by Lorraine Berry,

Posted in on Wednesday, May 28

FANON by John Edgar Wideman, (Houghton Mifflin Books: 2008)


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun)

This review is tainted. I think it would be fair to say that I have lost critical objectivity in reading Fanon: it’s such a damn fine read, such a tremendously eloquent angry howl that I was rocked backwards, and could only shake my head at the gorgeousness of the prose and the cleverness of the plot.
Hardly the beginning of a dry review, but I believe this book deserves more than that.
Ostensibly, the book is a biographical novel about Frantz Fanon, the mixed-race French psychiatrist cum revolutionary, whose two most famous books: Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, made Fanon, in the eyes of much of the world, the leading intellectual writing about colonialism’s pernicious, crippling effects on the colonized. Fanon died an early death: he was 36 when he succumbed to leukemia in an American hospital.
I read The Wretched of the Earth as an undergraduate and remember being inspired by its articulation of the horrors of colonialism. When I picked up Fanon, I expected to learn more about the story of a life that had brought Fanon to that place whence the book emerged.
Instead, what I found was a quasi-memoir of Wideman, a collective biography of African-American males in American society. Not surprising really: African-American males were colonial subjects—enslaved to white colonial masters until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Lynched in high numbers throughout the Jim Crow South (and parts of the North), denied proper voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and still, to this day, subjects in a culture that sees them as potential thugs, a country in which black men are incarcerated at eight times the rate of white men, and “there are four times as many African American men in California prisons as in its university system.”

Wideman writes that he began the Fanon project years ago, but put it aside. Then, having moved to France and married a French woman, he took the project back up again, at times envisioning it as a letter written to Fanon’s ghost:

The plague of race continues to blight people’s lives, becoming more virulent as it mutates and spreads over the globe. When I ask myself if your example made any difference, Fanon, ask if your words and deeds alleviate one iota the present catastrophe of hate, murder, theft, and greed, where else should I start looking besides the mirror? Where should I search if not in faces of people I love? Will I find an answer in your eyes, behind me in the mirror, gazing into the face I see seeing yours?
(My Fanon Project, Harper’s, January 2008

Certain elements of Wideman’s own story show up in the book, and they’re obvious to those who are familiar with his previously written about experiences of own family members who have been incarcerated.
In a paragraph that creates a vise, squeezing hard facts together so that they are held steady before your eyes, he writes:

How many black men in America’s prisons. How many angels fit on the head of a pin. I once kept track of the number of prisoners—black, white, brown, male, female. Now I’ve lost count. Lots. Lots too many of us serving sentences lots too long, especially when one of the prisoners is your brother beside you, year after year, in the visiting room of the same facility where he’s been locked up over a quarter century and counting, a count adding years, subtracting years, depending on where you start, how you figure what he owes the state, what the state owes him, time remaining, good time, suspended time, double time, you could get caught up in numbers, in reckoning, how many angels can dance on a pinhead, how many black men in prison for how long, you could get confused by numbers, staggeringly large numbers, outraged by dire probabilities and obvious disproportions. Ugly masses of brute statistics impossible to make sense of, but some days a single possibility’s enough to overwhelm me—how likely, how easy, after all it would be to be my brother…This scene I’m writing could be my brother visiting me, the two of us side by side just as we sit today, myself, my brother, one declared guilty, one declared innocent, variables in an invariant formula but me in his place, him in mine, our fates switched, each of us nailed in our separate compartment of this hardass bench. (pg. 50)

These questions: of race and gender and oppression never go away in the United States, founded upon the original sin of slavery. This year, however, they seem to have breached the surface as we collectively contemplate electing a black man (a black man with a white mother: why is he not white?). The pundits sit around their authoritative tables at night, speaking into our living rooms their veiled and not-so-veiled racisms. Not all; there are a limited few of the white writers and television talking heads who get it, truly get it, but it is cringe-inducing, nay, rage-inducing to hear them night after night, talking about Obama’s lack of anger in his campaign—despite the slings and arrows of outrageous, dangerous talk directed at him—and refusing to acknowledge that the moment that Obama becomes the “angry, black man” he becomes unelectable.
And yet, race is bullshit. It’s socially constructed, culturally enforced. It means nothing other than the meaning imposed upon it.

Cause it’s all about one person, really. Hey, I don’t know shit about biology and shit but it’s like we all in one body, we all the same person who lives spread out over the whole world, everywhere, you know, one giant body with people the cells of it, different cells but all part of the same big old body. Isn’t about no two lonely people like Adam and Eve in a garden fucking and making babies and babies making babies till you got all these different people isn’t never seen one another, spoke to one another. Huh-uh. We’s all one person, all the same body. Fuck color and countries and religion and male and female and she-male, that’s all bullshit. You got this one human person trying to make a life for itself on the planet. Seems like a lotta us, but we’s all the same one, doing the same thing—hunting for something to eat every day, a safe place to lie down at night. Wanting good loving and good talk. Some singing and dancing and maybe getting a little high now and then. We stay alive by having babies, growing new cells cause the old cells got tired and wore out.” (pg. 176)

Ultimately, Fanon is Wideman’s speaking truth to power, a parallel text to The Wretched of the Earth, but told on a smaller scale—in the run-down neighborhood in Pittsburgh where his mother lives, in the small room where he meets with his incarcerated brother, in the house where he lives with his French wife. Wideman claims that he does not have many more books left in him; he’s only 65, and yet he puts out there that he doesn’t think he will write much longer. A shame, because he has so much truth to tell. But as he writes:

The urgency, compression, conviction, and force preserved in certain sections of The Wretched of the Earth remind me of Martin Luther King’s “Been to the mountaintop” speech, which was delivered as Fanon delivered his book, just before dying. My point here is that when death is imminent, whether a person stands at a a podium in the Mason Temple in Memphis or lies terminally ill in bed or waits at the bottom of a trench to be shot, any place will do as actual location or metaphor to snap truth into focus with resounding clarity. Being there, bearing witness as the end approaches grants unimpeachable authority, a final truth, truth lost as it’s found and perhaps that’s why such witnessing convinces when it is eloquently reported—convinces and also overwhelms. Another’s life shaped into words—Fanon’s book, King’s speech—how much of it can anyone else really use. Its truth belongs to the witness. Darkness abides. The witness’s words are evidence of a known world closing down, its light, however bright bright or small , piercing or shallow, swallowed by the unknown. Fanon’s words, King’s words reveal a glimmer of troth earned by them, experienced by them, their lives large, their witness compelling because they struggled to know though the unknown, though the unknown shrinks not one iota.

Lorraine Berry is the Project Director for NeoVox

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