Biography of Frantz Fanon, Author of 'Wretched of the Earth'

His books and essays explored the effects of colonialism

Portrait of Frantz Fanon

Wikimedia Commons / Pacha J. Willka / CC BY-SA 3.0

Frantz Fanon (July 20, 1925–December 6, 1961) was a psychiatrist, intellectual, and revolutionary born in the French colony of Martinique. Fanon wrote about the effects of colonialism and oppression in books such as “Black Skin, White Masks” and “Wretched of the Earth.” His writings, as well as his support of the Algerian War of Independence, have influenced anti-colonial movements across the world, including in South Africa, Palestine, and the United States.

Fast Facts: Frantz Fanon

  • Known For: Psychiatrist, intellectual, and revolutionary who supported the Algerian War of Independence and wrote about the effects of colonialism and oppression
  • Born: July 20, 1925 in Fort-de-France, Martinique
  • Died: December 6, 1961 in Bethesda, Maryland
  • Spouse: Josie Duble Fanon
  • Children: Mireille Fanon-Mendes and Olivier Fanon
  • Key Publications: "Wretched of the Earth," "Black Skin, White Masks, "A Dying Colonialism"
  • Notable Quote: “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”

Early Years

Frantz Fanon grew up in a middle-class family in the French colony of Martinique. His father, Casimir Fanon, worked as a customs inspector, and his mother, Eléanore Médélice, owned a hardware store. He spent much of his youth immersed in French culture, learning about French history.

During high school at Lycée Schoelche, Fanon was exposed to the French movement known as Négritude. This cultural moment was started in the 1930s by black intellectuals, such as Aime Césaire, living in France or French colonies in the Caribbean or Africa. Through Négritude, these intellectuals challenged French colonialism and took pride in their black identity. Césaire was one of Fanon’s teachers. Learning about this movement made Fanon unsure about his place in society. He belonged to Martinique’s bourgeoisie, which promoted assimilation to French culture rather than a black-centered identity.

In 1943, as World War II came to a close, Fanon left Martinique and joined the Free French forces. He won a Croix de Guerre medal after suffering a shrapnel wound to his chest. But the racial hierarchy he witnessed in the armed forces disturbed him, particularly the fact that “Africans and Arabs answered to white superiors and West Indians occupied an ambiguous middle ground,” according to the New York Times. When the war ended, Fanon studied psychiatry and medicine at the University of Lyon.

On the largely black island of Martinique, Fanon had been exposed to the form of skin color bias known as colorism, but he hadn’t experienced the full force of white racism. The anti-blackness he experienced led to one of his first pieces of writing about racial oppression: “An Essay for the Disalienation of Blacks.” (The essay would later evolve into the 1952 book “Black Skin, Whites,” or “Peau Noire, Masques Blancs.”) In addition to anti-black racism, Fanon became interested in philosophies like Marxism and existentialism rather than Négritude exclusively.

A Revolution in Algeria

When he completed his medical studies, Fanon lived briefly in Martinique once more and then in Paris. After receiving a job offer in 1953 to serve as chief of staff in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Algeria, Fanon relocated there. The next year, Algeria, which was colonized by the French, went to war against France in a quest for independence. At that time, about a million French nationals ruled over the exploited native population there, which totaled about nine million people. As a doctor during this time, Fanon treated both the Algerians fighting for independence and the colonial forces striving to repress them, routinely through the use of mass violence, rape, and torture.

In medical school, Fanon had learned about group therapy, then a novel practice, from psychiatrist François Tosquelles. In Algeria, Fanon used group therapy to treat his traumatized Algerian patients. The technique helped him form a bond with them.

In 1956, Fanon left his job at his French-run hospital and was expelled from Algeria. He did not support the colonial forces; rather, he supported the Algerians fighting to wrest their country from French control. Rather than sit on the sidelines of the independence movement, Fanon took an active role in the freedom struggle. He lived in neighboring Tunisia helping to train nurses for the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the Algerians who began the war for independence. To help the movement, Fanon not only used his medical expertise but his skills as a writer. He edited the FLN’s newspaper and wrote about the war in Algeria. His writings described the goals and causes of the freedom struggle. In essay collections like 1959’s “L’An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne,” since renamed “A Dying Colonialism,” Fanon explained how the oppressed class in Algeria managed to ignite a revolution.

In the independent government Algeria formed during the war, Fanon served as ambassador to Ghana and traveled around the vast African continent, which helped him get supplies to the FLN forces. After traveling from Mali to the Algerian border in 1960, Fanon fell gravely ill. He learned leukemia was the cause. He traveled to the United States for medical treatment. As his medical condition worsened, Fanon continued to write, penning his most acclaimed work, “Les Damnés de la Terre” (“Wretched of the Earth”). The book makes a compelling case against colonialism and for the humanity of the oppressed.

Fanon died on Dec. 6, 1961, at age 36. He left behind a wife, Josie, and two children, Olivier and Mireille. Even on his deathbed, he pondered the plight of the oppressed fighting against colonialist and imperialist forces around the world. “Wretched of the Earth” was published shortly after his death. He was buried in a forest by the Algeria-Tunisia border. Algeria won independence from France the following year. An Algerian street, school, and hospital bear Fanon’s name.

Controversies and Legacy

The writings of Fanon have influenced a wide range of activists and intellectuals. As the black consciousness movement gained momentum in the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Panther Party turned to his work for inspiration, as did anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. “Wretched of the Earth” is considered one of the primary works that led to the creation of critical race studies.

While Fanon’s ideas have been praised, they have also faced criticism, particularly the idea that he advocated violence. Rhodes University Professor Richard Pithouse has called this a misrepresentation:

“People who knew Fanon well...insisted that, outside of his life as a soldier, Fanon was not a violent man, that even in war, he detested violence and that, in Césaire’s words, ‘his revolt was ethical and his approach motivated by generosity.’”

Through the Frantz Fanon Foundation, Fanon's work lives on. His daughter Mireille Fanon-Mendes serves as president of the foundation, which advocates for reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans and supports the Palestinian Independence Movement.

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