Receipt: December 24, 2022
Acceptance: February 14, 2022
Black Skin, White Masks
Isaac Julien1995 Normal Films, England and France.
In the summer of 1969, the Harlem neighborhood of New York City was illuminated with flashes of soul and a spirit of protest. While the international press covered the Woodstock Festival as the musical event of the century with expressions of protest and protest. hippies and pacifists, the Harlem concerts were deliberately overshadowed and, until the second decade of the twentieth century xxirecordings by performers such as Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and Gladys Knight & The Pips remained canned and ignored by history.1
Of all the Harlem presentations, one stands out for its impetus and evident nonconformity with the social conditions of that time: Nina Simone, who performed a piece entitled "Are You Ready?" (Are you ready?) and which is, in fact, the musicalization of the homonymous poem by David Nelson. If the Harlem festival was outlawed, much is due to this participation where the voice of the performer resounded demanding a stop to racism and discrimination, calling also, in an incredible act of daring, to the adoption of violence as the best way to achieve vindication. "Are you ready to kill if you must, are you ready to create life, are you ready to crush white things, are you ready to build black things, are you ready to call down the wrath of the black gods, are you ready to change yourself," the song provoked the masses who admired the talented singer.
However, this is neither the first nor the last similar harangue that has been condemned. After decades of social movements and artistic and academic groups dedicated to studying racism and understanding the wounds caused by the colonial order, it is still complex to question racial stereotypes and admit the full right of empowerment slogans such as Black Power Movement (1966) and Black Lives Matter (2013). The matter becomes even more difficult if, in Simone's way, we recognize that the liberation of black peoples and their decolonization is only conceivable as a violent phenomenon: "For, in the first moments of the rebellion, one must kill: to kill a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to suppress at once an oppressor and an oppressed: one man remains dead and one man remains free; the survivor, for the first time, feels the land of his nation under his feet" (Sartre, 2011: ix).
A year before the festival, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and, in 1961, psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon died of leukemia in Maryland. The turbulent 1960s included a strong questioning of colonial history through multiple forms of activism and publications by Africanist authors such as Fanon himself, w.e.b. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire and Kwame Nkrumah. Today, studies on negritude, decoloniality and anti-racism are practically infinite, even if their effects are perceived, in past and present circumstances, as extremely limited in the face of various manifestations of coloniality that are perpetuated to this day.
The docudrama entitled Black skin, white masks (Black Skin, White Masks), directed by Isaac Julien in 1995, presents the racist panorama that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century. xxThe book is based on a journey through emblematic moments in the life of Frantz Fanon, a prominent psychiatrist and intellectual whose reflections are at the foundation of contemporary critical theories and the rise of post-colonialist views. In many ways, the incendiary personality of the U.S. civil rights mobilizations of the 1950s and 1960s is anchored in authors like Fanon.
Co-produced by British and French institutions,2 this audiovisual material has an eclectic cinematography that brings together archival videos in Algeria, historical photographs, interviews with specialists and scenes full of drama thanks to the performance of Colin Salmon as Fanon. The background music is jazz and over the course of an hour and nine minutes, the script interweaves narrations and internal dialogues of the protagonist with concrete data and qualified opinions. Despite the complexity of Fanon's life and the arduous nature of his classification as an author, the goal of the documentary is clear, and is the recognition of an activist and intellectual with ideas that remain valid.
For expository purposes, this audiovisual can be divided into three parts. The introduction presents some biographical information about Fanon, born on the island of Martinique in 1925 into a culturally and racially heterogeneous family. From a very young age, Fanon was attracted by the discussions on the depersonalization of the black population because, even though the French Revolution at the end of the 20th century xviii formally abolished slavery on the island, in reality a racist environment dominated that took care of the privileges of the white minority and did not concretize the popular slogan "Liberty, equality, fraternity". In a somewhat contradictory way, a large part of the population assumed its submission to French power and for many Fanon was considered a traitor for questioning the state of things.
In this first segment, the testimonies of Oliver Fanon, Frantz Fanon's son; Joby Fanon, his brother; France-Lyne Fanon, his niece; Félix Fanon, his sister-in-law; and Kléber Gamess, a close friend, stand out. With no little nostalgia, they all acknowledge their admiration for the person, but also for his battles which, little by little, took shape in a political statement founded, mainly, on a rereading of Hegel's dialectic between master and slave, where the struggle for decolonization is a fight to the death for independence.
