Fanon, a psychiatrist, was especially interested in how colonialism affects the psychological makeup of the colonized. In his understanding, the colonist subjugates the colonized not only economically and politically, but also psychologically, by imposing an inferiority complex on those they subjugate. The colonized also experience psychological problems due to the trauma of violence at the hands of the colonist. As a result, political problems and psychological health are deeply connected. When the colonized experience neuroses, depression, and other disorders, the cure is as much political as it is personal. Colonialism creates the very identities of colonized and colonist, which makes it not only a political regime, but also a psychological one.
Liberation and Consciousness
Related to the connection between politics and psychology, Fanon argues that decolonization will not only liberate the colonized from exploitation, but will also free his mind. A persistent theme throughout The Wretched of the Earth is the different forms of consciousness, or self-awareness, that liberation and independence can bring. Most important, for Fanon, is a national consciousness, or an awareness of oneself as belonging to a free and sovereign nation. Under colonialism, Africans have no nation, because they are controlled by European authority. But in decolonization, Africans are liberated to think of themselves as having control over the conditions of their life. The freeing of their land from colonial control is also a freeing of their minds from submission and subjugation.
Cycles of Violence
Violence is a frequent theme in The Wretched of the Earth, and Fanon is particularly interested in showing how different forms of violence repeat in colonial and post-colonial history. Colonialism first maintains the authority of the colonist through violence, eliciting submission from the colonized through the police and soldiers. But this means that the colonized can only free themselves by reversing the dynamic and themselves exercising violence against the colonist. The colonized learn violence from the colonist, and then use it against them. At the same time, after independence, the most powerful within the new nation may, like the old colonists, once against use violence to elicit the submission of the rural masses. Thus, the cycle begins again.
Manichaeism was a dualistic religious system in early Christianity that split the world into good and evil, light and dark. Fanon uses Manichaeism to refer to the colonist's simplistic, dualistic worldview in which the world is divided into good and evil, white and black, colonist and colonized. But, just like colonial violence, the dichotomy can be reversed. Under decolonization, the colonized begin to think of the colonist as evil in the same way that the colonist used to think of the colonized. Thus, a dualistic worldview is a theme through colonialism and decolonization alike.
Race vs. Tribe
Under Manichaeism, which sets up white vs. black as the primary difference in the world, a number of other differences get erased. To the colonist, all Blacks, no matter their tribe or religion, are the same, because it is race that is the primary marker of worth and humanity. Race subsumes tribe. But this can also be a resource for the colonized who are fighting back against colonization, because it allows people to form coalitions against a common enemy: the colonist. Multiple tribes can come together to fight the colonist. In turn, the colonist may try to have a different strategy, once decolonization begins, of breaking up a nation into tribes, pitting one tribe against the other, in order to weaken the opposition. In all cases, the relation between race and tribe is of central importance in The Wretched of the Earth.
Nation vs. Culture
Another important theme throughout The Wretched of the Earth is the relation between culture and nation, especially the decolonized nation after independence. The colonized intellectual at first tries to assert an African culture to counter the hegemony or self-proclaimed superiority of European culture. To do this, the intellectual might try to excavate cultural materials from African history. In this view, finding culture is a way of finding legitimacy for the new nation. But Fanon argues that, in the end, culture actually arises from the process of nation-building itself. It is when men are fighting for their freedom that culture is produced and comes into being. Cultural production—and the intellectual—must then be an integral part of the work of achieving political freedom.
History and Theory
One of The Wretched of the Earth's most important achievements is its combination of history and theory, and Fanon makes the relation between these a theme of the book. On the one hand, Fanon narrates the history of decolonization, in particular how people come into a consciousness that leads them to overthrow colonialism and how people organize during and after independence. On the other hand, Fanon is also theorizing about why events unfold the way they do, drawing upon both Marxist theories of class and revolution and psychological theories about the mental state of men under conditions of violence. By weaving history and theory together, Fanon makes a powerful argument about how decolonization happens, and why it is important.
The Wretched of the Earth Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Wretched of the Earth is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.