Grant Farred uses the introduction of What’s My Name to lay out his definition of what constitutes a vernacular intellectual, and it is no mistake that many of the idea’s he expounds upon—what a vernacular intellectual is and what the differences are between the types of intellectuals—fall in line with the writings of African revolutionary Frantz Fanon. Through his redefining of who an intellectual can be, Farred examines Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s infamous study of the intellectual as a functioning component of society: “In The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci’s conception of the organic intellectual differs from that of the traditional intellectual in that they represent both distinct historical moments and modes of being a thinker” ( Farred, 4). In this interpretation, the traditional type of intellectual comes to represent the embodiment of the sort of thinker that Fanon was so critical of in Wretched of the Earth, namely the elitist members of society who were unable to relate to the plight of the common man but nonetheless tried to desperately represent them from a separate class. Instead, Fanon represented an amalgamation of these types of intellectuals, merging them in a way that allowed for his experiences to resonate across the globe and across time.
Using Farred’s notion of the vernacular intellectual, it becomes quite evident that Fanon falls into this category of intellectual development and influence. The role of the vernacular intellectual in society is in line with the belief of rebellion as a tool for the oppressed that Fanon expounds upon in his essays. The vernacular intellectual acts as a vessel for the voice of the marginalized subject to speak from his corner of society; if the systems of oppression reach a critical mass, then the vernacular can be effectively used to insight revolt: “When the subaltern subject is not allowed to speak in its own terms, its own discourse, its history, culture or traditions, when it is alienated from its vernacularity, it is eminently capable of transcribing suppression into a violence aimed at the destruction of its oppressors” (Farred, 19).
Fanon’s works were strongly influenced by the colonialist system that he was forced to live in. Born in the French colony of Martinique in 1925, Fanon was a subject of France in the broadest sense of the word, as he was held in an oppressive state of life along with all the other natives on the island. World War II served as a major catalyst for Fanon’s intellectual growth, as Martinique was used by French naval forces after France fell to the German invasion. Fanon fled Martinique and volunteered with the Free French Forces, where he was sent to North Africa and France to fight against the Nazis. It was in the service the Fanon continued to receive and recognize racial oppression on the part of the French, with his regiment ultimately being purged of non-whites during the later years of the war, notably after Fanon had been wounded defending the county that had worked so hard to oppressed him and his people. A brief stay in Martinique after the war was followed by attending school in France, where his focus on the effects of colonialism began to take shape. It was here that he wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks, an examination of, “…the ontological existence of the Black man in a white-dominated world and covers the subject matter of the psychology of colonial rule, a topic notoriously neglected in college and university courses on colonialism” (Hansen, 29). In an interesting turn of events, Fanon wed a white Frenchwoman in 1952, a somewhat contentious issue for some of his modern-day supporters given his ardent stance against colonialism. However, this event brings up an interesting point in Fanon’s intellectual work, in that he stressed an end to colonialism through whatever means necessary, but did not necessarily advocate for a separation of the races: “Fanon was not a man to marry a woman because she was black or white. This is precisely the Manichaean world he denounced in the most strident terms. In Fanon’s view, color or nationality should be entirely extraneous to the choice of a marital partner. His commitment was neither to a black nor a white world. It was to a non-racial society” (Maldonado-Torres, 176).
Fanon officially became a psychiatrist in 1953 after his schooling in France and was offered the directorship of a hospital in Mozambique, but he instead chose to go to Algeria to pursue better psychiatric facilities. It is important to note that at this point, Fanon was more concerned with his career than with revolutionary motives. Fanon arrived in Algeria at a critical juncture, as the revolution was beginning to occur and the French and Algerians were beginning to butt heads. Fanon initially tried to remain out of direct involvement in the conflict, but this proved to be too difficult: “During the day he treated the French torturers and by night he treated the Algerian tortured. By 1956 this double life was becoming impossible. There was terror all around him; his nurses were beginning to disappear, and he began to feel that he was becoming less effective. In the circumstances he resigned” (Hansen, 32). This resignation proved to be a forced one, as Fanon was expelled from Algeria for striking with other doctors who were sympathetic to the plight of the Algerians.
