, is by re-asserting that Black people have a civilization and a cultural past. Just like the Germans and Russians have a history, so too do the people of Antilles. It’s different from France’s, but not less sophisticated. This kind of reaction is doomed to fail, however. French society surrounds the Black person with images of the essentially inhuman and uncivilized nature of Blackness. Even children’s shows are full of caricatures of Black people, in which their odd French accent stands in for inferiority.
At the conclusion of the chapter, Fanon reiterates that this is not just a clash between nations or civilizations, but between races. In learning French, the Black person from Antilles is not just trying to be French. He is trying to be white. The more French he learns, the whiter he becomes. So, too, when Antilles culture is denigrated, it is because Blackness is denigrated and the French assume Black people can’t have a culture. But ultimately, as Fanon will explore at even more length in subsequent chapters, the Black person is sealed in their Blackness. Race cannot be transcended in a racist society.
Analysis of Introduction and Chapter 1
Black Skin, White Masks opens poetically. Fanon writes with vivid language and does not structure his writing in the form of an academic essay. This suggests he has developed his own poetic voice in order to express what Blackness feels like in a white-led society. There is something expressive in the Introduction, and this gives another meaning to Fanon saying he is not coming with “timeless” truths. He is also not coming with universal truths. He speaks as a Black person in a white society, but this doesn't mean that he claims to speak for all Black people.
Chapter 1, on language, helps to explain why the poetic or expressive element of language is so important in Fanon’s writing. Fanon is arguing, in French, that speaking French as a Black person is a negotiation in cultural belonging. This is the double bind he is in. On the one hand, he must write in French. On the other hand, he knows he will never be accepted as French himself. Language is a difficult dance for Fanon as he navigates relations of race and power.
But for Fanon, there is no going back. He does not disavow his attachment to French, and he criticizes other Black intellectuals who try to re-create a Black past instead of living in the present. Fanon seems to be adopting a strategy of working within a racist system. This contrasts with others in a Black nationalist tradition that tried to create Black societies as an alternative to white society. Instead, Fanon wants to create space within white society in which Black people can flourish.
One of the tensions in these opening sections, and indeed throughout the book, is whether Fanon is addressing a Black audience or a white audience. He talks about his “colored brothers,” and he seems to address them when he talks about how they share an experience. At the same time, he is talking to white people and the French in particular to show the ways in which they treat him. Toward the end of the book, Fanon will make a case for Black people demanding humanity from white people. Thus, Fanon addresses both audiences.
This requires a kind of code-switching at times. Fanon must address both a “we” and a “you,” both a Black and a white audience. At the same time, this “we” is itself contentious. Sometimes, Fanon identifies with the French “we,” and he is surprised to learn the native French do not accept him into the “we.” At other times, he identifies with a Black “we” that is by definition excluded from the French. This tension in identity is the very subject of Black Skin, White Masks, and it is evidenced already in the ways in which Fanon cannot locate himself in any one identity or nationality at the beginning of the book.