The coloniser’s language

“Fanon’s writings, Black Skins, White Masks (1951) and The Wretched of the Earth (1963), provided crucial understanding of the dialectical relationship between the coloniser and the colonised,” writes Sunita Singh.

“The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?”

Europe in the 19th and 20th century had a huge burden on them, the burden of civilising. European thinkers had naturalised social change by using the development metaphor. Hence, all the people of the ‘backward’ regions had to be developed and the onus was on Europe. Such tool became the rationale for intervention into cultures and colonisation.

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, Perseus Books Group (1952) Rs 799/- (Source: Amazon)

The book, ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ by Franz Fanon satirises the ape to man theory propagated during the Colonial Mission and how the same myth is embedded in the psyche of the people in the post-colonial society. In the process of becoming ape to man, the myth says there was a missing link, the missing link refers to the native people of the countries. In order to fulfil the missing link, there was certainly a need for Blacks/Natives to move forward in the image of the White to redeem the completion of the cycle. People are now, little aware about such nomenclatures but the focus is on “the one destiny of the Black Man, that is white.”

Few things which came to my mind while reading this book, which book itself could be recognised as a Post-Colonial text? Does to the doing away (in blood and flesh) of Europe in the particular colonies embarks a beginning for Post-colonial reading? Does a mark of leaving of someone ensure an erasure of the effects they have embedded in their minds?

Fanon’s writings, Black Skins, White Masks (1951) and The Wretched of the Earth (1963), provided crucial understanding of the dialectical relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. Black Skins, White Masks can provide students with an introductory understanding on the psycho-social aspects of how colonisation shaped the characters of both the coloniser and the colonised.

In this book review, I’ll try to elucidate Fanon’s position of the Negro who has the tendencies of becoming the White and the motivation behind. Language is a powerful tool for this deliberate undervaluing of people’s culture and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser.

Language, any language, has a dual character; it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture. Language as culture has three important aspects. Firstly, Culture is a product of the history which it in turn reflects. But culture does not merely reflect that history, and it does so by forming images of the world of nature and nurture. The second aspect of culture is an image forming agent, in the mind of a child. Our whole conception of ourselves as a people, individually and collectively, is based on those pictures and images. Third is the capacity to speak, the capacity to order sounds in a manner that makes for mutual comprehension.

Thus, a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history.

Quoting from Leon-G-Damas “Hoquet”, what the mother says to the Black child who’s going to a French School,

“Shut up I told you you have to speak French
The French from France
The Frenchman’s France
French French.”

Yes, I must watch my diction because that’s how they’ll judge me. He can’t even speak French properly, they’ll say with the utmost contempt.

What happens in such a process is the imposition of a foreign language and suppressing the native languages as spoken and written break the harmony existing between the child and his/her language and culture. What Karl Marx once called the ‘Language of Real Life’ changes for the colonised child.

Fanon in this book has given more light to the admirations of the Black people in becoming White. “The more the black Antillean assimilates the French language, the whiter he gets – i.e. the closer he comes to becoming a true human being.” The more he rejects his blackness, the whiter he will become.

There’s a consent which has been established by the previous law, which has made believe in the colonies that the supreme and man-like is the European language. The Black man is aware of his fumbling with words, to save himself from the tyranny of the ‘White’, he would lock himself in the room and read for hours – desperately working on his diction. There’s an absolute insecurity of the Black man in speaking, also there is a pressure of speaking the right diction as it would be the yardstick of him being civilised.

It’s not any different in the case of India, the yardstick of the judgment of the intellect of people is defined by the speed and fluency of his/her speaking English. What does this fluent French speaking Black or fluent English speaking Indian do, they create an impression which classifies others as the savage ( non-speaking French/English), meaning that they are farther more removed from the white man?

To support all these notions there are multiple rightful rules from the verses of Bibles to the rationality of development to the rule of law as well. What is this actually doing, an area not much inquired by Fanon, which is more economical in nature. The English Education Act 1835, in India penetrates deep the idea of the English Class, “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” as Macaulay said at that time. Only the creation of such a class would amplify the market of Europe, it is creating the class which would consume the goods of Europe. After the independence of the colonies, the rules follow exactly same, except the fact there is no direct control instead we have free trade. Fanon outrightly is making a dialectical approach, not homogenising the Blacks as the victim class and representing Black’s hegemony in the lights of their White Masks.

The Black who falls within these descriptions goes out of his way to seek the subtleties and the rarities of the language – a way of proving himself that he is culturally adequate. The impact of this European yardstick operates people towards their vogue to eating habits to music to reading and everything. The opera he would have never seen would be the sight of his admiration, he would use bombastic phrases in front of the Black natives. “Racism is a denial of recognition of the colonised”; and consequently, it is the master who says “I do not see you at all.” The case today is that the Black skins with White masks repeat the same for the black skins “I do not see you at all.”

A really intense point in the book which is also a horrifying example, is that of a white man-black man in white mask talking to a person of colour, he behaves exactly like he is talking to a child. For example, a black man come in a hospital and the doctor asks “Hey, no good feel? Heart hurting? Show me, Belly Pain?” Ania Loomba connects this to a life cycle and the missing link. The Europeans to the colonised made themselves feel like superior like a father and the colonised as a child who is yet to be grow and gain senses. The child has now grown, now he follows the steps of his father does the same towards the native Blacks who don’t know the European language. They make those others feel like nothing, absolutely nothing as if they’re no different than animals. Prof. Westermann writes in ‘The African Today’ that the feeling of inferiority by Blacks is especially evident in the educated Black man who is constantly trying to overcome it.

Destroying a culture is easy with the destruction of its language is a crucial point in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind. Preserving the language and culture is a far seeming reality when speaking has become a task. One of the art critics pointed out, today you are still able to think in your regional dialects, will that be the case of your children and so there will only a few languages left in the world, that too European. So will the whole world be celebrating only one culture that is the European, this further makes it complex for a ‘language of real life’ as the alienation would be heightening.

The redoubling of the colonials without their presence is a problem which is redoubling their superiority with the class they left of the people they ruled over. The association of the native language with low status, humiliation, stupidity, non-intelligibility, and barbarism is mirrored in the written language of the colonisers, the people with White Masks would replicate the same ideas, is a total collapse of the native language.

However, it is funny how the language which gave the world three well known revolutionary ideas of “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” is the wrecking force against other cultures. The problem however don’t stand with the ideals of these concepts, rather the “governmental reorganisation of the existing institution and political space such that by a certain number of transforming arrangements and calculations the conduct of the colonised is constrained or urged in and improving direction.” Hence, Power thus is no longer about the direct extraction of value associated with an older sovereignty, but finds its legitimacy in the goals of social improvement and the changes necessary to bring that about.

I would finish the article with Langston Hughes poem, I started with

“I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.”


Works Cited :

  • Black Skin, White Masks by Franz Fanon
  • Colonialism/Post-Colonialism by Ania Loomba
  • Decolonising The Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  • Fanon and Political Will by Peter Hallward
  • Franz Fanon and Colonized Man by Charif Quellel
  • Frantz Fanon’s ‘Black Skin White Masks’: New Interdisciplinary Essays by Max Silverman and Frantz Fanon
  • Black Skins, White Masks Review by: Robert G. Newby
  • English Education Act 1835
  • The Jurisprudence of Emergency : Colonialism and The Rule of Law by Nasser Hussain
Source : Revolutionary Strategic Studies

Sunita Singh is a theatre practitioner based in Delhi. She graduated from the University of Delhi, and completed her Masters from School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Ambedkar University of Delhi.

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