With a fiery temperament described in the documentary as a collection of "fireworks," Fanon enlisted in the French army to fight in World War II. However, according to his brother's confessions, Fanon admitted his mistake and soon became a dissident who would go down in history for his criticism of the racial line that existed in French society. Thus, in the second part of the audiovisual, we delve into the work entitled Black skin, white masks,3 written by Fanon during his years as a psychiatry student in Lyon.
In general, Fanon's work is complex and prolix, but in this audiovisual product some central ideas stand out. Fanon starts from two inescapable facts: "whites consider themselves superior to blacks" and "blacks want to demonstrate to whites, whatever the cost, the richness of their thoughts, the equal power of their minds" (Fanon, 2009: 44). Recognizing this common narcissism, Fanon attempted to analyze the causes underlying both facts, locating them in the historical process of colonization, understood here not only as an act of political order, but as an appropriation of the idea of "human" and the construction of socially valid subjects. Colonization is the conquest of bodies and of the ideas we have about them: always white and Western.
Thus, Frantz Fanon defined the black population as colonized beings who have been depersonalized or who find themselves in a zone of "non-being". So-called whiteness is then the destruction of knowledge, worlds and lives of historically oppressed peoples; that which today is called, in the social sciences, epistemicide. Contemporary anthropology has bet precisely in this direction and it would seem that Fanon's proposals were advanced, recognizing other ontologies (Kohn, 2015), a symphony of worlds that coexist, but that the West has endeavored to disappear or, in the best of cases, to limit under categories such as "popular art", "indigenous" and "traditions" that do not constitute any danger to white privileges.
In a sort of psychology of colonization, Fanon transcends the description of racism as an ideological problem and explores, in addition, its performative character, where the alienation or internalization of oppression is evident in behaviors and thoughts. The book Black skin, white masks had, in fact, a different title when it was still in its infancy: Essay for the desalienation of blacks.which explicitly pointed out how the colonized population uses white masks to survive.
The white mask is not a material object here, but an attitudinal device that allows one to modify one's own existence. If the black body has been threatened, humiliated, mutilated and violated in various contexts, why not try another identity? The black body has been hypersexualized, since the male stereotype points to a criminal and the female, to a prostitute. However, one thing is clear: the definition of black only exists in contrast to white; in Fanon's words: "And then we were given the white gaze to face. An unaccustomed heaviness oppressed us. The real world disputed our part. In the white world, the colored man encounters difficulties in the elaboration of his bodily schema. The knowledge of the body is a uniquely negating activity" (Fanon, 2009: 112).
How to rehabilitate the black man, Fanon asks. The task seems arduous because the oppressed population has internalized its place of subordination. How to build a simply human world where freedom is the result of the struggle against the set of lies that inferiorize people? The third section of the docudrama concentrates on Fanon's political work and his tireless efforts to put all his ideas into practice.
Tired of the European environment, in 1954 Fanon moved to the city of Blida in Algeria. In the first moments, Fanon collaborated in the implementation of an institutional psychiatry that did not use straitjackets, maltreatment or chains, but, above all, that abandoned the prejudices about the inferior particularities of the mental structure of the black population. Psychiatrist Alice Cherki, Fanon's pupil and collaborator, elaborates an apology for her mentor's actions by pointing out that mental health clinics in those years no longer chained their patients, but beyond his medical contributions, Fanon metaphorically broke the chains and was committed to the emancipation of Algeria.
It didn't take too many years for Fanon to abandon his work as a doctor and become a self-proclaimed Algerian, sympathizer of local causes and member of the National Liberation Front (fln) during the Algerian war of independence. His main premise was the unity of Africa and he was convinced of the end of the colonialist system through armed conflict. For Fanon, violence was not synonymous with destruction, but with working together to achieve freedom, because if colonization occurred only through dispossession and genocide, decolonization has no choice but to resort to the same means: "decolonization is always a violent phenomenon" (Fanon, 2011: 1).
In November 1961, a posthumous publication was made of the work The damned of the earthwhich included a foreword by Jean-Paul Sartre and where Fanon showed himself to be a true revolutionary, attached to feelings of change and community. Throughout its pages, this work emphasizes the importance of promoting decolonization from the entrails of society:
[...] we are witnessing at the beginning a real triumph of the cult of spontaneity. The multiple uprisings that have arisen in the countryside are proof, wherever they break out, of the ubiquity and the widespread and dense presence of the nation. Each colonized in arms is a piece of the living nation. These peasant uprisings endanger the colonial regime, mobilize its forces and disperse them, threaten at all times to suffocate it. They obey a simple doctrine: make the nation exist. There is no program, no speeches, no resolutions, no tendencies. The problem is clear: the foreigners must leave. It is necessary to build a common front against the oppressor and to strengthen that front through armed struggle (Fanon, 2011: 34).
