‘I am my own foundation’

Megan Vaughan

  • Frantz Fanon: A Life by David Macey
    Granta, 640 pp, £12.99, September 2001, ISBN 1 86207 458 5

In August 1777 a crowd gathered in Port Louis, the capital of the Indian Ocean island of Ile de France (now Mauritius), for the execution of Benoît Giraud, otherwise known as ‘Hector the Mulatto’. Though the term ‘mulatto’ implied some ‘white’ parentage, Giraud was also described as a ‘free-born black’ from Martinique, an island on the other side of the French colonial empire. More immediately, he had come from Paris, where he had been put in the Châtelet prison and then, to his outrage, exiled to Ile de France by order of the Naval Minister. What he was supposed to have done to warrant this treatment is far from clear. The correspondence from Paris to the island administrators simply stated that he was a ‘dangerous’ man who had made a number of unfounded and defamatory allegations against unnamed public figures. The identity of one of these figures was revealed a few months after Giraud arrived on Ile de France.

As soon as he stepped off the boat from France in May 1777 Giraud was placed in chains and confined to prison. On 15 August, in the late afternoon, he and another prisoner, a young boy named Cézar, were digging a trench close to the island’s administrative headquarters. Giraud and Cézar were chained together. At about 5 o’clock a group of French officials crossed the square. Among them were the Intendant of the island, a M. Maillart Dumesle, and M. Denis-Nicolas Foucault, the Intendant-elect. As they walked past the trench, a number of witnesses would later report, Giraud hurled an object in Foucault’s direction. Maillart Dumesle deflected it with his cane, whereupon Giraud leapt from the trench, dragging the unfortunate Cézar with him, and attacked and insulted Foucault. The precise nature of the insult was in doubt, but most witnesses recalled hearing something along the lines of ‘You fucking villain, you are the cause of all my misfortunes and you will pay for it.’ Once the other officers had prised Giraud away from Foucault, he was returned to jail, where his ravings could be heard by all. In his testimony, M. Blancheteste, the jailer, reported that on being admonished, Giraud had replied: ‘I have only one thing to say – I promised myself that I would do what I did – let them hang me.’ The next day he stood trial.

During his first examination by the judge, Giraud stated that he was 37, that he had been born in Martinique and had worked there and in Europe as a domestic servant to M. Foucault. He was, he emphasised, of free birth – not a slave, not even a manumitted slave. Asked if he had ever been convicted of a crime, Giraud answered that he had never been subject to a ‘punition infamante’, but had spent 15 days in the Châtelet prison following an argument. A ‘punition infamante’ involved the loss of civil rights and in using this term, Giraud appeared both to be well-versed in French law and to assert that he was a man who had rights to lose.

He never denied that he had thrown something at Foucault but denied it was a rock. In his fury at seeing Foucault, he said, he had picked up the first thing to hand – a lump of mud. As soon as he had set eyes on the Intendant-elect his ‘blood had boiled’ and he hadn’t known what he was doing or saying. But yes, he added, he had called him a number of names – that he did recollect. Asked if he had intended to kill M. Foucault, he replied that he had not, but that given the terrible things that Foucault had done to him, he had wanted to humiliate him. He was certain, he said, that his imprisonment and exile had not been at the orders of the Minister himself. He felt that there had been a mistake and he demanded justice.

On 18 August, Giraud was examined again and, following French criminal procedure, was ‘confronted’ with the testimony of witnesses. Again he admitted that he had insulted Foucault, but only by way of retort: Foucault, he maintained, had called him a ‘slave’. Asked whether he knew that Foucault had been named by the King as Dumesle’s successor as Intendant, Giraud replied that he did not, and that even if he had been told so he would not have believed it, since Foucault had been dressed in plain grey and not in uniform. Asked whether he was not aware of the laws which ordained that free blacks and liberated slaves must show particular respect to whites, Giraud responded that he was familiar with the Code Noir (the law which regulated slavery in the French colonial world) and had seen the chapter in which it was stated that ‘noirs mulâtres’ such as himself enjoyed the same rights and privileges as other free persons. His own case, he went on, was that of a free person who had been insulted by a bourgeois, for M. Foucault could not be regarded as anything but a bourgeois, having been dressed as one.

