Fanon on the Significance of Embodied Difference in a White-Scripted World



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Fanon on the Significance of Embodied Difference in a White-Scripted World



I, a man of color, want but one thing. May man never be instrumentalized. May the subjugation of man by man—that is to say, of me by another—cease. May I be allowed to discover and desire man wherever he may be. […] Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other? […] My final prayer: O my body, always make me a man who questions!
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
Gospel of Mark 1:14, NRSV
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As Lewis Gordon, Jeremy Weate, Lou Turner and other philosophers of race have observed, Frantz Fanon in his work, Black Skin, White Masks, sustains an on-going critical dialogue with Hegel, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.1 As Weate brings to the fore, Fanon offers a compelling critique of contemporary phenomenology, which exposes phenomenology’s problematic relation to difference, particularly the difference of skin color.2 In this essay, I set forth Fanon’s critique of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema (schéma corporel) and explain the ways in which Fanon’s historico-racial (schéma historico-racial) and epidermal racial schemata (schéma épidermique racial) offer a needed corrective to Merleau-Ponty’s account. In particular, Fanon argues that Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive notion of the corporeal schema through which the self and world emerge in fact exhibits an asymmetry with regard to whites and blacks in their experience of and active participation in the world.  Rather than the experience of unfettered agency, Fanon highlights the un-freedom of the lived experience of the black in a colonial and post-colonial context. Having unearthed Fanon’s insights, I consider ways in which his findings might be brought into conversation with postmodern (Foucault) and Christian thinkers (J. Kameron Carter) so as to develop and promote a philosophy (and a theology) that saves rather than destroys difference.



I.
Fanon argues that a phenomenology of blackness—the experience of skin difference and of being the black other—can be understood only in the encounter with whiteness or more precisely, the white imagination.3 That is, in a mostly black community in the Antilles, Fanon was ‘content to intellectualize these differences’; however, once he entered the white world and felt the weight of the ‘white gaze’, he experienced his otherness and became aware of racial attitudes which up to that point had not existed for him.4 In his chapter, ‘The Lived Experience of the Black’, Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being ‘fixed’ by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination. As the child’s refrain, ‘Look! A Negro!’ crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move, Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze.5
I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, […] Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from my self, and gave myself up as an object. What did this mean to me? Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body. Yet this reconsideration of myself, this thematization, was not my idea. I wanted simply to be a man among men.6
As Fanon takes up the white view of himself, he experiences its all-encompassing reach. That is, his becoming a white-defined black other involved more than his present encounter with the child on the train; in essence, he entered into the white erasing and re-scripting of black history. Not only is his present fixed by the white other, but his past is fixed as well. The child’s unison refrain gives rise to polyphonic lines of “cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism” and the like.
A few paragraphs before his description of the train episode with the child, Fanon mentions Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema and emphasizes the difficulties that a black person experiences in a white-scripted world due to his skin color and the various meanings that have been given to these and other embodied differences. In brief, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological project is in part directed against Descartes’ mind/body dualism and Kant’s geometricized view of space. As is the case generally in the phenomenological tradition, Merleau-Ponty rejects dichotomous divisions of inner and outer, subject and object that characterize much of modern philosophy.7 The body is not an inert object (res extensa) among other objects that a res cogitans comes to know.8 Rather, according to Merleau-Ponty, the body ‘is the vehicle of being in the world and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them’.9 In this view, the body inhabits the world and is called forth by the immanent structures of things in the world.10 To say that we are called forth by the structures of objects is not to say that we as embodied agents are merely passively affected by objects. As we encounter things in the world, we actively attend to them and choose how to act in response to their directives. Likewise, things and the world have their own integrity and are not constituted by Kantian a priori structures of space and time or categories of the understanding. As Merleau-Ponty explains,
The world is there before any possible analysis of mine. […] The real is a closely woven fabric. It does not await our judgment before incorporating the most surprising phenomena, or before rejecting the most plausible figments of our imagination. […] The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions.11
Things in the world are infused with meanings and exhibit unity or what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘style.’ Style speaks of the distinctive characteristics of a person or thing that distinguishes that person or thing from others. For example, when listening to a trumpet solo, jazz connoisseurs recognize immediately that the performer is Miles Davis rather than Dizzy Gillespie. Each musician has a distinctive style that makes him what he is—the way he pushes air through his trumpet, whether he plays staccato or legato phrases, how he chooses to place high notes, silences, and so forth. Style is neither reducible to a ‘collection of perceptions’ nor to laws which govern perceptions; however, once recognized and specified, it manifests a self-evidence ‘which we feel no need to define’.12 As mentioned previously, things call out to us, and in our act of perception, which involves an active focus or attending, we respond to their directives. For example, by actively attending to Miles Davis’ solo, instead of focusing on the rhythm section, we willfully respond to what it has to say to us and allow the background (i.e., the rhythm section) to recede. Miles Davis’ style, though distinguishable from the background or auditory field created by the other musicians, is nonetheless intimately connected to it and arises from within it.13
In addition, our embodied existence and relationship with the world is such that we are attuned to the world and non-cognitively adjust ourselves to its directives. For example, when someone whispers to us and we have trouble hearing what is said, we turn our ear toward the person, “tune-out” the announcements broadcast through the loudspeakers and move closer so that we might hear what he or she is saying. As Merleau-Ponty explains, to have a body ‘implies the ability to change levels [of perception] and to “understand” space, just as the possession of a voice implies the ability to change key. The perceptual field corrects itself and […] I identify it without any concept because I live in it’.14 In short, as one commentator, Carman Taylor, puts it, perception, then, is ‘the body’s intelligent orientation in the world’.15 A few lines later Taylor provides a helpful explanation of the corporeal schema. Our perception is
informed by what Merleau-Ponty calls a ‘body schema’ (schéma corporel), which is neither a purely mental nor a merely physiological state. The body schema is not an image of the body, and so not an object of our awareness, but rather the bodily skills and capacities that shape our awareness of objects.16
The corporeal schema, then, speaks of how we posture and conduct ourselves in relation to the world and its objects. The fact that we are free agents and not mere passive recipients caught up in a causal nexus allows us to actively engage the world. Here Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception as active rather than passive and his understanding of our comportment in the world via the corporeal schema highlights the body’s free agency in its ability to both disclose and actively transform the historical world.17 In so far as embodied subject is able to step back from the phenomenal field, participate in and transform its historico-cultural horizon, it is free; in so far as its capacity for expression and its ability to alter its own history and given context are denied, it is not free.18 In the case of hindered freedom, it is as if the subject has no way to emerge and distinguish itself from the phenomenal field in which it finds itself.

