Frantz Fanon: Africa Needs Patriots!

“If man is known by his acts, then we will say that the most urgent thing today for the intellectual is to build up his nation” (Not to sit in the West fattening on beef-burgers, and showing off in ill-fitting cheap suits that make you look like a clown … locked-up in your lonely run-down flat, with nothing better to do than sit at the keyboard declaring “civil war” on your nation!)

Frantz Fanon’s speech at the Congress of African Writers in 1959

(Comments in parenthesis by Dida Halake)

Colonial (nowadays CNN?) domination, because it is total and tends to over-simplify, very soon manages to disrupt in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people. This cultural obliteration is made possible by the negation of national reality, by new legal (and psychological) relations introduced by the occupying power (nowadays World Bank, IMF) by the banishment of the natives and their customs to outlying districts (or city slums) by colonial society, by expropriation, and by the systematic enslaving of men and women. (In The Gambia’s historical context, this was the point at which the British introduced taxation and brought the “Europeanized” Civil Servants from other parts of Africa to help administer The Gambia).

Three years ago at our first congress (1956) I showed that, in the colonial situation, dynamism is replaced fairly quickly by a substancification of the attitudes of the colonizing power (and, conversely, a nullification of African reality). The area of (colonial) culture is then marked off by fences and signposts. Every effort is made (through missionary education) to bring the colonized person to admit the inferiority of his culture which has been transformed into instinctive patterns of behavior, to recognize the unreality of his ‘nation’, and, in the last extreme, the confused and imperfect character of his own biological structure (These tactics failed to work in The Gambia, firstly because tribes such as the Jola refused to submit to European domination, and secondly because the mainly Muslim Gambian people had their own very strong religious and cultural traditions around which they based the resistance to colonial subjugation. The traditional Marabouts, with their madrasa education system, were at the forefront of national resistance to colonial brain-washing in The Gambia. Contrast this with other parts of Africa where in the famous words of the famous Nigerian author “Things Fall Apart” very quickly – and, in the famous words of the famous Kenyan author, the “Devil is on the Cross”).

Vis-à-vis this state of affairs, the native’s reactions are not unanimous (reactions were unanimous in The Gambia where the mass, led by the alkalos, imams and marabouts, held onto their traditions and culture). While the mass of the people maintain intact traditions which are completely different from those of the colonial situation, and the artisan style solidifies into a formalism which is more and more stereotyped, the intellectual throws himself in frenzied fashion into the frantic acquisition of the culture of the occupying power and takes every opportunity of unfavourably criticising his own national culture (this did not affect The Gambian mass because the colonial “intellectuals” had to be imported from Sierra Leone). A national culture under colonial domination is a contested culture whose destruction is sought in systematic fashion. It very quickly becomes a culture condemned to secrecy. This idea of clandestine culture is immediately seen in the reactions of the occupying power which interprets attachment to traditions as faithfulness to the spirit of the nation and as a refusal to submit. This persistence in following forms of culture which are already condemned to extinction is already a demonstration of nationality (in colonial Kenya, the Mau Mau turned to Kikuyu culture and traditional Oaths of Loyalty which were described as “heathen” and “atavistic” by the British – and more importantly by the christianized Kikuyu who bore the brunt of the war against Mau Mau Uprising. Kenyatta’s book ‘Facing Mount Kenya’ is a classic exposition of Kikuyu cultural identity).

By the time a century or two of exploitation has passed there comes about a veritable emaciation of the stock of national culture (again not in The Gambia). It becomes a set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress and a few broken-down institutions. Little movement can be discerned in such remnants of culture (note Nkrumah’s rare  donning of the national Kente costume while he set about destroying the traditional rulers); there is no real creativity and no overflowing life. The poverty of the people, national oppression and the inhibition of culture are one and the same thing. After a century of colonial domination we find a culture which is rigid in the extreme, or rather what we find are the dregs of culture, its mineral strata. The withering away of the reality of the nation and the death-pangs of the national culture are linked to each other in mutual dependences. (Here Fanon was mainly looking at the Nigerian elite’s confusion over dress, culture, religion and nationality which haunts that country to this day – and remember he was writing before the Biafran civil war).

The negation of the native’s culture, the contempt for any manifestation of culture whether active or emotional … contribute to breed aggressive patterns of conduct in the native. Those tensions which hitherto were non-existent come into being. (Where African cultures totally broke down, as in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, we see these “aggressive patterns of conduct” very clearly – as we also see in extreme forms within Black communities in the US, UK, Haiti and Jamaica). These new-found tensions which are present at all stages in the real nature of colonialism have their repercussions on the cultural plane. (When the revolutionary and radical African intellectual arises) it is the colonialists who become the defenders of the native style (now they become more African than Africans!). We remember perfectly, and the example took on a certain measure of importance since the real nature of colonialism was not involved, the reactions of the white jazz specialists when after the Second World War new styles such as the be-bop took definite shape.

