Africa Comparative Review Book Review

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Africa Comparative Review

Comparative Book Review: Africa

Fanon's aim in Black Skin, White Masks is to elaborate the features of psychic alienation experienced within the African man in the context of European colonialism, along with the mechanisms by which such alienation occurs. He states, "What we are striving for is to liberate the black man from the arsenal of complexes that germinated in a colonial situation."

He wants to liberate him (or her) so that he (or she) can "choose action (or passivity) with respect to the real source of the conflict, i.e., the social structure."

A pragmatic and social function is implied. He hopes that his book is "a mirror with a progressive infrastructure where the black man can find the path to disalienation."

Fanon's book contributes to the knowledge of Africa by clarifying this mental complex and how its elimination might lead to positive social changes.

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Fanon's argument is centered on how the black man's consciousness aligns itself with "whiteness" and disowns its own "blackness." Relying on Sartre, he sees this as an inauthentic consequence of the colonial situation with neurotic repercussions. The black man searches for approval and recognition from the white culture as a result of his internalized inferiority complex. This striving to become whiter ("lactification") has detrimental effects, in Fanon's view, on black identity and behavior. The internalization of negative white symbols and ideas about blackness in European culture turns him away from his true being. It tethers him to the notion that becoming whiter is the path to salvation. Fanon wants to demystify this notion: "the black man should no longer have to be faced with the dilemma 'whiten or perish."

He realizes this as the crucial dilemma Africans face in the context of colonialism.

Book Review on Africa Comparative Review Comparative Book Review: Africa Assignment

This point is well argued and supported by psychoanalytical and existential theory. However, Fanon never addresses the issue of the material circumstances faced by Africans in France or in Africa. How is a black person to escape the alienating economic forces that motivate him to adopt whiteness without losing? The economic factors that keep Africans in the pattern of wishing to whiten are not discussed adequately in this book. It is little comfort to say that the authentic black man, while impoverished, is nonetheless authentic. While Fanon wants the black man to free himself to choose, he does not propose any actual socio-economic path.

The most valuable part of Fanon's book is perhaps his description of the way this complex is generated. Arguing from psychoanalytic findings, he sees the family as the matrix for how the child comes to know the world. In a "normal" situation, the family structure mirrors the social structure so that when a child leaves the family, it encounters the same values and rules as those in the family. However: "A normal black child, having grown up with a normal family, will become abnormal at the slightest contact with the white world."

So, faced with a European national structure, he feels abnormal. As a result, "The Antillean, then, has to choose between his family and European society; in other words, the individual who climbs up into white, civilized society tends to reject his black, uncivilized family at the level of the imagination."

This is a valuable insight. Yet Fanon has described the Antillean child's environment as one in which "white" comic books, games and literature, which he sees as cathartic outlets for aggressiveness, have been absorbed already. If this is the case, would not the social structure of European society be familiar? Furthermore, why would the black man have to choose between white and black? Would it not be possible to accept elements from both cultures as the integrated basis of a full psyche? In other words, why does the assimilation of European whiteness preclude the maintenance of African blackness?

Fanon writes that "the phobic is a person governed by the laws of prelogical rationality and affectivity."

His point is that cultural transition creates fear and suspicion for blacks. But he never finishes the argument, passing almost randomly (as he often does) to negrophobic women and their hallucinatory fantasies about black men's sexual power. Fanon's style of argument is hodge-podge. He admits that it is not an objective analysis, which derails the challenge of subjectivity, but its rhetorical effect is often astonishment and lack of clarity. There is no systematic application of a theory, but only a melange of varied ideas piled up on one another rapid fire. His piecemeal approach rarely substantiates anything, but it hints frequently.

Having said that, he points vitally to some mechanisms by which this black complex comes to inhabit the black man as neurosis. Discarding the hereditary component of Jung's collective unconscious, he is still able to see that the archetypes, which are socially consumed, are keys. The problem is that they are white. He states, "The fact is that the Antillean has the same collective unconscious as the European."

This means the black man plays out the same fantasies as the white man, but the objects of disgrace are directed at blackness, i.e., at himself. He says, "The black man is the symbol of evil and ugliness."

The internalization of these archetypal symbols of inferiority and evil, taken mainly from white literature and language, is an example of what Fanon calls "cultural imposition" (168). Fanon's book speaks as much about the white man's projections as about the black man's consciousness. The crucial point is that the black man enslaves himself with this unconsciousness. It develops into neurosis and negrophobia, which split the black man's consciousness and requires him to kill the dark side. This view is plausible. However, the symbol of blackness has been present in various cultures for millennia and is not the exclusive domain of colonizers. Fanon gives no leeway to this being a positive symbol. Further, he unfairly reifies and universalizes that which is in the unconscious of whites.

Perhaps the greatest failure of Fanon's book is that it is primarily about the black ex-patriot experience. In terms of an analysis of the conditions in Africa, or in the Antilles, its arguments are limited. He focuses primarily on Antilleans (and Africans) that have traveled to France and remained there for significant periods of time, perhaps never to return to their home country. As a result, his analysis has less to do with the psychic constitution of native Antillean's who remain. This is an important distinction. Further, many of the psychic qualities he describes apply not just to black Africans but to anyone of foreign origin sojourning outside their home.

Take his discussion of language, for instance. He feels that "whiteness" dominates the African psyche as soon as that psyche begins to assimilate the foreign language. It augments a preexisting sense of inferiority that the African overcompensates for through language fluency. The effects are harmful, Fanon thinks, for the more one internalizes the language, the more one adopts the cultural notions of "whiteness" inherent in that language. Fanon asserts, "All colonized people -- in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave -- position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e., the metropolitan culture."

This linguistic drive leads to the psychic erasure of traditional blackness, or what he calls the "amputation of his being."

The black man's self-expression and self understanding become "white" under the pressure of "proving to himself that he is culturally adequate" (p. 21). In assimilating language, blackness is buried.

No doubt Fanon's point is valid as far as assimilating culture through language. However, one need not be black to feel the pressure of one's linguistic inadequacy, to feel the need to "prove" oneself, or to assimilate a foreign mentality. The shortcoming of this argument is that this situation is true of any ex-patriot entering a foreign country. In other words, Fanon may be pointing to a general phenomenon of the ex-patriot, not a specific condition of colonialism. Moreover, he downplays the positive effect of language and cultural acquisition. At the same time, this makes sense since Fanon's agenda is to show how Africans have imbibed false views about themselves that have had alienating consequences. Furthermore, what Fanon fails to make clear is that it is a choice to go live in the European country -- a choice based on the perceived advantages of acquiring skills useful for advancement. He recognizes that historically language acquisition has been culturally beneficial, but he does not fully appreciate that it is a choice.

Despite its shortcomings, Fanon's book is an extremely valuable starting point for thinking about the consciousness of a colonized African male. Ironically, for all its non-Europeanism, it relies heavily on existentialist and psychoanalytical ideas to assert its perspective in conjunction with Antillean-based material. Without dismissing it as overly universalizing and subjective, it is a valuable work that attempts to explain the psychic process used in conditions of colonialism. It is hard to say whether he succeeded or failed to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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