Black Skin, White Masks Notes - Chapter 1

After looking through these, I would most certainly suggest having a copy of the book with you. Lots of the quotes and explanations depend on context, so the usefulness of my notes depends on having the text available to you. 

Apologies in advance for the weird indentations.

Chapter 1: The Black Man and Language

What relationship does language have with human beings and nonbeings? What does this do to the different types of utterances—vocal, written, performed, thought—and their place in altering the appearance to which Blacks are slaves?

            “…black man’s dimension of being-for-others” (1)

For the uninitiated, this is a Sartrean concept taken from Being and Nothingness—good to read to get the full grasp of the origin of the idea, and as well to develop and ascertain a truly nuanced understanding of the way Fanon applies it to the Black, and, equally as important, the way Saidiya Hartman and others employ this term, revise it, re-speak it, etc (Hartman’s being-for-the-captor, for example)

Essentially, ‘others’ in the world, perhaps with a capital “O,” render one a subject or object, in the case of the Black, in the world; thus, part of one’s being is determined from without, by the other(s) of the external (one is also determining the selfhood of others); part of oneself fleeing from oneself, one’s existence (as Black, as White, as grocer, as painter, as waiter) at odds with, fleeing from, and in violent contention with one’s essence (one’s humanity)

This self-deception, as some translations would have it, is termed “Bad Faith”—key, as it is employed implicitly by afro-pessimists in general, and explicitly in the work on Black Existentialism done by Lewis Gordon (just look at his collection of essays, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, several of which focus on Sartrean concepts—including phenomenological ontology, bad faith, otherness, etc)

The passage in Being and Notingness about the waiter in the café also brings in the inevitable question and language of performance

Bad faith must also be understood in relation to good faith/living authentically—living and projecting into the future as a project of the self in opposition to maintaining the lie of one’s roles/attitudes/actions

Very linked to this is the concept of Facticity one possesses/with which one is afflicted (that part after the slash is of main importance to the Afro-Pessimists, though not exclsively); Facticity includes things like “birthplace,” and “time,” and “homeland,” etc, ‘all of the concrete details against the background of which freedom—keyword, of course, when interrogating Humanism—exists and is limited by’

*All this with the knowledge that these ideas are not exclusive to or totally novel in Sartre*

Make sure to note as well the importance of “the look,” and the importance of the face in the metaphor (reminds me of the word “aphasia” in Wilderson’s “The Vengeance of Vertigo”) the recognition of subjectivity in others and the subjectivity of oneself by reflection

Ask the question: for those without subjectivity, what is seen in the mirror? Can you see a ghost in the mirror?

            “…to speak is to exist absolutely for the other” (1)

In a way, speaking itself in its many forms, implicitly articulates the grammatical—that is, the act of speaking invokes all of the bad faith, all of the zone of nonbeing, calls it into conceptual tangibility

            “The Black man possesses two dimensions” (1)

Morphology and semantics have me question the word ‘possession’ here in the translation; the point is clear though, and the language “dimensions” speaks beautifully to and continues the notion of separate universes

The Black, here, suffers a lysis—not necessarily a bisection, because I would argue that the sizes of the sides made from the split are constantly and infinitely changing, but never complete (i.e. there is always some fraction of the Black in both dimensions, the zone of being and the zone of nonbeing), and barred from the quantum potentiality that is the complete occupation of, arguably, either, but, certainly, the White universe—for there will always be Whites and nonblacks there to edify it, whereas only Blacks may, and must, occupy the Black dimension

If the Black possesses anything with respect to these two antagonistic dimensions (that’s a very important word to remember: antagonistic; antagonism—check Wilderson’s introduction to Red, White, and Black for a strict definition of the term, and the difference between it and conflict, a word I used earlier in the notes, I believe), it’s the doubly between and dual space—the spacetime that they occupy as they occupy both dimensions simultaneously, as well as the area between those occupations that is the consequence of not being able to occupy either totally; but that’s a big “if”—more accurately, the Black is afflicted by this situation (pun intended)

Central argument of the chapter: “the more the black Antillean assimilates the French language, the whiter he gets—i.e. the close he comes to becoming a true human being” (2)

            Essentially two points being made, one less implicit than the other:

First, the Black moves close to whiteness, at least in part, by way of assimilating the language of the captor (the Master/Settler)

            Note that Fanon talks of proximity, not ascertainment

Second, that to be human in this reality, or this particular set of dimensions, is to be White.

Begs a question of ontology, here; very important to note that undercurrent, here.

