Of Bigger Thomas and Sambo
[This is part of an exchange between Andy Lucker and Mandisi Majavu in response to Mandisi's essay "Africa: Life After Colonialism" from the book Real Utopia." Mandisi's initiating essay is here, Lucker's reply here. Below is Mandisi's rejoinder...]
This is my first reply to Andy Lucker who takes issue with the essay (titled 'Africa: Life After Colonialism') I wrote for the book 'Real Utopia', a book edited by Chris Spannos and published by AK Press. Lucker feels that my essay 'harshly misrepresents Fanon', and therefore concludes that 'to be honest, I would not currently suggest people read' the essay, because it "doesn't clearly explain the social psychological (in his case, psychiatric) studies, which are the premise for his [Fanon] theories."
To make my reply coherent and easy to read, I have divided this essay into thematical sections that deal with each of Lucker's specific criticism of 'Life After Colonialism' essay. The first issue I deal with is the concept of 'self-hatred'.
The assumption that informs and shapes Fanon's thesis about the colonial world and the blacks that reside in it, is that colonised blacks suffer from self-hatred and the inferiority complex. Writing of an apparent endemic inferiority complex in blacks, Fanon argues in 'The Wretched of the Earth' at a personal level, violence is a cleansing force for colonised blacks, for it frees the native from his inferiority complex, his despair and it restores his self-respect.
Elusive concepts such as self-esteem, the inferiority complex and self-hatred are difficult to define. For example, according to Tafarodi and Ho (2006), for the past 60 years, researchers and practitioners have struggled to agree on how to define and measure self-esteem. Writers such as Baumeister, Smart and Boden (1996) define self-esteem as a favourable global evaluation of oneself. However, although the concept 'self-esteem' has acquired highly positive connotations, according to Baumeister et al., it has ample synonyms, of which the connotations are more mixed. These include pride, egotism, arrogance, honour, conceitedness, narcissism, and sense of superiority, which share the fundamental meaning of favourable self-evaluation.
Furthermore, these writers argue that, contrary to the popular belief that people who lack self-esteem hope to gain it by violent means, the use of violence as a technique of self-enhancement is a characteristic of people with high (rather than low) self-esteem.
Fanon, however, does not bother to define the concepts he employs - the notions of 'self-hatred' and the inferiority complex that he claims blacks suffer from. In addition, in 'The Wretched of the Earth', as well as in 'Black Skin, White Masks', Fanon does not explain how these concepts can be soundly and objectively measured.
Perhaps Fanon was influenced on this issue by the studies done by Kenneth and Mamie Clark. The famous doll study conducted by the
What the doll study was about, according to Banks (1976), is that white-preference behaviour, as the evaluative choice of opposite-race characteristics, was seen as an 'operationalization' of racial self-rejection and self-hatred in blacks. Therefore, a negative concept of self, which develops as a result of social rejection, racist humiliation and negative labelling was believed to manifest itself in a tendency to express evaluative and self-identification preferences in favour of white dolls, puppets, and other representations.
Interestingly enough, Fanon's thesis is based on the assumption that self-hating blacks tend to exhibit a soft spot for Western culture. Fanon writes: "this is because the native intellectual has thrown himself greedily upon Western culture. Like adopted children who only stop investigating the new family framework at the moment when a minimum nucleus of security crystallizes in their psyche, the native intellectual will try to make European culture his own. (p. 176)."
When reading the 'Wretched of the Earth', one notices that Fanon thinks that the black professional class in the colony suffers from this pathology more than the other blacks. This is the same world view that Allison Davis and Franklin Frazier subscribed to. Since 'Wretched of the Earth' and 'Black Skin, White Masks' have no reference list, it is difficult to know for sure that Fanon based his argument on the work of these two African Americans thinkers. However, since both authors published their work on the subject that concern Fanon way before Fanon published the Wretched of the Earth in 1961, one can safely assume that he had read the work of these two authors.
The rationale that informs these studies is that simply because blacks are subjected to all sorts of racist humiliation, this automatically results in the inferiority complex and self-hatred in blacks (Owusu-Bempah & Howitt, 2000). It is an argument in which the reality of race as a "debilitating factor in the lives of a fraction, albeit a significant fraction, was confused with the potentiality of race damaging the lives of the majority (Cross, 1991)."
There are other thinkers apart from the three quoted in the foregoing paragraph who also hold dissenting views on this subject, which I will briefly summarise.
