BY Maryse Condé in Opinion | 07 OCT 20
Featured in
Issue 215

Maryse Condé's First Encounter with Frantz Fanon's 'Black Skin, White Masks'

The winner of the New Academy Prize remembers how Fanon's legendary book has changed her reading and writing life

M
BY Maryse Condé in Opinion | 07 OCT 20

For me, it all began with a trip to the US, which my parents gave me for my 20th birthday. They had never been to the US themselves, but they were convinced that I would be able to push open the heavy doors of the American dream. They were proud of me: not only had I been accepted into high school with an honorary mention, but the General Council of Guadeloupe had awarded me a scholarship to the renowned Lycée Fénelon in Paris, enabling me to study for the entrance exam to one of France’s most selective graduate schools, the École Normale Supérieure. And so it was that I found myself, aged 20, in Washington, D.C., vacationing at the house of a Haitian intellectual couple who had left their home country to teach at the prestigious Howard University, and who had a four-year-old daughter that I immediately cherished as a little sister.

Having been born and raised in Pointe-à-Pitre – an old slave trading town in Guadeloupe, where the pretty neighbourhoods had cobblestone streets and small shops with heavy, varnished doors – I was blown away by Washington. I had never imagined a city could be so beautiful and vast, with its large avenues lined by leafy trees. I never tired of walking down Massachusetts Avenue and admiring its cherry trees, which were gifts from Japan. Most of all, however, I admired the Afro-Americans, as they were called in the early 1950s. To my eyes, they were magnificent, dressed in their brightly coloured dashikis from Africa – a word I had rarely heard pronounced with admiration until then. They wore their hair in big, natural afros, which rose up like domes around their heads. The women didn’t wear any makeup and, like the men, showed their black skin proudly. I was amazed. Ever since I was 10 years old, just like my mother and my three sisters, I had always martyred my hair with hot irons in order to straighten it out. I covered my lips with Rouge Baiser lipstick and, even though my eyelids were very brown, I wore eyeshadow and mascara.

I had never thought about why I did it; all the women in Guadeloupe behaved the same. One day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I took off my makeup and carefully washed my hair, which I decided to wear naturally from then on. I’m not sure what my Haitian hosts thought of this transformation, but I remember the shock of my friends when I returned to my Parisian student residence on the rue Lhomond, which had a large community of middle class French Antilleans. Only one young woman, Françoise, my close friend from the Lycée Fénelon. expressed her approval: ‘That look really works on you,’ she told me.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952. Courtesy: Grove Press, New York
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952. Courtesy: Grove Press, New York

Françoise and I shared everything: from howling with laughter over Jacques Tati films to visits to the Louvre to the thrill of concerts. We shared the same passion for Mozart, and she introduced me to The Magic Flute (1791). Françoise was the daughter of a well-known history professor at the Sorbonne. Not at all arrogant – something uncommon among intellectuals – her father introduced me to the evils of colonialism and placed the Africa my parents never told me about squarely in the history of my people. Thanks to him, I came to understand the displacement that had populated the West Indies with black people. I learned the meaning of the terms ‘slave ship’, ‘forced baptism’ and ‘imposed language’. Françoise’s father listened with interest to the story of my stay in Washington, then went looking for two books in his well-stocked library. Of the two, one was new to me: Discourse on Colonialism (1950) by Aimé Césaire – a Martinican poet, of whom I had read very little at the time – which had recently been re-issued by Présence Africaine Editions. The other book I knew all too well: Black Skin, White Masks (1952) by Frantz Fanon, another Martinican author.

This book was to become the subject of a burning shame that still smoulders inside me to this day. A few years earlier, when Black Skin, White Masks had been serialized in Esprit magazine, I had written to the editor, Jean-Marie Domenach, on behalf of a group of Antillean students to express our dissatisfaction with Fanon’s text, which we considered a mean-spirited mockery of Antilleans. The ‘lactification’ complex of which Fanon accused the Martinican novelist Mayotte Capécia felt like a crude, macho and malicious fabrication. To my great surprise, despite my young age, Domenach asked if he could meet with me. I remember how he talked the whole time without letting me get a word in. Françoise’s father was completely different. With his customary sweetness and tact, he convinced me that I hadn’t understood a word of Black Skin, White Masks. Instead of a mocking and malicious critique, Fanon’s analysis was passionate and painful. Colonialism not only affects the mind and soul but can be perceived in the slightest posture; it impacts our bodies and behaviour. Apparently, I still had to liberate myself physically as well as mentally.

It wasn’t until 1961, the year of Fanon’s death, that I re-read Black Skin, White Masks. I was in Guinea at the time, where Sékou Touré declared a four-day national period of mourning. From then on, Fanon became one of my most important intellectual guides. I have never worn make-up or straightened my hair since my conversation with Françoise’s father. A few years ago, when the author and activist Rokhaya Diallo asked my opinion on kinky hair in an interview, I realized the fight was still ongoing. 

Translated by Kit Schluter

Main image: Portrait Maryse Condé, 2015. Courtesy and photograph: Brice TOUL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
 

Maryse Condé is the author of more than 20 novels, which include Segu, Windward Heights, and The Story of the Cannibal Woman. In 2018, she was awarded the New Academy Prize in Litearture.

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