Michael Milov-Cordoba | Reading Revolution in Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates

By Michael Milov-Cordoba

“In the world I am heading for, I am endlessly creating myself.”[1]

I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. . . . the struggle has ruptured and remade me several times over.”[2]

“And you will learn a certain humility because the terms that you have invented, what you think describe and define you, inevitably collide with the facts of life. When this collision occurs—and make no mistake, this is an absolutely inevitable collision—when this collision occurs, like two trains meeting head-on in a tunnel, life offers you the choice, and it’s a very narrow choice, of holding on to your definition of yourself or saying, as the old folks used to say, and as everybody who wants to live has to say: Yes, Lord.”[3]

 

In chapter five of Black Skin White Masks, Frantz Fanon offers a first-person account of what he calls the “lived experience of the black man,”[4] detailing the ways in which a black subjectivity struggles against the “suffocating reification”[5] of the colonial white gaze. The speaker, whom I take to be Fanon, engages in various modes of resistance against the gaze, attempting to achieve recognition of his humanity in the eye of the gaze. Each act of resistance seems to fail as the gaze continues to pathologically fixate Fanon regardless of his actions:“all the time they were clamoring for more.”[6] In view of his inability to resist the suffocating fixation the chapter ends with Fanon in a condition of total alienation from his body, despairing the fundamental inability to receive recognition of his humanity on either racial, universal, or any terms, writing in the final sentence of the chapter: “Not responsible for my acts, at the crossroads between Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.”[7]

Curiously, however, despite the impossibility of the position of one who “with all [his] being . . . refuse[s] to accept this amputation”[8] and yet finds himself “prescribe[d] the humility of the cripple,”[9] Fanon ends the book in the final chapter with an account of a resistance on his own terms: “If the white man challenges my humanity I will show him by weighing down on his life with all of my weight of a man that I am not this grinning Y a bon Banania figure that he persist in imagining I am. . . . The density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation.”[10] In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon does not explicitly connect the total alienation of chapter five with the possibility of resistance and freedom in chapter eight. The two chapters seem to operate autonomously, as if written by two different people. Despite Fanon’s inability to escape the gaze in chapter five, in chapter eight, where revolution is suddenly possibly, the gaze has vanished, with no mention of it throughout the chapter. How are we to make sense of, on the one hand, an account of resistance and freedom which seems to be rendered impossible by the conditions under which takes place (that of chapter five) and, on the other hand, the later account of resistance in which resistance becomes a real possibility on new terms (that of chapter eight)?

In line with the call to privilege intellectual growth over any particular academic norms, in this exploratory book review I take Homi Bhabha’s gesture towards reading Fanon with Baldwin and Coates as a point of departure to try to make sense of the tensions between chapter five and chapter eight. I will proceed by first laying out the structure of chapter five and the particular way in which the Fanon arrives at a condition of total alienation where resistance seems impossible. I will then read this against the promise of freedom of the final chapter. Following this, I will turn to Coates’ and Baldwin’s accounts of resistance in order to then read them back into Fanon. The aim here is not to resolve the tension between the two Fanon’s, something which would require doing a kind of violence the text, but to try to understand what theory of resistance might be at work through this tension. Along the way, I will also try to distill some of the key points of resonance between Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates.

Fanon begins chapter five with what Homi Bhabha called the “primal scene of the everyday racial encounter . . . ‘Dirty Nigger! or simply “Look! A Negro!”[11] In this scene, Fanon struggles to reclaim his subjectivity against a gaze which “imprisons”[12] the “self”[13] into the black “body”[14] and, in doing so, “fixes”[15] him into merely “an object among other objects.”[16] Fanon attempts to resist this gaze and restore his sense of self takes on three distinct forms: first, Fanon reacts to the gaze’s an assault his humanity with an appeal to universality on the terms of rationality; second, Fanon counters the gaze’s undermining of his participation in universality with an appeal to a black human subjectivity as distinct from but co-participating in humanity; finally, when the gaze casts black subjectivity as pre-human (and thus non-human), Fanon attempts, though ultimately fails, to redirect this temporal relocation against the white gaze.

