Black skin White masks
I do not know why I thought of Franz Fanon and his 1952 book that
carries my column heading today. I recollect picking up an English
translation of Fanon’s work in French (Peau noire, masques blancs) some
time in early 1970’s from my friend late Ranjith Gunawardena, then
lecturer in English at the Keleniya University.
He had it on the table beside him sipping a cup of tea at the Lion
House in Bambalapitiya and was kind to lend me that copy upon my asking.
Ranjith was a student of our mutual guru in English late Reggie
Siriwardena, and won our additional regard and respect as he was also
well versed in the work of Spanish, African and Latin American writers
of the time.
The Lion House, the elite teashop also known for its bakery products
(mostly the Chinese rolls, the cutlets) and the lime juice, was a
melting pot of ideas where discussions on issues literary, political and
social took place each evening in the decades of 1950s, 60s and the 70s.
There was a band of learned university dons, social activists, some
Editors of newspapers and journalists who gathered there after a day’s
work to engage in vibrant discourse on matters that mattered, the world
and our own nation. I guess it could also be called the meeting place of
teetotallers, where saner discussion was the hallmark. I remember the
large glass panels that made the Lion House special. Passers by saw the
inside of the teahouse through those clear-glass doors. It was perhaps
the owner’s way of telling the world that there was an air of open and
transparent discussion and that the most sought after minds in the
country were engaged in.
Right across the street from the Lion House stood another monument at
the entrance to Bullers Road (now Bauddhaloka Mawatha). That was an
unusually designed marvel of a glittering advertising signage for one of
the popular Sri Lankan shoe companies of the time. It was like the
‘thing’ in the pre-electronic era of advertising signage with thousands
of little shiny metal pieces so arranged on hooks to highlight the brand
danced in the wind, creating an audio-visual experience for those who
passed that signage and a visual experience for those who saw it from
That to my mind stood as a reminder of the world of commerce and as a
reality check of what was happening around those that engaged in
discourse on matters philosophical. I remember those good old days when
we as cub university teachers used to hang out at the Lion House
occupying a table at a far-corner to eavesdrop on the many words of
wisdom spoken by those doyens of intellect of the yore.
I must have thought of Fanon and those ‘Lion House’ days for I read
that the recent atrocity of the killing of innocents in Toulouse was
carried out by a 23 year old Frenchman of Algerian decent. I recollected
that two of Fanon’s other work that touched on the plight of Algerians
in living in France in the Post World War II era. They were 'A Dying
Colonialism' (1959) and 'Wretched of the Earth'(1961) and thought that
there could be much beyond what some analysts saw as the reasons for the
most irrational action of this young man.
I read the book I borrowed from Ranjith with much interest and learnt
much about Franz Fanon and that ignited my interest in reading most of
his other work at the time. Fanon (1925 - 1961) according to a Wikipedia
account was a “Martinique-born French psychiatrist, philosopher,
revolutionary and writer whose work is influential in the fields of
post-colonial studies, critical theory and Marxism. Fanon is known as a
radical existential humanist thinker on the issue of decolonization and
the psychology of colonialism. Fanon supported the Algerian struggle for
independence and became a member of the Algerian National Liberation
Front. His life and works have incited and inspired anti-colonial
liberation movements for more than four decades.”
Much of Fanon, the psychiatrist’s work was dedicated to seeking
answers to why Algerians who fought in World War II as part of the
French army felt alienated within French society, while living within a
domain of declared rights as equal citizens. In the study that led to
the publication of 'Black Skin White Masks', as the Wikipedia account
states “Fanon uses psychoanalysis and psychoanalytical theory to explain
the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that Black people experience
in a White world. He speaks of the divided self-perception of the Black
Subject who has lost his native cultural originality and embraced the
culture of the mother country. As a result of the inferiority complex
engendered in the mind of the Black Subject, he will try to appropriate
and imitate the cultural code of the colonizer. The behaviour, Fanon
argues, is even more evident in upwardly mobile and educated Black
people who can afford to acquire status symbols.”
Taking my mind back to the ‘Lion House’ days I wonder why most of our
discussions on issues now are limited to domains that are either
immediate or near future. We seem to learn little from history and the
happenings of the past. At a time when the world’s nuclear powers and
some aspirants are meeting to determine the future course of how those
destructive armaments are to be handled, should there not be discussion
among our learned intellectuals about what that should be? Should we not
be focusing the attention of the world’s and nation’s leaders drawing
from the many experiences that are documented or demonstrated, that
alienating peoples, subjugating their belief systems and creating
oppressive social environments, can lead to even more disastrous human
tragedies and can serve to be softer weapons of mass destruction.
I think it is appropriate here to revisit the call made by the 14th
Dalai Lama on the issue of nuclear disarmament of “by far the greatest
single danger facing humankind - in fact, to all living beings on our
planet - is the threat of nuclear destruction. I need not elaborate on
this danger, but I would like to appeal to all the leaders of the
nuclear powers who literally hold the future of the world in their
hands, to the scientists and technicians who continue to create these
awesome weapons of destruction, and to all the people at large who are
in a position to influence their leaders: I appeal to them to exercise
their sanity and begin to work at dismantling and destroying all nuclear
weapons. We know that in the event of a nuclear war there will be no
victors because there will be no survivors! Is it not frightening just
to contemplate such inhuman and heartless destruction?”
On the same token it must be impressed upon leaders of the world of
the danger of the soft weapons of destruction at play everywhere in out
midst. Fanon’s work focused on the scenario of the immediate aftermath
of the World War II and not much seem to have changed deep within the
human conscience in dealing with these issues. The answers are certainly
with genuine attempts at treating all human beings with equal dignity
regardless of their importance in the scheme of things of those seeking
power, wealth and access to resources. There cannot be any 'Wretched of
the Earth' or those in 'Black Skin White Masks'.
We must all be one and need to work for the good of all regardless of
who we are or what we are for we are all members of this one human-race.
I remember our Guru late Reggie Siriwardena reading excerpt from
Charles Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ during one of his university
English fiction teaching sessions. He read a passage from the text of
how Pip, the little orphan boy was sent up the chimney filled with black
soot and there were tears flowing from his eyes wetting his entire face
during that reading.
And then there was his poem ‘Colonial Cameo’ of the encounter at
Missionary school when his fellow English speaking students mocked his
mother when she bade him goodbye in Sinhalese, the language she knew…
“My mother pretended not to hear that insult.
The snobbish little bastards! But how can I blame them?
That day I was deeply ashamed of my mother.
Now, whenever I remember, I am ashamed of my shame.”
Such was the love of that man for humanity and what that must account to
be. Need I say more?