Also note the weight Fanon has put on language itself: “…it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization”

The world itself, and everything in it—no, the universe in its entirety—vibrates on the back of language, or at least of arbitrary symbols (not to exclude numbers, either)

*Now, for a moment afterward, Fanon expands his argument to include all the colonized, and this is certainly one of the many moments at which Fanon opens the door for more broad applications of his work and more generalized understandings of his indictment of the world that seek to include or expand to subjects like “the subaltern” or “the worker;” Sexton acknowledges this in “Curtain of the Sky,” but is quick to resituate Fanon’s polemic where it lies: the locus is, and always was, the Black

“…see Paris and die” (3)

A very simplistic statement, but one with depth: in this example of a Black vector moving toward whiteness, the finality of the ‘ascertainment of whiteness’ by way of experiencing Paris—and Paris, here, is a stand-in for the white world, for the white universe—is to die, not to commit suicide, but to realize one’s death while simultaneously attempting to, on “bad faith,” kill one’s self; more like a murder-suicide between imago and self

The specific example of the Antillean—and that of the Martinician (Fanon is from Martinique)—is at once Fanon’s subject because he knows it, and because it fits as allegory for Blackness in the world

The alienation of the Black-becoming-White by critical and envious (and both of those traits are not necessarily at odds with one another) Blacks-who-are-less-White

The desolation of Black space (Antilles) relative to White space (Paris, all of contiguous Europe), and the attractiveness of that White space; White space embodying plentitude and beauty, Black space desolation and terror

The hyperbolic adoption of white traits (White Process, Albedo—if I am to borrow from Alchemy, if only by name and not by actual process) by Blacks to appear ‘extra-white’—the Antillean practicing his diction locked in his room who rolls his r’s with extra panache

There is also the element of this example that the ruse of language, the ruse of articulation must be acknowledged as such: a lie, a pretense, a veil covering up a truth (like the fact that, though he speaks of the Opera House, the returnee has likely only seen it from afar)

A distinction between language and reality is teased at here; two mutually dependent but ultimately distinct entities—that must be acknowledged

He notes that there is a call in the academy to relinquish the narcissism to which “Man” clings, that which separates him from ‘animal’—but he claims this relinquishes Man, rather than rescues him (hence why Fanon grasps tightly his own narcissism) (6)

Is this the same narcissism from the introduction, and is this a benevolent of malevolent narcissism?

He also calls the subsuming of one’s self, specifically of the black self, in bad faith, to some false white role to which one aspires, a joke

Fanon indicts the academy writ large for its purveyance of the very problems its philosophers and intellectuals attempt to remedy; this speaks to the concept of an imagination underwritten by the violence of slavery

He also indicts Sartre’s claim of the absence of a “black problem,” grounding himself outside the appeals to a common humanity (that, in reality, is not readily accessible in the modern age), and rooting himself in the need to rupture the Black from the set of complexes that pathologize him and situate him in the universe of nonbeing (12)

I want to address a statement in the next paragraph on that page, “I am speaking on the one hand of alienated (mystified) Blacks, and on the other of no less alienated (mystified and mystifying) Whites.”

This just needs to be addressed because in no way is Fanon suggesting a real-world equality of Blacks and Whites on any level—ontologically, politically, psychoanalytically, whatever; what he is simply noting is that (in the case of the academy) there are mystified Blacks (alienated from themselves, or from their Blackness, and from the “truth” itself, by way of the mystification that is the working to impress the White academes, and thinking in the same paradigms that banished him to the zone of nonbeing in the first place) and Whites (who are similarly mystified in their zealousness, and are simultaneously the mystifiers who create the ideas that constitute the lie, and are thus also alienated from real thought/truth)

Also of note is his repeated engagement with Sartre who, as he points out, criticizes and outright denounces the Negritude movement in France that Fanon (and his colleague Cesaire) participate in, claiming the absence of the Black problem, and claiming that by doing this Blacks create an impossibility for themselves—no equality can be achieved by this type of recognition because it simply reifies the dichotomy between Black and White unproductively (very common criticism to date, of course) (13)

Fanon’s agreements with Sartre are generally satirical or laced with a disavowal that follows or is embedded in the rest of the argument contextually; he more openly disagrees with Sartre in chapters 5 and 6

When he points out that Whites are only accidentally interested, he makes a loaded but paramount statement: to those that exist, the problem of those that do not exist are arbitrary and unimportant, especially if they do not pose a critical or threatening challenge to their status as beings

Achille Mbembe example, in which a priest speaks to him in pidgin (14):

