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12 November 2009

MCT: Frantz Fanon

The latest extract I've read from Modern Criticism and Theory is that by Frantz Fanon, from Black Skins, White Masks (1952 - but not published in English translation until 1967), a section headed "The Negro and Language". This is the first extract I've read in this collection on the theme of post-colonialism. The subject was barely on the radar when I was at university, but reading the essay now, it seems to be making arguments that are hardly in dispute.

Fanon was a doctor from Martinique, so found himself in the position of being highly educated (in French) but not accepted as equal. Even within colonialism he finds a gradation of disrespect: in the French army, for example, Antilleans are considered to be superior to Senegalese, because they are more French, whiter.

He talks about the different valuation given to Creole and French, and how people use their choice of language to define themselves; those who wish to demonstrate a commitment to the old ways will keep using Creole, while those who wish to succeed, and to modernise society in a French model will of course seek to improve and to frenchify their French.

But the colonial relationship makes this different from other language conflicts.
I meet a Russian or a German who speaks French badly. With gestures I try to give him the information that he requests, but at the same time I can hardly forget that he has a language of his own, a country, and that perhaps he is a lawyer or an engineer there. In any case, he is foreign to my group, and his standard must be different.
When it comes to the case of the Negro, nothing of the kind. He has no culture, no civilization, no 'long historical past.'
But he is sceptical about "the strivings of contemporary Negroes to prove the existence of a black civilization to the white world at all costs."

Fanon also is maybe one of the first to point out the insulting redundancy in comments like Andre Breton's view of Aime Cesaire: "Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can."

It's a very nicely written piece, with a lot of subtle content, handled in a style that is, presumably pointedly, far from classical in its sentence structure.

I would say one thing that might have been missed (here - in a short extract) is a consideration of how the 'native' language came to be a creole in the first place; that seems like an act of ethnocentric violence in itself. Perhaps Fanon's work was a necessary first step.

And although I've said most of the ideas seem uncontentious now, you still find people saying why oh why is it all right for someone to call me a Brit, but if I call someone a Paki, I'm the racist.

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