Banks (1976) writes that the proponents of the black self-hatred ideology have been clear concerning the behavioural manifestations of self-hatred in blacks, whereas the criterion employed in their empirical research have been vague. And, the logic of the black self-hatred studies is that the categorical same-race choices (particularly of self-identification) of white subjects is an a priori standard of rational behaviour. Not unrelated to this notion is the assumption that "white behaviour in such instances represents a standard of mental health and that the 'common trait' of self-concept may appropriately be measured comparatively across individuals and groups (p. 1180)."
Writing about black self-esteem in the American context, Gray-Little and Hafdahl (2000) posit that the expectation of low black self-esteem was considered as self-evident among social scientists until an accumulation of empirical findings during the 1970s forced a reconsideration of the association between race and self-esteem. Gray-Little and Hafdahl explain that blacks are protected from low self-esteem because they are able to blame the system instead of themselves for failures and low status, whereas whites do not have recourse to this buffer.
In their article entitled 'On the Importance of White Preference and the Comparative Difference of Blacks and Others', Banks, McQuater and Ross (1979) conclude that scant evidence exists to prove that blacks have a tendency to express preferential evaluative orientation toward white characteristics. Moreover, Banks et al. argue that the validity of such a psychological phenomenon as a measurement of content or predictive significance for white preference within the real world of social choices, self-esteem, or racial pride is equally unsupported by available empirical evidence.
Not satisfied with just criticising the distorted ideology of black self-hatred, William Cross (1991) submitted a more nuanced and liberatory explanation of black experience in a white supremacist society. Dubbed the William Cross' Nigrescence Model, it explains that blacks are not pathological, but rather are bicultural in essence. The Cross Model explains that blacks go through five stages to develop a black racial identity, and I find it persuasive. It explains the changes in terms of an individual's reaction to social pressures and circumstances. And according to Hacoy (1999), the Model has had substantial empirical validation, both experiential and quantitative. As Hacoy indicates, he is referring to the work of Davidson, 1975; Hall, Cross, & Freedle, 1972; Milliones, 1974; Parham, 1989; and Williams, 1975.
For those who are not familiar with the Cross Model, I summarise it below.
Stage 1: Pre-encounter stage
Black people in the pre-encounter stage hold attitudes toward race that range from low salience to race neutrality to anti-black. Blacks who hold low-salience views do not deny being black, but being black and having knowledge about the Black experience have little to do with their perceived sense of happiness and well-being. As Cross explains, blacks at this stage place value in things other than their blackness, for example, religion, their lifestyle, their social status and or their profession.
Also at this stage, there are blacks who hold extreme racial attitudes of anti-blackness. These blacks hate other blacks; they do not see blacks or the black community as potential source of personal support. Consequently, these blacks may favour a Eurocentric cultural perspective; for example, notions of beauty and art are derived from a white and decidedly Western aesthetic. I am of the view that the studies on black self-hatred have narrowly focused on this group of black people.
Stage 2: Encounter stage
In the Encounter stage, a black person realises that one's frame of reference or value system is not radically black enough. Cross writes that this creates a great range of emotions such as guilt, anger and general anxiety.
"Inner-directed guilt, rage at white people, and anxiety about becoming the right kind of Black person combine to form a psychic energy that flings the person into a frantic, determined, obsessive, extremely motivated search for Black identity (Cross, 1991, p. 201)."
Stage 3: Immersion
In this stage the person begins to demolish the old perspective and simultaneously tries to construct what will become his or her new frame of reference. The values associated with the 'old' self are denied and made to appear useless
Also, in this stage the person attends political meetings or cultural meetings, the person goes to Black music sessions, attends seminars and art shows that focus on blackness; everything of value to this person becomes about being black, argues Cross.
Stage 4: Internalisation stage
In working through the challenges and problems of the transitional period between different stages, the person eventually achieves a new identity, which is internalised. According to Cross, the internalisation stage marks the point of dissonance resolution, and as a result, the person feels calmer and more at ease with oneself. "One of the most important consequences of this inner peace is that a person's conception of Blackness tends to become more open, expansive, and sophisticated."
Stage 5: Commitment
After developing a black identity that meets their personal needs, some blacks devote an extended period, if not a lifetime, to finding ways to translate their personal sense of blackness into a plan of action.
