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Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

The following is based on Chapter 5 of Frantz Fanon’s book “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”:

Frantz Fanon wants to be a man. But in the white world in which he lives his skin colour becomes everything, more important than even his education and achievements. While his neighbour or his cousin might hate him for good reason, white people hate him without even getting to know him. They are irrational.

He is seen not as Dr Fanon but as a black man who is a doctor. Everyone is watching and waiting for him to make a mistake.

I was walled in: neither my refined manners nor my literary knowledge nor my understanding of the quantum theory could find favor.

White people do not see him, they see his body:

My body was returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, redone, draped in mourning on this white winter’s day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is wicked, the Negro is ugly.

Instead of being a person, a man, an individual, he is a black man, a Negro, an object, a thing that has value only in relation to whites.  Always a Negro, never a man.

Look how handsome that Negro is.
The handsome Negro says, “Fuck you”, madame.

Even though the Catholic Church and science admit that black people are every bit as human as white people – their hearts are on the same side! – and even though white people themselves admit that racism goes against all reason, they still do not want you to marry their daughter.

Seeing that reason does not work with white people, some make up their mind to shout their blackness, to secrete race. Cesaire and Senghor took this road with their philosophy of negritude: on the other side of the white world there lies a magical black culture. Blacks have rhythm, their sex is magical, “Emotion is Negro as reason is Greek” and so on. But this only feeds white stereotypes about blacks.

And then there is black history: blacks had empires, scholars, iron workers and all the rest. But that is a dead end too since currently whites have the most advanced civilization in the world. At best it allows them to see blacks as the childhood of the world.

Even Sartre, a supposed friend of blacks, saw negritude not as something in its own right but merely as a passing reaction to white supremacy.

Fanon:

A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of not existing. Sin is black as virtue is white. All those white men, fingering their guns, can’t be wrong. I am guilty. I don’t know what of, but I know I’m a wretch.

In the Hollywood film “Home of the Brave” (1949) a soldier hurt in the war says: “Get used to your color the way I got used to my stump. We are both casualties.”

Fanon: I refuse to accept this amputation.

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The following is based on Chapter 4 of Frantz Fanon’s book “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The So-Called Dependency Complex of the Colonized”:

Mannoni, a French psychoanalyst, wanted to understand the mind of the native and the white colonial based on his experience and study of Madagascar under French rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Himself  a white colonial, he wrote a book about it, “The Psychology of Colonization” (1950). Frantz Fanon, himself a native (not of Madagascar but of Martinique) spends this chapter tearing it to pieces.

French rule of Madagascar was cruel. They used Senegalese soldiers to strike fear into the hearts of natives. In 1947 the French put down an uprising, killing 80,000 natives. As if that were not enough, in the footnotes Fanon tells of the French practice of torture in Madagascar.

Fanon calls the use of black soldiers to force French rule on people of colour “the racial allocation of guilt”. He quotes Francis Jeanson:

And if, apparently, you manage not to soil your hands, it’s because others are doing the dirty work in your place. You have your henchmen, and all things considered, you are the real guilty party; for without you, without your blind indifference, such men could not undertake acts that condemn you as much as they dishonor them.

So with all that in mind, here is the picture that Mannoni paints:

  • Most natives are content to put whites above them and be dependent on them because it fulfils a deep need in their hearts, one that was there long before whites showed up. Mannoni calls this a dependency complex.
  • A few natives are unhappy because they suffer from an inferiority complex, which makes them want to be the equal of whites.
  • Not all peoples can be colonized: only those who experience the need.
  • European civilization and its agents of the highest calibre are not responsible for colonial racism. It comes from lower-level whites who blame their unhappy lives on the natives.
  • When black men with guns appear in children’s dreams at night it is not because of the terror of French rule: no, the guns stand for penises.

The only part that Fanon feels Mannoni got at least part right:

  • White colonials suffer from a Prospero complex. Just like the Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, they want to lord it over the natives. The colonies draw those whites who cannot accept others as they are, who do not want to have to take other men seriously but instead want to lord it over them.

Fanon:

I start suffering from not being a white man insofar as the white man discriminates against me; turns me into a colonized subject; … tells me I am a parasite in the world … So I will try quite simply to make myself white; in other words, I will force the white man to acknowledge my humanity. But, Monsieur Mannoni will tell us, you can’t, because deep down inside you there is a dependency complex.

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The following is based on Chapter 3 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Man of Colour and the White Woman”:

Fanon, a black psychiatrist from Martinique,  starts by saying of himself:

I want to be recognized not as Black but as White. … who better than the white woman to bring this about? By loving me she proves to me that I am worthy of a white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man.

Yes, it gets worse:

Between these white breasts that my wandering hands fondle, white civilization and worthiness become mine.

Having lost half his readership, Fanon then turns to the case of Jean Veneuse, the hero of an autobiographical novel by Rene Maran, “Un homme pareil aux autres” (1947).

