After Fanon: African Privilege

Three recent posts on slavery and the politics of apology have me thinking about African privilege, and the African misappropriation of Fanon. It is no secret that Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks may be considered the unofficial bible of the “arrived” African. Certainly, I have been seduced by Fanon’s description of what it means to be black, to attain an awareness of my body as identity on arrival to the west. Fanon is not wrong. But he needs to be read carefully.

In his introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, he issues a warning that the text may not be generally applicable. “Many Negroes,” he claims, “will not find themselves here.” He repeats this claim later toward the end of the conclusion when he warns that his conclusions and case studies are more applicable to the Negro from Martinique and should probably not be applied to the Negro from Africa. Undoubtedly, we could complicate this model and suggest, for example, that the recent flood of African students and immigrants (recent being the last 30 years) into the west has tended to make the experiences of psychic isolation and phenomenological recognition more widespread than he had at first imagined. Although, to this point, I would add Chinua Achebe’s observation that not everyone develops a been-to complex. Many Africans traffic through the west quite happily.

Even here, he anticipates us. For he tells us that originally he had planned to write about the Negro from Martinique only to discover that being a Negro supercedes place of origin. Fair enough. But. But. But.

We in America, who Teju aptly terms American-Africans (though some of us resist the label and insist we are here on temporary visas. Temporary it may be, but I’ve been here 11 years!), need to be careful in adopting Fanon wholesale. Slavery in America should and must give us pause. It should also make us aware of how we exercise African privilege, and we do.

I know, for example, that my voice over the phone elicits little suspicion, especially when I go a little anglo, as I am wont. I know, for example, that visibly tense white professionals relax when I begin speaking, when they mark me as African, not African American, as exempt from certain histories of guilt and shame and culpability and complicity. Not only do I know these facts; I manipulate them as much as possible. I have learned, of course, the necessary ways to speak about inter-black relations, claiming, as I often do, that on the street no one can tell my place of origin. This claim might be true. But I often experience the psychic satisfaction of knowing that I can, given time, shape and revise interaction courtesy of my background and history. Even racists will grant me a measure of respect: I have been able to leave the tree and can walk upright. Grudgingly given, but there it is.

An injudicious use of Fanon erases my sense of privilege, letting me claim a victimhood quite unique to the French context, and mostly inapplicable to America. I cannot forget that white students are comforted when they hear me because I am ostensibly objective, untainted by the poison of racism. African privilege mediates many of my interactions.

By no means am I claiming to be exempt from racism or a crushing sense of isolation and alienation; these Fanon understood quite well, as did his fellow been-to authors. These I do experience. Privilege exacts its price in intra- and inter-racial interactions. To say this, however, is not to efface my exercise of privilege.

But what then? Here is where I become more than a little confused. Acknowledging privilege often seems a futile gesture. It does not erase the fact of privilege, much less how it may be exercised. To move outside myself for a second: when we tell white males to acknowledge their privilege, what exactly do we want? Surely it’s not a call for them to go about in blackface. Nor can it be a call for them to be endlessly apologetic, a move that re-centers them as both subjects and objects of attention. For all the ways one might acknowledge and try not to exercise privilege, there are always a variety of ways one needs to manage one’s world, where every little advantage helps. This might be called the demand of living in the now.

Disavowing privilege might be impossible. Again I ask, what then?

**My Swahili is laughably bad, but the first blog post regards black-on-black slavery. I am a fan because it features what I take to be a necessary African conversation taking place in an African language. Call me nativist.