Fanon, although appreciative of Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on our embodied being-in-the world, is not satisfied with what he takes as an overly generic schema and thus introduces his historico-racial schema, which is imposed on him by the white other. For Fanon, Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive, universal rendering of the corporeal schema does not account for the disparity of experience between whites and blacks in a colonialized and post-colonial context. As Weate explains, ‘[i]n the interracial encounter, the White is able to participate in the schematization of the world, whilst the Black may not, for his skin difference closes down the possibility of free agency’.19  The history of black people, as mentioned previously, is simultaneously erased and re-written by the white imagination. This revisionist history defines what a black person is—intellectually inferior, in need of a (white) master, culturally incapable of contributing something of value to (white, European) society and so on. The black person does not create this narrative, but is scripted into it and constructed by it. Nonetheless, Fanon suggests, a time comes when a black person is confronted with the white narrative by way of a particular, concrete and often painful encounter and thus begins to accept and internalize the mythology. In Fanon’s words, ‘[d]isoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself, and gave myself up as an object’.20


Fanon’s dramatic re-telling of the train episode and the pre-theoretical racial assumptions apparent in the child’s remarks about him and black people in general serves a two-fold function. First, the narrative calls attention to the deficiencies of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema. For example, in a colonial context, if a black man leaned too closely toward a white woman in order to hear her utterance, his bodily comportment would be interpreted quite differently than a white man’s.21 The white man is free to adjust his bodily attunement in order to hear the white woman, whereas the black man is not. What should be an ordinary, non-cognitive bodily adjustment becomes for the black man a movement that may cost him his life. This asymmetrical restriction of the black man’s freedom to make bodily adjustments of this sort prevents him from developing a personal ‘style’ which would enable him to emerge and differentiate himself from the phenomenal field in which he finds himself.22 Second, the narrative highlights the way in which phenotypic or so-called ‘racial’ differences—as negatively interpreted by the dominant group in a given historical epoch—close off or at least severely hinder the possibilities of freedom for the oppressed group, as well as personal and cultural transformation. Hence, Fanon offers his historico-racial schema as a corrective. Yet, his account also includes the racial-epidermal schema. Whereas the historico-racial schema brings to light the historical contingencies and mythological narratives imposed upon blacks, the racial-epidermal schema speaks to the sedimentation of the so-called “black essence.” In other words, once the new narrative of what it means to be a black person, which includes the various meanings that have been assigned to phenotypic differences, has become fixed, ossified and even naturalized in the social consciousness, various ‘scientific’ discourses, and cultural and legal practices, the black essence has been successfully created.23

II.
Once we transition to the racial-epidermal schema, the all-pervasiveness of the white gaze—here understood broadly as the white mythological narrative as manifest in the cultural consciousness and systematically expressed in the cultural institutions and practices of a given society—functions like a Panopticon, keeping the black person under constant inspection. Though speaking of the incarcerated, Foucault’s description applies quite well to the black person’s situation vis-à-vis the white, European other, ‘he is the object of information, never a subject in communication’.24 Once the racial-epidermal schema has come to fruition and the black essence fixed, the requisite racial machinery has likewise been established to ensure “proper” social boundaries and to keep the white mythology unchallenged. In a way similar to the Panopticon’s ability to ‘disindividualiz[e] power’ and distribute it through various socio-cultural and legal structures, institutions and people, Fanon’s schemata point to the systemic racial structures of colonized Europe.25 These racialized disciplinary practices, though not identical to the disciplinary practices Foucault describes, nonetheless share close family resemblances with ‘a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference’. 26 The racial-epidermal schema, broadly construed to include these systemic, disindividualized power structures, enables even the most vulnerable and innocent members of society—the child on the train—to be an instrument of and even operate the racial machinery.