Jean Veneuse came to France from the Caribbean when he was three or four. He lost his parents and was brought up by boarding schools in France, the only black student in a sea of white. He has a lonely childhood. When the other students go home for the holidays he is left alone at school.  He withdraws into himself and into books: Aurelius, Tagore, Pascal and other writers become his only friends.

He grows up French and falls in love with a white woman. He wonders about his motives.

Maybe it is simply because he was brought up European and so desires European women just like any other man in Europe. Or, contrariwise, maybe it is because he is black:

the common mulatto and black man have only one thought on their mind as soon as they set foot in Europe: to gratify their appetite for white women.

Most of them, including those with lighter skin who often go so far as denying both their country and their mother, marry less for love than for the satisfaction of dominating a European woman, spiced with a certain taste for arrogance.

And so I wonder whether … I am unconsciously endeavoring to take my revenge on the European female for everything her ancestors have inflicted on my people throughout the centuries.

Yet when he works in Africa as a civil servant he proves to be just as bad as the whites, complete with the native girl in his hut. So maybe it is not revenge that he wants but to separate himself from his race or even somehow to become raceless.

But Fanon says that Veneuse’s troubles run much deeper than that: he was left alone in the world by his mother as a small boy and is hung up on that. So he is afraid to love and be loved. He holds everyone at arm’s length, even the woman he wants to marry. Therefore we cannot draw any general conclusions from Veneuse’s case.

I have not read the whole book – I post as I read – but at this point this chapter seems like a waste. But we shall see.

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The following is based on Chapter 2 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Woman of Colour and the White Man” (men of colour and white women will be next week):

When women of colour go after white men and put down men of their own colour Fanon says the cause is just what many of us suspect: internalized racism.

Nor do these women truly love these white men: they just love their colour. They go with them not out of love but to deal with their own hang-ups about race.

Fanon:

It is because the black woman feels inferior that she aspires to gain admittance to the white world.

Secretly she wants to be white. Marrying white is her way of doing this. She looks up to white people and looks down on black people. Whites represent wealth, beauty, intelligence and virtue; blacks, on the other hand, are “niggers”, something to escape, to be saved from, something not to be. So they want to marry a white man even though they know full well that very few will marry them.

Their racism is so profound that it blinds them to good black men. They will say black men lack refinement – and turn away black men more refined than themselves. They will say black men are ugly – and grow impatient with you if you point out good-looking black men.

Fanon takes as his examples three women: Mayotte of Martinique and Nini and Dedee of Senegal. Mayotte is Mayotte Capecia who wrote a book about her life; Nini and Dedee are characters from “Nini” (1954), a story by Abdoulaye Sadji. All three are part white which makes them determined not to “slip back among the ‘nigger’ rabble”. (There was no the One Drop Rule.)

Nini is a silly typist. A man who is an accountant with the waterways company proposes marriage. She cannot believe it. What nerve this man has! There is talk of getting him fired. In the end they have the police tell him to stop his “morbid insanities”. Why? Because he is black and she is half white. He has offended her “white girl’s” honour.

Meanwhile another man with a good government job proposes to Dedee but this time it is a dream come true. Why? Because he is white:

Gone was the psychological depreciation, the feeling of debasement, and its corollary of never being able to reach the light. Overnight the mulatto girl had gone from the rank of slave to that of master. … She was entering the white world.

But a white man cannot make you white, not even in effect: Mayotte, the third woman, had an affair with a married white man. One time she asked him to take her to the white side of town. He does, taking her to a friend’s house for the evening.  But the white women there made her feel so out of place, so unworthy of him, that she never went back to the white side again.

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The following is based on part 12 of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about genetics:

Gregor Mendel was a farm boy who became monk. He joined the Augustinian order in Brno, the second largest city in what is now the Czech Republic. They sent him to the university of Vienna to get a teaching degree. The university said he “lacks insight and the requisite clarity of knowledge” and failed him in 1853.

A few years later he began to do experiments on pea plants. People assumed that if you cross a tall pea plant with a short one you get pea plants of middling height. Instead of assuming Mendel tried it: he found that you get nothing but tall pea plants! And if in turn you cross those tall pea plants you get 75% tall pea plants and 25% short ones.

Why? Mendel said it was because each plant gets a height particle – what we now call a gene – from each parent. In the first generation of his experiment, each plant had a tall gene and a short gene, so all of them were tall. But in the second generation one fourth received two short genes and so they were short.

He had discovered the gene, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. It sank like a rock. Mendel was a nobody: the important science journals in France and Britain did not print it. In 1866 he had it printed in a Brno science journal and there it sat unknown to the top people in science till 1900.

The next big discovery was printed in Nature in 1953, so it was known instantly worldwide: DNA and how it works. DNA is what genes are made of. James Watson and Francis Crick beat out Linus Pauling in discovering how it works.

DNA is a double molecule, each half the mirror image of the other half. When the molecule splits in two, each half can create its missing half. But there is more: it is a long molecule that contains smaller molecules called bases: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. These become in effect the four letters – A, G, C and T – of the language that genes are written in, containing the instructions of how to build everything in the body.

But genes and DNA are not enough to account for life as we know it. You also need:

  1. Sex, which mixes genes in new ways. Till sex came along life did not progress beyond the level of pond scum.
  2. Human sexual selection, which speeds it up even faster: humans, compared to other animals, put far more thought into choosing who they have children with. They also have taboos against incest which prevents a few older males from getting all the females and lowering the rate at which genes mix.

As John Donne said:

Love’s mysteries in souls do grow
But yet the body is his book.

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Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was an American writer, best known for the play, “A Raisin in the Sun” (1957). It was the first play by a black woman to appear on Broadway.

James Baldwin:

… never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.

It is such a great play that even with a limited actor like Sean Combs playing the lead it is still powerful.

The play is about a black family that buys a house in a white suburb – something her own family did. The first two acts are kind of slow but the last act about moving day is pure, utter genius.

In 1961 it was made into a Hollywood film starring Sidney Poitier, who had played the lead on Broadway. She wrote the screenplay.

Her two other main plays are “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”, which was on Broadway in 1964 but was not a hit, and “Les Blancs”.

Some of her writings were made into an autobiography after her death, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1969). James  Baldwin wrote a beautiful introduction, “Sweet Lorraine”.

Incomplete works at the time of her death:

  • “Toussant”, an opera
  • “All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors”, an autobiographical novel

She was also thinking of doing plays on Pharaoh Akhnaton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Chesnutt’s “The Marrow of Tradition” (1901).

Born on Chicago’s Southside. her family moved to a white suburb when she was eight. Angry whites gathered in front of their house.  A brick was thrown through the window that narrowly missed her. The police were unwilling to protect them. Later the state supreme court ordered them out of the house.

In 1948 she went to the University of Wisconsin. There she became interested in left-wing politics and theatre, studying Ibsen and Strindberg.

In 1950 she dropped out and headed for New York. There she took courses at the New School and, for three years, wrote regularly for Paul Robeson’s Freedom. Later she taught school in Harlem and took part in protests. At one protest she met Robert Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. In 1956 he wrote a hit song with a friend (“Cindy, Oh, Cindy”) which allowed her to become a full-time writer. She started writing “A Raisin in the Sun”.

In 1960 she wrote “The Drinking Gourd”, a television show for NBC about slavery. NBC never aired it because it was too violent and too “divisive”. But you can read it in “Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays” (1983).

In 1962 she joined SNCC and a year later she and James Baldwin went to see Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, to try to get him to understand race in America. In time their words sunk in.

In 1963 she began to lose her strength: the doctors said she had pancreatic cancer. Two years later she was dead – at age 34. Over 600 came to her funeral in Harlem.

Baldwin:

Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were.

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AnAutobiographyOfAngelaDavisWritten: 1974
Read: 2009

“An Autobiography” (1974) by Angela Davis tells the story of the first 28 years of her life, from birth to her arrest, imprisonment and trial. It was edited by Toni Morrison, who had already written “The Bluest Eye” and was then working for Random House.

I got it from the library because it was out of print – but now it seems to be back in print again!

It is not as good as, say, the autobiography of Malcolm X, but it is still well worth reading.

Malcolm X was not only more important in history, his story is one of self-discovery, a search for the truth that remakes him. Like St Augustine’s “Confessions”.

Angela Davis’s life was far more straightforward: she saw how unjust American society was growing up and sought to change it by taking part in SNCC, the Black Panthers and the Communist Party. In time this landed her in prison.

The part about the trial was well written: it could have bored you to tears with all the ins and outs that trials have, but she avoided that. Best of all was the ending: even though you already knew she would win, you were still overjoyed when she does win! That is how the book ends.

The book starts two years before with her on the run from the FBI. She is arrested in New York and put in prison. Since she is to stand trial in California, she is sent back. At that point the book jumps back to fill in the first 26 years of her life and then ends with her imprisonment in California and the trial.

She writes at great length about her time in prison. It affected her powerfully, but not me: I expect prison to be terrible, so nothing she said shocked me.

The same goes for what she said about the police in Los Angeles: from living in New York I already knew how they can be. But it is nice to know that I am not just imagining it.

One of the best parts is her account of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s. It makes you see how some things have changed like night and day (like being able to walk in through the front door) while other things remain the same (like the police).

She won me over when she said she loves reading books but hates going to parties.

Another good part was her account of the Los Angeles police trying to wipe out the Black Panthers.

She lives in Los Angeles in the 1960s. There are no Jim Crow laws  there, yet in some ways the racism is worse: because the whites there know and understand blacks less they seem to regard them more like wild animals to be threatened, shot and put safely behind bars.

She says little about philosophy, which she studied for years, and little about racism in New York, where she lived during part of high school.

It is called “an” autobiography. Is she going to write another one?

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