Giraud was found guilty of assault, and hanged on the same day. Writing after the event to the Minister, Maillart Dumesle expressed something of the outrage the case had occasioned. Imagine, he wrote, that even in his final interrogation this man admitted that he knew Foucault, and had intended to hit him, but continued to argue that this was just a quarrel between one free individual and another. ‘You may well see,’ he went on, ‘how these small pretexts can serve as excuses.’ The case only served to underline how important it was that officers of the state should bear marks of distinction, especially on this island where the streets were ‘continually full of slaves, of free blacks and mulattos, or workers and foreigners, such that under the pretext of not recognising an official anything might be thought permissible.’

We can be reasonably certain that Frantz Fanon had never heard of Benoît Giraud, whose traces are buried in the archives of 18th-century Mauritius. But there are striking similarities between the histories of the two men, two hundred years apart. In his biography, David Macey traces Fanon’s contradictory life from the colonial Caribbean island of Martinique, where he was born in 1925, to France and on through his passionate involvement in the Algerian revolution, to his early death from leukaemia in 1961 at the age of 36. In the years following his death, during the heady days of Third World revolution, Fanon was best known for his powerful polemical works – L’An V de la révolution africaine (1959), published in English as Studies in a Dying Colonialism, the posthumous Pour la révolution africaine (1964), translated as For the African Revolution, and above all Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), published shortly before he died. Macey tells us that when news of Fanon’s death reached Paris, copies of Les Damnés de la terre, with its controversial preface by Sartre, were being confiscated by police. To the French, Fanon was a traitor who had sided with the Algerian ‘terrorists’. Unease in France with the memory of that war has bordered on denial, although recent revelations of French atrocities are forcing a re-evaluation of the country’s colonial past.

Outside France, Fanon was regarded as a leading intellectual associated with the doctrine of ‘Third Worldism’, which had begun to emerge in the 1950s. At the Bandung conference of 1955, leaders of the newly independent post-colonial states in Africa and Asia, disillusioned with orthodox Marxism, sought to articulate an alternative, non-aligned socialist vision. In France, from about 1948 onwards, Sartre had been insisting on the central importance of Third World issues for the Left. The Wretched of the Earth has become known as the ‘Bible of decolonisation’, but Fanon’s relationship with ‘Third Worldism’ was complex. He was deeply sceptical of Pan-Africanism, for example, and well aware of the pitfalls of nationalism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he had little interest in the relationship between local cultures and the larger forces of colonialism and capitalism. Above all, he was unsympathetic to non-violent action. For Fanon, anti-colonial violence was not only necessary but virtuous.

The recent resurgence of ‘Fanonism’ has tiptoed uneasily around the issue of revolutionary violence. The Fanon of post-colonial theory in the English-speaking world is not the Third World revolutionary so much as the author of Black Skin, White Masks, his first book, published soon after he qualified as a psychiatrist in Lyon. Not much read in its time, it is now required reading for thousands of students of literary criticism in the Anglophone world. As Macey sees it, the Third-Worldist Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth was celebrated for his apocalyptic vision of rightful violence and revolution, while the ‘Americanised’ Fanon worried instead about identity politics. Fanon, the theorist of the ‘psychopathology of colonialism’, is now the subject of analysis, supine on a post-colonial couch.

Anger is the dominant emotion of Black Skin, White Masks, as it is of Fanon’s entire work. It is an anger reminiscent of Giraud’s as he hurled insults at Foucault. Black Skin, White Masks is a furious and infuriating book, written as ‘bricolage’, a personal account of the violence of racism and alienation, and a more general polemic on the ‘psychopathology’ of colonialism. Fanon had decided to leave Martinique during the Second World War and to volunteer for the Armed Forces in France. Like other middle-class Martinicans, he was immersed in French culture and learning, ‘more French than the French’, but stepping onto French soil he discovered, with a sudden and irreversible shock (described powerfully in Black Skin, White Masks), that he was, in French eyes, nothing more than a ‘black man’, a ‘Negro’.

For Fanon (who denied the existence of an Oedipus complex, or anything like it, in Martinican society), this was the black man’s foundational trauma – a trauma which reverberates in a number of his unforgettable, uncompromising phrases: ‘the Negro is comparison,’ he is ‘sealed into crushing objecthood’, the ‘black man must be black in relation to the white man’, and so on. The primary psychological dynamic of the colonial situation, then, is one of ‘othering’ – the black man becomes the repository of the most fundamental feelings of hatred and desire on the part of whites. And he is paralysed by these projections, paralysed by the child’s shout of ‘Look, a Negro!’, ‘stricken and immobilised’ by white psychic needs. In Fanon’s formulation, the colonial relation is not a dialectical one; indeed, it is not a relation at all, but a one-way projection. Under these circumstances, Fanon writes, the black man has no independent existence.

Fanon would have recognised Benoît Giraud’s anger when he stood before the French judge; and Giraud’s defence sets his story squarely on Fanon territory. His ‘blood was boiling’ because he was not being recognised for who he was – a man, born into freedom, with the same rights as other free persons. Even before the Revolution and the elevation of the Mère Patrie, it was possible to believe in freedom. Giraud insisted he was not anyone’s slave. For him, as for Fanon, the issue was one of mistaken identity, of the gap which opened up as he dug the trench, between his self, that of a free man, a man with rights, and its distorted reflection in the demeanour of the island officials. For them he was merely another black man in a trench. Symbolically, he refused to be tied to the young slave, Cézar, but he remained tied to him physically.

Giraud also anticipates Fanon’s insights into the colonial relation, not only in his hopeless struggle for recognition, but in his refusal to recognise the other, in the form of the white man. (‘The Negro is not,’ Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks. ‘Any more than the white man.’) Giraud confesses to his assault on Foucault but in mitigation argues that there was no way he could have recognised him for what he was – a representative of the King – since he was wearing no uniform. Foucault, he asserts, was simply a bourgeois, like him; his ‘whiteness’ was immaterial and in any case unrecognisable without the uniform. Giraud’s refusal to respond to the equivalent of Fanon’s ‘Look, a Negro!’ is combined with a more startling (and radical) refusal to say, ‘Look, a white man!’

The author of Black Skin, White Masks came from a society which was anything but ‘black and white’. Fanon counted among his ancestors ‘free blacks’ like Giraud who were just as numerous in 18th-century Martinique. The French Antilles were a breeding ground for mad theories about the minutiae of ‘racial’ difference, taxonomies of ‘shadism’ which distinguished no fewer than 128 categories of ‘mixed blood’. A complex language of ‘racial’ difference, largely applied to women (mulâtre, chabine etc), still exists in the island’s creole language. In the latter part of the century, ‘free blacks’ on Martinique (subsequently called ‘gens de couleur’) were subject to any number of restrictive laws tempering the equality theoretically extended to them in the Code Noir, which Giraud so confidently cited. Sumptuary laws, for example, decreed what kind of cloth they could be dressed in, what kinds of hat they could put on their heads. They were expressly forbidden to wear silk or gold jewellery. Continually suspected of harbouring maroon slaves (i.e. escapees), who took to the wooded mountains or disappeared in the relative anonymity of the towns, ‘free blacks’ were forbidden from assembling in numbers. At the same time, anxiety was growing in France over the number of ‘blacks’, both slaves and free, finding their way to the metropole, as Giraud had done. In an edict of 1776, Louis XVI had made it abundantly clear that real equality for ‘free blacks’ was a fantasy: ‘Gens de couleur may be free or they may be slaves. Those who are free are either manumitted slaves or descendants of manumitted slaves, and no matter what their distance from these origins they retain for ever the mark of slavery and are therefore declared incapable of any public function.’

These laws and pronouncements, however, were only one indication of the growing confidence of the community from which Giraud came, and its increasing political awareness. In the town of Fort Royal (now Fort-de-France) a ‘free black’ Martinican middle class was on the rise. A French visitor noted, disapprovingly, that ‘free blacks’ were fond of quoting the anti-slavery Philosophes. Giraud was not the only one to speak the language of freedom. Controlling the growth of this class was made more difficult for the colonial authorities by the attitudes of the local white population – the békés. Despite repeated reminders that they were acting illegally, white men who had fathered children with slave women regularly granted these offspring de facto freedom, and persuaded priests to baptise them. Martinican society was not easily ordered, either by fine distinctions of ‘race’ or by legal status.

