Fanon and Du Bois on the “color line”

We ended last week’s joint class with Professor Chandler musing about whether as scholars we should be attempting to move beyond using race as a core categorical/analytical concept, or if we continue to use it while recognizing the potential danger of (further) reifying it as a useful category of significant human (socio/cultural/biological) difference. I’ve got Frantz Fanon fresh on my mind after having read it as part of another class (ANTH289A “Theorizing Africa”). Fanon argued against “petrification”, a term he used in his “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) to describe psycho-biopolitical effects of colonialism on bodies and the cultures of the colonized. Fanon pushed back against racialization that fortifies concepts of our identity, culture and lived experiences, bluntly stating: “My black skin is not the wrapping of specific values,” (1952 [2008], 177) which I find in stark contrast to calls for racial solidarity and shared “African values” discussed by many at the ASAA conference that I wrote about in my post last week.

Juxtaposing the assigned text by Du Bois this week with Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” raises several interesting points for discussion. (Fully recognizing that Du Bois was writing 60 years ahead of Fanon, I will do my best to avoid committing the error of presentism). While I do not believe Du Bois and Fanon ever met, it is possible that Fanon read Du Bois. Du Bois was in close contact with a contemporary of Fanon, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, in the 1950s. At the end of his life (1963), Du Bois became a Ghanaian citizen and lived in Accra with his wife.

When Du Bois made this speech at the third annual meeting of the American Negro Academy, he was in his mid-30s and early in his career. In the speech, Du Bois proposed that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color-line (a topic we see him return to severally in future work as well). He discussed this “color line” issue not as one which is unique to the United States but rather as global in scale: “…a glance over the world at the dawn of the new century will convince us that this [the US] is but the beginning of the problem— that the color line belts the world and that the social problem of the twentieth century is to be the relation of the civilized world to the dark races of mankind.”

In marked contrast, Fanon highlighted wide heterogeneity under what at first glance appears to be a shared global “color line” (to borrow Du Bois’ term):

“We have seen that the whites were used to putting all Negroes in the same bag. During the first congress of the African Cultural Society which was held in Paris in 1956, the American Negroes of their own accord considered their problems from the same standpoint as those of their African brothers. Cultured Africans, speaking of African civilizations, decreed that there should be a reasonable status within the state for those who had formerly been slaves. But little by little the American Negroes realized that the essential problems confronting them were not the same as those that confronted the African Negroes. The Negroes of Chicago only resemble the Nigerians or the Tanganyikans in so far as they were all defined in relation to the whites. But once the first comparisons had been made and subjective feelings were assuaged, the American Negroes realized that the objective problems were fundamentally heterogeneous. The test cases of civil liberty whereby both whites and blacks in America try to drive back racial discrimination have very little in common in their principles and objectives with the heroic fight of the Angolan people against the detestable Portuguese colonialism. Thus, during the second congress of the African Cultural Society the American Negroes decided to create an American society for people of black cultures. Negritude therefore finds its first limitation in the phenomena which take account of the formation of the historical character of men,” (1963, 215).

I extensively quote here in order to give proper context for Fanon’s statements. Here we see that to Fanon, the only thing that united across any type of global color line was the fact that Whites treated Others in the same way (“We have seen that the whites were used to putting all Negroes in the same bag”). Fanon wrote that “the whites of America did not mete out to them [the Negroes who live in the United States and in Central or Latin America] any different treatment from that of the whites who ruled over the Africans.” In other words, the core basis for a type of solidarity with others of color is the fact that all received similar treatment at the hands of the white man. But Fanon seemed to suggest that the answer to this colonial racism (and its legacy), is not necessarily to continue to perpetuate the binary color-line. Instead, Fanon argued that “the problem is to get to know the place that these men [leaders of negritude movement calling for black self-consciousness] mean to give their people, the kind of social relations that they decide to set up, and the conception that they have of the future of humanity. It is this that counts; everything else is mystification, signifying nothing” (1963, 223, emphasis my own). In other words, the actions are more important than the uniting rhetoric. Fanon gives the example of Senghor, Senegal’s first president and a key leader in the negritude movement who would still, Fanon critiques, side with the colonial power (France) on the issue of the Algerian independence, which he sees as completely contradictory. “Adherence to African-Negro culture and to the cultural unity of Africa is arrived at in the first place by upholding unconditionally the peoples’ struggle for freedom,” (1963, 234).

In other words, it is not enough to simply call for shared blackness as the rationale for working together. Rather than building up a specter of Europe, Fanon calls on the continent to reimagine what moving beyond race might look like: “if we want humanity to advance a step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries,” (314).

Beyond their ideas about global race politics, I also see the two differing radically in their belief on how history (should) inform the future. Where Du Bois asked: “What in the light of historical experience is the meaning of such— of world problem— and how can it best be solved?” (119), Fanon wrote: “I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny,” (1952, 178). He called instead for an imagining of a new history of Man (that moves beyond White vs Black but simultaneously does not also forget the crimes of the past): “It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man, a history which will have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward, but which will also not forget Europe’s crimes, of which the most horrible was committed in the heart of man, and consisted of the pathological tearing apart of his functions and the crumbling away of his unity,” (314).

