On Reading Legend in Fanon

Warning: What follows is an initial reaction to the opening chapters of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skins, White Masks.” I have not got past Chapter One, though I fully intend to read this book in its entirety.

Rambles, race-talk, post-colonial theory, and a relation to the Arthur Project follow.

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After giving my presentation on my research last week, I realized that my study of the post-colonial implications of my project were severely lacking. I set aside today in my research schedule to begin to bridge that gap, as well as to collect more sources. I began today with a book that is generally discussing the use of literature in post-colonial theory, and how to better analyze literature from this perspective. But this felt far too abstract. So I moved to read the author that many consider the instigator of post-colonial theory: Frantz Fanon.

Fanon was born in 1925, and died of Leukemia in 1961, but his legacy stands firm in post-colonial and cultural theory. A native of Dominique, Fanon became a psychiatrist after studying in France. He used much of his professional writing career to analyze the psychological affects of colonization on both the imperial forces and the colonized. His two most famous works are “Black Skins, White Masks” (which I began reading today) and “The Wretched of the Earth.” I have read selections from these books before, but have been meaning to read both books in their entirety.

The premise of “Black Skins, White Masks” is basically the book in which Fanon introduces and explains his theories on the psychology of colonization. In the introduction to my edition of the book, Kwame Anthony Appiah states that there are three intertwined themes in Fanon’s writing:

1. Critique of ethnopsychiatry, which aimed to provide an accoutn of the mental life of colonized peoples, and the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis

2. A dialogue with Negritude, then the dominant system of thought among black francophone individuals

3. The development of a political philosophy for decolonization that starts with an account of the psychological harm that colonization had produced.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, in the forward to the 2008 Grove Press edition

Negritude was a philosophical theory developed by black intellectuals in the 1930s. These writers’ fundamental beliefs were that the African diaspora could come together around common black heritage, arguing that this was the best tool to use to fight against French dominion. Fanon has so far argued that black people in African colonies, at the time of his writing, should focus on a “progressive” agenda of adapting modern European culture and philosophical ideas. Again, I haven’t finished the book so I’m not sure how this aspect of his argument will evolve.

I am not sure whether I entirely agree with this. I recognize that my moment in time, and my identity as a white, middle-class woman from the United States, places me in a position that is very far removed from the experiences and political climate in which Fanon was writing. At the same time, I think that there is something inherently problematic with writing that an oppressed people should take on the philosophies of the conqueror – in a way, isn’t that also another form of colonization? And yet, to be able to use the arguments of the oppressor against them, to show the blatant hypocrisies of the colonial hegemony, is a powerful political move.

(Note: I’m not talking about the arguments of white allies in the cause of decolonization – that kind of dialogue is important and necessary. What I am talking about is the use of philosophers – Paine, Rousseau, Locke, etc. – that talk about equality and freedom but also supported imperial expansion and slavery.)

In the first chapter, “The Black Man and Language,” Fanon is discussing the cultural implications of language. Many in post-colonial theory talk about the necessity for a radical literature in the native languages of the formerly (or currently) colonized nation. Fanon writes in French. I am reading an English translation. He begins this chapter with the assertion that “To speak means being able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language, but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization” (1). He must, as a means of necessity, be aware of the political implications of writing in French. He is also entering into a particularly French, colonial dialogue.

Which is, I suppose, where the Arthur Project comes back into the equation.

A language is shaped not only by the words, sounds, and grammatical structure of its sentences; it is also inherently dependent upon the myths and beings in the history of that language. Anyone who has studied a language (that is not their own) in depth should begin to realize that language shapes the way that people are able to think. For example: Certain cultures put certain ideas above others. There are more words for snow, with more emotional depth and meaning, in Inuit or Aleutian than there are in English.

There are also countless sayings in languages that are based on a common cultural history. Think of all the words in the English language that are derived from the names of Greek and Roman gods/goddesses.

I’m not saying that Arthurian legend has had a terribly large impact on the English language structurally (though, after reading Mallory, I will never look at the word “to smite” the same way). But if I were to say “We shall make this a Round Table discussion” there are certain implications. Not that we will be discussing Arthur’s Round Table, but that all participants in the discussion have equal weight. The cultural capitol of the Arthurian legends is huge.

John F. Kennedy and his administration referred to his white house as “Camelot.” Part of my research will mean understanding what exactly that meant in the cultural context of the 1960s. Kennedy was connecting the White House to both Arthurian Legend, and then connecting Arthurian Legend to the legend of the United States – all that “City On A Hill” business. It’s my job to place that concept of the White House as Camelot in conversation with Kennedy’s foreign aid and development policies, and then to understand how it is that legend backs up foreign policy and the politics of a culture, and how that culture then interacts with the global community.

This post is getting far out of hand – mostly, it’s for my own understanding of the issues. Clearly, I’m not at a very solid point on this argument, it’s still formulating. Things have taken a turn for the Interesting.

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And thus, I emerged from a cloud of research

Today I presented on the research I’ve been doing on King Arthur, nostalgia, and decolonization. It’s a relief to be done with that presentation, and also a relief to feel so far ahead of the game at the moment.

For those of you that don’t know, this project has been in the works for several years. I’ve been fascinated with Arthurian legend for a long time, and indeed I’ve been fascinated with the effect of myth itself on contemporary culture for almost as long. That makes this project the culmination of a lot of thought, and a lot of interests converging.

However, in practice, I feel like this is not the right time for me to be working on it. Granted, there’s not much I can do about that – I have the grant now, if everything happens for a reason, then now is, in fact, the time to work on the project. Before I went on the bike trip, I was feeling particularly positive about my work with Grand Aspirations, and in particular in the media work that I was finally feeling like I had the qualifications to do.

Then, as soon as the bike trip ended, this research became my number one priority. I suppose that’s what happens, when one responsibility pays you and the other doesn’t. With payment comes accountability.

I talked with my professor for a long time today about my doubts of the importance of this research. She put it this way: the study of myth, legend, and narrative is very important in order to understand sweeping cultural trends. Narrative determines the political debates of the time – and so understanding this narrative is important, particularly in the ways in which I’m engaging with it.

I think this is true. Narrative does change public opinion and discourse. But with the rise of the internet, and the rate at which narratives are being produced and consumed in the forms of blogs, public opinion articles, etc., the narrative is changing at a much more rapid pace than I can really keep up with in studying books. Novels, in order to be relevant to political issues and climates, must be produced at an extremely fast rate and rise in popularity just as quickly, if not more so.

Thus, studying what seems to be more and more the static texts of King Arthur, I’m feeling more than a little bit overwhelmed by all of the other, potentially more important or relevant, texts that I could be studying.

Not only that, but I started research last summer that had direct, lasting implications for a particular community of people. I won’t lie: I haven’t finished that research, I haven’t come close to publishing it, and in the never-ending wave of new responsibilities, I feel like I’ve lost focus on it.

A continuation of last summer’s project would have been the ideal summer. However, due to the nature of the collaborative research program and my university’s faculty, I wouldn’t have been able to find a professor to collaborate with in time to complete and turn in my proposal.

And so I’m studying King Arthur.

I won’t be so rash as to write the project off immediately. There is something important in this research. But my priorities feel skewed.

I try to live my life very deliberately. Grasping for purpose is not something I’m used to.

I hope that this summer I’m able to define the relevance of this project not only for my life and career, but for the greater academic and American community.