The documentary shows a Fanon dressed in a black suit, running under the sun in the middle of the desert and abandoning his luggage to embrace an Algerian soldier proudly waving his country's flag. These scenes, edited like a jigsaw puzzle, involve the viewers in the narration of a drama that culminates with a bare-chested Fanon - perhaps liberated, without white masks or masks of any kind - walking through doors in search of the "post-colonial subject" and a new political project.
Fanon died at the age of 36 in the United States. He had survived some assassination attempts and attacks due to the unpopularity of his ideas in Europe, but it was leukemia that cut short his life without respite. His body was buried in Algeria, but his ideas still flow in the collective imagination and in multiple struggles for equality. In the last minutes of the documentary, Joby Fanon makes public a letter from his brother, written days before his death. The lump in his throat that prevents him from completing the reading reveals how there still exists, in him and in his family, a wound that, like that of colonialism, has not yet closed. In his short career, Fanon managed to question the world system, to challenge the concept of "human" and to establish himself as a revolutionary author. Despite his lonely death, Frantz Fanon was a deeply romantic man.
The quality of the docudrama at hand is analogous to the demands made by its central character. The approach to the biographical data, its social impact and Fanon's intellectual heritage are delivered to the viewers in a clear manner and with a myriad of threads to be unraveled. However, it is well worth reflecting on the historical juncture in which this audiovisual material was released, since its script corresponds to an intellectual and political agenda of the 1990s.
Thus, we could affirm that this docudrama constitutes a window of access to the development of postcolonial studies and cultural criticism famously represented by authors such as Stuart Hall, who, in turn, anchored their discourses in the independence processes then underway within Africa (Namibia and Eritrea). It is a work that not only serves to understand its central theme, but also the context of the social sciences and changes in the geopolitical configuration at the turn of the century. xx.
This material is also conducive to the goals set out in the intellectual project of its director, Isaac Julien, who had, in those years, an interest in producing independent films focused on blackness and homosexuality; independent black film culture as a new genre. Black skin, white masks and other related productions promoted Julien's rise on a personal level by publicly acknowledging his diverse sexual orientation and as a contemporary artist who today poetically blends visual narratives against homophobia and racism.
In sum, one of the main virtues of this audiovisual product is to show a multifaceted Fanon, but always congruent, from the perspective of his closest relatives as well as of current researchers versed in his work. Although it is not an audiovisual product that has been placed in the heart of popular culture or is a mass success, its contribution is the dissemination of his work.4 of the ideas of an author whose "uses" are as broad as his contributions to postcolonial thought (De Oto, 2003: 213) and whose presence in the collective imagination is undeniable. Perhaps there is no need to "be ready" because Fanon's universalist spirit transcends time and space, and waits for the impetus to create life to arise at any moment: "for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must change our skin, develop a new thought, try to create a new man" (Fanon, 2011: 101).
De Oto, Alejandro José (2003). Frantz Fanon: política y poética del sujeto poscolonial. México: El Colegio de México.
Fanon Frantz (2009). Piel negra, máscaras blancas. Madrid: Akal.
— (2011). Los condenados de la Tierra. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Kohn, Eduardo (2015). “Anthropology of Ontologies”, Annual Review of Anthropology, núm. 44, pp. 311-327.
Sartre, Jean-Paul (2011). “Prefacio”, en Frantz Fanon, Los condenados de la Tierra. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, pp. iv-xii.
Título: Black Skin, White Masks
Dirección: Isaac Julien
Guion: Isaac Julien y Mark Nash
Productor: Mark Nash
Productores ejecutivos: Craig Paull, David Donat e Ibrahim Letaief
Distribuidor: Normal Films, 1995
Blanca Cardenas holds a degree in Ethnology from the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (enahD. candidate in Philosophy of Science (field of Science Communication) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (unam). Teacher at the undergraduate level at the enah since 2012; president of the Association of Friends of the National Museum of Interventions (inah) and current deputy director of research at the Ethnology and Social Anthropology Department of the inah. His lines of research are anthropology of food, history of anthropology and ethnographic and archaeological museums.