Black Skin, White Masks is Frantz Fanon’s classic statement on the psychological experience of Black men and women in societies dominated by white people, especially France. It draws from his personal experience as a man born in the Caribbean...
Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean Sea. He was descended from African slaves who had previously been brought to the island. Fanon left Martinique at the age of 18 and fought for France in the last years of World War II. It was during the war that he experienced extensive racism from his white European peers. This would continue to influence his worldview for the rest of his short life.
After the war, Fanon briefly returned to Martinique and worked with the famous thinker Aimé Césaire, who was a leader of the Négritude movement. The Négritude movement produced literature that advocated for a common Black identity among Africans displaced across the world. Fanon discusses the movement in the fourth chapter of The Wretched of the Earth.
Fanon returned to France in 1951 to complete studies in psychology and medicine. He became a licensed psychiatrist in 1951. Drawing from his studies, he published his first book, also widely influential, in 1952. Titled Black Skin, White Masks, the book explored the psychological experience of Black people in colonial contexts. Fanon showed how the dehumanizing effects of racism creates inferiority complexes and at times debilitating psychological distress in Black people.
In 1953, Fanon took a position as head of psychiatry in a hospital in Algeria, in northern Africa. This would prove a seminal experience in his life. Algeria was just then on the brink of war, and in 1954 violence finally broke out. The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) led a guerilla war against the French in an effort to overthrow the ruling colonial government. Over the course of the decade, anti-colonial violence was met with brutal retaliation, and more than 150,000 were killed. As Vikki Bell describes, Fanon became increasingly involved in the war as it escalated in violence and torture. “Although he didn’t partake in the military campaigns, Fanon became a spokesperson for the movement and was in due course expelled from Algeria for his involvement; he moved to Tunis where he continued his support, in particular through editing the FLN newspaper El Moudjahid” (8). The experience of decolonization is the focus of The Wretched of the Earth, and this use of his intellectual abilities to support the anticolonial effort is something Fanon wrote about in particular in Chapter 4.
The Wretched of the Earth was published in 1961. Unfortunately, this was also the same year Fanon died. Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia and sought medical care first in the Soviet Union and then in the United States, to which he had been invited by the CIA for treatment at a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland. The treatment could not save his life, and he died in Maryland on December 6. He was later buried in Algeria.
Study Guides on Works by Frantz Fanon
The Wretched of the Earth is Frantz Fanon’s seminal 1961 book, originally published in French, about the effects of colonization on the minds of the colonized, and the efforts by the colonized to overthrow the colonizers. It draws from Fanon’s own...