The beauty of the Cross Model summarised above is that it recognises that blacks who find themselves in a white supremacist society are socialised to be bi-culturally competent. When Du Bois talks of a 'double consciousness', he has in mind this biculturalism factor. Research conducted by Cross on this subject reveals that black children are brought up to be capable of functioning in both black and white worlds; whereas white children, in contrast, are more likely to see the world in monoracial terms.
The point that one wants to emphasise here is that biculturalism is not necessarily bad nor does it mean self-hatred. This contradicts the perspective that, implicitly or explicitly, holds that biculturalism per se is a problem. It is true that in the colony this biculturalism tends to have a strong presence in the professional class, but that is because of the Western education that this class receives. And that brings me to the next issue I want to discuss, the black elite or what Fanon calls the national bourgeoisie.
The black bourgeoisie
Fanon argues that one of the reasons that the black bourgeoisie betrays the decolonisation project is because of the Western education this class receives. According to Fanon, this class has a 'permanent wish' for identification with the former colonisers. Consequently, this middle-class adopts with enthusiasm the ways of thinking of the former colonisers. The results are that this new middle-class is incapable of generating great ideas to manage and develop the post-colonial economy, for it remembers what it has read in European textbooks.
Moreover, the post-colonial black bourgeoisie is so decadent that it spends large sums of money on display, meaning cars and country houses. The notion of a decadent black middle class is not originally Fanon's idea. Franklin Frazier, for instance, explored the idea in his book, the 'Black Bourgeoisie' in 1957. Frazier's conclusion was that in the world of 'make-believe, middle class Negroes engage in all sorts of conspicuous consumption'. He argued that it was not unusual to hear of Christmas parties organised by black middle class societies where fountains flowed with champagne, and where women in mink coats dripping in diamonds, arrived in 'chauffeured' Cadillacs. Frazier was of the view that the black bourgeoisie suffers from a deep-seated inferiority complex and therefore over-compensates by accumulating wealth and by spending that wealth on frivolous, materialistic possessions.
One finds the same logic in Fanon's argument about the post-colonial middle class. Fanon writes that the post-colonial governments and the black middle-class betray the revolution because, among other things, they want to be white, and therefore believe that they ought to occupy the social position formerly occupied by the coloniser.
Lest I repeat myself I'm not going to discuss the issue of inferiority complex under this section. What I want to do, however, is to submit possible explanations of why post-colonial governments and the black middle class betray the decolonisation project.
History teaches us that, in most cases, revolutions are betrayed because of the combination of issues such as the lack of vision regarding the new institutions we want for a democratic society and a mixture of internal and external forces. Internal forces refer to sections of society that might be resistant towards the new regime due to their own selfish socio-economic interests, while external forces refer to the global economy and global political climate, such as the cold-war. To view post-colonial politics from this standpoint is more revealing and enables us not only to explain but to predict political and social phenomena. A theory based on flawed assumptions that compel us to focus on self-hatred, and the desires to be white, forces us to chase after psychologically reductionist dead-ends.
Also, a theory that has a confused approach to what the decolonisation project entails hinders how we might relate sensibly to the possibilities of moving forward to a truly decolonised society.
Fanon argues that decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon. "The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it (p. 28)."
My argument is this - instead of decolonisation evoking for us searing bullets and bloodstained knives, we could conceive of decolonisation as a fundamental societal change, a radical change in both the economy and the broader societal values such as race relations and class relations. This should be self-evident; I sincerely fail to see how such a statement can be controversial.
And to argue that violence for the colonised is therapeutic, a 'cleansing force' which frees the natives from his inferiority complex is absolute nonsense. It sounds like fiction. Perhaps it is fiction. Or it is just a coincident that in Richard Wright's 'Native Son', a black character (Bigger Thomas) kills a white character (Mary), and subsequent to that, the black character experiences a therapeutic and liberating sensation.
I quote Richard Wright describing Bigger's state of mind after killing Mary. "And now that he had killed Mary he felt a lessening of tension in his muscles; he had shed an invisible burden he had long carried (1998, p. 114)."
Witness Fanon writing about the same tension in the natives' muscles. "The native's muscular tension finds outlet regularly in bloodthirsty explosions - in tribal warfare, in feuds between septs and in quarrels between individuals (p. 42)." Fanon had in fact read the 'Native Son', for in his book 'Black Skin, White Masks' he discusses Bigger Thomas' fears and muscular tension.