The fact is that in their eyes jazz should only be the despairing, broken-down nostalgia of an old Negro who is trapped between five glasses of whisky and the curse of his race (Nina Simone, Muddy Waters, BB King, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, etc. Compare John Lee Hooker’s plaintive “One Room Country Shack” to the dynamic in-your-face attitude of Isaac Haye’s 10-minutes long “Moonlight Loving” – a “loving” which this son of ex-slaves would not do in anything less than a 5-Star Hotel! Even in 2006 whites overwhelmingly prefer the misery of John Lee Hooker’s lyrics, while the brothers in the hood are totally for the butt-kicking Isaac Hayes & and the “Black & Proud” James Brown). As soon as the Negro comes to an understanding of himself, and understands the rest of the world differently, when he gives birth to hope and forces back the racist universe, it is clear that his trumpet sounds more clearly and his voice less hoarsely (This is why Mandela survived Apartheid and Biko did not – Biko’s Black Conciousness Movement was far more powerful and dangerous than those ANC lawyers fighting for ‘one man one vote’ so that they may get a chance to enrich themselves, and their former masters, at the expense of the masses. Even in death Biko is feared and his memory is kept well under-wraps by the new Black elite of South Africa). The new fashions in jazz are not simply born of economic competition. We must without any doubt see in them one of the consequences of the defeat, slow but sure, of the southern world of the United States. And it is not utopian to suppose that in fifty years’ time the type of jazz howl hiccupped by a poor misfortunate Negro will be upheld only by the whites who believe in it as an expression of nigger-hood, and who are faithful to this arrested image of a type of relationship. (It is the same “arrested image” that makes people more comfortable with the non-questioning “yes-boss”, “no-boss” idiotic type). Everything works together to awaken the native’s sensibility and to make unreal and unacceptable the acceptance of defeat (and second-class status).

The native rebuilds his perceptions because he renews the purpose and dynamism of the craftsmen, of dancing and music and of literature and the oral tradition (My friend Fafa Mbye’s book “In The Service of My Believes” makes me question why Fafa is using Shakespearean quotations throughout the book when African cultures are full of similar wisdom? My Uncle, the Prince of Brikama, just told me of one such wise Mandinka saying about “The drummer sitting on his sticks”. Sorry Fafa, it must be the colonial education in Jangjangbureh – oops, sorry again Fafa, I should say Georgetown!). We have noted the appearance of the movement in cultural forms and we have seen that this movement and these new forms are linked to the state of maturity of the national consciousness. Now, this movement tends more and more to express itself objectively, in institutions. From thence comes the need for a national existence, whatever the cost.

Culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, the expression of its preferences, of its taboos and of its patterns. It is at every stage of the whole of society that other taboos, values and patterns are formed. (“Development” or wealth means nothing if one’s oneness with one’s self, one’s culture, is lost) A national culture is the sum total of all these appraisals; it is the result of internal and external extensions exerted over society as a whole and also at every level of that society. The condition for its existence is therefore national liberation and the renaissance of the state. In the colonial situation, culture, which is doubly deprived of the support of the nation and of the state, falls away and dies. The nation is not only the condition of culture, its fruitfulness, its continuous renewal, and its deepening. It is also a necessity. It is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and framework necessary to culture. The nation gathers together the various indispensable elements necessary for the creation of a culture, those elements which alone can give it credibility, validity, life and creative power. In the same way it is its national character that will make such a culture open to other cultures and which will enable it to influence and permeate other cultures (so being a cultural nationalist does not mean being “closed” to international influence – it just means you get to know yourself first, and then what you can get from, and give to, the world). A non-existent culture can hardly be expected to have bearing on reality, or to influence reality. The first necessity is the re-establishment of the nation in order to give life to national culture in the strictly biological sense of the phrase. (AMEN!)

If man is known by his acts, then we will say that the most urgent thing today for the intellectual is to build up his nation. If this building up is true, that is to say if it interprets the manifest will of the people and reveals the eager African peoples, then the building of a nation is of necessity accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values. Far from keeping aloof from other nations, therefore, it is national liberation which leads the nation to play its part on the stage of history (as with Gambia’s hosting of the African Union Summit). It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately the source of all culture.

Note: Fanon’s extraordinary “Black Skins, White Masks” still blows my mind every time I read it (available at Timbooktoo). His undoubted masterpiece was the “Wretched of the Earth” which dissected post-colonial Africa’s descent into corruption, chaos and dictatorship with clinical precision (Fanon was a doctor of psychiatry). It was said that the Black Panthers in the 1960s USA had “An AK47 in the right hand and Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’ in the left hand”.  This remarkable philosopher of liberation died of leukaemia at the tender age of 36, I think in 1963.  May his heroic soul rest in perfect peace.  ***