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Fanon, on the Denigration of Culture

When one thinks of the vessels of esteem – those things, both material and immaterial, that carry our sense of self – culture is perhaps the most heavily laden of these vessels. 

Almost everything we use to distinguish ourselves from others and develop a sense of self is a function of our cultures. In the vessel sits tradition alongside custom, history alongside religion, language alongside dress. The way we receive greetings, the way we give them, the knowledge that we are deserving of greeting, and the knowledge we are required in specific moments to give them; all these things live in us in that most ambitious of vessels: culture. 

Culture goes a long way to validating the way we move through the world; it is the intersection of the past and the present – what we do today has been done before, and by doing it again, we simultaneously show that we came from somewhere and we are still here. 

African History Project - Martinique Mt Pelee Eruption3
Martinique, Fanon’s home island, in the aftermath of the 1902 volcanic eruption

What then when one is stripped of their culture? When it is reduced, attacked and drained of life? What happens when your very way of existing is labelled as the negation of culture, as a hindrance, delegitimised? What happens when your culture is made illegal, when your history is wiped from memory, when your customs are ridiculed, your religion demonised, your language starved of expression and your dress outlawed? What is left?

Perhaps a shell of a man.

When Fanon talks of the denigration of culture in the colonial enterprise, it is systematic and deliberate, demonstrating ‘le caractère totalitaire de l’exploitation coloniale’. The denigration of culture is not some by-product or after thought – it is an integral element in the dehumanisation process. The colonisers in all consciousness launch ‘un combat d’arrière-garde sur le terrain de la culture, des valeurs, des techniques’. The colonised man must be made into an animal, ‘une sorte de quintessence du mal’, in fact, ‘[une] négation des valeurs…l’ennemi des valeurs’. He is a disease to culture, and by extension his culture is a disease to humanity. It must be wiped out. 

African History Project - Apeike Umolu

“In the process of colonisation, the denigration of culture is a conscious and consequential enterprise

– Apeike Umolu

Given every role that culture plays, this attack is the most brutal of all as it is long-lasting. The physical wounds will heal, and therapy may ease the mind of its terror. The land may even be handed back. (But notice how the land is always the biggest bone of contention). In any event, the people may once again rule themselves. But respect for one’s culture, once lost, can never be fully restored. All attempts at it seem superficial, tokenist, a delusional enterprise. The culture now represents a backwardness – the thoughts can never be unthought. This is the permanence of the colonial enterprise; this is where the dominating culture collects its prizes. It is the cuckoo catfish that, after eating the eggs of the cichlid fish, lays one of its own in the cichlid’s mouth. Once the catfish child hatches, it devourers the remainder of the cichlid babies. The cichlid mother, unable to distinguish between what came from her and what has been implanted by another, protects the catfish babies with her life. This is the resulting consciousness of the colonised. This is why Fanon can speak of the universalisation of western culture, where the colonised are fed to ‘les « Congrès de culture », [qui] lui exposent la spécificité, les richesses des valeurs occidentales’. The church, the school, the newspapers and literature are used to remind everyone of the great history and culture of the colonisers. While in the same determined stroke, they all profess the absence of all such things in the colonised people.

Fanon summarises the psychological weight of this attack well when he writes that, in the colonised consciousness, ‘le colon fait l’histoire. Sa vie est une épopée, une odyssée. Il est le commencement absolu…En face de lui, des êtres engourdis, travaillés de l’intérieur par les fièvres et les « coutumes ancestrales », constituent un cadre quasi-minéral au dynamisme novateur du mercantilisme colonial’.

Thus, in colonisation, the denigration of culture is a conscious and consequential enterprise. It is also potent as culture, subsisting so entirely in one’s consciousness, is disproportionately hampered by the effects of that more real colonisation, psychological colonisation

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