Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask (1952). New York: Grove Press.
A Book Review By Ozodi Osuji
From a political angle Franz Fanon's most important books are The Wretched of the Earth and A Dying Colonialism. However, I decided to review this particular book, Black Skin, White Mask, primarily because I noticed that many Africans have a tendency to talk about inferiority feeling in Africans. Generally, such Africans lob the term inferiority feeling at some Africans and do so as a put down. That would seem to suggest that they have healthy self-concept. However, when you come close to them you find that they are the most inferior feeling Africans on planet earth!
What they do is see something in them, deny it and then project it to other persons that in their opinion seem to have what they denied in their selves, inferiority feeling. Having grandstanded as black loving they then think that their inferiority feeling is not apparent to professionals trained to discern such matters in people. These people deceive themselves and want to deceive other Africans; if you allow them to deceive you they would take you to the cleaners.
It is such Africans who pretend to love Africa who when they come to positions of political power in Africa literally cart the wealth of Africa to the Western world; they run to the West upon the slightest medical ailment for treatment. This shows that deep down they feel inferior; they believe that their own African medical professionals are not good and that only white medical professionals are good.
They have not dealt with their inferiority feeling at the objective level and are merely mouthing concepts they do not fully understand.
What I decided to do is use Franz Fanon as a point of departure to talk about inferiority and superiority feeling in Africans and African Americans. In effect, this is really not a typical book review that limits itself to a particular book but a spring board from which I talk about a subject that I believe needs to be understood by Africans.
The nature of this subject makes it necessary for me to elaborate on the human psyche hence the paper is going to be longer than the usual two pages book review (It will be twelve pages long).
Franz Fanon (1925-1961) was born in Martinique, a French department in the Caribbean in 1925. His parents were middle class and sent him to the best secondary school on the Island (one of his teachers was Aime Cesaire, the famous poet of Negritude). Upon completing his secondary schooling at age 18, which was during the Second World War, he joined the French army and was shipped off to Algeria. After further training in Algeria he saw fighting against the Germans in Europe.
At the end of war he returned to Martinique and did his undergraduate education and returned to France for medical studies. He obtained the MD degree and specialized in psychiatry, which he completed in 1951.
He wrote Black Skin, White Mask originally as his doctoral thesis but it was rejected and he had to write a more acceptable thesis. In 1952 he published the book (he published the Wretched of the Earth in 1961; Dying Colonialism was published after his death in 1961).
Fanon was what we would today call a radical student. Whereas he did not consider himself a communist he associated with leftists and ultimately joined the Algerians fighting for their liberation from French rule. Upon completing his medical training he sought and got a job in Algeria. There he worked in a psychiatric hospital while participating in Algerians efforts to liberate themselves from French rule. Apparently, the French authorities got wind of what he was up to and repatriated him back to France in 1957.
He immediately left France and went to Tunisia to join up with Arab freedom fighters. Apparently, Tunisia sent him to Accra, Ghana as its ambassador. He participated in the several conferences that President Kwame Nkrumah's burgeoning government had organized. He was later diagnosed with Leukemia and sent to the United States for treatment. He died at age 36 at Maryland, USA.
Franz Fanon was a psychiatrist. Let me therefore expand a bit on the state of psychiatry when he was educated in the field in the 1940s. I do so to give us an idea of the type of education he received thus what shaped his thinking.
Psychiatry as we know it today is a late nineteenth century phenomenon. In Europe, as elsewhere, human beings were baffled by mental illness and did not really know what to make of it. Many attributed it to possession by demons. If you recall, in the bible there is a scene where Jesus cast out the demons that had allegedly taken hold of the mind of a mentally ill person. Thus, many Christians believed that the mentally ill were so as a result of possession by the devil. Mentally ill persons therefore were shunned. Many of them roamed the pathways of their villages and towns ignored by the people.
In the mid nineteenth century Europe and North America there was social work movement to help the poor and homeless. One manifestation of that movement was to house the mentally ill in asylums where they were at least fed properly. Thus, all over Europe and North America the mentally ill in an area were gathered in one place (asylum) and fed.
In Nigeria the mentally ill are still left to roam the streets; Nigerians are not even where Europe was in the mid nineteenth century. The few asylums in Nigeria (built by the British) seldom take good care of the mentally ill and they might as well be left to wander the streets eating from garbage dumps.
In the West, the mentally ill were simply housed and fed. There was no known treatment for them so no efforts were made to treat them. Indeed, no one even knew what to call their mental disorder.
In the late 1800s, a German medical doctor by the name of Emil Kraepelin began what is generally considered the first serious study of mental illness. He delineated the symptoms of what we now call Schizophrenia and Manic-depression (the two major psychoses). However, he did not call the disorder Schizophrenia; that was left to the Swiss psychiatrist, Eugene Bleuler to do.