Fanon’s first response to the gaze is an appeal to universal category of the human, in which he accepts the terms of humanity implied by the gaze but tries to broaden the category to include him. “I wanted quite simply to be a man among men,” Fanon confesses, “I wanted to be a man, and nothing but a man.”[17] “Exasperated”[18] and “Tormented”[19] by the incessant fixation of the white gaze—“the Negro’s clothes smell of Negro; the Negro has white teeth; the Negro has big feet; the Negro has a broad chest”[20]—Fanon offers in exchange for integration into the universal a forgetting of all accounts of historical domination of black bodies aimed, so as to disconnect his subjectivity from the black body: “I’ll show them! They can’t say I didn’t warn them. Slavery? No longer a subject of discussion, just a bad memory. My so-called inferiority? A hoax that would be better to laugh about. I was prepared to forget everything, provided they integrated me.”[21] The exchange proves incomplete: “Victory was paying cat and mouse. . . . Everyone was in agreement with the notion: the Negro is a human being. . . . But on certain question the white man remained uncompromising.”[22] The gaze may regard the Negro as “a human being”[23] but the black body remains fixed outside of the universal—“Under no condition did he want any intimacy between the races”[24]—and thus so too Fanon: “‘There will aways be a world—a white world—between you and us: that impossibility on either side to obliterate the past once and for all.’”[25]

When integrationist broadening of the category of the human to include black subjectivities fails, Fanon responds by interrogating the terms of the seemingly universal category of human through an affirmation of blackness via Negritude. “Understandably, confronted with this affective ankylosis of the white man,” Fanon asserts: “I finally made up by mind to shout my blackness.”[26] The discovery that “on the other side of the white world there lies a magical black culture”[27] propels Fanon into a critique of the presuppositions at work in the formulation of the category of the human: “The white man has never understood this magical substitution. The white man wants the world. . . . His relation with the world is one of appropriation. But there are values that can be served only with my sauce. As a magician I stole from the white man a ‘certain world,’ lost to him and his kind.”[28] Herein lies the hidden contradiction at work in the first struggle, always and already displacing the black body outside the universal: appropriation—which is to say, that which is categorically and definitionally denied to the black body—is built into the universal itself. In view of this, Fanon takes the formulation and attempts to understand anew the notion of appropriation so as to inscribe blacks into the universal: “I had subtly established the real world. The essence of the world was my property [emphasis added]. Between the world and me there was a relation of coexistence. I had rediscovered the primordial One.”[29] The gaze grants recognition of a kind via black achievement—“So here I was poet of the world. . . . At last at had been recognized”—only to redirect it against Fanon, deploying distinctly black contributions to humanity against Fanon: “Momentarily taken aback, the white man explained to me that genetically I represented a phase. ‘Your distinctive qualities have been exhausted by us.’”[30] The gaze infantilizes so as to dehumanize Fanon.

Fanon responds, once again, through an interrogation of the terms by which the gaze dehumanizes. In this third moment of resistance, Fanon takes the presupposed claims about historical progress and turns them against the gaze, “put[ting] the white man back in his place”[31] from the forefront of progress into the past: “The white man was wrong, I was not primitive or a subhuman; I belonged to a race that had already been working silver and gold 2,00 years ago.”[32] Here the gaze takes revenge, reversing the reversal by once again changing the terms of the universal, telling Fanon: “In a society such as ours, industrialized to the extreme, dominated by science, there is no longer room for your sensitivity. . . . We will turn to you as the childhood of the world.”[33] Fanon once again interrogates the presuppositions of progress at work in the gaze, asserting that surely black struggle for liberation, as authentic struggle, participates in universal Marxist class struggle and that blacks in struggle are thus deserving of recognition, only to have the gaze infantilize once again, casting Negritude as a mere “weak stage”[34] that must, by the logic of universal history, be overcome. “And there you have it,” Fanon writes: “I did not create a meaning for myself; the meaning was already there, waiting. It is not the wretched nigger, it is not with my nigger’s teeth, it is not as the hungry nigger that I fashion a torch to set the world alight; the torch was already there, waiting for this historic chance. . . . The dialectic that introduces necessity as a support for my freedom expels me from myself.”[35]

The chapter ends with Fanon in despair at the seeming impossibility of any kind of resistance which would afford him recognition as a human. The gaze refuses to integrate the black body on the gaze’s own terms, and, when the terms shift to include the black body, the gaze always and already rearticulates those terms so as to exclude the black body. Fanon, now able to see the pathological logic of the gaze at work in each moment of his resistance, despairs at his alienation: “Truthfully, I’m telling you, I sensed my shoulders slipping from the world, and my feet no longer felt the caress of the ground. Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible to live in my blackness. Not yet white, no longer completely black, I was damned.”[36]

And yet despite the fact that the gaze seems always and already to render Fanon’s resistance impotent—“the black man is a toy in the hands of the white man”[37]—and thus his existence impossible—“No, a feeling of not existing”[38]Black Skin, White Masks continues. Throughout the final chapter, resistance suddenly seems possible: “The density of History determines none of my acts,” Fanon declares: I am my own foundation [emphasis added].”[39] How are we to make sense of this dramatic shift from a determined subject,[40] who can neither escape, nor redirect, nor end the gaze’s fixation of the black man as “an object among other objects,”[41] to a self-determining subject who operates outside of the gaze? What mechanism makes Fanon able to articulate his own terms of resistance and liberation? How and why is the white gaze absent throughout chapter eight? Is this the same Fanon as that of chapter five? It is with these questions in mind that I now turn to a close reading of chapter eight.

