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Fr antz Fanon was born in Fort-de-France, the capital of the French colony of Martinique. His father, Félix, was a customs inspector and his mother, Eléanore, a shopkeeper. Fanon attended the Lycée Victor Schoelcher where he studied with Aimé Césaire, a supporter of the French Communist Party and one of the founders of the Négritude literary movement.
After France fell to Germany in 1940, the colonial administration of the West Indies came under the influence of the Vichy regime and a return to more visible forms of official racism ensued. In 1943 Fanon enlisted in the Free French army under exiled general and statesman Charles de Gaulle. Although the French West Indies surrendered to allied forces soon after Fanon's departure, his brief military tour was formative. Above all, Fanon found himself disillusioned by the racial hierarchy within the military. “The French," he wrote, "do not like the Jews, who do not like the Arabs, who do not like the Negroes.” Fanon was wounded in the South of France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre but attached little importance to the honor and wrote to his parents that he had left Martinique “to defend an obsolete ideal.”
After the war, Fanon returned home to take his final high school examination and then left to study medicine in Lyon. He was one of 30 black students in a class of 400. In 1951 Fanon decided to specialize in psychiatry and submitted a version of what would later become Black Skin, White Masks – a study of the performativity of race and the attendant psychological suffering of people of color in racist societies – as his M.D. dissertation. The dissertation was rejected. In its place he submitted a 75-page thesis on Friedrich’s Ataxia, a hereditary neurological condition accompanied by psychiatric symptoms.
Fanon completed his residency at the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole under the direction of Francois Tosquelles who had, significantly, headed the psychiatric services of the Spanish Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War. Saint-Alban functioned as a laboratory for “institutional therapy,” which attempted to treat mental illness as part of a social and institutional whole and recognized, in turn, the real psychic effect that social institutions had on individuals.
In 1953 Fanon became the head of a psychiatric hospital in Blida, a small town to the west of Algiers, the capital of the French, north African colony of Algeria. Here, he began to explore the relationship between colonialism and pathology that he would later develop in The Wretched of the Earth. Upon arrival he found many of the Algerian patients tied to beds or trees and, drawing on his experience at Saint-Alban, instituted programs and activities intended to re-integrate patients into social life. Fanon also surreptitiously trained members of village militias in psychological and physiological techniques for coping with anxiety when carrying out violent missions and for withstanding torture and interrogation.
Fanon resigned from his medical position in 1956 to join the National Liberation Front (FLN) in its war against French colonial domination. In 1957 he was deported and joined the FLN provisional government in Tunisia, where he wrote regularly for the journal El Moujahid and acquired the nickname “the pamphleteer from Martinique.”
In 1960, at the age of 35, Fanon became ill with leukemia and began racing feverishly to complete The Wretched of the Earth. The following year – told that his best chance for medical treatment was in the United States – he grudgingly agreed to visit that “country of lynchers.” Fanon died in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland weeks after The Wretched of the Earth was published. On the day of his death, French authorities confiscated the work from Parisian bookstores.
Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University
Alessandrini, Anthony. “Frantz Fanon,” Oxford Bibliographies
Majumdar, Margaret A. “The Wretched of the Earth then and now,” International Journal of Francophone Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016
Naylor, Philip. “Algeria,” Oxford Bibliographies
Shatz, Adam. “Where Life is Seized,” London Review of Books, vol. 39, no. 2, January 2017