Kraepelin called what we now call schizophrenia dementia praecox and called the other major mental disorder manic depression (we now call it bipolar affective disorder).
For our present interest, the salient point is that Emil Kraepelin described the symptoms of what we now call schizophrenia and manic depression. What he described is pretty much how mental health professionals still see these mental disorders.
Whereas my goal here is not to transform the reader into a mental health professional, let me briefly say that psychosis is a mental disorder characterized by thought disorder. The individual generally has delusions and or hallucinations.
Delusion means believing what is not true as true (if you believe that you are Jesus Christ and you are not Jesus Christ obviously you are deluded...many mentally ill persons believe that they are Jesus or similar perceived important persons).
Hallucination is perception of what is not there as there; hallucination could occur in any of the five senses: auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, proprioceptive, nociceptive, hypnagogic etc. The psychotic is deluded and hallucinates.
Kraepelin described these symptoms back in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the symptoms remain the same.
There are primarily two major mental disorders, schizophrenia and manic depression. Schizophrenia itself has many subtypes, such as disorganized (this is every person's idea of a mentally ill person, he is the guy dirty and disheveled walking the street and eating from garbage cans), paranoid (this type believes that other people are out to get him, is suspicious, guarded and defensive), undifferentiated (not disorganized or paranoid), catatonic (withdrawn from the world, is in a state of waxy stupor), residual (usual after medications have reduced the major symptoms the person still shows some residual symptoms of schizophrenia but not in a bizarre manner) etc.
Whatever is the type the schizophrenic usually has bizarre delusions and generally also has auditory hallucinations (where there are visual hallucinations often there is an organic issue involved)?
In manic-depression the individual swings from mania to depression. In mania he feels extraordinarily happy, is euphoric, laughs as if he won billions of dollars in the lotto and generally has affect that is out of touch with his immediate environment (if someone around you is dead and you are happy and laughing your affect is not appropriate to the occasion, is it?). The manic person generally has delusions (he may believe that he is the richest man on earth, has millions of dollars in the bank that he does not have, such as claim to be Bill Gates or Barack Obama). Generally, his affect shifts from euphoric mood to depressed mood.
In depression he suddenly feels that life is not worth living and loses interests in the activities of daily living, such as exhibit no interest in work, sports, schools, socialization, and self-care and generally wants to kill himself.
In normal persons the individual's affect tends to be stable and if they shift there is almost always an environmental cause for it. If your child died you would probably feel sad (depressed); if you won the lotto you would probably feel euphoric. In bipolar affective disorder there is no environmental cause for the shifts in mood; therefore, it has to be somatic, internal.
These days we know that there are biochemical factors at work in mental disorders, such as excessive neuro-exciter (neuropinipohrine) in mania, deficient neuro-depressor (serotonin) in depression; excessive dopamine in schizophrenia and deficient GABA in anxiety disorders.
There are variants of the two major psychoses, such as delusion disorder, schizophreniform, and organic mental disorder etc. Additionally, there are hundreds of emotional disorders, disorders induced by drugs, aging brains and disorders found exclusively in children. There are personality disorders found in people in all walks of life (your country's president or work boss, for example, may have narcissistic and or anti-social personality disorder). I doubt that there is a human being that does not have a psychological issue (are you mentally healthy; what does that mean; is stealing from the Nigerian government mental health or antisocial personality disorder; in my experience 99% of Nigerians have treatable mental disorders and, worse, they do not know it; no wonder the country is in a mess!).
For our present purposes, Emil Kraepelin described the two major mental disorders. Emil Kraepelin is considered the father of psychiatry in the Western world. He did not come up with cure for mental illness; and no one has done that to the present (medications merely mask the disorders but do not cure them).
Just out of curiosity, may I ask: how do Africans define mental disorders? Do Africans have cure for mental disorders? I want to see your answer in writing, not just talking. Africans talk too much and do not like to read and write. It is now time for Africans to show the world their science and technology rather than always claim to have had those in abundance in ancient Egypt, not in the contemporary world where they are literally nowhere to be found in science and technology!
While Kraepelin was setting up psychiatry (psychiatry is that branch of medicine that deals with the mentally ill) Sigmund Freud was setting up psychoanalysis to study neurosis; that is, normal persons with living issues.
In the 1890s Freud began paying attention to his clients' emotional issues (he was a regular medical doctor then). He noticed that many of the patients who came to complain about this or that somatic disorder upon examination did not have physical disorders. Yet they believed that they had medical issues. So, what was going on? (Some of them were starved of attention and just needed someone to listen to them...to the present many of the women who go to doctors go to talk to someone who would listen to them because their husbands do not listen to them and the larger society does not listen to women.)
