Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in the preface of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth “Have the courage to read it, primarily because it will make you feel ashamed, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary feeling,” referring to white Europeans reading Fanon’s masterful book.
Sartre noting that fear, shame that we have learning about things we know we are not comfortable with is a practice and a skill that I find ever-evolving. In the case of the book mentioned above, the premise and the vision for a better world is one that requires a concession your people are responsible for the oppression and genocide of people everywhere. It’s a book that leaves readers with the conclusion that their very existence is predicated on the subjugation of those living in the Global South. Sartre speaks of the necessary feeling Marx recognizes as revolutionary once one feels shame. If we think that our circumstances are so utterly devoid of liberation, of freedom, what then can we do but seek a broader vision for life?
Whenever I’m approaching a new text, looking for different ways to explain what we’re all living through, I would be lying if I never do feel fear. The picture Fanon or Ruthie Gilmore paint is bleak. It is difficult to read. To say anything else, would be disingenuous. But that’s also a necessary step. It’s so crucial for me to feel that deep sense of worry because it allows me to recognize the urgency and immediacy of the conditions for which people are suffering today. I spent so much time this past summer actively fighting against that “stay in your comfort zone” with respect to studying politics because I saw how little those I thought I shared a common vision with were not worries about Black people (thinking those who came out vocally against defund and abolition). I had to feel ashamed of my ignorance and complacency with not understanding the world in a nuanced way.
Sartre also writes right before the quote in question that “You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres committed in your name.” Too often people attempt to co-opt and profess their “anti-racism”, their “wokeness” in some sort of race to prove not to colonized peoples but to other colonizers they are better. It falls completely flat once we contextualize US imperialist efforts and how this country has propped up authoritarians. By removing our conditions, our own implicated status in all of this, we get this empty professed desire to care for others without the actual action to follow through.
This goes all to say that much of Sartre’s application of this rhetoric also falls miserably in his support and advocacy for settler colonialism in Israel. Fanon’s widow removed Sartre’s preface from future editions (except apparently the one I am reading now) because “when Israel declared war on the Arab countries, there was a great pro-Zionist movement in favor of Israel among western (French) intellectuals. Sartre took part in this movement. He signed petitions favoring Israel. I felt that his pro-Zionist attitudes were incompatible with Fanon’s work.” What sort of shame that Sartre did feel after reading Fanon manifested in yes, some anti-imperialist rhetoric, also came with exceptions and strings, much like the way that Fanon criticizes. He’s an example and failure in his criticism of those that read Fanon.
So where does this leave any of this? What to do with all of these ideas? Honestly, as per usual, I’m unsure. We can take some of Sartre’s ideas and apply them to our lives today (thinking of the Obama memoir especially this week). We can look at Homi K. Bhabha’s rebuke of Sartre in the forward of The Wretched of the Earth, or to other Palestinian activists and writers as a way to better contextualize Sartre. For me, I do see shame and at least a thorough reckoning with our position in the world as necessary. I’m excited however to get through and finish Fanon. I have no doubt that I’ll come back with new ideas and likely have far different perspectives on Sartre. Till then…
Being Noah Tesfaye #158: Having the Courage to Understand the World
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