There’s more that can be written about what Du Bois and Fanon understand to be culture and its use in building solidarity across the “color line” but I’ll reserve that for a future post perhaps. I’ll close with laying out that nonetheless, despite their seemingly wildly different takes, their imagined future may not be so different. Du Bois’ imagined/desired future also moves beyond color/race …“if the third millennium of Jesus Christ dawns as we devoutly believe it will upon a brown and yellow world out of whose advancing civilization the color line has faded as mists before the sun— if this be the goal toward which every free born American Negro looks, then mind you,” he goes on, “its consummation depends on you,” (1900, 118, emphasis my own).

Works Cited:

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Nahum Dimitri Chandler. 2015. “Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind.” In The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Early Essays, 111–37. American Philosophy. New York: Fordham University Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 2008 [1952]. Black Skin White Masks. Sidmouth: Pluto Press.
Fanon, Frantz, and Richard Philcox. 2004 [1961]. The Wretched of the Earth /: Frantz Fanon ; Translated from the French by Richard Philcox ; Introductions by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha. New York: Grove Press.

The Nation-State, Pan-Africanism and Biosocial Claims to Knowledge

This past week, I participated in the second biennial conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) on “African Studies and Global Politics.” The ASAA seeks to promote the study of Africa from an Africanist perspective, and as such, much of the discourse at the conference was related to pan-Africanism, decolonizing the mind/knowledge, and promoting an African-centered epistemologies and education.

One of the key things I realized from the conference is a continued underlying question about what it means to be African. Is it a blood-based / phenotypical notion or is it based on culture/nationality/level of understanding of a place/history? Or something else entirely? How does the question of identity intersect with claims for authoritative knowledge?

The ASAA conference made this question particularly apparent because those in attendance did not just easily fit into normative categories of Black Africans and White Americans. Conference participants included Black African Americans from the US, Black African Americans who have immigrated to Ghana (some who have become Ghanaian citizens); White Africans; White Americans; Asians who live in America; White Europeans, White Brazilians, White Ghanaian residents, Black Africans who reside in African countries that they do not call “home”, etc. etc. I’m obviously tacking here between different scales of nationality and flattening identity into race, but I use this to simply point out the very obvious diverse racial positionalities embodied at the conference (not to even mention the other subject positions). Walking around you couldn’t “place” someone – Black Ghanaian citizen with American accent; white women with South African accent; Ugandan living in South Africa; Swedish woman married to Ghanaian; Kenyan studying in UK; the list goes on. The rich diversity of backgrounds, colors, histories, situations, made it very hard to say who was “local” and who was not – complicated further by a question of which categories are to determine that. If you have lived in a place for a long (define long?) time, does that make you “African”? If you know the histories and key historical figures, does that make you “African”? If you have citizenship, does that make you “African”? If you are Black, does that make you “African”? Given that several members of the diaspora Africans have recently been granted citizenship in Ghana, what appears to be a clear-cut question of who is African, is in fact more complicated than face-value.

In one ASAA panel I attended, a question was raised about the growing mantra of “Africans [are the only ones who should] produce solutions to Africa problems.” You can see this mantra similarly echoed in a picture I took during my fieldwork this summer of the entrance to a Kenyan technology enterprise:


What is the significance of scaling from “African” to “Kenyan”? What is the significance of moving from “Black Lives Matter” to “Afrikan Lives Matter” to “Luo Lives Matter (a recent hashtag used by Kenyan on Twitter to denounce state violence against a particular ethnic group in Kenya)”?

In response, a panelist asserted that the perspective that it is only “Africans” who can solve “African problems” was a naïve one since African problems are in fact global:

“We are not buying into the nativist perspective. There is no one who is ‘true blooded’ African, whatever that means. What we must be concerned with is an issue of democratization. Will it be fine if everyone else in the world could put their view-point on the table and Africans are absent? No! So, it has nothing to do with us being the most innovative people or us knowing something more than others because we are ‘pure blooded’ or anything. Rather, it is a question of equality and democratization.”

This question of the intersection between global politics of race and knowledge is extremely important as more and more decolonizing movements across the continent gain momentum and simultaneously, countries like the US increasingly take an isolationist stance. How do our biosocial bodies and socially constructed ideas of racial belonging (mis/)align/clash with nation states and boundaries? How do these claims align with idea of epistemology and claims to authoritative knowledge?


More info on ASAA:

The conference (held at the University of Ghana, Legon from October 12th – 14th) included keynote presentations by Elizabeth Ohene, Ghanaian; Nana Kobina Nketsia V; Professor Jacob Gordon; Professor Seth Asumah; Professor Takyiwaa Manuh; Professor Jean Allman; Dr. Yao Graham; and Dr. Wangui wa Goro. For those interested in learning more about the conference, you can find a summary that I wrote here. You can also find the final program here and more about the ASAA here.