When the white mythology has its way, it gives birth to black subjugation, which has both an external and an internal dimension. The external aspect is socio-political in nature and is often manifest in discriminatory legislation and unequal educational and employment opportunities. The internal aspect comes when the black person can no longer bear the weight of the white alienating gaze and internalizes the narrative. To return to Foucault’s metaphor, when the black person breaks down and accepts the white mythos, there is a sense in which the panoptic surveillance is no longer needed.27 In Fanon’s description of his self-fragmenting descent, he draws attention to the sense of powerlessness that he felt in a colonialized context wherein mis-recognition by the white other was the norm. ‘Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself, and gave myself up as an object’.28
Fanon is cognizant, in other words, of the black person’s participation in this already-given white-scripted history. His statements, ‘I transported myself” and “gave myself up as an object’ acknowledge his active involvement in accepting the white mythology. Although this particular act is negative, it nonetheless highlights the fact that the black person in a colonialized or similarly oppressive context is in reality not a mere res, a thing determined from the outside and lacking genuine freedom. Fanon, in fact, makes numerous statements affirming his freedom—a freedom that involves his ability to creatively re-script his own narrative and to refuse to be shackled by a pre-given white narrative.
I find myself one day in the world, and I acknowledge one right for myself: the right to demand human behavior from the other. And one duty: the duty never to let my decisions renounce my freedom. […] I am not a prisoner of History. I must not look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction. I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life.29
These declarations in no way undermine Fanon’s schemata, particularly his account of the coming-into-being of a fixed black essence once the racial-epidermal schema has been established. This is the case because his genealogy of racial sedimentation (i.e., black essentialism) or the giving way of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema to the racial-epidermal schema is not a necessary but a contingent event, which qua contingent can (in theory) be undone or at least significantly dismantled. In other words, Fanon’s agonized cry of alienation, although genuine and intensely felt, should not be interpreted as a despairing last word. Rather, Fanon calls for a counter-narrative which refuses to be frozen in a white-scripted past. In the closing section of Black Skin, White Masks, he emphasizes the need for the black person to be future-oriented and to actively reject the white mythos while creatively carving out a new present and future. For Fanon, this meant a willingness to fight, kill and give his own life so that human beings would no longer ‘be enslaved on this earth’.30 Yet, his vision also included a call to human solidarity, a call to blacks and whites and to all human beings to ‘move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born’.31
Does his appeal to human solidarity, his repudiation of the past and his refusal to allow the ‘density of History to determine’ his acts mean that Fanon has no interest in his ethnic roots or that he sees no value in highlighting the distinct contributions of people of color?32 One need not draw such conclusions. Rather, because he is acutely aware of the power of socio-historical forces to create systematic, racialized mechanisms and eventually essential-ize a people group, Fanon understood the need for a “disalienation” to occur.33 This disalienation requires that the black person break the bonds of his historical (white) inscription and begin to write his own narrative. Here again we should not overlook Fanon’s affirmation of human free agency even in extreme situations of oppression. As human beings, we are not determined completely by socio-historical conditions. However, in the colonial situation where skin color defines in advance a person’s value and his or her place in society, abstract philosophical schemata—such as Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema and Hegel’s mythological master/slave dialectic—come up short because they fail to consider the existential reality of racial difference.34

