The Trouble with Fanon

9 a.m. is an ungodly time for any class to begin. A young white student sits bored among her classmates in a half-empty classroom, waiting for the lecture to start. Head resting in hand, she doodles in her notebook and absent-mindedly glances at a syllabus. The day’s topic reads specters of race. “Something to do with prejudice,” she mumbles to herself, half in the hopes that at least today’s video, what was it, oh yeah, Frantz Fanon, would be something to look at.

These classes were particularly hard for her, a situation she’d remedied through daily gripe sessions with friends. “The reading assignments are way too long for an art course,” they’d tell each other. “And the language the professor uses, what’s up with that?” The class screenings were lifesavers in that regard. And if the videos were agonizing, like that movie Suture, you could still use the time in the dark to catch up on some Z’s. Suddenly she remembers the class had moved to a room where the windows have no blinds. “Ugh, I hope this is good,” she mumbles. A few students within earshot roll their eyes in agreement.

The video begins. A Black man appears and speaks of being “an object in the midst of other objects,” or some such stuff. Guy’s not bad looking, she muses. Sound bites extracted from Fanon’s famous text Black Skin, White Masks (1952) fill the room:

“Look, a Negro . . . Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!”1

Oh, yeah now that’s an old term, the girl thinks to herself. Funny how hip hop brought that back, like how they’d all say “hey neeegrow” to each other on In Living Color. Now that show was dope. Cool how all that stuff is back again, like “Negro” an’ Tony Bennett an’ shit.

I am overdetermined from without. I am a slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance.
I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed.2

The girl yawns, stretching her arms up behind her head languorously, then begins to doodle again, unable to sleep with all that sun beaming in. She studies the face of the Black man playing Fanon. Hmmm, nice mouth, fleshy round, but not too much . . . let’s see, sort of like this. And there upon her notepad it began to emerge: the soft lips and round nose of “Fanon.” As the movie progressed, she became more consumed with her caricatures, leaving one illustration of Fanon’s lips to perfect another, followed by his nose and eyes, all in bits and pieces scattered across the blue college-lined sheet of paper.

* * *

Entering class that day to instruct a seminar on the work of Frantz Fanon, as interpreted by filmmaker Isaac Julien, we had a goal: to illustrate the manner in which white and Black subjectivities are “imbricated along the axis of inauthenticity,” as postcolonial theorists have argued. Yet it soon became apparent that we had entered a situation whereupon everyone was taking aim, but at what? As Lacan has pointed out, an aim is different from a goal.3 A goal is tangible and can be met. An aim, however, needs no goal, just as the anorexic who fetishizes food need not eat. When confronted with those who take aim as a recreational practice, one’s goal becomes superfluous. A position of poised attention to the words of a professor certainly wasn’t their goal, nor was the rejection of any lesson gained from such attention. Rather, we functioned as a deflector device for an aim that is always already internalized. And this internalized aim, we soon came to understand, was consistent with what psychoanalyst Nicholas Abraham has termed the “phantom,” pointing to what we’d like to call the trouble with Fanon.4

A filmic representation of the phantom occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), in which a young couple struggles unsuccessfully to bury the woman’s ex-husband, Harry. Their inability to face the secrets entombed with Harry requires that the body be repetitively dug up, re-buried, and so on. Since he is never quite laid to rest, Harry psychologically “haunts” those trying to keep his death a secret, a death for which each person mistakenly takes responsibility at different points in the narrative. In the end, the young woman exclaims with exhaustion, “The trouble with Harry is that he’s dead.” But it wasn’t actually Harry’s death that haunted them, if we borrow Abraham’s definition of the phantom. It was the gap left within them by the secrets of Harry’s life that haunted the survivors. His less than savory existence implicated them all. For instance, his wife’s own lack of empathy for Harry’s death—“He was a real bastard”—entangled her in a potential murder trial. Thus, the “secret” of Harry’s death was unconsciously and individually internalized by all those who feared, for different reasons, that they had killed him. This dilemma was consistently played out through an open secret that necessarily protected the integrity of both the legend of Harry as well as those who survived him.

