Written at the height of the Algerian war of independence, The Damned of the Earth (1961) is a controversial book. This is because its author, Frantz Fanon (originally from Martinique but later based in Algeria, where he worked as a psychiatrist and developed close ties with the Front Libération Nationale, FLN), unapologetically says what a Black man is not expected to say: the degradation inflicted upon native populations by colonialism can only be overcome by anti-colonial violence. Here I discuss with Lewis R. Gordon the multiple layers of this anti-colonial violence which has been (sometimes wilfully) misrepresented by (mostly white) critics. Beyond the colonial context, we also talk about the impact of Fanon’s ideas on oppressed people around the world, particularly Black Americans (starting with the Black Panthers, who called The Damned of the Earth ‘the handbook of the Revolution’) fighting racism and injustice.
Lewis R. Gordon is a philosopher, musician, and global political intellectual. He is Professor of Philosophy with affiliation in Jewish Studies, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and International Studies at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor at the Unit of the Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa; and the Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in the Faculty for Economics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He also is the drummer for the band ThreeGenerations and a variety of jazz and blues bands in the New England area. His recent books include What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (NY: Fordham UP; London: Hurst, 2016) and the forthcoming Fear of a Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Books in the UK). He edits the American Philosophical Association blog series Black Issues in Philosophy and co-edits the UK’s Rowman & Littlefield International book series Global Critical Caribbean Thought.
Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961) is popularly known as The Wretched of the Earth, but you prefer to translate it as The Damned of the Earth. Apart from being the literal translation of ‘damnés’, does the word ‘damned’ give you more insight into the text?
Lewis Gordon: The word ‘damned’ is not only appropriate but also offers insight into the text. The standard response to my objection is to appeal to the English translation of L’Internationale, Eugène Pottier’s 1871 poem that concludes with the line: ‘Debout, les damnés de la terre!’ The well-known translation is, ‘Arise, the wretched of the earth!’ It could also be translated: ‘Arise, the damned of the earth!’ The preceding two lines (my translation) are: ‘The International / Will be humankind’.
Fanon, however, was referring to the Haitian poet Jacques Roumain’s ‘Sales nègres’ (‘Dirty nègres’) from his collection Bois-d’ébène (‘Ebony Wood’). Fanon referred to this work in the fifth chapter of Peau noire, masques blancs (‘Black Skin, White Masks’, 1952). The reference point here is not ‘The International’ but in fact the Haitian Revolution and its connection to revolution in the Third World or, in today’s parlance, the Global South. Roumain concludes his poem with a long list of subjects struggling against the days of being called ‘dirty nègres’ to ‘dirty Indians’, ‘dirty Hindus’, ‘dirty Indo-Chinese’, ‘dirty Arabs,’ ‘dirty Malaysians’, ‘dirty Jews’, ‘dirty proletarians’, and concludes with ‘And there we stand / all the damned of the earth’.
Now, dissecting both poems, we see an immediate difference between the role of the international as humankind and a list of humankind and the connection to ‘dirt’. The word ‘human’ is from the Latin word homo, whose origin relates to the word humus, which means ‘dirt’ or ‘clay’. Words such as ‘humility’ and ‘humble’ reveal the obvious connection of coming down to earth. This connection with earth and dirt reveals an influence or relationship with ancient African conceptions as found in, for example, the Hebrew language, where the word for human is adamah. It, too, is connected to the ground or earth. It specifically refers to red clay akin to what happens when animals are slaughtered in a kosher way, with the blood flowing into the soil. It’s the origin of the name Adam, which literally means ‘red’ as well as ‘human’. A more radical archaeolinguistic effort points to the precursor of the Hebraic forms in ancient Kmt (‘Egypt’) to the god Atum (think of the possible pronunciation of the t as the English d), the god who created himself out of a mound of earth arising from Nun (the primordial Nothing or dark waters).
We now have the basis of stressing the importance of the word ‘damned’. It’s from the Latin damnum, which refers to harm, hurt, or injury. The connection between the words damnum and adamah reveal a story of emergence from the earth and damnation or condemnation as a form of being pushed back into it. The human being, as we know, is a creature, in existential terms, of emergence, a creature with feet on the ground while reaching for the skies. READ MORE