Among other things, Fanon’s account of his experience in a white-scripted world points to the human need to understand oneself as part of a larger narrative—a narrative in which both human freedom and cultural and ethnic diversity are valued and respected. Though the context was slavery and not colonialism and the dissimilarities between the two should be acknowledged, it is instructive to consider the ways in which some African Americans re-constituted their identity by bringing an ancient narrative of oppression and liberation into conversation with their present circumstances. As Rowan Williams observes, if the dominant group takes on the role of defining the out-group’s identity, we should not be astounded if the latter’s response is, ‘“We don’t need you to tell us who we are”. Certain kinds of separatism are necessary to highlight the reality of a difference that has been overridden by the powerful conscripting the powerless into their story’.35



III.
In fact, such a response in the form of counter-narratives of non-white-defined identity and creative strategies of resistance was precisely how many African-American slaves chose to struggle against white oppression and the brutality of American slavery. Given the theological and specifically Christian approach that my account will discuss, it is necessary to acknowledge that Christianity has not been faithful to its own best teachings related to the issue of slavery. In fact, under the banner of Christianity and with the “justification” of Scripture, many proclaiming the name of Christ fought to preserve the inhumane institution of slavery.36 Nonetheless, in spite of such oppression, the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness.37
This resistance took many forms from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines. Whatever shape the opposition took, a common conviction driving the slaves’ subversive maneuverings was a refusal to accept the degraded, sub-human existence imposed on them by white masters, coupled with a commitment to assert a self-defined, rather than an other-defined account of black identity.38 Another area in which resistance manifested itselfwas in what we might call the specifically religious sphere. ‘Slave religion’(Cone’s term), which continually asserted the dignity of blacks because they too are created in God’s image, not only affirmed ‘freedom from bondage’ but also ‘freedom-in-bondage’.39 That is, though Christian slaves did seek an ultimate end to their sufferings in the next life, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now—in their history—‘making right what whites had made wrong. Just as God delivered the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, he will also deliver black people from American slavery’.40 The spirituals are often inspired by biblical passages which emphasize God’s care for and active involvement in liberating oppressed people, as well as his willingness in the Person of Jesus Christ to enter into an exiled existence and even physically touch the untouchables.
While the black spirituals communicate an abiding trust in God’s promise to deliver his people, they also provide an avenue for the slaves to cry out in their suffering, thus creating their own version of Israel’s ‘How long, O Lord?’41 Here we not only have an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done in history and is doing in the present, but we likewise have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension experienced now where injustice often prevails. When the day finally came and the slaves were freed from their bonds, these African American believers experienced an ‘eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future [the eschaton] is inconsistent with the realities of slavery. Freedom, for black slaves, […] was a historical reality that had transcendent implications’.42 In other words, even though a form of liberation had come—a proleptic view of the eschaton—the very fact that slavery existed and thus required a decree of emancipation underscores the dislocated character of our present world. In short, one of the central theological themes of black spirituals is the belief that God has not forsaken his people, coupled with the conviction that he will one day deliver them from their unjust human oppressors. However, it must be stressed that the faith in view here was not a mere passive waiting for divine deliverance but involved creative strategies of active resistance to a white-defined identity. ‘Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence. Resistance made dignity more than just a word to be analyzed philosophically’.43