On a similar note, Abraham’s example of a patient plagued by a personal phantom was that of a man whose father was illegitimate, a secret kept to the father’s grave by a complicated piece of fiction that the family had maintained. The story that the patient told was one in which his bastard father was a descendent of European nobility. However, in taking on the fictional account of his father’s genealogy, the son unconsciously internalized the neurosis of being illegitimate, though the cause of this internalized neurosis was not a repressed primal scene of bastardization. Rather, this internalized neurosis was indicative of a gap standing between the father’s own reaction-formation (assertions of nobility standing for illegitimacy) and the son’s unconscious perpetuation of the father’s neurotic behavior, acted out in verbal fits and irrational claims. In describing the operation of the phantom, Abraham speaks of how the father’s unconscious is focused on one thought:

If my mother had not hidden the name of the illustrious lover of whose son I am, I would not have to hide the degrading fact that I am an illegitimate child. How could this thought, alive in the father’s unconscious, become transformed into the unconscious of his eldest son, everyone’s favorite, and remain so active there as to provoke fits? In all respects and by all accounts, the patient appears possessed not by his own unconscious but by someone else’s.5

The difficulty of analyzing the patient, then, “lies in [his] horror at violating a parent of a family’s guarded secret, even though the secret’s text and content are inscribed in [the patient’s] unconscious. The horror of transgressing . . . is compounded by the risk of undermining the fictitious yet necessary integrity of the parental figure in question.”6 In this way, the phantom’s return points to a gap, to that very secret which is unspeakable.

The unspeakable “secret” played out through the phantom may be arbitrary, as is the figure who inherits it (be it the couple in Hitchcock’s film struggling to bury Harry, or Abraham’s patient, the son of a bastard father). However, the psycho-dynamic of the phantom is consistent, and it was this very dynamic that played itself out the day Fanon “appeared” in class. But of course, it wasn’t actually Fanon that appeared in class; rather, it was the gap or the secret signified by “Fanon” which reared its phantasmatic head.

* * *

Just what was the secret that threatened to speak, instigating the young white girl’s performative acting out of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks? In an American context, the “fact” of Blackness was shuffled away in exchange for civil rights. When John F. Kennedy announced in his 1963 television address that he would “ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law,” the die was cast. For a supplement was unconsciously planted in the Presidential utterance: race has no place in American life or law. The Negro citizen’s rights were to be obtained—that is to say, the Negro’s acceptance would be initiated—through his or her deracination. As Fanon argued, the Negro has no place, perpetually suspended between barbarism and civilization in the eyes of the white man. Fanon knew this gap all too well, evidenced by his description of assimilation: “When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. Then they dislike me, they point out it is not because of my color. Either way I am locked into the infernal circle.”7 Raised as a colonial subject, Fanon spoke of race relations in the twilight of the French-Algerian War. Nevertheless, his experience is still relevant here. Civil rights also taught its children to be polite, not to point and stare, not to interpellate the Black subject: Look mama, a Negro! The supplement of civil rights, in essence, thus taught its descendants to embrace equality by turning away from the “fact” of Blackness. Its imperative was to ensure that we wouldn’t speak race, that race would have no place in American life.

Why did we Americans comply so readily? Because the “fact” of Blackness implicates everyone. The “fact” of Blackness is what haunts “the gaps left within us by the secrets of others,” as Abraham put it.8 And the “fact” of Blackness, of course, circumscribes our notion of legitimacy. Like Abraham’s patient, Martin Luther King Jr. was concerned with legitimacy, specifically the manner in which Black men had been disinherited from the Founding Fathers’ estate. In his famous “I Have A Dream” address (1963), King challenged the executors of the national “will”:

So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition . . . When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

One hundred years after slavery, King demanded that the Fathers write him a good check, in essence restoring to the Black man his rightful name. And yet this name had a price. Race would henceforth constitute the gap within us produced by the “secret” of a color-blind civil rights movement: that the “fact” of Blackness was merely a product of whiteness.

On this point Fanon was clear. As he put it, the white man has woven the Black man out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories. Thus, if the American Black man was no longer forced to answer the literal call of “Look a Negro!” in a post-civil rights era, he still had to answer to those internalized stories and anecdotes in order to achieve a sense of “self.” A secondary mode of racialization was subsequently reinscribed through negation, that is, through the denial of the Other’s difference, provoking a more insidious form of alienation. To cite again Fanon’s famous passage on racial denial, we find words of resonance to those of King’s generation: “When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I am locked into the infernal circle.”

It is important to note that what Louis Althusser famously called an interpellation need not be a verbal hailing. It can be the body that involuntarily speaks for anyone nearby to see, as the student who publicly drew “Fanon” in silence so aptly demonstrated. For whom, sitting in proximity to that student, might have been fixed by those mindless doodles? Moreover, what initiated this acting out of another’s neurosis, one predating the student by over thirty years? That is to say, why the persistence of this unconscious interpellation, itself an index of the phantom’s presence? Unbeknownst to us at the time, what Julien’s film produced was a site of analysis, in the most clinical sense. What the film culled from Black Skin, White Masks was the manner in which Fanon enacted the trauma of the gap as that site in which racial illegitimacy divided him psychically between white and Black subjectivities. The brilliance of Julien’s film was that it demonstrated how Fanon had internalized the fight between father and son over legitimacy that we see repeatedly in manners concerning the phantom. Fanon’s literary enactment of both positions was a radical strategy in 1952 when “race” was not to be uttered by those seeking assimilation, which King and his followers advocated.

Furthermore, Fanon’s strategy was too transgressive even for those who resisted acculturation, which characterized devotees of Malcolm X, the “ne’er do well” son of the civil rights movement. Whereas Malcolm X ultimately pointed to a repressed authentic Black position, Fanon (in Black Skin, White Masks) pointed to the white position as both an external and internal factor in the Black man’s psyche (a crisis of split interpellation in Althusser’s terms). It was whiteness that textually overdetermined Fanon’s Black man, both disintegrating him and relegating Black “authenticity” to an aporic space. Pursuing the fact of Blackness, Fanon thus discovered that the gap, in which race hides its name, painfully eludes legitimacy:

Every hand was a losing hand for me. I analyzed my heredity. I made a complete audit of my ailment. I wanted to be typically Negro—it was no longer possible. I wanted to be white—that was a joke. And, when I tried . . . to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me.9

And yet, if Fanon’s Black man was alienated from himself as a prerequisite of being “Black,” the same held true for the white man. For if Blackness (in the context of colonial racist ideology) is an inauthentic subject position based on the presumed inferiority to/by the white man, then whiteness, in turn, suffers from the same inauthenticity based on a presumed superiority to/by the Black man. Together these raced subject positions constitute a shared neurosis, even if the “white” position is not explicitly based on such hegemonic formations. For instance, the man who adores the Negro, Fanon asserts, is just as neurotic as the man who abominates him, since either way a spectacle of “Blackness” is produced solely for the white man’s conception of (de-raced) self. Put simply, if whiteness constructs Blackness in order to support itself, a tautological space is created in which both positions (in actuality) are alienated from themselves and each other.

Julien’s film thus pointed to (or pricked, if you will) the gap felt within the white student by the secret of civil rights, a “fact” of Blackness kept secret all these years in order to protect the integrity of the father’s dream: that little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. Endowed with “inalienable” subject positions, Black children would thus be made equal to their white siblings, the latter of whom would cast desirous looks of approval upon the Other’s face. The dirty business of oppression/recognition games that characterize the colonial master/slave relationship, which still haunt interracial subject positions in postcolonial times, would henceforth be the guarded family secret of the civil rights movement, one that Fanon’s text lets out of the bag. And it is this same secret that our young student, plagued by the phantom in a bored half-dream state, deferentially returned to its “rightful” place when she began to draw Fanon’s face. An accurate likeness of Fanon’s face may have appeared to be the goal, both to herself as well as to her peers. But in the act of doodling, she was, in fact, taking aim at Fanon’s “epidermal schema” in order to unconsciously maintain the Family fiction that we don’t think of those we like as “Black,” that no longer shall a little white girl, a symptom of the parent’s repressed racism, impolitely declare, Look, a Negro! And yet, in taking such aim, in the guise of automatic writing, the student’s body betrayed her. For the body, even in its most aphasic state, always manages to speak the repressed, as those bits and pieces of Fanon’s face scattered across the young student’s notepad attest. But it is precisely there that the “fact” of Blackness continues to disturb, putting into relief the open secret of race upon Fanon’s “return.”

  1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, While Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 1952/1986), 112. Citations refer to the 1986 edition.
  2. Fanon, Black Skin, While Masks, 116.
  3. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977).
  4. Nicolas Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud’s Metapsychology,” trans. Nicholas Rand, Critical Inquiry 13, no. 2, The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis (Winter, 1987): 287–92.
  5. Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom,” 289.
  6. Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom,” 290.
  7. Fanon, Black Skin, While Masks, 116.
  8. Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom,” 287.
  9. Fanon, Black Skin, While Masks, 132.