Fanon begins with a quote from Discourse on Colonialism by the Martinician writer Aimé Césaire, which describes the negative psychological impact of empire on colonized peoples. Fanon warns that he is not “the bearer of absolute truths,” and that no one asked him to write this book, particularly not the people “for whom it is intended.” He considers the different ways people address race and the legacy of colonialism, which he feels are inadequate. To Fanon, the truly important questions are: “What does man want?” and “What does the black man want?” He argues that “a Black is not a man,” and that instead black people exist in a “zone of nonbeing.”
At first glance, Fanon’s arguments can seem alarming. Be careful to note that in making a statement like “a Black is not a man,” Fanon is not arguing that black people are inhuman. Instead, he is making the point that Western ideas of humanity have been built on the foundation of anti-black racism. “Man” is supposedly a universal term, but the image of “man” created in Western culture is white.
Fanon’s aim is to “liberate the black man from himself.” He refuses to sympathize with the perpetrators of colonialism and denounces both white people who patronizingly “love” black people and black people who try to make themselves white. Fanon wanted to write the book three years ago, but was too angry to do it then. He seeks to understand the relationship between races, and argues that while black people want to be white, white people try to live up to the “rank” of whiteness. Both are trapped within their own race. Some whites see themselves as superior to black people, and some black people try desperately to prove that they are equal to whites—all of which adds up to a cycle that needs to be broken.
Fanon’s insistence that both white people and black people suffer because of the way they are trapped within their respective racial identities is important: it shows that, for Fanon, the idea of race itself—rather than racism alone—is the problem. Even though whiteness is supposed to be superior to blackness, white people’s lives are also made worse (although to a lesser degree) by the existence of racial categories.
Fanon argues that it is essential to use psychoanalytic thought in order to understand black experience. According to the psychoanalytic framework, the problems people experience—both personally and socially—tend to originate in childhood. Starting in childhood, black people develop an inferiority complex that is initially rooted in their economic oppression, and then in their internalization of the idea that they are inferior. Fanon emphasizes that even though the psychological element of oppression is crucial, liberation can only come about through material (economic) redistribution.
One of the most important elements of Fanon’s contributions to the canon of race theory is his employment of the psychoanalytic framework to examine social injustice. Trained as a psychiatrist, Fanon draws upon traditional psychoanalytic concepts (such as the origins of neurosis in childhood) and adapts them so that they are relevant to black people’s experience.
Thus far in history, the relationship between black people and white people has created “a massive psycho-existential complex” that Fanon aims to “destroy” through analysis. He is aware that many people—both black and white—will not be able to see themselves in the descriptions he gives, and argues that if people do recognize themselves, then this is a sign of progress. Fanon insists that he is writing for the present, rather than the future. He describes the structure of the book’s contents, pointing out that the fifth chapter—which describes black people’s journey to understand black identity—is especially important. Fanon argues that white culture has created a false image of black people, which makes it difficult to grasp the true nature of black identity.
Unsurprisingly for an intellectual, Fanon is hopeful that reaching the truth through analysis and critique has the potential to instigate meaningful social change. This is not to say that Fanon thinks that intellectual pursuits alone will solve the issues created by colonialism and racism—but he believes that without tackling the psychological issues behind race and racism, it will be impossible to transform the world into a just place for everyone.