Notwithstanding the genuine differences between Fanon’s colonial (and postcolonial) context and the African-American’s enslaved (and segregated) context, the oppressed in both situations are given an other-scripted narrative—a narrative which is one component of a socio-political, racialized apparatus that seeks to destroy difference. Whether the narrative comes from ‘enlightened’ Europeans or ‘Christian’ slaveholders, the latter having more in common with the former than with the teachings of Jesus the suffering servant, the goal is domination and a reduction to white sameness. If in fact colonialism and modern institutions of slavery are fueled by a desire to possess, destroy and re-make others in one’s own (white) image, and Christians who have supported these projects have been in grave error, is it possible to vindicate Christianity so that it might still be considered a valid option for the possibility of saving difference? J. Kameron Carter believes it is possible and has recently made a case for rescuing Christianity from its perverse instantiations. As Carter shows, Maximus the Confessor’s Christological vision has much to contribute to contemporary discussions on race, both theological and otherwise. Love for Maximus is central to all actions, divine and human. The “otherness” of creation came into being not by necessity but through unconstrained divine love and generosity. Human beings, though the pinnacle of God’s creation because they image or reflect God in a unique way (imago Dei), chose to turn from their Creator, which resulted in a triple alienation. Instead of intimate communion with God and one another, we experience discord, fragmentation and even hostility. Instead of a respectful, cultivating relationship with the created order, we manipulate nature, giving little or no thought to its telos and purpose in God’s cosmic plan of redemption. With God no longer our primary love, our “love” becomes self-focused and tyrannical. This misdirected love is transposed into a dominating, monotone key in which polyphonic harmonies have no place. Carter, in his appropriation of Maximus’ reflections on love, argues that distorted self-love (philautia) has the propensity to harden into a disposition of ‘possession’.44 If such a disposition becomes entrenched in the social consciousness, we have at least one of the essential ingredients for large-scale mechanisms of oppression.45 Carter believes that certain core teachings of the Enlightenment, especially those traceable to Kant, not only gravitate toward the possessive-tyrannical disposition, but are also integrally related to the emergence of various racialized mechanisms of modernity.46
For instance, in a colonialized situation, ‘philautia functions as a substitute for a doctrine of creation inasmuch as the self-constituting I creates a reality and draws all else into it by making it utility or assigning it a use value in the world of the I.’47 Bringing Maximus’ theological critique to bear on the modern problem of racism, Carter interprets the modern self, driven by its misdirected self-love and armed with its Enlightenment, pseudo-scientific teachings of racial hierarchies, as a variation of Adamic transgression but translated onto the socio-political level. That is, just as Adam (and Eve) unsatisfied with their sub-creator roles in God’s story, sought to become narrators of their own story, so too the Enlightenment discourse on race offers its own narrative of origins and human destiny. This narrative, however, is rigidly monochromatic. When taken up by certain misguided Christians, it transmutes into “a narrative of how human beings came to be bearers of race and how within this narrative whiteness became theologically supreme as a modality of religious dominance and world commerce.”48
As both ancient (Maximus) and modern (Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr.) Christian witnesses proclaim, the Christian narrative, which begins with creation out of love and climaxes with re-creation through the resurrected life of Jesus Christ, is not inherently a discourse of oppression. It does, however, involve suffering, the shedding of blood and even violent death. The Christian scriptural account does not present us with stories of perfect human beings. Rather, it portrays humans—including those who are part of God’s covenant people—in their failings and achievements, in their faithfulness and recalcitrance. Perhaps the most inexplicable part of the story is why a completely sufficient, content Trinitarian God willingly decides not only to begin and to continue the story but likewise to enter into the story and to assign himself a seemingly tragic role in which he suffers and dies at the hands of those whom he came to save. Even so, when the Word became incarnate and made himself vulnerable to the vicissitudes and strains of human existence—misunderstanding, rejection, and even death-by-crucifixion—he proclaimed to the world that his Lordship was not the way of colonization or domination. Rather, this omnipotent Lord set aside his privileges and became a slave, dying a slave’s death yet simultaneously conquering death, of which his resurrection is the definitive sign.49
