Walking backwards into the future

Fanon: the preface and introduction

Walking backwards into the future

I’ve never read Fanon. I tried to read Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin White Masks which applies Fanon’s analysis of the politics of recognition in Black Skin White Masks to Indigenous communities and found it really dense and academic. Somebody recommended that I read the last chapter, employing that old trick of overworked students to read the intro and the conclusion which got me through my undergrad degree. It worked and I was able to make sense of his general argument if not the entire book. I did that while reading The Horse the Wheel and Language by David W Anthony as well, the opaqueness of his linguistic discussion meant very little to me. The overall arguments he was making were interesting, but I didn’t really understand the processes he was describing. I’m glad it was included, kind of like we had to show our work in math class. The thing that mattered most from a practical standpoint was the answer, but if you don’t know how you got there then you won’t be able to recognize error or apply it elsewhere. You can’t be an expert (or even conversant) in everything, sometimes you just have to trust others to know what they’re talking about. I don’t need to be a linguistic expert to know that Anthony put together in some interesting stuff in The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, and his inclusion of those details that are opaque to me made him seem trustworthy … it meant that he was showing his work.

So my experience with Coulthard kept me away from Fanon. I reasoned, unreasonably, that Fanon would be just as opaque and I could keep reading about him rather than actually reading him. I figured would skip to the answer and trust that the people I read were assessing the quality of his process. Then, in the midst of Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza I decided that it was time to read Fanon, challenging as it may be. Keep in mind, it wasn’t that I was shying away from the challenge of ideas. That kind of challenge to my own assumptions is exactly what I love about reading widely. It was more the anticipated challenge to my idea of myself as a smart person, the anticipated challenge of reading somebody whose work was dense and academic, a tough slog of a read and while I don’t necessarily mind that kind of work either (decolonization is not a metaphor by Tuck and Wang is one such piece, challenging to get through but worth the effort). I just need to be in the right headspace to dive into that. So I girded my intellectual loins and picked up Wretched of the Earth.

Was I ever wrong. If you haven’t read Fanon please do yourself a favour and put it on the list. I can’t speak broadly to his catalogue of writing but at this point I’m about 2/3 of the way through Wretched of the Earth, and it is entirely accessible and interesting. And it is so relevant to everything that I’m thinking about right now, to everything that is happening in the world around us, that I’m going to write a series of these substacks about it beginning at the beginning, with the foreword and preface.

I haven’t forgotten about Octavia Butler btw, just ran out of books and need to order some more in order to get back on track. I’m still thinking about the things she has written so they’ll probably pop up here and there in these Fanon reflections.


Wretched of the Earth was published posthumusly in 1963, one year after the Algerian War of Independence concluded. Fanon himself fought in this war and much of the book is a reflection on the reality of decolonial struggles in Africa during the 40s and 50s. We think that decolonization is a metaphor, to return to Tuck and Yang, that it means something like being nice and not bossy, that it means we include people who have been historically excluded, maybe do a land acknowledgement. At most we think it asks us to take Indigenous people and their knowledge if not their beliefs seriously. The way that most people use decolonization, it doesn’t actually change anything. I mean, we live in a society that thinks you can decolonize policing. Some things can’t be decolonized, they have to be abolished. And that’s what Fanon is writing about. The complicated, messy, and at times violent business of decolonization.

The edition that I have was published in 2004 and includes a foreword by Homi K. Bhabha. Bhabha is a distressingly opaque and academic postcolonial theorist writing about the ways that colonized people resist power, building on the work of Palestinian writer and culture critic Edward Said. You don’t need to know a lot about either of them, tho I’ve linked their wikipedia entries in case you want to know more. Said’s book Orientialism is on my bookshelf but I haven’t read it yet. Bhabha I haven’t heard of before, but I’m interested in this book, which ok he didn’t write but he did write the foreword. Maybe there’s something to be said for being a person that people trust to distill their ideas into a foreword.

The preface is written by Jean-Paul Sartre and is part of the original publication. Sartre I’ve heard of but never read. Can’t even say for sure that I have any of his work on my bookshelves, but if I do it was purchased at a used bookstore in a fit of accumulating whatever I thought constituted a canon of books I should own if not read. Sartre and Fanon were contemporaries, Sartre being one of a few white European thinkers who wrote about anticolonial resistance during that time. There’s an interesting essay about their relationship called Black Skin White Ally in which the author describes Sartre as that “archetypal, all-too-enthusiastic white supporter who can never quite get it right.”

That’s kind of funny. I know a lot of people like this, and in some communities I’ve probably been that person, the all-too-enthusiastic straight/non-Black/able bodied/etc supporter who can’t quite get it right. We try, we fail, we learn from our mistakes, and we try again. Hopefully we don’t wear out our friends in the process.