I must highlight the fact that I am not arguing against revolutionary movements using violence as a tactic to reach their goals - that is entirely up to that particular movement. What I am opposing is the misconception that colonised blacks are somehow prone to violence or that violence automatically means decolonisation. Also, the point I make in the 'Life After Colonialism' essay is that when revolutionary movements choose to use violence as a tactic, they should, simultaneously, consider ways to counter the corrupting effects of using violence.
Andy Lucker argues that Fanon does provide psychiatric evidence for his claims in section two of 'The Wretched of the Earth'. However, when one actually pays attention to what Fanon says in that section of the book, he makes it clear that he is dealing "with the problems of mental disorders which arise from the war of national liberation which the Algerian people are carrying on (p. 200)."
The war had been in its seventh year when Fanon wrote 'The Wretched of the Earth', and Fanon argues that it was a breeding ground for mental disorders. Fanon does not hide the fact that his approach lacks scientific rigour. "We need hardly say that we are not concerned with producing a scientific work (p. 201)."
Be that as it may, Fanon's case studies for this section of the book make for a very disturbing read. Most importantly, Fanon's case studies are socially useful because they reveal how psychologically damaging war and torture is. But, as far as I am concerned, they do not in any way serve as concrete evidence for some of the claims that Fanon submits in his book, which I have discussed above.
As I have said before, Fanon's understanding of the colonial world is profound, and so I do not dismiss what he has to say in toto.
What I do dismiss are claims such as 'The colonised man is an envious man'. The way I understand issues is that colonised people are oppressed and want justice and freedom, period. How does the psychologisation of colonised people as having a 'look of lust' and envy which 'expresses his dreams of possession - all manner of possession: to sit at the settler's table, to sleep in the settler's bed, with his wife if possible' help us activists? Do you somehow understand the colonised people of the world better now after reading this psychobabble?
The look that colonised people of the world have always had is a look of dignified resistance and determination that says we will fight colonialism and oppression and win - if not today, tomorrow.
Albert, M. (2006). Realising hope: Life beyond capitalism.
Albert, M. (2004). Thought dreams: Radical theory for the 21st century.
Banks, C. W. (1976). White preference in blacks: A paradigm in search of a phenomenon. Psychological Bulletin, 83, 1179-1186.
Banks, C. W., McQuater G. V. & Ross, J. A. (1979). On the importance of white preference and the comparative difference of blacks and others: Reply to Williams and Morland. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 33-36.
Baumeister, R. E., Smart, L. & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5-33.
Cross, W. E. (1991). Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity.
Davidson, J. P. (1975). Empirical development of a measure of Black identity (Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, 1973). Dissertation Abstracts International, 35-11, 7076A. (University Microfilm No. 75-7313)
Fanon, F. (1990). The wretched of the earth.
Fanon, F. (1986). Black skin, white mask.
Frazier, E. F. (1957). The Negro Middle Class and Desegregation. Social Problems, Vol. 4, pp. 291-301.
Gray-Little, B. & Hafdahl, A. R. (2000). Factors influencing racial comparisons of self-esteem: A quantitative review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 26-54.
Hall,W. S., Cross,W. E., & Freedle, R. (1972). Stages in the development of Black awareness: An empirical investigation. In R. L. Jones (Ed.), Black psychology, pp. 224-228.
Karenga, M. Black Psychology. Ethnicity and Pyschology, retrieved on 20 November 2008, from: http://www.radford.edu/~jaspelme/minority%20groups/Karenga_Black_Psychology.pdf
Maurice R. D. (1957). Untitled. Annals of the
Milliones, J. (1974). Construction of the developmental inventory of Black consciousness (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1973). Dissertation Abstracts International,
35-02, 1241-A. (University Microfilm No. 74-18, 415)
Owusu-Bempah, K. & Howitt, D. (2000). Psychology beyond western perspectives.
Parham, T. A. (1989). Cycles of psychological nigrescence. The Counseling Psychologist, 17,
Scott, D. M. (1997). Contempt and pity: Social policy and the image of the damaged black psyche, 1880 - 1996. Chapel Hill: The
Tafarodi, R. W. & Ho, C. (2006) Implicit and explicit self-esteem: What are we measuring? Canadian Psychology, 47, 195-202.
36-05, 2488-B. (University Microfilms No. 75-25, 934)
Wright, R. (1998). Native son.