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.