Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

“To speak a language is to take on a world, culture”


Martinique Afro-Caribbean philosopher, writer and revolutionary Frantz Fanon, in his book Black Skin, White Masks questions and positions orality as a function of both dominance and resistance. The first chapter of the book, The Negro and the Language, focuses on the identification of language with culture and the problems about their alleged relationship. If language is an expression of a particular culture, the implication is that, according to Fanon, the colonized subject who speaks the language of the colonizer is, by that very act, assuming the latter’s culture.


“To speak means to be in a position to use a syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” (Fanon)


Fanon starts by asserting that the black man has two dimensions; one with his fellows and the other with the white man and that this self-division is a result of colonialist subjugation. His observations derive in part from his experiences as a child and as a young man growing up in Martinique where the Negro will be proportionately whiter “in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language”.

Adele Jinadu, in Language and Politics: On the Cultural Basis of Colonialism, opines that it is unclear what aspects of culture one is to emphasize in establishing the alleged connection between language and culture and that it is not necessarily true that to speak the colonizer’s language is to embrace his culture or civilization. The colonized subject might use it for communication and efficiency or for upward mobility and not necessarily to assume the colonizers culture with a view to becoming ‘whiter’. However, one could argue that it is cultural arrogance on the colonizer’s part to impose their own language and not simply develop a local one. The colonialist extends the ‘eminent language’ which involves thought, belief, culture, myth and history and briefly all symbols and appearances of thoughts of sovereign societies little by little to culturally erode the minority nations.


Fanon talks about the Creole dialect being discouraged in schools in Martinique and the middle class in Antilles only speaking Creole to their servants. Creole, a dialect of noted for its swallowed R’s, was scorned by the black man with an education from a French University. He would become aware of his dialect; he would practice not only rolling his R’s but ‘embroidering’ them.  Jean-Paul Sartre, in Orphee Noir, says that the black poet will always turn against the French Language; but this won’t apply to the Antilles Negro. Michel Leiris argues Creole is destined to die out once public education becomes common enough among immigrants, and only the illiterate will use it to exclude French people. Poets will employ Creole, ‘a dead language’, to retaliate against the racial prejudices of the white man.


Homi K. Bhabha talks of mimicry in his book The Location of Culture as a cultural strategy on the colonizers part to create the people “to be Anglicized not to be English”. Mimicry, in colonial and postcolonial discourse, is defined as when people of the colonized country start imitating the behaviours, attitudes, language and culture of the colonizers. The feeling of superiority of the colonial masters over the natives leads the members of the colonized nation to look at themselves as the inferior human beings.


Colonial mimicry comes from the colonist’s desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is, as Bhabha writes, “almost the same, but not quite”. Bhabha says that this process of imitation is never complete, and there is always something that he lacks. There are always cultural, historical, and racial differences which hinder one’s complete transformation into something new. He strikes at the same point and says that the metamorphosis of the colonized black in the process of being a White, makes him different from his own race and community and transforms him only to resemble the White.


Professor D. Westermann writes in The Africa Today that the Negroes inferiority complex gets intensified among the most educated. He adopts European clothes, furniture and European forms of social intercourse to feel a sense of equality with the European. The Negro of the Antilles is annoyed when being thought of as Senegalese because he considers himself more ‘civilized’ or closer to the white man. “Black men want to prove to White men at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect” (Fanon).


Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks, says that by calling on humanity, on the belief in dignity, on love, on charity, it will be easy to prove that the black is equal to the white. However, his purpose is to help free the black man from the ‘arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment’. He recounts the incident of a teacher, M. Achille, who, in a student pilgrimage, was spoken to in pidgin-nigger by a priest. Fanon calls this a universally known experience.


A white man, when addressing a Negro, uses a patronizing and infantilizing tone probably with the intention of putting him at ease, however, it has the opposite effect; this automatic manner of classifying him as primitive and uncivilized angers him. To talk to a black man in pidgin, Fanon says, fastens him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him and make him an eternal victim of an appearance which he is not responsible for. When a Frenchman meets a Russian or a German who speaks French poorly, it is hard for him to forget that he has a language of his own. However, when comes to the black man, he is perceived as having no culture, no civilization and no historical past.


Education among the blacks threaten the Europeans. The white man has a fixed concept of the Negro and when he speaks perfect French or quotes Marx or Montesquieu, it raises him to the white man’s level. Nothing is more astonishing to the white man than to hear a black man express himself properly. He is at ease with those who speak French poorly, but a Negro who has made himself knowledgeable, baffles him.


The black man is appraised in terms of the extent of his assimilation of the European and so he expresses himself only in French, incarnating a new type of a man who he imposes on his family and friends. And therefore, according to Fanon, the students from Antilles, when they meet in Paris, have two choices; either to stand with the white world and incline to a certain degree of universality, or to reject it and cling together in dialect.


It is evident that the Negro wants to speak French because it is a means to upwards mobility and opens doors that were barred to him before; to prove that he has measured up to the culture. However, he will never be held up to equal grounds as the white man; he will always be, like the poet Aime Cesaire, “a Negro poet with a university degree” or a “great black poet”. Even though the mastery of French might give him ‘remarkable power’, it will just be an honourary citizenship that he acquired through the white man’s language.