His expulsion from Algeria proved to be the ultimate catalyst, as Fanon became a full-fledged revolutionary in neighboring Tunisia and offered to assume any role necessary in order to force the colonial forces out of Algeria. It was here that he published the majority of his most well-known essays and works regarding colonialism, using his knowledge of psychology as an effective means of backing up his ideals with the knowledge of how the system of colonialism worked to oppress its subjects through psychological means. Up until his death in 1961 from leukemia, Fanon was an ardent revolutionary and strong supporter of the fight against all colonialist powers.
It is interesting to note that for a while after his death, Fanon remained largely unknown across continental Africa: “Ironically, in Africa, where he spent a large portion of his adult life dedicating himself fanatically to the fight for African liberation, he is relatively unknown except in Algeria” (Hansen, 25). While his writings had a large influence on the revolutionary movement, as well as others across the globe, Fanon was not initially recognized for his work in revolutionary and anti-colonialist writing, perhaps a testament to the radical approach that his essay’s often advocated. And yet, the years since his death have granted more credence to Fanon’s ideologies, which has allowed for him to become an important figure in numerous revolutionary movements. The forward to Wretched of the Earth goes into great detail listing out the numerous revolutionary movements that utilized and studied Fanon’s works as a means of furthering their own goals. Today, Fanon has run the gamut from revolutionary thinker to studied intellectual, often placed on a pedestal that rivals that of other famous minority intellectuals of the past 100 years: “It could be said that Fanon’s street fighting days came to an end in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and that he now takes his place on bookshelves alongside CLR James, Sartre, Memmi, Marcuse, Guevera, and Angela Davis” (Bhabha, xxxi).
Fanon’s work The Wretched of the Earth epitomizes his philosophy in a way that encompasses his philosophical and intellectual spectrum. The core essay of this work is arguably “On Violence,” which stresses the necessity of the colonized rising up against the colonizer through whatever means necessary. Fanon argues that the colonizer’s grip over the country is rooted in a system of violence, necessitating that any efforts to ensure decolonization must enforce a code of violence if there is any hope for it to succeed: “This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have them clamber up the famous echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence” (3).
By assimilating into Algerian culture, Fanon literally situates himself with the plight of the colonized and becomes a member of the struggle for freedom. By willingly becoming a member of this class of oppressed peoples (albeit born into the same system in Martinique), Fanon becomes a representative, a leader, and a spokesman for the cause of freedom from colonialism: “The vernacular intellectual is distinguished from the Gramscian organic by a situatedness within the popular, frequently racialized experience of disempowered constituencies” (Farred, 12). This solidarity with the Algerian people, coupled with his willingness to become a vocal leader for the movement, solidifies Fanon’s place among the catalogue of vernacular intellectuals. Like CLR James (who was cited as one of the definitive examples by Farred of a vernacular intellectual), Fanon sends a strong message to colonialist powers to let the colonized go free: “James saw a new human being and a new society emerging from modernity; Fanon saw one in the midst of revolution. Their message to post-colonial leaders and intellectuals is clear: decentralize power, integrate the people to the process of political decision, open spaces where people can express themselves, hear them, talk to them, report their achievements, comment on their cultural expressions, and make clear where they stand so that they may decide accordingly” (Maldonado-Torres, 189). Fanon’s status as a vernacular intellectual not only allowed for him to influence revolutionaries around the world, but also granted him the capability to fundamentally alter perceptions of race relations.
Bhabha, Homi K. “Foreward: Framing Fanon” The Wretched of the Earth. By Frantz Fanon. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Farred, Grant. What’s My Name: Black Vernacular Intellectuals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Hansen, Emmanuel. “Frantz Fanon: Portrait of a Revolutionary Intellectual” Transition 46.1 (1974): 25-36.
Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. “Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James on Intellectualism and Enlightened Rationality” Caribbean Studies 33.2 (2005): 149-194.