Colonial Martinique was a poor island at the time of Fanon’s birth, still dominated by the békés and by the legacy of slavery. But French colonial ideology insisted that its subjects, whatever their ‘colour’, could, if they only tried hard enough, be accepted as wholly and completely ‘French’. Fanon’s middle-class education at the Lycée Schoelcher epitomised this seductive assimilationist approach. At the age of 17, he was sufficiently committed to the idea of French liberty to smuggle himself onto a neighbouring island and try to enlist for active service. This first attempt ended in humiliating repatriation, but a year later he was on a boat full of fellow soldiers bound for Casablanca and then France. By the end of 1944, he was serving with the Sixth Regiment of Tirailleurs sénégalais, pursuing the German Armies north from Lyon. In November he came under fire as part of a French mortar crew and was badly wounded in the chest. Macey tells us that

he was cited in a Brigade dispatch for his ‘distinguished conduct’, and awarded the Croix de Guerre with a bronze star. The citation was signed by the Sixth RTS’s commanding officer, Colonel Raoul Salan, who would later be one of the staunchest defenders of French Algeria and a leading figure in the April 1961 putsch against de Gaulle. Ironically, France had already decorated another of its future enemies; Ben Bella was mentioned in dispatches on four occasions and was finally awarded the médaille militaire for the bravery he showed while retrieving three abandoned machine guns under fire. Shortly after the capture of Rome, he was awarded his medal by de Gaulle in person.

Fanon was hospitalised in the Jura and returned to his unit in January. He had no illusions now about the country he had rushed to defend. In April 1945 he wrote to his parents:

It is a year since I left Fort-de-France. Why? To defend an obsolete ideal . . . I’ve lost confidence in everything, even myself.

If I don’t come back, and if one day you should learn that I died facing the enemy, console each other, but never say: he died for the good cause . . . Nothing here, nothing justifies my sudden decision to defend the interests of farmers who don’t give a damn.

The discovery that he was, in Macey’s words, nothing more than ‘a black man in a white man’s army’, came as a great shock to Fanon, who had been taught, and rather naively believed, that ‘blacks’ were backward people living in Africa and that he and his fellow assimilés in the Caribbean were Frenchmen.

Fanon’s fellow Martinican, the poet Aimé Césaire, had made the same discovery. Césaire, whom Fanon briefly met as a teacher at the Lycée Schoelcher, had been educated in Paris, where he encountered an attractive mixture of Marxism, Surrealism and Négritude. In 1938 he published his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, which was to become a seminal text of colonial literature. Césaire’s poetic response to French racism was as angry and violent as Fanon’s, but his political reaction was different. In Martinique he and his wife, Suzanne, together with René Ménil, founded Tropiques, a literary and political journal, in the difficult context of a pro-Vichy colonial Administration. Césaire, at this time a Communist, argued that political independence was not a serious option for Martinique and fought, instead, for its full status as a département within France, which it attained in 1946. Independence, he argued, would let the French off the post-colonial hook. Instead, the French state should have to live with the logical consequences of the ideology of assimilation.

Fanon, by contrast, turned his back on both France and Martinique. He was deeply disparaging of his fellow Martinicans’ ambiguous political consciousness and their pursuit of assimilation. When he received news of the riots on the island in 1959, he referred to them as nothing more than a ‘wet dream’. Disappointed by the French myth of equality and fraternity, he had already sought a new family in the ‘brotherhood’ of the Algerian revolution.

First, however, there was the matter of his studies. Fanon returned to Martinique in 1945 as a decorated war veteran who was not yet 21. He completed his baccalauréat in 1946 and set out for Paris to study dentistry, but his stay in the capital was short-lived and by the following year he had moved to Lyon to read medicine. He qualified as a psychiatrist in 1953, a year after the publication of Black Skin, White Masks, and moved to Algeria to take up a post in the Blida-Joinville hospital. Before long he had become deeply involved with the FLN.

As a psychiatrist, Fanon was a reformist rather than a revolutionary. Macey shows (and Françoise Vergès has also argued) that he had little time for classical psychoanalysis. While Freud, and later Lacan – with whose work Fanon was more familiar than the examiners at Lyon who quizzed him on his dissertation in 1951 – envisaged ‘alienation’ as a universal experience, Fanon saw it as a social and political phenomenon. Indeed, to universalise it seemed, to Fanon, to offer no language to describe what he believed to be the very specific distress, the madness, created by the colonial situation. Black Skin, White Masks contains a swingeing attack on the work of Octave Mannoni, an ethnologist who had spent twenty years in Madagascar and who moved in Lacanian circles in Paris. Mannoni’s analysis of the ‘psychology of colonisation’ in Madagascar centred on the argument that traditional Malagasy ancestor worship and belief in supernatural powers had been transferred onto the island’s French colonial rulers who then, unwittingly, came to occupy the position of the symbolic father figure. Malagasies and the French were thus locked into a ‘dependency complex’ which had deep cultural and psychological roots. Fanon objected to this psychologisation of the colonial situation, insisting that Mannoni was in danger of losing sight of ‘the real’. Mannoni interpreted the weapons carried by Senegalese soldiers in French uniforms as phallic symbols when they kept appearing in the dreams of Malagasy informants. Fanon retorted that ‘the Tirailleur sénégalais’s rifle is not a penis; it really is a 1916 model Lebel rifle.’