With the incarnation and humiliation of Christ, the corporeal schema and the master/slave dialectic are undone, nullified and ultimately replaced by an inexplicable ‘logic’ of love wherein, paradoxically, a seemingly tragic death opens the way to life. Christ’s particular, poor, Jewish flesh becomes, in Carter’s words, ‘the site of God’s wealth,’ the place where ethnic, class and even gender ‘binaries’ no longer serve oppressive purposes.50 In other words, Christ’s flesh becomes the place where human diversity finds unity—a unity that saves difference. We see this unity-in-diversity in the New Testament itself. For example, Jewish Christians are not forced to relinquish their Jewish heritage and practices, though both must be re-interpreted in light of the Christ-event. Nor are Gentile Christians compelled to become Jews and adhere to traditional Jewish customs (e.g., circumcision). Rather, Christ’s particular Jewish flesh opens the way for all to participate in Trinitarian life. Unlike philosophical schemata that flatten difference for the sake of unity (or vice versa), Christian conceptual categories, particularly those related to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, provide a model for a unity that upholds difference. For instance, the horizontal one-and-many union between Christ and his people—people of diverse languages, ethnicities, and social classes—is an image of the one-and-many reality of the Trinity. At the heart of Christian teaching is the proclamation that vertical and horizontal “communities” of unity-and-difference can (and in the case of the Trinity do) coexist in non-violent, non-dominating, reciprocal relations of love.
In light of the organic relationship that Christianity has with Judaism, the significance of Christ’s Jewish flesh must not be overlooked—a point that brings us back to Fanon. In his critique of Merleau-Ponty’s generic corporeal schema, Fanon drew attention to the ways in which the white-scripted narrative (mis)colors black skin with multiple negative connotations. Fanon’s analysis shares structural similarities (and dissimilarities) with the Christian’s emphasis on the importance of Christ’s particular embodiment as a Jew; however, the particularities involved are not racial in the modern, biological meaning of the term. Christ’s Jewish flesh, nonetheless, exhibits the same polysemous and metonymic capacities—encompassing within it Israel’s covenantal history and reconfiguring that history in light of the central events of his embodied life: Incarnation, death and resurrection.51 Unlike the white-imposed narrative which closes off the black person’s freedom, Christ’s Incarnation and invitation to intimate union break down barriers of exclusion and thus open possibilities of freedom which transcend anything philosophy has to offer.
In closing, I return to the passage cited at the beginning of my essay. Here in the final pages of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon wishes for an end to the oppression and instrumentalization of humans by one another and asks, ‘why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?’ A similar desire and hope for humankind characterized Jesus’ life. For example, the Gospel of Mark narrates Jesus’ encounter with a leper, whose existence was not only excruciatingly painful due to his disease but likewise an existence of exile. In the Torah, the leper’s disease marked him as ceremonially unclean, which meant that he had to live alone, alienated from his family and excluded from participation in socio-political life.52 In fact, the leper was instructed to wear torn clothes, as an expression of mourning over his wretched condition. To make physical contact with a leper was to risk becoming ceremonially unclean, which meant to risk social ostracism. Jesus of course was well-acquainted with the Torah and the intricacies of Levitical law. However, when the leper sought help from him, Jesus did not turn him away. Nor did He worry about ceremonial uncleanliness or public association with an outcast.  Rather, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper.  Jesus, who would soon know exile, alienation, condemnation and ultimately death through the rending of his body, stretched out his hand of flesh and made contact with this diseased, dying leprous man.  With this act of compassion, Jesus affirms the leper’s humanity and points the way toward a concrete realization of Fanon’s vision—‘why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?’