In the final chapter of BSWM, we encounter a radically different Fanon who replaces the endless cycles of the gaze’s fixation, reformulation, and redirection—“Confronted with the white man, the black man has to set a high value on his own past, to take his revenge; confronted with the black man, today’s white man feels a need to recall the age of cannibalism”[42]—with a cycle of freedom: “The density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom.”[43] Perhaps even more so than most of the book, Fanon proceeds in this chapter, as Bhabha put it, “processua[ly],”[44] with a series of declarative statements and open questions absent, for the most part, transitional phrases between them. This rhetorical strategy fills the chapter with aphoristic insights but at the cost of a real difficulty in analytically grasping both the argument of the chapter—it is unclear to me if there is one—and thus the bridge between it and chapter five. Nevertheless, there seem to be at least four developments in this chapter which sharply diverge from chapter five: 1) a recasting of the problem of race as a kind of myth that produces self-relations for both whites and and blacks marked by alienation and thus suffering; 2) a new understanding of struggle as one which must repeatedly risk self-annihilation 3) a new conceptualization of freedom that locates it in this struggle; and 4) a final open imperative to live within the space of this constant struggle.

In this chapter, Fanon regards race as a kind of construct or myth that produces pathological self-relations for both whites and blacks marked by mutual self-alienation and suffering. Fanon writes, “The misfortunate of the man of color is having been enslaved,” but also adds, in contrast to the position of the speaker in chapter five, who speaks only of the inner subjectivity of the black man: “the misfortune [emphasis added] and inhumanity of the white man are having killed man somewhere,”[45] thereby linking the two subjectivities. From this move, Fanon attempts to demystify race towards a universal humanism: “The black man is not. No more than the white man.”[46] The universal category of human at work here differs from that of chapter five. Whereas previously it was presupposed that the universal already existed and thus struggle was located at the boundaries of inclusivity into it, here, instead, Fanon gestures towards a cross-racial “solidarity”[47] as the condition of possibility for a new revolutionary universal humanism: “Both [emphasis added] have to move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born.”[48] This movement would only begin when whites and blacks “refuse to let themselves be locked in the substantialized ‘tower of the past’”[49] and enter into struggle against the myth of race: “Before embarking on a positive voice, freedom needs to make an effort at disalienation.”[50]

How are we to understand disalienation? For Fanon, disalienation is not a fixed condition or position of a subject but rather names an activity in the world. This activity entails an interrogation of the conditions which name the subject: “There are from one end of the world to the other men who are searching.”[51] This searching, for Fanon, would be authentic when it risks one’s subjectivity: “As a man, I undertake to risk annihilation so that two or three truths can cast their essential light on the world.”[52] Out of this self-annihilation, the “real leap . . . of introducing invention into life[53] becomes possible. This invention is a self capable of moving beyond the destructive reactive logic of the gaze. Fanon envisions this activity of the interrogation of the terms of one’s identity, the risk that these terms may change, the annihilation of these terms and the self constituted by these terms, and the invention of new terms as an endless struggle—“In the world I am heading for, I am endlessly creating myself [emphasis added]”[54]—because it is here in struggle, through interrogation, risk, annihilation, and invention, that Fanon locates freedom: “Here is my freedom, which sends back to me my own reflection.”[55] It is only from within this struggle that an authentic, which is say non-pathological, humanism may emerge: “it is though self-consciousness and renunciation, through a permanent tension of his freedom, that man can create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world.”[56] Out of this recognition, Fanon ends the final chapter with an enigmatic open imperative, “Oh my body, always make me a man who questions!”[57] committing himself to never cease from questioning, from interrogating, from risking annihilation, and thus also invention. He does so, I would argue, on the grounds that freedom and the possibility of a universal humanism, a mutual recognition of the humanity of the other, is located within this resistance.

It is at this juncture between resistance and freedom where Fanon intersects with the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Occasioned, at least in part, by his son’s encounter with the jarring reality of American anti-black racism via the news of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson—a kind of 21st century iteration of “Look! A Negro!”[58]— in Between the World and Me Coates gifts an autobiographical account of himself to his son, laying out the terms by which he (Coates) has come to understand the relation between his black body and the world. He urges his son to live his life guided by the question which has come to define Coates’ life: that of the tension between living freely and living within a black body[59]:

What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how I should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.[60]

This struggle, this “constant interrogation,”[61] as Coates calls it, of the tension between terms of his life and “the brutality of my country”[62] has repeatedly destroyed Coates’ subjectivity throughout his life. But this openness to accept the annihilation of his subjectivity has created the conditions of possibility for Coates to create new terms by which to live by that produce, with each iteration, a more liberated subjectivity:

You have seen in this conversation that the struggle has ruptured and remade me several times over—in Baltimore, at The Mecca, in fatherhood, in New York. The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream. But even more, the changes have taught me how to best exploit that singular gift of study, to question  what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.[63]

Even as Coates acknowledges the pain of experiencing the effects of what he calls the Dream, or the particular American toxic brew of capitalist and anti-black racist ideologies[64]—“It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country. It breaks too much of what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us”[65]—the grief that comes with an understanding that sees the Dream as a a dream and thus the Dreamers as delusional—“And knowing this, knowing the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.”[66]—and the deep fear of self-annihilation that is presupposed in struggle against the Dream—Coates poetically ends the book with a return to the fear with which his struggle began, writing, “though the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear”[67]—Coates still “urges”[68]  his son “to struggle.”[69] He does so out of a conviction that there is a “great joy”[70] afforded by the ongoing questioning and rejection of the Dream, that the vulnerability presupposed in the project of rupture and recreation of the self “brings you closer to the meaning of life”[71]; and that that it is only through and in struggle against the Dream that freedom, which is for Coates the ability to chose the terms by which one lives, becomes a real possibility: “But some time ago, I rejected magic in all its form. . . . In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live.”[72] Thus for Coates to question the Dream is to question the self that the Dream creates and depends upon. To put this self into question is to risk a rupture of the self which is genuinely painful. But only through this risking of self does it become possible the articulate the terms of one’s life, an experience which affords great joy as one moves closer to the meaning of life and to living freely.

We hear Coates’ struggle against the dream or Fanon’s disalienation and self-annihilation in an illuminating register in the writings of James Baldwin. In numerous essays throughout his life, Baldwin interrogated the many ways in which the “delusions”[73] of those who believe that they are white and the fantasy of those who “dream of becoming white”[74] obscures the fundamental question of the self and that an inability to pose the question of who one is—and thus, by extension, what one is or could be responsible for—is at the root of suffering in the United States. He writes: “The question of color, especially in this country, operates to hide the graver questions of the self. . . . The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others. . . . This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours.”[75] This question of self is, for Baldwin, always a political question, as the quote implies, because Baldwin believed that asking who one is is a pre-condition for grasping “the reality of another human being ”[76] and that this capacity to grasp the “reality of another human being”[77] is, in turn, presupposed in the fact of living together: “no country can survive, it cannot survive, without a patient, active responsibility for all its citizens. . . . In order for us to survive and transcend the terrible days ahead of us, the country will have to turn and take me in its arms.”[78] For this reason, Baldwin sought to articulate the terms by which we might begin to see clearly the “lie of white supremacy”[79] as a “fantastic system of evasions, denials, and justifications”[80] that both exposes black lives to terrible precarity—“the citizens of Harlem who, as we have seen, can come to grief at any hour in the streets, and who are not safe at their windows, are forbidden the very air”[81]—and produces a self-relation for whites marked by alienation and suffering: “This is the place in which it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.”[82]

What precisely is the Baldwinian question of self? The question of self emerges when the “terms”[83] that one uses to make sense of the reality of the world, terms which, for Baldwin, we cannot but inherit from history, begin to contradict the “the way in which one puts oneself together, what one imagines oneself to be”[84] when we act in the world. Identity, for Baldwin, is an “invented reality”[85] a  “certain kind of bargain with the world”[86] in which “he has a name, we know what he does, and we think, therefore, that we know who he is. But it is not that simple.”[87] For Baldwin, we take ourselves to be singular subjects, distinctly coherent selves, but the inner reality is that “one is a stranger to oneself, and that one must deal with this stranger day in and day out.”[88] The question of self emerges when reality contradicts this identity invented out of the terms of history, terms which, for Baldwin, express and constitute “the lie of white supremacy.”[89] Out of this contradiction, the “stranger,”[90] she who can grasp true reality in a world constituted by lies, emerges out of the subject and appears before him. When this occurs, a phenomenon which, recall, only becomes possible when the subject recognizes the lie as a lie and sees the contradiction between reality and his identity, produces terror and fear[91] in the subject: terror out of the recognition of the emptying out of the categories which constituted the subject (similar, I think, to Bhabha’s gesture to the “void” in Coates[92]) and fear out of the realization that because one does not know who one is, one does not know who others are and thus what they might do:

On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: begins to attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.[93]

 

