Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Frantz Fanon biography chronicles the life and legacy of a revolutionary icon


This is FRESH AIR. Frantz Fanon was a Martinique-born doctor who became famous in the 1960s for his writing about the politics and the psychology of colonialism. Fanon died in 1961. His life and work are the subject of a new biography by Adam Shatz called "The Rebel's Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives Of Frantz Fanon." Our critic-at-large John Powers says that Shatz captures the thorny brilliance of a man whose radicalism is still shaping the world.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The years after World War II gave rise to a wave of revolutionary icons - Mao, Che, Ho Chi Minh. These days, none feels more relevant than Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial theorist who died of leukemia in 1961 at the age of 36. His work is taught on college campuses, gets namechecked in pop culture. A rebellious daughter on "The White Lotus" is shown reading one of his books, and he's treated as a go-to source following murderous uprisings, such as Hamas' October 7 attacks on Israel.

Doctor, psychiatrist, writer and apostle of revolutionary violence, Fanon is the subject of a fascinating new biography, "The Rebel's Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives Of Frantz Fanon." It was written by Adam Shatz, a writer and editor with a rare gift for taking tricky, often controversial figures and doing them justice. Shatz scrupulously explains what Fanon thought, why he thought it, and why he matters. The globetrotting Fanon crammed a remarkable series of identities into 36 years. He was born Black and French in Martinique, a West Indian island that's officially a part of France. From an early age, he displayed brains, arrogance and the prickly sensitivity of a raw nerve end.

Although the young Fanon hated that his island was being governed by white men in Paris, he bought into the French ideology of liberty and equality. Pointedly speaking better French than the French themselves, he fought for France against the Nazis and stayed after the war to make a life, marrying a white French woman. But while studying medicine in Lyon, he grasped that despite France's lip service to colorblind equality, he would inescapably be seen there not as an individual but as a Black man. And he opposed the idea of identifying by race.

When he moved into psychiatry, becoming a famously kind and attentive therapist, he realized that many of his Arab and African patients suffered from a warping form of alienation from themselves. Like him, they had been trained to internalize and aspire to the very white colonial culture that pigeonholed them, abused them and treated them as lesser. Such alienation was the theme of his first book, 1952's "Black Skin, White Masks," which treated colonialism as a disease. Where conventional psychiatry sought to help patients adjust to the world as it is, Fanon argued that to heal the psychic wounds of the colonized requires changing the world that created those wounds. This led him to champion revolution.

After moving to Algeria to run a clinic in 1953, he found himself joining forces with its National Liberation Front, or FLN, which was fighting to win Algeria's independence from France in a brutal struggle. Because he wasn't Algerian and couldn't speak Arabic, he was never a leader or fighter. A brilliant sympathizer, he became a ruthlessly passionate advocate for the cause outside Algeria. This experience would lead Fanon to write his most famous work, "The Wretched Of The Earth," a poetically messianic volume whose publication Shatz rightly terms a historical event.

Ever since it first appeared in 1961, Fanon's book has inspired everyone from Latin American guerrillas and African revolutionaries to Palestinian militants and the Black Panthers. It's best known for its opening chapter, which champions the power of violence to liberate the oppressed both politically and psychologically. I find his thinking here both appalling and borderline delusional. In fact, his work's true value lies in the way he lays bare the roots of revolutionary violence. If you want to understand the blend of rage, idealism and giddy bloodshed that so often accompanies rebellion, "The Wretched Of The Earth" remains an essential touchstone. As Shatz writes, Fanon's book conveyed as no other book did the psychic drama, and often enough, the tragic passion of anti-colonial revolution.

Like so many political icons, Fanon was destined to have his ideas dumbed down and his dreams disappointed. Algerian independence didn't produce the freedom he envisioned, but a dictatorial Islamic state. Much of post-colonial Africa fell into a tyranny and chaos he feared and predicted. Shatz is too aware of Fanon's errors and delusions, and it must be added, his sexism to treat him as some kind of saint. But he makes us respect Fanon for his incisive analysis and for his struggles on behalf of the colonized and dispossessed. Reading "The Rebel's Clinic" 60 years after Fanon's death, you realize that this incandescent thinker's ideas about race, struggle, freedom and violence have not lost their power to illuminate and burn.

MOSLEY: John Powers reviewed "The Rebel's Clinic," by Adam Shatz. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - Mark Daley and his husband wanted children. Their choices were surrogacy, private adoption, which can take years, or becoming foster parents. They decided to foster. We talk with Daley about parenting two young boys who had experienced trauma and dealing with the dysfunction within the foster care system. He's written a memoir. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "GAUX GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.