National Culture and the Fight for Freedom, Frantz Fanon.
I have shortened this speech, simplified the English, added headings and highlighted words you should look up if you don’t know them. Please note that Fanon only uses the male pronoun “he”. But today, this is not acceptable: English writers use “he/she” or simply “she” or “they”, to recognize that women continue to be unequal to men. You can read the full version here.
What happens to culture in a colonial society?
Colonial domination disrupts the cultural life of a conquered people. It changes the laws, and it sends people and their customs to the remote areas of the country. It enslaves men and women.
The colonising power does not say that the oppressed nation and its culture don’t exist. Instead, i tries to make the colonised person admit his culture is inferior, that it’s just a kind of instinct. His ‘nation’ isn’t real, and his biology is inferior.
Not all colonised people react to this the same way. The mass of the people maintain traditions which are completely different from the coloniser, and artists create a purely formal style. The intellectual tries to learn the culture of the occupying power and criticises his own national culture, or tries desperately to prove its worth.
When a country is colonised, there can’t be changes in the national culture. Here and there, artists try to renew their culture’s themes. Nothing happens right away. But in the long term, they prepare a new national consciousness, allowing colonised people to question oppression and struggle for freedom.
In colonisation, a national culture risks being destroyed and it very quickly becomes secret. The coloniser thinks that people who are attached to traditions are faithful to their nation. And it’s true that some people persist in following their culture, and this is a kind of nationalism. But their nationalism doesn’t fight back. These people just concentrate on a hard core of culture, which becomes more and more empty.
How national consciousness forms
After a century or two of exploitation, national culture becomes a set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress and a few broken-down institutions. There is no real creativity. But killing the colonised’s culture creates aggression from the native person. Colonial exploitation, poverty and famine drive the native more and more to open, organised revolt. The majority of people decide they need a decisive break with the occupying power.
The tensions of national consciousness appear in creative work. In literature, for example, there is over-production. Starting as a reply to the colonial power, the literature produced by natives becomes wide and varied. The intelligentsia become producers instead of consuming the occupier’s culture. At first, this literature is mostly poetry, but later on novels, short stories and essays are attempted. As the struggle for liberation becomes more focused, poetry becomes less useful.
Literary themes completely change. There is less bitter, hopeless self-blame and violent writing. The colonialists encouraged criticism, exposing poor living conditions and passions as forms of catharsis. But the continued political organizing of the nation’s people invites the intellectual to go farther than his cry of protest. First he criticises society; then he calls for social change; then he commands people to change society. This disrupts literary styles and themes, and also creates a completely new public. While at the beginning, the native intellectual wrote to be read by the oppressor, now the native writer addresses his own people.
It is only from that moment that we can speak of a national literature. This may be called a literature of combat, because it calls on the whole people to fight for their existence as a nation.
The stories and songs of the people begin to change. The storytellers who used to tell stories about unchanging events now bring them alive and introduce important changes. There is a tendency to bring conflicts up to date and to modernise their kinds of struggle, together with the names of heroes and the types of weapons. The formula ‘This all happened long ago’ is substituted by that of ‘What we are going to speak of happened somewhere else, but it might well have happened here today, and it might happen tomorrow’.
Every time the storyteller relates a fresh episode to his public, the existence of a new type of man is revealed to the public. The storyteller makes innovations and he creates a work of art. It even happens that the characters – highway robbers or anti-social thieves – are remodelled. We see the emergence of the imagination and of the creative urge in the songs and epic stories of a colonised country. The storyteller is helped by his public to seek out new national patterns. Comedy disappears, or loses its attraction. Drama is no longer just about despair and revolt. It becomes part of the people’s political and social action.
Arts and crafts
Handicrafts begin to develop. Woodwork, for example, which repeatedly made the same masks with the same expressions, comes to life. The arms of wooden figures tend to be raised from the body as if they’re about to act. Art pieces showing two, three or five figures appear. There is an avalanche of amateurs or critics in traditional mediums. By carving figures and faces which are full of life, and by carving a group of people fixed on the same spot, the artist encourages people to join an organised political movement.
The same thing happens in ceramics and pottery-making. Formal styles disappear. Jugs, jars and trays are modified savagely. Colours, which used to obey the traditional rules of harmony, increase in number and are influenced by the rising revolution. In the same way, the portrayal of the human face in artwork, which used to be fixed, becomes suddenly changeable. The colonialists defend the native style. For example, consider how white jazz experts reacted to new styles of jazz, such as be-bop. For the experts, jazz should only be made by the sad, broken nostalgia of an old Negro man who is an alcoholic and full of hate for white people. As soon as the Negro understands himself, and understands the rest of the world differently, he begins to hope and forces back the racist universe. His trumpet plays more clearly, and his voice is less hoarse.
Well before the political or fighting phase of the national movement, we can feel and see the new energy of the people and feel the approaching conflict with the colonialists. Forms of expression and themes are fresh and powerful, calling for people to unite. Everything works together to awaken the native person’s sensibility and to criticise defeat. The native renews the purpose and energy of art, music and literature. The conditions necessary for the inevitable conflict are brought together.
Why national liberation is not exclusive
In a colonised country, even the most savage nationalism defends national culture. For culture expresses the nation’s values and taboos. In the colonial situation, culture, which gets no support from the people or the government, dies. Culture needs national liberation to live. The fight for national liberation sets culture moving.
The old culture breaks up. Before national liberation, we see new forms of expression and imagination. There remains one question: what are the relations between the struggle for national liberation – whether political or military – and culture? Does culture stop during the conflict? Is the national struggle an expression of a culture?
When a colonised people fights to re-establish their nation, this is the most complete example of culture. The struggle itself sends culture along different paths and traces out new ones. The struggle for freedom does not return the national culture to its previous shape. After national liberation, colonialism disappears, but so does the colonised man.
A struggle which mobilises all classes of the people, and which expresses their aims and their impatience, will triumph. A nation which is born from people’s action, and which embodies their hopes to change the state, must create rich forms of culture.
Pro-independence activists want to make their country’s real culture shared among all people. But the activists should not wait for the nation’s people to support a single idea of independence in order to achieve their task. The liberation of the nation is one thing; the methods and popular content of the fight are another.
Some people say that wanting a nation is a mistake, and a phase that humanity has left behind. However, we think that wishing to skip being a nation is a mistake. If culture expresses national consciousness, then national consciousness is the most complex form of culture. Being conscious of your national identity doesn’t stop you for communicating with other people. On the contrary, philosophy teaches us that national consciousness, which is not nationalism, is necessary. In fact, it’s the only thing that will give us an international perspective. This is a special problem in Africa, because national consciousness is part of African consciousness. If colonialism is still entrenched in Africa, every independent nation remains in permanent danger.
The most urgent thing today for the intellectual is to build up his nation by learning and showing the will of the people. The building of a nation is always accompanied by the discovery of universalising values. Far from keeping separate from other nations, national liberation leads the nation to play its part on the stage of history. At the heart of national consciousness, international consciousness lives and grows. And this is ultimately the source of all culture.