Posing the question of the self is, for Baldwin, an existentially demanding act that threatens to risk the “rupture”[94] of Coates or the “annihilation”[95] of Fanon. We see this particularly well in an essay entitled “The White Problem,” where Baldwin, in an essay that notably takes an excerpt from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a kind of lodestar, asks the reader to “try to make a certain leap [emphasis added] with me . . . which comes from Nietzsche . . . ‘I stand before my highest mountain, and before my longest journey, and, therefore, must I descend deeper than I have ever before descended,’”[96] writing:

Later on, one begins to discover, with great pain, and very much against one’s will that whatever it is you want, what you want, at bottom, must be to become yourself: there is nothing else to want.  Whatever one’s journey is, one’s got to accept the fact that disaster is one of the conditions under which you will make it. (The journey, I mean, not ‘make it,’ in the American sense.) And you will learn a certain humility, because the terms that you have invented, which you think describe and define you, inevitably collide with the facts of life. When this collision occurs—and make no mistake, this is an absolutely inevitable collision—when this collision occurs, like two trains meeting head-on in a tunnel, life offers you the choice, and it’s a very narrow choice, of holding on to your definition of yourself or saying, as the old folks used to say, and as everybody who wants to live has to say: Yes, Lord. Which is to say yes to life. Until you do that, you’ve not  become a man or a woman.[97]

To become yourself by saying yes to life is to destroy and remake the self: “And we spoke a little earlier about the necessity, when the collision between your terms and life’s terms occurs, of saying yes to life,”[98] Baldwin clarifies, “That’s the descent [emphasis added]. The difference between a boy and a man is that a boy imagines there is some way to get through life safely, and a man knows he’s going to pay his dues.”[99] Baldwin, like Fanon and Coates, locates in the descent, which is, in the Baldwinian turn described as a “leap”[100] similar to Fanon’s “real leap . . . of introducing invention into life”[101]—we can also think here of Bhabha’s Baldwin’s chiasmatic reversal, “throwing off the foot on his neck”[102]— the condition of possibility for freedom: “the reason is that in order to be free—let’s look some facts of your life in the face—you have to look into yourself and know who you are, at least know who you are, and decide what you want or at least what you will not have, and will not be, and take it from there. People are as free as they wish to become.”[103] Baldwin clarifies that though we are “forced to create”[104] or invent ourselves by the very fact of our being in the word, he is calling for a leap as distinct from and beyond the prior act of inventing the self because the latter relies on the historical terms of the lie that the former seeks to move beyond in the leap towards new terms.

Baldwin formulates the call to accept the inevitable collision between “the terms. . . you think describe and define you”[105] with the “facts of life”[106] and to introduce terms beyond those we inherit—the terms spoken by the stranger—in the register of life and death. Bhabha cited Baldwin’s call to “earn one’s death”[107] as part of the “inversion”[108] or “reversal of the negative way,”[109] and I think we can go one step further. What would be required to earn our death, what seems to be presupposed in the very idea that death is something we can earn, is that life too is something which is not already earned. The need to earn our death presupposes that we are not yet living and thus that beginning to live is part of the project of earning death: death would be earned when a life is actually lived. Baldwin’s radical view of life is that it can only be lived with full acknowledgement of the reality of death: “If you can live in the full knowledge that you are going to die, that you are not going to live forever, that if you live with the reality of death, you can live. This is not mystical talk; it is a fact. It is a principal fact of life [emphasis added]. If you can’t do it, if you spend your entire life in flight from death, you are also in flight from life.”[110] To acknowledge the reality of death, we must be willing to put to death the selves we invent out of history, the selves that “imprison [them]selves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have,”[111] when the terms of reality contradict him. We must be willing accept the stranger, who suddenly appears before us out of the contradiction, and accept him with love, an act which would see the stranger as he really is, which is to say, would see the stranger as oneself:

 . . . a vast amount of white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. . . . It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace.[112]

Out of this ethic of recognizing and loving the stranger who emerges out of the self, one learns how to love the other in oneself, and it then becomes possible to also love the stranger in anyone else: “One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.”[113] And it is here, at the crossroads between strangers, in full view of “the fact of death, which is the only fact we have”[114] that something like revolution can take place: “The terms of this revolution are precisely these: that we will learn to live together here or all of us will abruptly stop living.”[115] This would be a revolution in what we take living—and thus, by the Baldwinian logic linking self to other via the stranger, living together—to actually mean.

Like Baldwin, in the final chapter of BSWM Fanon also theorized revolution in life and death terms, and, I would argue, perhaps with an eye to a kind of love. Revolution, for Fanon, becomes possible through a recognition that “it has bec[o]me impossible . . . to breath, in more than one sense of the word.”[116] Fanon describes the conditions in which this recognition would take place in a life/death register, writing: “for me bourgeois society is a closed society where it’s not good to be alive, where the air is rotten and ideas and people are putrefying. And I believe that a man who takes a stand against this living death [emphasis added] is in a way a revolutionary.”[117] Fanon, like Baldwin, inverts the categories of life and death: to call an existence a “living death” presupposes, like Baldwin’s “earn our death”[118] that we have not yet begun living. To take a stand against a living death, a life which does not realize that it is dying, would mean taking a stand for life. Before ending the book, Fanon gestures towards what this might look like, writing: “Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other? Was my freedom not given me to build the world of you, man? At the end of this book we would like the reader to feel with us the open dimension of every consciousness.”[119] There is a kind of sensuality implied by the “touch of the other,”[120] one which Baldwin directly connects to the “yes to life”[121] and the act of love: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”[122] One can hear in Fanon’s “feel the other, discover each other,”[123] the “taking off of the mask”[124] of Baldwin’s love, the “annihilation so that two or three truths can cast their essential light on the world.”[125] For Baldwin and Coates there is a “joy”[126] in the midst of “anguish”[127] of the discovery of the stranger that simmers beneath Fanon’s call to touch, feel, and discover each other.

With all of this in mind, we can make better sense of Fanon’s final words. For Baldwin, Fanon, and Coates, life is a category that implies living freely, and this begins when one commits to an endless interrogation of the self against the terms of one’s existence that prevent acknowledgment of the reality of death. When we read Fanon’s final words, “O my body, always make me a man who questions!”[128] we can draw a direct line to Baldwin and Coates. To always make me a man who questions is to create the conditions for the “real leap . . . of introducing invention into life”[129]; it is is to “risk annihilation”[130] through the “descent”[131] of the Baldwinian “inevitably collision”[132] between “the terms you have invented”[133] and “the facts of life”[134] in order to take off the mask and say “Yes, Lord. . . yes to life”[135] revealing the stranger as, in fact, oneself; it is to join Coates in “searching for the right question”[136] with a willingness to be “ruptured and remade . . . several times over”[137] by the struggle. The conviction here, among these writers, is that life, as life as opposed to “living death”[138] or living with the lie of the unreality “of the fact of death, which is the only fact we have,”[139] or living with a Dream that denies death takes place within the gap between self and stranger. In the world Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates are “heading for,”[140] they are “endlessly creating [them]selves,”[141] earning their death by learning how to live.

And so how are we to make sense of the shift from the despair and alienation of chapter five, where existence seems impossible, to the resistance and humanism of the final chapter? It remains a difficult task. It seems that the two Fanon’s—the Fanon who “weeps”[142] and the Fanon who “questions”[143]—may be irreconcilable; however, if we hear Fanon in light of Coates and Baldwin, we can read the tension as a potentially productive one. For Coates, authentic struggle promises freedom only by risking the pain of “accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end,”[144] promises the “great joy”[145] of the “pursuit of the question”[146] by risking the despair of the recognition of the ‘the essential below of your country.”[147] Similarly, for Baldwin the recognition of the collision between “your definition of yourself”[148] and “the facts of life”[149] produces “great pain and terror”[150] even as it is simultaneously the condition of possibility to “re-create oneself according to a principle more human and more liberating.”[151] Chapter eight, read without the account of the alienation and despair of chapter five, promises a revolutionary humanism, a promise of freedom and its joy, without the pain of the experiences of disembodiment and struggle, pain and terror, that freedom presupposes for these writers. The two Fanon’s thus embody these two experiences: chapter five is an account of the rupture of subjectivity and chapter eight is the remaking of it from within. Perhaps the separation and disconnect between the chapters is intended to give a sense of what disembodiment is actually like, in the sense that is not immanently clear, while in struggle against disembodiment, that something like freedom is an actual possibility and that totalizing despair—the “weep”[152]— looks, in fact, far more likely than joy from the perspective of those in struggle. To the degree that we are persuaded that Baldwin and Coates write in the same tradition as Fanon,[153] to have freedom without the suffering of struggle reproduces the logic of the Coates’ Dream or Baldwin’s Lie. Each of this mistakes life for death: Baldwin’s Lie is the lie, as Bhabha pointed out in his intervention, of those who “do not believe in death,”[154] just as Coates’ Dream is the dream that “plunder. . . matured into habit and addiction”[155] is not murder, the belief that the Dream’s “noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves”[156] will not kill them. Thus, to pick the Fanon of chapter eight without the Fanon of chapter five is to participate in the Lie and the Dream. Fanon, Coates, and Baldwin each call out—Coates to his son, Baldwin to his nephew, and Fanon to “the reader”[157]—to join them in rejecting the belief that we can be free without struggle, that death is not a reality, and begin “the descent”[158] of  heading toward the world of “endlessly creating myself”[159] that Fanon, Coates, and Baldwin are heading for.

To briefly conclude, I would argue that the mechanism which makes Fanon’s resistance possible in chapter eight is a radical acceptance of the fact that “always”[160] risking self-annihilation is a fundamental pre-condition for declaring and actualizing the fact that “I am my own foundation.”[161] At no point in chapter five does Fanon resist or theorize from this position. Though we have a better grasp of the potential relation of chapter five and chapter eight (separating the experiences of disembodiment and freedom to better more accurately portray the lived experience of resistance) it remains an open question why the gaze is completely absent from chapter eight. If the structure is trying to give an authentic account of struggle and urge the reader to a kind of commitment to always question, to repeatedly risk self-annihilation through constant interrogation of the terms of one’s life, one still wonders why the gaze is a not an active force in the final chapter. Under a white nationalistic administration that is attempting to radicalize the white gaze, this seems to be a question worth taking seriously if we wish to use Fanon’s resistance as a model for our own in our current moment.

Work Cited

Aching, Gerard. “2016 Society for the Humanities Lecture: Gerard Aching.” Video. 1:19:12.

Posted [March, 2016]. http://as.cornell.edu/news/aching-examines-black-bodies-black-lives-matter

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1976).

Baldwin, James. Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998).

Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Vintage  International, 2010).

Bhabha, Homi. “Thinking the Burdened Life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates” from Nietzsche 8/13: Fanon. Video. Posted [April 2017]. http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/nietzsche1313/8-13/.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008).

 

Notes

[1] Frantz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 204.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 115.

[3] James Baldwin.“The White Problem,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Vintage International, 2010), 90.

[4] Fanon, 89.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 91.

[7] Ibid., 119.

[8] Ibid., 119.

[9] Ibid., 119.

[10] Ibid., 203; 205.

[11] Homi Bhabha. “Thinking the Burdened Life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates” from Nietzsche 8/13: Fanon. http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/nietzsche1313/8-13/. Bhabha’s quote comes from Fanon, 89.

[12] Fanon., 92.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 89.

[16] Ibid., 89.

[17] Ibid., 92.

[18] Ibid., 96.

[19] Ibid., 96.

[20] Ibid., 96.

[21] Ibid., 94.

[22] Ibid., 99.

[23] Ibid., 99.

[24] Ibid., 99.

[25] Ibid., 101.

[26] Ibid., 101.

[27] Ibid., 102.

[28] Ibid., 107.

[29] Ibid., 107.

[30] Ibid., 108.

[31] Ibid., 110.

[32] Ibid., 109.

[33] Ibid., 111.

[34] Ibid., 116.

[35] Ibid., 113.

[36] Ibid., 117.

[37] Ibid., 119.

[38] Ibid., 118.

[39] Ibid., 205.

[40] The descriptor determined vs. self-determining derives from Robert Gooding-William’s intervention in the Fanon seminar. Although he was using the conceptual distinction to characterize the difference between the Fanon of Wretched of the Earth and the Fanon of Black Skin, White Masks, I think we can productively use it to characterize chapters five and eight in BSWM.

[41] Fanon, 89.

[42] Ibid., 200.

[43] Ibid., 205.

[44] Bhabha, “Thinking the Burdened Life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates.”

[45] Fanon, 205

[46] Ibid., 206.

[47] Ibid., 204.

[48] Ibid., 206.

[49] Ibid., 201.

[50] Ibid., 206.

[51] Ibid., 204

[52] Ibid., 202.

[53] Ibid., 204.

[54] Ibid., 204

[55] Ibid., 203.

[56] Ibid., 206.

[57] Ibid., 206.

[58] Ibid., 89.

[59] This particular formulation of Coates derives from Gerard Aching’s recent lecture on Coates and Fanon. See: Gerard Aching. “2016 Society for the Humanities Lecture 2016: Gerard Aching.” http://as.cornell.edu/news/aching-examines-black-bodies-black-lives-matter

[60] Coates, 11-12

[61] Ibid., 12.

[62] Ibid., 12.

[63] Ibid., 115-116.

[64] Ibid., 151. The “same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

[65] Ibid., 106

[66] Ibid., 10-11.

[67] Ibid., 152.

[68] Ibid., 151.

[69] Ibid., 151.

[70] Ibid., 115.

[71] Ibid., 107.

[72] Ibid., 12.

[73] James Baldwin. “The Price of the Ticket,” Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 835.

[74] Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket,” 835.

[75] Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name,” in Collected Essays, 136.

[76] Baldwin, “What Price Freedom,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, 83. See also: Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” Collected Essays, 312. “The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. . . . Therefore, whatever people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”

[77] Baldwin, “What Price Freedom,” 83.

[78] Ibid. 85.”

[79] Baldwin, “The Price May Be Too High,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, 106.

[80] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, 93.

[81] Baldwin, “Report from Occupied Territory,” Collected Essays, 735.

[82] Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Collected Essays, 723.

[83] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 90.

[84] Ibid., 89.

[85] Ibid., 89.

[86] Ibid., 89.

[87] Ibid., 89.

[88] Ibid., 89.

[89] Baldwin, “The Price May Be Too High,” 106.

[90] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 89.

[91] Given the context of the Nietzsche seminar and that the focus of this paper is “intellectual growth,” it is worth pointing out the many ways in which Baldwin is surprisingly close to Hannah Arendt on so many fronts. It is beyond the scope of this book review to go into detail, but some locations of overlap include: their understanding of the ways in which fear and terror describe the affective reality of confrontation with ideologies. On this see: Hannah Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1976). How the lonely subject is the one who most desperately seeks ideologies, like that of white supremacy or totalitarianism On this see: Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism; Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” Collected Essays, 305. The ways in which Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil aligns with Baldwin’s conception of white innocence and his equating of wickedness with spinelessness. On this see: Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 2006); Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 318. Their conceptions of the relation between action and history and the conditions of judgment in the modern world. On this See: Hannah Arendt. Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006); Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 311-312. Notably, since the election, both have become prominent figures in public discourse: we seem to be reaching for Baldwin to make sense of the white supremacy of the administration and Arendt to make sense of the administration’s anti-liberalism and incipient totalitarianism. In another project, I hope to write a paper on the relation between them.

[92] Bhabha, “Thinking the Burdened life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates.”

[93] Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Collected Essays, 723.

[94] Coates, 115.

[95] Fanon, 202.

[96] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 89.

[97] Ibid., 90.

[98] Ibid., 95.

[99] Ibid., 96. It’s beyond the scope of this paper, but one could draw some interesting analysis of Nietzsche, Fanon, and Baldwin by using Baldwin’s conceptions of childhood and “maturity” in relation to Fanon’s use of Nietzsche when, in concluding BSWM, Fanon writes: “The misfortune of man is that he was once a child.” See: Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” 723; Fanon, 206.

[100] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 89.

[101] Fanon, 204.

[102] Bhabha, “Thinking the Burdened Life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates.”

[103] Baldwin, “What Price Freedom,” 86.

[104] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 89.

[105] Ibid., 90.

[106] Ibid., 90.

[107] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 339.

[108] Bhabha, “Thinking the Burdened Life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates.”

[109] Ibid.

[110] Baldwin, “The Uses of the Blues,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, 80.

[111] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 339.

[112] Ibid., 341.

[113] Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name,” 136.

[114] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 339.

[115] Baldwin, “We Can Change the Country,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, 59-60.

[116] Fanon, 201.

[117] Ibid., 199.

[118] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 339.

[119] Fanon, 206.

[120] Ibid., 206.

[121] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 90.

[122] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 311.

[123] Fanon, 206.

[124] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 341.

[125] Fanon, 202.

[126] Baldwin, “The Uses of the Blues,” 70.

[127] Ibid., 70.

[128] Fanon, 206.

[129] Ibid., 204.

[130] Ibid., 202.

[131] Bhabha, “Thinking the Burdened Life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates.

[132] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 90.

[133] Ibid., 90.

[134] Ibid., 90.

[135] Ibid., 90

[136] Coates, 115.

[137] Ibid., 115.

[138] Fanon, 199.

[139] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 339.

[140] Fanon, 204

[141] Ibid., 204

[142] Ibid., 119.

[143] Ibid., 206.

[144] Coates, 12.

[145] Ibid., 115.

[146] Ibid., 12.

[147] Ibid., 106.

[148] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 90.

[149] Ibid., 90.

[150] Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” 723.

[151] Ibid., 723.

[152] Fanon, 119.

[153] In addition to the analysis so far, in which I am trying to make this claim, Gerard Aching brilliantly points out another connection between Fanon and Coates in a lecture on them. Aching shows that Fanon’s final words, “Oh my body [emphasis added], make me always a man who questions,” aligns almost directly with Coates’ words that “the question [emphasis added] of how one should live within a black body [emphasis added], within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life” in the sense that the call to constant questioning comes directly out of the black body for both Fanon and Coates.

[154] Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 339.

[155] Coates, 150.

[156] Ibid., 150.

[157] Fanon, 206.

[158] Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 96.

[159] Fanon, 204

[160] Ibid., 206.

[161] Ibid., 205.

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