1Notes
 I understand race to be largely a socially-constructed concept and do not use the term to refer to a biologically-based notion of race which categorizes people groups sharing (arbitrarily selected) phenotypic similarities in a hierarchical manner. For a helpful discussion on the problematic biological notion of race, see Daniel Blackburn, ‘Why Race is not a Biological Concept’, in Berel Lang (ed), Race and Racism in Theory and Practice’ (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), pp. 3-26.

2 My initial account of Fanon’s critique of Merleau-Ponty follows Jeremy Weate’s analysis (see footnote 3). My explorations, however, build upon Weate’s insights and take them in a different direction, as is evident in the latter part of my essay.

3 Jeremy Weate, ‘Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology’, in Robert Bernasconi (ed), Race (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 171. See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. Rev. ed., trans. Richard Philcox, (New York: Grove Press, 2008), p. 89. In addition to Merleau-Ponty, Fanon perhaps also has Hegel and Sartre in mind, particularly the former’s dialectical understanding of recognition and reciprocity. See Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pp. 191–97. For an analysis of Fanon’s reflections on and interpretation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, see Lou Turner, ‘On the Difference between the Hegelian and Fanonian Dialectic of Lordship and Bondage’, in Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renée T. White (eds), Fanon: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 134–51.

4 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 90.

5 See also Bart van Leewan, ‘To What Extent is Racism a Magical Transformation?’, Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007), pp. 296 ff. Van Leewan discusses the ‘gaze’ from the perspective of the racist in order to give an account of the motivational structure of racism. In addition, van Leeuwen’s essay offers several practical anti-racism strategies (see especially, pp. 303-5).

6 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

7 On Merleau-Ponty’s account, “there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, (London: Routledge, 1962), p. xii.

8 The body, rather than an object for an ‘I think’ to grasp, ‘is a grouping of lived-through meanings which moves toward its equilibrium’ (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 177).

9 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 94.

10 For Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of how our body inhabits the world and how our bodily experience of movement “provides us with a way of access to the world and the object,” see, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 162.

11 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. x, xi-xii.

12 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 327.

13 For a discussion of sensations belonging to certain fields, see Phenomenology of Perception, p. 351.

14 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, pp. 292–93.

15 Carman Taylor, ‘Sensation, Judgment, and the Phenomenal Field,’ in Carman Taylor and Mark B.N. Hansen (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 71.

16 Ibid., p. 70.

17 Fanon describes with ironic overtones Merleau-Ponty’s account as follows, ‘[a] slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world seems to be the schema. It is not imposed on me; it is rather a definitive structuring of my self and the world’ (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 91)

18 Admittedly, I am speaking of the body in a reified way; however, body should not be understood as a res, but rather as an essential aspect of the psychosomatic whole, which constitutes a human being.

19 Weate, ‘Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology’, p. 172.

20 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

21 See also Bart van Leewan’s discussion of bell hooks’ phrase, “the white control of the black gaze,” in ‘Racist Variations of Bad Faith: A Critical Study of Lewis Gordon’s Phenomenology of Racism’, Social Theory and Practice 34 (2008): p. 58.

22 Of course, the asymmetry in view here applies to black women as well.

23 On the movement and interpretation of Fanon’s schemata, I concur with Weate’s analysis, which characterizes the racial epidermal schema as ‘a later stage in psychosomatic disintegration and alienation’ (‘Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology’, p. 174). Weate goes on to discuss the movement to the epidermal schema as Fanon’s attempt to trace a ‘genealogy of racial essentialism’ (p. 173).

24 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 200.

25 See, e.g., Fanon’s critique of Monsieur Mannoni in chapter four of Black Skin, White Masks. Contra Mannoni’s claims, Fanon draws attention to the fact that the very “structure of South Africa is a racist structure” (p. 68).

26 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 202.

27 See Weate, ‘Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology’, p. 176. See also, Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92. Again, Foucault’s account of the effects of being constantly seen but never seeing share similarities with the experience of a black person in a white-dominating context. ‘He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects’ (Discipline and Punish, p. 203).

28 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

29 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pp. 203-4. Fanon goes on to say, “[t]he density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom” (p. 205).

30 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 202.

31 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206.

32 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 205.

33 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206. This is not to deny the complicity involved in the black person’s internalization of the negative other-scripted narrative.

