My (lightly edited) comments at GWU today. I’m not sure where this particular avenue is headed, but it helped me clarify some thinking about race and the academy and the role of the minority professor.
Today we believe in the possibility of love, and that is the reason why we are endeavoring to trace its imperfections and perversions.—Frantz Fanon
Frantz Fanon is not someone we turn to for advice on love. Far from it. His biographer, David Macey, claims that if there’s a “truly Fanonian emotion” it’s “anger,” and Alice Cherki insists that Fanon was “a thinker about violence.” While we can certainly talk about the range of emotions in Fanon, from rage to ecstasy, and from despair to hope, love seems to be a stretch. For love, we turn to Barry White and Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. Never Fanon. Indeed, while Fanon claims to take love seriously in Black Skin, White Masks, by the end of Black Skin, Fanon has turned to Hegelian recognition and a deep-rooted bodily skepticism, as noted in his famous closing “prayer”: “Oh my body, always make me a man who questions.” Against the possibilities of love, Fanon embraces the inevitability of skepticism. What has happened to love? Why does it appear in Black Skin only to disappear? And what might be useful in thinking about Fanon and love?
Because Fanon is foundational to black studies, black diaspora studies, and postcolonial studies, he is the gateway for scholars working in transnational black queer studies. However, Black Skin, White Masks, his major contribution to black ontology and epistemology, has posed a major stumbling block for black queer scholars. Today, I want to move away from the problem of Fanon’s homophobia to consider strategies through which black queer studies can engage Fanon. I will suggest that love is a crucial, understudied element of Fanon’s thinking and an essential component of his vision for an anti-racist, anti-colonial world.
In Black Skin, Fanon explores love in a two-chapter sequence focusing on interracial relationships. The first chapter condemns Martiniquan writer Mayotte Capecia for her “self hatred” while the second empathizes with the Martiniquan author René Maran. I’ll focus on Fanon’s engagement with Capecia. As is well known, Fanon condemns Capecia for desiring a white man, which he misreads as her desire to be white. In a moment of strategic misreading, he argues, “Mayotte loves a white man unconditionally. He is her lord. She asks for nothing, demands nothing, except a little whiteness in her life. And when she asks herself whether he is handsome or ugly, she writes: ‘All I know is that he had blue eyes, blond hair, a pale complexion and I loved him.’” Fanon continues, “If we reword these same terms it is not difficult to come up with: ‘I loved him because he had blue eyes, blond hair, and a pale complexion.’” It may not be difficult to reword Capecia, but note here that Fanon changes coincidence to causality. Capecia’s inability to control how she loves demonstrates her self-alienation. All interracial love is suspect. Perhaps all love is suspect.
Feminist scholars have rightly critiqued Fanon for how he depicts women, but few have asked why Fanon doubts Capecia’s love. This scholarly absence can be attributed, in part, to how we have inherited Fanon. Within the U.S., Fanon comes to us from a predominantly U.S.-based black studies. Rooted in the political and aesthetic radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, black studies privileged a binary understanding of racial feeling: one experienced pride or self-hatred. Literary and political works were revolutionary or assimilationist. Love was a bourgeois emotion. Given this paradigm, Fanon’s claim that Capecia was self-hating went unquestioned.
Let me suggest that we set aside Fanon’s indictment of Capecia as an individual, and focus on the larger conceptual problem he lays out: authentic love can neither be experienced nor sustained under conditions of oppression. Here, I take my cue from anthropologist Jennifer Cole and Historian Lynn Thomas. In their introduction to a wonderful book called Love in Africa, they argue, “contemporary discourses, sentiments, and practices of love are the product of complex historical processes and intersections.” In their work, love is not a method of disengaging from the difficult labor of politics or removing oneself from the complications of history. If anything, the complications of history and the labor of politics make love more difficult to recognize and realize. To return to Fanon’s indictment of Capecia: the problem with her declaration of love is that it is abstracted from its historical condition. Fanon believes that Capecia does not grant enough weight to the role of history and politics in matters of the heart. She believes, wrongly, that love is a refuge from the complexities of colonial modernity.
But this is not simply a problem for Capecia.
Toward the beginning of Black Skin, Fanon claims, “In our view, an individual who loves Blacks is as ‘sick’ as someone who abhors them.” As Fanon will later clarify, he objects to the idea of anyone loving “Blacks” because the “black” is a constructed fiction, an abstraction that ignores the lived experiences of individual subjects. To love “Blacks” requires one to believe racial fantasies about irreducible racial difference. Put otherwise, it requires one to believe in the existence of the black as a distinct category, something Fanon challenges when he concludes, “the black man is not.”
At this point, it might seem that I am conflating two very different definitions of love: love as individual psychic and libidinal experience and love as an expression of goodwill and affection for a collectivity. That is, the love one might have for a lover versus the love one might experience for one’s political, religious, or ethnic community. However, if, as I have suggested, love takes root and flourishes within the material circumstances of politics and history, then it becomes very difficult to distinguish between the two kinds of love. To extend Fanon’s thinking: all love becomes impossible to experience or sustain under conditions of oppression.
At this point, you might be wondering why a discussion of love in Fanon matters. In fact, as I was looking at the poster for this event and noted the range of topics—the Algerian revolution, decolonization, Occupy Wall Street, Malcolm X, and Edward Said—I experienced palpitations. I worried that talking about love felt too frivolous. I worried that I would be the literature professor who proved, once again, that literary scholars are removed from reality and inhabit an ivory tower filled with tea and poetry and violins.
Yet, over the past few years, I have been stunned by how often we talk about Fanon and black scholars in general in terms of resistance and revolution, anger and rage, resentment and bitterness, disappointment, and for a very brief moment a few years back, hope. We who work in black studies and related fields are tasked with discussing anger and rage and survival, asked, always, to discuss struggle and pain. And while all of these are necessary, I have wondered about the price we pay. It is difficult to sustain a career that focuses exclusively on negative emotions. And it is strange to believe that black scholars and activists spent their lives wandering around in a haze of rage and anger, unable to think about love and tenderness, unable to understand or theorize why these facets of human experience matter.
When Fanon declares, “Today I believe in the possibility of love,” he gestures toward a future that is unmarked by the paranoia of racism. More than that, he suggests that political resistance and social revolution have, as one of their goals, the cultivation of love. Simply, love flourishes under conditions of freedom and equality. This kind of love, this kind of free love, should be one of the goals of political labor.
However, when he wrote and published Black Skin in the early 1950s, this ideal of love was only a possibility: he did not believe it existed or could exist in the world as it was then.
When I started writing this series of reflections, I hoped to suggest the importance of love in Fanon by embedding his statements within their historical context. I hoped to suggest that understanding love as a historical formation and as an end-goal of politics would add richness to discussions about political freedom and economic equality.
Yet, I find myself stuck.
Like an annoying character from a movie, I keep wanting to ask, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
I have no answer.
We no longer inhabit the world Fanon described in 1952.
Much of Africa is decolonized, if still largely neo-colonial; while the shadow of racism continues to haunt Africa, often transforming into a destructive poltergeist in the guise of global policies and aid, many Africans nations act with self-determination; and while many across Africa continue to pursue various freedoms and equalities, these do not seem as impossible as they once did.
If we no longer inhabit Fanon’s world, then it might be time to take love seriously, time to ask whether we are closer to realizing its possibilities.