Fanon On What Sartre Forgot

“Expressing the real is an arduous job.  But when you take it into your head to express existence, you will Frantz Fanonvery likely encounter nothing but the nonexistent.  What is certain is that at the very moment when I endeavored to grasp my being, Sartre, who remains ‘the Other,’ by naming me shattered my last illusion.  While I was telling him:

My negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
It reaches deep down into the red flesh of the soil
It reaches deep into the blazing flesh of the sky
It pierces opaque prostration with its patience
Césaire, Notebook of a Return
to My Native Land
trans. Rosello and Pritchard, p. 114].

While I, in a paroxysm of experience and rage, was proclaiming this, he reminded me that my negritude was nothing but a weak stage.  Truthfully, I’m telling you, I sensed my shoulders slipping from this world, and my feet no longer felt the caress of the ground.  Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible for me to live my blackness.  Not yet white, no longer completely black, I was damned.  Jean-Paul Sartre forgets that the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man” (Black Skin, White Masks, 116-17).

As Sartre explains, negritude is the antithesis of the assertion [not Sartre’s personal belief] of the supremacy of the white (the thesis).  Thus, negritude is the moment of negativity; a moment to be overcome.  In contrast to Césaire’s and Senghor’s understanding of black consciousness as an “absolute density,” Sartre presents negritude as a lack, as a “minor term” in the syllogism.[1] How might we understand Fanon’s statement, “Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible for me to live my blackness”?  Here one could perhaps apply Derrida’s insights while simultaneously expanding them by way of Fanon’s critique of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.  According to Derrida, the meaning of a person’s life is always constituted at the intersection of a reference to the past and some kind of anticipation of the future.  Of course Derrida has in view a deconstruction of the completely transparent, stable, secure Cartesian self.  Nonetheless, Derrida’s emphasis on the role of past and future in constructing the self seems applicable here; yet, it is in need of Fanon’s stress on the fundamental difference of the black man’s experience of the world as mediated by a black body.[2] If a (black) person’s past is erased and re-written in the image of a violent, totalizing (white) other (the project of colonialization), and his future is largely pre-determined by that same other, “damned” is a pretty good description of his present experience.


[1] Ronald A.T. Judy, “Fanon’s Body of Black Experience,” in Fanon: A Critical Reader, (eds) Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Renee T. White. (Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1996):  63.

[2] Fanon replaces Merleau Ponty’s corporeal schema (schéma corporel) with his own schéma historico-racial and schéma épidermique racial.