34 This is not to suggest that Fanon’s critique resulted in his repudiation of all philosophical analyses and methodologies. Rather, Fanon’s project can be seen as a needed corrective and expansion of the philosophical tradition. On Fanon’s original contributions to the master/slave dialectic, see Nigel Gibson, ‘Dialectical Impasses: Turning the Table on Hegel and the Black’, parallax 8 (2002), esp. pp. 33-41. As Gibson explains, ‘[r]eciprocity in the colonial experience is not so much deformed as closed off. The colour barrier stops the dialectic. Fanon further maintains that the slave cannot win recognition through labour; since the master wants only work, he is not at all interested in recognition’ (p. 36).

35 Rowan Williams, ‘Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgement Morning,’ in On Christian Theology, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 281.

36 See, e.g., James Cone’s discussion of slave catechisms created by white ‘Christians’ for the purpose of producing docile slaves and to attempt to convince slaves that they were in fact created to be slaves (The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 22-23. Here one sees more continuity with Aristotle’s notion of ‘natural slaves’ than the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God and are therefore equal before God.

37 As Cone explains, ‘[w]hen white people enslaved Africans, their intention was to dehistoricize black existence, to foreclose the possibility of a future defined by the African heritage. White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling the sacred rites. Their intention was to define humanity according to European definitions so that their brutality against Africans could be characterized as civilizing the savages. But white Europeans did not succeed; and black history is the record of their failure’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, pp. 23-24).

38 Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 25.

39 Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28. In chapter two, ‘The Black Spirituals and Black Experience’, Cone highlights the numerous ways in which African-American slaves actively resisted the white-imposed narrative and refused to accept the biblical hermeneutic of their ‘Christian’ masters. ‘The slaves were obliged to create their own religion out of the remnants that were available and useful, both African and Christian. These elements were woven together to provide a historical possibility for human existence. While white religion had taught blacks to look for their reward in heaven through obedience to white masters on earth, black slaves were in fact carving out a new style of earthly freedom’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28; italics added).

40 Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 32.

41 Commenting on the slaves’ expression of faith in the midst of unjust suffering, Cone writes, ‘[f]aith in the righteousness of God was not easy for black people, since God’s liberating work in the world was not always when they expected it. Their faith did not cancel the pain of enslavement’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 35).

42 Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 42.

43 Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 27.

44 J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 345. Carter goes on to say that the ‘basic structure of colonialism’ is “grounded in a will-to-possess and intellectually sustained by a will-to-forget” (p. 345).

45 Of course numerous other factors would have to be taken into account in order to give an adequate explanation of the rise of colonialism and racism.

46 See also Robert Bernasconi, ‘Who Invented the Concept of Race? Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race’, in Robert Bernasconi (ed), Race, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001). Bernasconi argues that although Kant was not the first to use the term “race,” he was the first to give the term definitional precision. ‘By setting out clearly the distinction between race and variety, where races are marked by hereditary characteristics that are unavoidable in the offspring, whereas the distinguishing marks of varieties are not always transmitted, Kant introduced a language for articulating permanent differentiations within the notion of species’ (p. 17).

47 Carter, Race, p. 345.

48 Carter, Race, p. 348. See also Carter’s commentary on Maximus’ Epistle 2 and the ways in which it ‘becomes an interesting and unexpected resource for probing whiteness as a racial-colonialist way of ordering the world, that, in fact, deploys the discourse of Christian theology to do its work’ (p. 345).

49 ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [ἁρπαγμόϛ], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:5-8, NRSV). See also 1 Cor 15 and Rev 1:18.

50 Carter, Race, p. 368. St. Paul says something along these lines in his epistle to the Galatians. Describing the new reality of God’s people, those baptized into Christ who now form an alternative community operating against the grain of the world’s logic, St. Paul says, “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, NRSV). Of course, I am not suggesting that this alternative community has been realized. According to Christian belief, the full actualization of such a community will occur only in the eschaton. However, even in the midst of the already-not-yet eschatological tension that characterizes the Christian life in via, the redemptive benefits of the Christ-event make possible proleptic glimpses of communal life in Christ’s kingdom.

51 See Luke 24:27 where Jesus says that the law and all of Hebrew Scripture must be re-interpreted Christotelically. In addition, though Carter does not develop this idea, the giving of Christ’s flesh in the Eucharist is another significant way that the many are continually made one in their present already-not-yet eschatological existence.

52 See, for example, Lev 13:45-46.


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