Fanon believed that the way to relieve the suffering of his patients was to end their alienation. He did not break the chains and open the doors of the asylum. Central to his practice of social therapy (learned under François Tosquelles in France) was a belief in the importance of inducing even the most disturbed patients to participate in the life of the confining institutions of which they were, willingly or unwillingly, a part. Within the larger institution of the hospital were smaller, patient-run institutions (the film club, the book club, the newspaper), through which patients would be involved in the symbolic exchanges which go to make up a society. Before they knew it, they would find themselves part of a group, integrated. Macey makes it clear that Fanon worked tirelessly to this end, even as the violence escalated and entered the hospital gates of Blida-Joinville. Yet there is something ironic in his pursuit of this kind of social psychiatry with its ‘civilising’ mission according to which the violence and rupture of madness could be papered over by the rituals of tea-drinking and the writing of film reviews – an unconscious mimicry, perhaps, of the French colonial project of assimilation.

Fanon’s arrival at Blida-Joinville had coincided with the beginnings of the Algerian War and the emergence of the FLN, for whom he began to work at the end of 1955. The war escalated quickly and Fanon saw more and more patients whose psychotic states had been triggered by violence and torture. He treated both the injured and the injurers as victims of the ‘bloody, pitiless atmosphere, the generalisation of inhuman practices’, and recorded the ‘lasting impression’ of his patients that ‘they are witnessing a veritable apocalypse’. His work within and outside the hospital became, unsurprisingly, the object of increasing suspicion, and in 1957 the pressure to expel him from Algeria came to a head. In his letter of resignation from Blida-Joinville he referred specifically to his theory of the ‘psychopathology’ of colonialism:

Madness is one of the ways in which man can lose his freedom . . . I can say that I have come to realise with horror how alienated the inhabitants of this country are. If psychiatry is a medical technique which aspires to allow man to cease being alienated from his environment, I owe it to myself to assert that the Arab, who is permanently alienated in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation . . . The status of Algeria? Systematic dehumanisation.

He moved to Tunis, and dedicated the rest of his short life to the Algerian nationalist cause (and to revolution and national liberation in the Third World more generally). As Aimé Césaire put it: ‘He chose, he became Algerian. Lived, fought and died Algerian.’ Yet as Macey makes clear, it was no more straightforward for Fanon to become Algerian than it was for him to be French. His courage and commitment during the bloodiest of colonial struggles is not in doubt, but Macey shows that he had little real power (even when appointed as a roving ambassador for the FLN’s Provisional Government), and often appeared out of his depth in the murky politics of national liberation. Furthermore, Macey argues, since modern Algerian nationalism defined itself as Arab-Islamic, absorbing a ‘black agnostic’ Martinican into its ranks was never going to be easy.

Whether he ‘belonged’ or not, Fanon’s articulation of the cause of revolutionary violence in The Wretched of the Earth arose directly from his Algerian experience. He remained, however, an abstract thinker who had little patience with local complexities and details: the Algerian situation became the ‘colonial situation’ tout court, and the Algerian struggle the ‘common struggle of all the colonised’. In this way, as Robert Young has recently argued, The Wretched of the Earth could become the ‘Bible of decolonisation’ for black activists and anti-colonialists around the world. Fanon was able to make this generalising move partly because of the ideas on ‘race’ which had formed the kernel of Black Skin, White Masks. For Fanon, ‘race’ always took precedence over class in any colonial situation. In essence the colonial world could be divided into two halves: black and white. What unified the ‘wretched of the earth’ was violence. Fanon argued that the violence perpetrated by colonialism had had a profound atomising effect on colonised societies, which could be overcome only through a correspondingly violent reaction – those who took part becoming, in Sartre’s terminology, members of a ‘group-in-fusion’, united by a common purpose. Violence was cathartic and unifying, transforming disempowered and atomised colonial subjects into a powerful political force. Macey argues that though this is a ‘brutal, even blood-curdling’ vision, Fanon stops short of glorifying violence for its own sake. It is impossible, however, to read Fanon today without also being aware of the bloodshed which continues to characterise modern Algeria. Macey tells us that his revolutionary writings are now invoked by the Islamic Salvation Front – the FIS – as a justification for violence. The war with France, they argue, is not over, and violence is still required to ‘redeem’ the Algerian population. Yet as the conflict in Algeria and many other contemporary wars make clear, the post-colonial world does not fall conveniently into Fanon’s categories of black and white, victim and perpetrator. Thousands of Algerians die in the crossfire between the FIS and the Algerian Government. In this context, Fanon’s espousal of the purifying qualities of violence has a hollow ring.

