A symbol is something that represents something else. According to Fanon, in racist societies like France, Black people themselves are a symbol, which means they are not depicted as human in themselves, but as representations of something else:
The Negro symbolizes the biological. First of all, he enters puberty at the age of nine and is a father at the age of ten; he is hot-blooded, and his blood is strong; he is tough. (128)
Here, Fanon provides an explanation for how Black people are reduced to a purely sexual imagery. Rather than having minds of their own, Black people are depicted as primarily sexual and biological, rather than psychological or cognitive. This is a dehumanization that also contributes to the fear Europeans have of Black people.
Firing Squad (Symbol)
Towards the end of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon turns to a symbol of his own to discuss how he sees the relation between history and building to the future:
The Vietnamese who die before the firing squads are not hoping that their sacrifice will bring about the reappearance of a past. It is for the sake of the present and of the future that they are willing to die. (177)
Here, Fanon is discussing people who are actually killed, or martyred for a cause, the Vietnamese. But this is also a symbol of sacrifice more generally. Fanon is saying people who devote their lives to a cause are doing it because they have a dream of the future. It is this future we should be thinking about, rather than the harms of the past. In the Black context, Fanon means we should be thinking about how to create a world that isn’t racist, rather than obsessing over memories of slavery in the past.
Different Kinds of Othering (Allegory)
Allegories are like systems of symbols, in which more than one symbol works together to tell a more complicated story. Fanon provides one such allegory in his discussion of the experience of Jews and Black people in European society:
The government and the civil service are at the mercy of the Jews.
Our women are at the mercy of the Negroes. (122)
In this quote, Fanon is talking about cultural representations of Jews and Black people. He says that in these representations, both Jews and Blacks are treated as “Other” to European society. But they are Other in different ways. Jews are seen as a threat to the “government and civil service,” which means they are perceived primarily as a political threat. In contrast, it is “women” who are threatened by Black people, which symbolizes sex and sexuality. Fanon is saying in this allegory that Black people are primarily perceived as a biological threat, in contrast to the political threat posed by Jewish people.
Different Paths to Liberation (Allegory)
Fanon also provides an allegory related to how building a future will look different in different places. Toward the end of Black Skin, White Masks, he writes:
It is obvious—and I will never weary of repeating this—that the quest for disalienation by a doctor of medicine born in Guadeloupe can be understood only by recognizing motivations basically different from those of the Negro laborer building the port facilities in Abidjan. In the first case, the alienation is of an almost intellectual character. Insofar as he conceives of European culture as a means of stripping himself of his race, he becomes alienated. In the second case, it is a question of a victim of a system based on the exploitation of a given race by another, on the contempt in which a given branch of humanity is held by a form of civilization that pretends to superiority. (174)
In this quote, “a doctor of medicine born in Guadeloupe” and “the Negro laborer building the port facilities in Abidjan” are symbols of different regional and class contexts in which Black people live. In different places, Black people have different kinds of education and cultural background. That means there can’t be a blanket prescription for revolution everywhere. Rather, freedom will take a different form according to the specific context in which it is fought for.
Black Skin, White Masks Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Black Skin, White Masks is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.