Ok, so this foreword and preface. I’m starting here and then week by week will send you reflections on each chapter to give you a sense of what I think of Fanon, how his writings make me feel. Please don’t read this as me speaking with any kind of authority. I’m not a scholar of these things, I’m a reader and a thinker like you. People tell me that I’m good at connecting dots between things, something that my background in social work trained me to do. So these are my thoughts, I’m sure you’ll have your own.

Decolonization can be truly achieved only with the destruction of the Manichaenism of the cold war.

Bhabha, p xiv

Fanon uses “Manichaenism” a lot. It refers to an old religion, a lot of religions are like this but Manichaenism is a particular religion that divides the world into the good/spiritual and bad/material and for Fanon he sees this binary at work in colonialist systems. But more than binaries, what Fanon sees in Manichaenism is the compartments that we put things into and his passion is to decompartmentalize things, get them out of their silos and show how they are connected to each other. I think one of the main reasons that some of the most interesting decolonial theory is coming out of the field of geography is that it’s kind if a catch-all discipline for things that don’t fit elsewhere, according to Deondre Smiles. So things that may otherwise have been siloed are put together and people connect the dots between things that had seemed disconnected. This destruction of compartments is rooted in knowing history, Bhabha describes the text as having a “peculiarly grounded, historical stance .. toward the future.”

Our view of the future is necessarily connected the past, I’ve argued his for a while. It’s the foundational premise of my own book. The futures we imagine are rooted in the stories we have so the presence that people have in our future is limited by the stories we’ve heard about them, assuming that we heard of them at all. The Maori have a phrase: Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua: ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’ It means that the past is part of the present and the future. It is not compartmentalized the way that the west so often does, talking about the past as if it has no contemporary meaning or relevance. Building walls, whether they are walls of concrete and steel along our borders and prisons, or walls of ideology controlling what and how we think, is a lot of work. So if we’re going to decolonize ourselves, our communities, or our nations, first we need to tear down those walls. We need to unforget.

French colonial policy acknowledges the naked right of the colonized as individual - divested of cultural differences - to be identified as a citizen of the republic.

Bhabha, p xxiv

My son recently offered me a way to think about settler identity that was really interesting to me. He said that a settler is somebody who has disconnected themselves from their history and accepted the identity of the dominant society. That is a beautifully generative way to think about it. Colonial policy acknowledges the individual as a citizen, but only if they divest themselves of cultural difference. Only if they erase or compartmentalize history, even their own, in favour of the dominant narrative. Notice the how the Oxford dictionary defines “divest.”

Divest: to deprive someone of power, rights or possessions, to rid oneself of something that one no longer wants or requires; to relieve someone of something being worn or carried.

For the colonized person, to be divested of cultural difference is indeed to be deprived of power, rights, or possessions. It is to be put into such a place that what is precious to our forefathers has become something we no longer want. It is to be relieved of our bundles, in a literal or metaphorical sense. Indigenous people will often talk of bundles, those collections of artifacts that have profound spiritual use or meaning, items that act as a way of connecting to the spiritual world around us. To be divested of these things is an act of violence, colonization is violent and it gets written on our bodies in this way. You can’t rip something like this from a person without leaving scars. And of course it is only certain histories that taken from us, just look at what is permitted to remain as a monument or historic site. They are conforming us all to a very particular story about history.

For me, this suggests that the path back, the decolonial path, lies with rejecting that divestment. To find some way to unforget your own history. I do an exercise in many of my workshops called roots and routes, asking people to generate a family tree and then to think about the routes that their family has taken over the generations. This is what I want them to to in this exercise, to reconsider their own history and look for places of connection. For some this is a difficult exercise, truncated branches and unwelcome ancestors make it hard to work through. The question, where are you from, can be fraught for people who are not white and used to hearing that question even if they have been “from” here for centuries. But it is necessary work, because even those painful markers must be considered if we are going to invest rather than allow ourselves to be divested. We tell the whole story of our lives, at least to ourselves if not to anyone else.

The decolonial citizen therefore, is one who is not divested of cultural difference. But, neither do they allow their differences to become part of a superficial multiculturalism that the state plays at which celebrates particular kinds of difference without allowing that difference to make a difference. Multiculturalism is a kind of Manichean compartmentalization that allows Canadians and Americans to talk with pride and complete sincerity about their countries being nations of immigrants, a phrase that erases the colonial violence that built these countries: the displacement and genocide of Black and Indigenous peoples. I understand why their politicians support Israel and not Palestine. At least they’re consistent.

Sartre enters the chat:

“writers and poets took enormous pains to explain to us that our values poorly matched the realities of their lives and that they could neither quite reject them nor integrate them”

Sartre, xliv

Sartre is talking about colonial subjects, people in Africa and Asia who hear the people in Europe and America going on about brotherhood and fraternity, while knowing that they are not included. He writes, in their voice, “You are making monsters of us; your humanism wants us to be universal and your racist practices are differentiating us.” This has consequences. You can’t keep on with your cheers of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” while excluding people from those things, or blaming them for the fact of their exclusion. Eventually they’re going to take you at your word and decide that these things apply to them too, but they won’t do it seeking inclusion in colonial spaces because those at the center have ensured that they aren’t welcome there.