Freud went to Paris and studied with Charcot, a guy who was saying something about hypnosis as a useful tool in medicine. Upon return to Vienna, Austria he began what is now called psychoanalysis, talking therapy. He felt that many of the Victorian women who came to see him actually had sexual issues and not medical problems.
The Victorian society repressed sexuality, especially female sexuality. Women did not even dare mention the sexual part of their bodies. The world would collapse if a woman said that she had a vagina and god forbid that she called it cunt (say that word now; you probably cannot get yourself to say it!). It was simply out of the question for folks to even acknowledge their sexual organs and sexual activities.
Interestingly, whereas the folks were pretending lack of interest in sex, London had more prostitutes during the Victorian era than at any other time!
Anyway, old Freud figured that many of the women who fainted upon the mere mention of certain words were really repressed sexually. He began studying what he called hysteria in women.
To cut a long story short, Freud came to the conclusion that human beings, men and women, are not the refined sexual beings that the Christian religion made them out to be or wants them to be. He said that people in nature are polymorphously sexually perverse.
According to Freud, the average guy not only wants to have sex with all the women around him but also with his own mother and sisters. The average girl not only wants to have sex with all the men around her but with her own father and brothers. Of course, neither of them dare acknowledge these desires.
In childhood society makes sure that folks don't even acknowledge their sexuality (I, a graduate student, nearly fainted when my clinical supervisor told a woman to go the bathroom and masturbate or something instead making the sexual innuendos she was making; he said that there was nothing wrong with masturbation; I actually thought that I was in hell when in a class on human sexuality the professor showed a movie of man and woman having sex; my Catholic upbringing simply did not go that far in what is acceptable sexual behavior).
As Freud sees it, in childhood all of us were forced by our societies to suppress our natural sexuality (which he called Id). Our Id simply wants to have sex with any person around (men and women, Freud said that people are bisexual). The boy child wants to have sex with his mother and sisters and all women; the girl child wants to have sex with her brothers and father.
Society saw to it that none of us even remembers having these sort of forbidden desires (do you remember ever having a desire to have sex with your mother...your mind probably cannot even tolerate such a question!).
There are, of course, medical reasons why sex among family members should be forbidden. Genetic disorders in recessive forms can become dominant if members of the same family have sex and produce sick children. The survival of the human race requires suppressing sex in the immediate family. Sexual taboos had roots in biological reality!
Freud contends that the Id desire is suppressed by what he called the Superego (social mores, which we internalize as our conscience).
The properly socialized child internalized his society's superego (laws, norms, rules etc.) and they are now part of his conscience and he uses it to check his id, his natural inclinations for perverse sexuality and aggression...as animals we took whatever we wanted to eat but in organized society we are told that stealing is bad.
Properly socialized persons with strong superegos do not steal; only those with weak superegos steal. Freud would say that male children from broken families where there are no strong male figures to enforce rules internalize weak superegos and hence tend to commit crimes. By that standard a country like Nigeria where many of the people steal from the government the people have weak superegos.
A third part of the psyche comes into being in what Freud called the ego. The ego is sort of like a referee balancing the desires of the Id and the injunctions of the superego. The id says fuck your mother; the superego says you dare not even think about it, the ego redirects your attention to other sex objects in your world, such as the beautiful damsels at your school.
You get the point; our heads, Freud believes, are battle fields where three forces are at war, our nature, id; society, and superego; and reason, ego fight it out. The normal person balances the three forces in his head.
As Freud sees it, the oedipal conflict in our heads are often not properly resolved (when it is smoothly resolved the girl gives up her desire for her father and instead identifies with her mother and the boy identifies with his father).
In some situations the oedipal complex is not properly resolved and the child still wants to do what society asks him not to do. Consciously, he, of course, cannot say: I want to have sex with my mother. That thought is totally unacceptable to his conscious mind. But Freud says that it is there in the back of his mind, in his unconscious mind, making a mess of his life (for example, making it impossible for him to have satisfactory sexual relationship with his girlfriend or wife).
Neurotic folks come to Freud's office, lay on his famous couch and Freud tells them to say whatever enter their minds without using reason to block unacceptable thoughts (this is called free association). Believe it or not, when folks engage in free association they often say that as children they wanted to see their mothers naked or even have sex with her!
Freud, in effect, said: get what you repressed into your unconscious mind out into the open. Let it all hang out, man. He would then analyze all that stuff dredged out of your unconscious mind (and charge you several hundred dollars per hour of his time). When what is hidden comes out folks feel relief (Catharsis).
(Poor people do not go to psychotherapists, except as in cheap group therapy, not individual sessions. In twenty five years of doing that sort of work I seldom had African-American clients; most of my clients were white folks, usually from families with incomes of over $100, 000 a year. The rich and their children go get analyzed and the poor drink alcohol or mess up, big time. Someone should appoint analysts for the criminals ruling Nigeria.)
When you come to terms with the warring forces in your unconscious mind your life is straightened up a bit. For example, why don't you love your wife? Could it be that you still love your mother and only want to have sex with her, not your wife? You never know what old Sigmund would tell you!
If you can enter into transference relationship with the old boy (analyst) and project what is in your unconscious mind to him, say to him what you wished that you said to your father and repressed you never know what kind of shit would come tumbling out of your filthy mouth (and this time no adult is there to wash your mouth with soup for the analyst gave you permission to say anything; you are not a naughty boy anymore!).
For our present interest Freud began psychoanalysis and rich folks came to his office to analyze what is in their unconscious minds, to find out what is preventing them from living fully. If your wife can get up the courage to tell you to make love to her like you would to a whore she is making progress! Ordinarily, she pretends disinterest in kinky sex but then is angry at you for not making her have gazillion orgasms. Now she tells you exactly what to do to her to give her those much wished for orgasm! Darling, here, give me your hand, here is the G-sport, stroke it. That is good, keep on going, and don't stop (then she shouts from satiation of her sexual needs and for the rest of the day walks in cloud nine, instead of brooding, unhappy).
Do you get the point? After analysis folks feel free to be human, unrepressed by social forces (mores).
I bet that as a Christian some of my language is offensive to you? You would rather I employed sanitized language, eh? And while at it, you would rather they banned pornography?
Here is some information for you. If you banned pornography today rape of women would go up exponentially.
And here is another piece of news for you. Your minister at church who talks poetry is probably visiting prostitutes at night! Worse, he is most likely to rape your child, boy or girl. You have heard what Catholic priests have been up to, haven't you?
Reverend Swaggard talks about the need to not have sex outside marriage and goes to a motel room to have sex with prostitutes; Reverend Jim Baker talks shop about marriage and in the meantime is having sex with men, not just his wife!
Old Freud wants people to quit their pretenses over sex and permit themselves to satisfy their sexuality with consenting adults.
The point is that Freud tells us that adult society is based on pretentious morality and that we ought to accept our true selves; he said that we are sexual animals.
As a psychotherapist I have heard it all, those we call the pillars of society, medical doctors, lawyers etc. telling me how they cruise the streets picking up hookers for sex and going home to their wives to pretend proper behavior. Old Freud would say that all these happen because of our repression of our Id. Understand the Id and manage it and you would do fine, but whatever you do please do not pretend to be who you are not; you are not an angel; you are an animal with animal needs and that is all there is to you.
Freud blew the whole sex thing wide open. His contribution to psychology is his feedback that we look at our sexuality with a bit more honesty than pretension.
When Freud began his psychoanalysis other medical doctors in Vienna joined the psychoanalytic club (you have to be analyzed before you can analyze other people, for among other reasons so as to understand yourself and not project your issues to other people). One of those doctors was Alfred Adler. Adler became second in command to Freud. However, right from the beginning he was not happy with Freud's over emphasis on sex as the primary motivator of our behaviors.
By 1910 Adler had developed his own ideas about the nature of neurosis. He no longer saw eye to eye with Freud and naturally he was kicked out by Freud (Freud was dictatorial). Adler formed his own psychoanalytic club called Individual psychology.
Now, pay attention to Adler for all that Fanon did was use Adler's psychological framework to develop his view of black folk's psychology in his book, black skin, white mask.
Adler's basic view is that all human beings feel inferior. The next time you call somebody inferior feeling stop and ask about your own inferiority feeling!
The African who calls other people inferior feeling must pause and understand his own feelings of inferiority. You must first remove the plank in your eyes before you see the speck of sand in other people's eyes. Or, as they say, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
Let me reiterate; Adler said that all of us feel inferior, in degrees. Those born with organic problems (biological issues that make them feel weaker than others tend to feel exaggerated sense of inferiority). Social factors like racism could also exaggerate our sense of inferiority.
The point is that all people feel inferior but some more so than others. Where it is exaggerated there are biological and or sociological factors at work.
To be human is to feel inadequate and inferior Vis a Vis the environment. We are born and will die and that makes us feel inferior. The physical and social environment does not care for our safety and does things to us that we do not like. Tsunami, earthquake, volcano, flood, drought, tornado, plagues virus, fungus, bacteria etc. could destroy you at any moment. We are vulnerable and feel weak.