First point: Language relates Blacks to Whites like children (or a being or an entity without language, or incapable of grasping complex language); this is not an absolute, but it is not exaggerated in saying that it is the dominant practice, and that it is so accepted; and it is part of what Fanon calls an “inhuman psychology” in that it does not adhere to ‘sane’ human behavior (either I disagree with this and say that it is perfectly sane, at least in terms of the definition of human, to behave this way; or I agree because he might be using human in two different ways, Human as an abstract, and human as white)

Second point: The unconsciousness of this act, or the absence of intentionality in this process does not exonerate those who enact it; no, it incriminates them further, deeper into the guilt of perpetuating the semiotic register that locates Blacks in the zone of nonbeing; concurrently, this reifies their belief that they behave and speak correctly, and they inevitably perpetuate their occupation of that ‘inhuman psychology’

Odd how when one sees one’s own face in the emptiness of the mirror they presume they look just fine

“…to speak pidgin means: ‘You, stay where you are’”—in the zone of nonbeing to which our very suturing of arbitrary linguistic elements violently relegates you, every sentence every word every sound (17)

In part, he explains this by noting something elemental to Afro-Pessimism (and most of African American studies, I suppose, but in a different way): “[The black man] has no culture, no civilization, and no ‘long historical past’” (17)

Which might explain the pathological element of being-for-the-captor that drives Blacks to justify their relevance, prove their worth, to Whites

Continuing on the pidgin example: “All they ask of the black man is to be a good nigger; the rest will follow on its own. Making him speak pidgin (in movies, in the media, in the ‘real world’) is tying him to an image, snaring him, imprisoning him as the eternal victim of his own essence, of a visible appearance for which he is not responsible” (18)

There are two things of note, for me, here: one is the precedent Fanon has been setting for the rest of the piece by founding the locus of interaction and relation as the black body and the image of it—he will later famously voice how he is a slave to his appearance (Chapter 5, “The Lived Experience of the Black/The Fact of Blackness”); and two is the notion of (dis)placement by way of this appearance that is not his to choose, relegating the act of displacement to some entity outside the Black yet simultaneously stuck to him (the doubleness of the Black’s skin)

Also important in that paragraph is the notion of visibility relative to attention: the whiter Blacks get, the more they need be watched by the Whites; the greater the challenge, and the more capable the Blacks come to making the challenge, to Whiteness and its systems of sentience, the more the Black needs to be watched

And the less the game the Whites play with the Blacks can be played (in either direction) (19)

A final point of note before the conclusion of the chapter’s argument: “Since our argument is the disalienation of Blacks, we would like them to realize that every time there is a breakdown in understanding among themselves in the Black world, there is a lack of judgment. A Senegalese who learns Creole to pass for Antillean is a case of alienation. The Antilleans who make a mockery of him are lacking in judgment” (21)—straightforward

In the conclusion he both summarizes these points and anecdotes and examples, while adding some intricate and nuanced questions to both remain open to critical thought within the context he edifies through his chapter, and to be addressed in later chapters

            “To speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture” (21)

Yes, but with the subtext that those who do not exist cannot own, and thereby never really appropriate (at least to the extent that they ascertain membership in the world or in the culture)

And also with the knowledge that the act of appropriation is an act of agency that is not readily possible to a being-rendered-object, the gains of which cannot then be attributed to a non-human-barely animal, since the act of possession itself (or of acquisition) is something that demands sentience, and sentience that is recognized

The example of the black poet who knows French better than even the Frenchmen—why the paradoxical recognition, why the need for acknowledging or qualifying his mastery of whiteness with the reminder of his Blackness? What function does that serve? (22)

“But, Blacks will retort, we should be honored that a white man such as Breton writes such things about us” (23)

In a way, whites writing about blacks offers a similar pseudo-being to that offered by blacks speaking the language of whites—it is a false humanity, a qualified or stifled existence in black, which is not an existence at all; thus, to write blackness is a paradox, if language is to be a crux on which existence occurs/is recognized (and therefore becomes existence and not non-existence), but language can never be owned by the Black, nor does the Black own a language or history or whatever, then writing about Blacks at once figures them forth, but only as nonbeings—it reifies the existence of their nonexistence.

One thing I will suggest as I read on is a cursory search of Jean Paul Sartre’s work, particularly Being and Nothingness. Fanon both confronts and appropriates concepts and terms in this text and in Sartre’s work writ large, so having a basic (wikipedia level) understanding of Sartrean concepts might help better an understanding of the points Fanon makes, especially in later chapters (like 6, which is probably the most difficult chapter for those unfamiliar with psychoanalysis).

Here’s a link to the Being and Nothingness entry on Wikipedia:

Happy readings. Read: Stay woke.

  1. touchofpoetry posted this