So, having picked up their bundles, having returned to themselves as I wrote about in my own book following in the words of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and many others, these colonial subjects look inwards and apply what they have learned to their own circumstances. If they are meant to exist in the borderlands rather than the metropole (the heart of empire) then that will be the center to revolve around. There is a shift away from the colonial center and a resulting indifference to whether it survives or not. Whether Europe lives or dies, as Sartre understands Fanon, that is not his problem. He is focused on Africa, on Algiers.

This speaks profoundly to me because it tracks with my own political evolution. I am no longer interested in dismantling systems or burning it all down or any of those things. I believe, along with Fanon, that Europe (along with the colonial systems it inaugurated elsewhere) is in it’s death throes, heading for ruin. The center can no longer hold and we’re all seeing the fracturing. Sartre says that Fanon is offering only a diagnostic when he says that, just an observation. He offers no solutions, his focus is on the borderlands and what is emerging there as people walk backwards into the future, seeing their own history without Manichean blinders and imagining a future in which they are fully present, not an afterthought.

How come he cannot recognize his own cruelty now turned against him? How come he can’t see his own savagery as a colonist in the savagery of these oppressed peasants who have absorbed it through every pore and for which they can find no cure?

Sartre, xl

The colonist is always amazed at the violence of the colonial subject, conveniently forgetting the violence of achieving colonization in the first place. The piles of dead bodies, the whippings and prisons. The generations of enslavement and transport overseas or hoarding of children in residential schools or internment camps or any number of aggressions used to civilize and domesticate. Today, colonial governments are amazed at the violence of Hamas as if the occupation of Israel was not inherently violent. As if the Nakba and subsequent displacements never happened. As if they’re just supposed to accept incursion after incursion, and as a friend of mine noted, as if the state itself wasn’t assassinating any alternative leadership. We can be appalled at the violence of Hamas, but when Israel has spent 75 years insisting that violence is the only language that Palestinians understand, should they really be surprised when some of them respond in the language they were taught?

I’m not advocating for violence by the way, but I am offering a path to think about the violence we see and the stories we tell about it because those stories matter. If you are going to ask me to denounce the violence of resistance, you must expect me to respond with Sartre and ask you why colonial powers refuse to recognize their own cruelty when it is turned against them. These are the consequences of Manichean ideologies, the severe compartmentalization that separates us from our histories and actions. Sartre goes on to note a few pages later that even your non-violent thoughts are governed by a thousand year old oppression, and your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors.

If you are a settler, existing on or benefitting from ethnically cleansed land and resources, your nonviolence is a privilege supported by the hidden violence of the state. And I’ve been thinking about this, the ways in which we construct innocence. Who is innocent on ethnically cleansed land? How many degrees of separation are required between the violence of displacement and the citizen before they can be deemed innocent? When Canada and the US concluded the war of 1812 and settled the border between the two countries, both embarked on a century long strategy of land giveaways to put farmers and towns along each side to assert authority over the land. Starvation of Indigenous peoples living on those lands was policy, something detailed with brutal clarity in Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk. Were the settlers innocent because they weren’t the ones who actually enacted the policy? What of Gerald Stanley then, who inherited these ideas about who belongs on the land and who you can kill with impunity? Settlers in Israel kill with impunity too.

I will conclude this reflection with Sartre’s own conclusion to his preface of Fanon’s book. We condemn the war before us, whether that is the war in Ferguson or Wetsue’ten or Minneapolis or Standing Rock or Palestine or places in Central America. We will condemn the war, but stop short of declaring our support for the colonized subject making their stand. We stop short because we know that if we declare our support for the colonized subject, we must think of those who are colonized within our own borders. And I’ll assure you that politicians on the right are thinking of them. Why do you think police budgets are escalating while the state actively defunds education and healthcare. The walls of Manicheanism are crumbling, and those that these colonial states have condemned to the bordelands are finding new centers to revolve around.

This is the last stage of the dialectic: you condemn this war but you don’t dare declare your support for the Algerian fighters; have no fear, you can count on the colonists and mercenaries to help you make up your mind. Perhaps, then, with your back to the wall, you will finally unleash this new violence aroused in you by old, rehashed crimes. But, as they say, that is another story. The history of man. The time is coming, I am convinced, when we shall join the ranks of those who are making it.

Sartre, 1961 p lxii

Next week - Chapter One: On Violence

Fanon does begin by speaking about violence, but only because that is where the decolonial story begins: in the violence of colonialism. He notes, colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence.

great moments in peaceful protest history: