This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Frantz Fanon, one of the great men whose thoughts and actions hugely influenced the course of Pan-Africanism and the liberation struggle in Africa. In this tribute, Cameron Duodu, who knew Fanon personally, traces the life and times of the great man.
In the era in which Ghana achieved its independence – the first British territory, south of the Sahara, to attain the nationhood that the visionaries of Pan-Africanism had demanded for Africa decades earlier – and took its place in the comity of nations, the atmosphere in our part of Africa was so intoxicating that if anyone had spoken in the guise of the “Afro-pessimism” that is now never absent from any serious discourse on Africa, he would have been laughed out of court. If anything, there was too much “Afro-optimism” about.
The reason was that the British were installed in their Houses of Parliament, writing “constitutional orders-in-council” for any of their African “dependencies” that expressed the wish to have one. Such constitutions assumed that “ordered progress” would be made towards self-rule and that former British territories would become “members of the Commonwealth, with full dominion status” – an objective that was extolled as the be-all and end-all of the process that would lead to “equality” amongst the emerging African nations (like Ghana) and Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.
And since Britain was a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), it was expected that its NATO allies which also had territories in Africa – France and Portugal in particular – would also be infected with the bug of “disengagement” in Africa and allow their territories to achieve independence, like Ghana.
Ghana itself used the halo of its newly acquired diplomatic status to propagate this idea of an orderly progress to nationhood. First, it called a Conference of Independent African States from 15-22 April 1958, which was attended by the then independent nations of Africa – Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and the United Arab Republic (Egypt).
That these countries responded positively to Ghana’s invitation, and did not snub it as a newly-arrived country that wanted to punch above its weight, was due to the enormous diplomatic skill of the man our prime minister, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, had appointed to be his adviser on African affairs, George Padmore (born Malcolm Nurse). New African readers will remember him as “The Father of African Independence”.
For Ghanaians, it was an incredible moment. They lined the streets of Accra to wave at the leaders of countries some of which they had only read about in the Bible (Ethiopia and Libya) and some of which they never thought were in Africa at all (Tunisia, for instance) and, of course, Egypt, which had hitherto been regarded as something to be read about in the pages of Ancient History.
Emperor Haile Selassie’s youngest son, who led the Ethiopian delegation, was a smashing hit with Accra’s women: Ghanaian troops who had fought in
“Abyssinia” during the Second World War, had brought stories of how beautiful the country’s women were, but no one had imagined that the men would also be so handsome. The main achievement of the conference was to open the door to diplomatic contacts through which all subsequent co-operation between African states – towards eliminating colonialism from the continent and developing trade and economic relations with one another – could be passed.
By September 1958 – five months after the conference and only 18 months after Ghana’s independence – I was able to see Ghanaian diplomacy in action as an eye-witness who observed it from abroad. This occurred when I went to Cairo as a member of a delegation of writers invited to attend an Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the then Soviet Union. When we got there, we were placed in the hands of the staff of the Ghana embassy, under the Chargé d’Affaires, a very polished diplomat called S. P. O. Kumi. He fetched us from the Continental Hotel to his home in Heliopolis, where we were wined and dined and made to feel very much at home. It was extremely nice – I was only 19 at the time, and the extension of diplomatic courtesies to me demonstrated the sweet fruits of independence. We were to wait in transit in Cairo for three days before continuing on our journey to the USSR.
On the day after my arrival, with plenty of time on my hands, I donned my colourful kente cloth and took a walk in the streets of Cairo. I was an immediate star. People came up to me to feel the texture of the colourful cloth and to murmur their admiration in Arabic words I didn’t understand. I kept pointing to myself and the offspring of the Sphinx!
Eventually, one of them realised that hotels were occupied by strange-looking characters. He went to the front desk of the hotel and brought out one of the receptionists. “Oh, Mr Duodu!” the receptionist said upon recognising me. He took me by the hand and drew me in. He murmured apologies as he gave me my room key.
“What’s going on here?” I asked. “Algeria has declared its independence!” the receptionist said, sounding very excited. He prodded me forward and helped me to penetrate the crowd of officials surrounding the prime minister that the Algerians had just installed as head of their provisional government in exile. He was called Ferhat Abbas. I stood face to face with him. “Shake hands with him!” the receptionist whispered. “He will be pleased to be congratulated by someone from Ghana.”
I was surprised that the hotel receptionist was so politically conscious. I stretched out my hand and shook that of Ferhat Abbas. And at that moment, about 100 camera flashbulbs popped. “Prime Minister Ferhat Abbas of the Algerian Provisional Government in Exile, is congratulated by a Ghanaian diplomat,” one caption of the photograph said, when it was published. As a civil servant working at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, I could have been penalised for taking “an international political initiative” without my government’s knowledge or approval. But eventually our government recognised the Algerian Provisional Government and accepted as its ambassador to Ghana, a man whose ideas contributed greatly to the total emancipation of Africa, Frantz Fanon.
Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique, then a French-ruled island in the Caribbean, in 1925. His father was a descendant of African slaves; his mother was of mixed African, Indian and European descent, whose white ancestors came from Strasbourg in Alsace, France.
His family was well-to-do and so he was educated at the Lycée Schoelcher, the most prestigious high school in Martinique at the time. One of his teachers was the famous poet of “Negritude”, Aimé Césaire, whom he was later to encounter in metropolitan France, and collaborate with – sometimes uneasily – in political and intellectual endeavours.
When France was conquered by Hitler’s Nazis in 1940, naval troops under the control of the Vichy French (stooges of the Germans) were blockaded on Martinique, unable to leave for France. But the defeat of their country did not make the French nationals on the island any less imperious. They continued to practise racism, with the soldiers, in particular, carrying out rampant harassment of the populace and engaging in sexual misconduct.
It is said that “the abuse of the people of Martinique by the French Army influenced Fanon, reinforcing his feelings of alienation from, and disgust with, colonial racism.” Fanon fled from Martinique when he was 18 and went to join the French patriotic forces, led by General Charles de Gaulle, who were resisting German occupation of France and harassing German troops wherever they could engage them.
Fanon travelled to British-controlled Dominica, where he joined de Gazelle’s Free French forces. Having formally enlisted in the French army, he joined an Allied (British-American-Free French) convoy that was en route to Casablanca, Morocco. He was later transferred to an army base at Béjaia on the Kabyle coast of Algeria. Fanon was later put on a ship from the Algerian port of Oran to fight in France. He took part in dangerous battles at Alsace, and at Colmar, where he was wounded in 1944.
He was awarded one of the most prestigious French medals for bravery in war, the Croix de Guerre. But after the Nazis were defeated and Allied forces crossed the Rhine into Germany, along with photo journalists, Fanon’s regiment was bleached of all non-white soldiers so that none of the brave non-white soldiers were featured in the photographs depicting the defeat of the Nazis by the Allies and the Free French! Instead, Fanon and his fellow Caribbean soldiers were sent to provincial Toulon, in Provence, and then transferred to Normandy to await repatriation home. As far as the Allies and the Free French were concerned, even if you had won the Croix de Guerre, you should not be seen to have taken part in the liberation of France – if you were not white.
In 1945, Fanon returned to Martinique for a short time. While there, he campaigned for his friend and mentor Aimé Césaire to be elected as a parliamentary delegate from Martinique to the first National Assembly of the French Fourth Republic. Fanon stayed in Martinique long enough to complete his baccalaureate and then went to France to study medicine and psychiatry. He was educated in Lyon, where he also studied literature, drama and philosophy, sometimes attending Merleau-Ponty’s lectures. During this period he wrote three plays, whose manuscripts are now lost. After qualifying as a psychiatrist in 1951, Fanon did a residency in psychiatry at Saint-Alban under the radical Catalan psychiatrist, Francois Tosquelles, who is said to have invigorated Fanon’s thinking by emphasising the role of culture in psychopathology. Fanon then practised psychiatry at Pontorson, near Mont St Michel, for another year and was then sent to work in Algeria in 1953. He was chef de service at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria.
Before going to Algeria, Fanon’s experiences in the French army as well as his observation of how the French colonialists behaved in Martinique, had influenced him to write one of his most famous books, Black Skin, White Masks.
He wrote the book in 1952, and it was well received as a profound analysis of the psychological effects of colonial subjugation on people identified as black.
The book was in fact his doctoral thesis, which he submitted at the medical school at Lyon, under the title, Essay on the Disalienation of the Black. It was rejected by the medical school’s authorities at Lyon, and Fanon tried to have the book published. In the meantime, he exhibited his intellectual brilliance by submitting a different thesis for his medical degree.
A left-wing philosopher called Francis Jeanson, who was leader of a pro-Algerian independence network in France, was also one of the senior editors at Éditions du Seuil, a major Parisian publishing house, and he took the book on, giving it its new title and writing a prologue for it. When Fanon first submitted the work, Jeanson invited him to his office for a meeting to discuss it. Both men later recalled that this did not go well: Jeanson saw the young Fanon as “nervous and over-sensitive”. He began to praise Fanon’s work, but right away Fanon cut him off by saying impolitely, “Not bad for a nigger, is it?”
Jeanson felt both insulted and angry, and sent Fanon out of his office. He was later to affirm that he thought his outrage at Fanon’s non-too-subtle hint that Jeanson might harbour racist views, convinced Fanon that he was genuine, and that it earned him Fanon’s respect for the rest of his life. In any case, their subsequent relationship became “much easier”,
Fanon’s exposure to the reality of life amongst the Algerians – both in Algeria and France – had prepared him to embrace the possibility that a violent rebellion against the French would inevitably break out in Algeria. So, when the Algerian revolution began in November 1954, he was psychologically ready for it and secretly joined the organisation leading the fight for independence, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).