In 1961 Fanon was diagnosed with leukaemia. He was treated first in the Soviet Union and then in the US, where he died in Washington on 10 October 1961, under the watchful eye of the CIA. Macey argues against conspiracy theories, but accounts of his death make clear the anger and frustration Fanon felt at being subject to American medicine in his last weeks. His friend Claude Lanzmann reported that ‘Fanon had lived his death minute by minute and had resisted it savagely . . . he hated those American racists, and distrusted all the hospital staff. When he woke up on his last morning, he betrayed his obsessions by saying to his wife: “They put me through the washing machine last night.”’ Fanon’s last wish was granted: he was buried six hundred metres inside liberated Algerian soil.

Earlier this year I visited the island where Fanon was born, tracing the history of Benoît Giraud and the ‘free black’ community. Martinique is still a département of France. Giraud’s dream of recognition by the Mère Patrie and of full citizenship appears to have been achieved. His descendants have French passports and social security numbers. It may seem a little strange to be grappling with the arithmetic of the Euro on a Caribbean island, but Europe never was a very well defined geographical entity, and by comparison with the British record of dumping and disowning the population of Diego Garcia, French assimilation seems a better option. Aimé Césaire, now in his late eighties, became Mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945, and only stepped down this year. In the recent municipal elections his chosen successor, Serge Letchmy, won the position easily. Martinique does have an independence movement (the MIM), and in several small towns in the south of the island the ‘national’ flag is flown prominently, sometimes in conjunction with the Tricouleur, sometimes on its own. The leader of the MIM, Alfred Marie-Jeanne, is a Deputy to the National Assembly in France – a logical if ironic consequence of the politics of assimilation. But it is not easy to be an indépendantiste in Martinique. The economic benefits of being part of France are everywhere evident and high unemployment is tempered by access to a welfare system. One only has to look to the neighbouring islands of St Lucia and Dominica to realise that the alternatives are not easy – poverty and subjection to the banana industry giants and the WTO. In any case (so the argument goes), what is the point of nationalism in an era of globalisation? What exactly would we be rebelling against? The majority of Martinican politicians, then, talk pragmatically, not of independence, but of greater autonomy within France.

Yet the island’s status continues to produce anxiety and anomie with distinct ‘Fanonian’ resonances. As one Martinican sociologist puts it, the place is ‘jumpy’ – jumpy with barely suppressed anger towards the metropolitan French (present in large numbers as tourists), the local békés and the rich mulâtres. This unease, however, is fertile ground for cultural production. Martinique continues to produce remarkable writers, such as the architects of the créolité movement, Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant. For them, assimilation, Negritude and nationalism all share the same problem: they are ways of avoiding the island’s complexity. ‘The identity of assimilation,’ Chamoiseau writes, ‘protects us against the chaos of identity which was produced on the plantation.’ Rejecting the poles of black and white, and what they call a ‘rhizome’ view of history, their writing celebrates (and, some would say, romanticises) the complexity of créolité, of a culture which contains (not always comfortably) many layers of difference and of shared history. Chamoiseau’s remarkable novel, Texaco, written in different registers of Creole and French, won the Prix Goncourt – which is either an achievement or an indictment, depending on how one views French post-colonial culture.

Fanon, I suspect, would have been deeply suspicious of his fellow Martinican intellectuals’ excursion into magic realism and their refusal to view the world as ‘black and white’. And yet it is the architects of créolité, far more than Fanon, who have been prepared to address the legacy of slavery, the ancestry of Africa, the complex fall-out of colonialism, the importance of class and language and the nature of the island’s memory. In many ways Fanon wanted to do away with history and memory, to erase them and begin again with a blank slate. ‘The body of history,’ he wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, ‘does not determine a single one of my actions. I am my own foundation.’ Fanon refused to be ‘bogged down’, as he put it, in the legacy of slavery. Perhaps he would not have wanted to make the acquaintance of Benoît Giraud.