Black Skin, White Masks

Black Skin, White Masks Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth are Frantz Fanon’s two most influential books, in part because they were two of only three books Fanon published in his short life. Black Skin, White Masks was published first, in 1952. The Wretched of the Earth was published last, in 1961. In the intervening decade, Fanon’s thinking on race and colonialism continued to develop, resulting in a different focus in the last book. Comparing the two provides a way of deepening our understanding of Fanon’s thinking, as well as the trajectory of his life.

Black Skin, White Masks started as Fanon’s doctoral dissertation in psychiatry in France. It is for this reason that it focuses so much on the experiences of educated Black men who have come from the Caribbean, like Fanon did from Martinique, to live in white French society. Its focus is on the experience of racism in a white society and how that society creates psychological problems for Black people through the kinds of cultural representations it makes available.

The year after the book was published, Fanon went to work as a psychiatrist in Algeria, a nation in northern Africa that finally achieved independence from France in 1963. The war for independence was a bloody war, and it left Algeria damaged even after independence was recognized. Working in Algeria during the war, Fanon witnessed the violence first hand. He also supported the rebel cause as an intellectual. The postcolonial experience is Fanon’s major focus in The Wretched of the Earth. Like Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon focuses in this book on a context in which he has firsthand experience, generalizing from the case of Algeria to the case of many African countries that have declared independence from European countries.

The focus has thus shifted from the experience of Caribbean Blacks in France to colonized African Blacks in Algeria. But so, too, did Fanon shift his writing and emphasis. Whereas Black Skin, White Masks is primarily a work of psychological theory, The Wretched of the Earth is primarily a work of history, tracking how colonialism takes hold, how the seeds of rebellion are sown, and how a colonized people begins to organize after independence from colonialism has been achieved. He doesn’t dive into psychology until the final chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, in which he explores the effects of colonial violence on psychological health. For this reason, The Wretched of the Earth has often been seen as a more political book and Black Skin, White Masks as a more psychological or personal book.

At the same time, there are significant continuities between the books. Black Skin, White Masks concludes with a chapter in which Fanon discusses how the path to liberation will look different in different contexts. He suggests that for the Black agricultural laborer in a white-controlled society, only fighting back, sometimes through violence, can be a way forward. This is taken up explicitly in The Wretched of the Earth, where Fanon suggests that a colonized people first discover their capacity for freedom in spontaneous outburst of violence against the oppressive force. Thus, The Wretched of the Earth in many ways begins where Black Skin, White Masks ends, taking up the concluding chapter’s call for freedom and action as a move beyond pure psychology. Theory gives way to action in the move from the first book to the last.