Fanon: from Martinque to Algeria via Ethiopia


Paulette_NardalWe can start with one of Frantz Fanon’s fellow Martinicans: Paulette Nardal.  She’s largely responsible for forcing the issue of Black consciousness onto the Parisian community of Black intellectuals and artists in the 1920s and 30s.

Négritude is cultivated in her apartment on Sunday afternoons, where Black, white, Arab, Muslim and Christian perform art and discuss intellectual issues. Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire attend.   In May 1935, Nardal becomes activist. The occasion is fascist Italy’s aggression towards Africa’s last sovereign and non-colonized entity – Ethiopia. 

Nardal co-founds the Ethiopian Action Committee with French Sudanese activist Tiemoko Kouyaté.  By the summer, Nardal has become a key node in the trans-empire coordination of Black peoples opposed to the fascist invasion – including her more famous accomplises in London.

In October 1935, as Italy invades Ethiopia, Nardal publishes “Levée des races” in the Senegalese paper, Le Périscope africain. In political terms, the word levée connotes the raising of an army. Nardal made three points about this prospect:

  • Firstly, the Black defense of Ethiopia is not in the service of a race war but in support of the principles of democracy.
  • Secondly, nonetheless, the Italian invasion has produced a new “common soul” amongst Black peoples worldwide.
  • Thirdly, the response to the fascist invasion demonstrates for Nardal the existence, across races, of a desire for humanism to temper the violence of colonialism.

Nardal’s call to arms is therefore driven by a Black humanism, seeking to gather a diverse constituency of colonial subjects for the prospect of global democracy in opposition to fascist aggression.

Nardal and her colleague Kouyaté then pursue a diplomatic mission, strikingly resonant of Fanon’s later ambitions: their Ethiopian Action Committee works closely with North African Star, the Algerian nationalist organization founded by Messali Hadj and a forerunner – although ultimate competitor – to Fanon’s beloved FLN.

The first meeting of this  International Committee for the Defense of the Ethiopian People brings together 800 white, Black and North African participants. In the ensuing march, on August 21 1935, Mussolini is declared the “enemy of our race” – and, also, excessively, as the enemy of “the 66 million colonized people”.

Come January 1936, North and West Africans form a Coordinating Committee of the Blacks and Arabs of Paris. They publish their own journal. An International Conference of Arabs and Negroes is soon after convened in Paris. Attendees discuss the liberation of Ethiopia from fascist occupation and scope out the possibility of a permanent political organization of Black and Arab unity.

In April 1937, a number of organizations including the Association of Martinican Students, Kouyaté’s Union of Black Workers, and Hadj’s Nationalist Party of Algeria – they come together to form the Rassemblement Colonial. The Rassemblement brings together activists from North Africa, the Antilles, West Africa and French Indochina:  an anti-colonial anti-fascist popular front.

suzanneAimé’s wife, Suzanne Césaire: she must have grounded with Nardal during her Paris sojourn. Ethiopia would have been all around her and her husband. Consider this: whilst at the École Normale Supérieure, a fellow white student confers upon Aimé the Amharic military title, ras – a title since popularized by the Rastafari faith.

Anyway, back in Martinique, Suzanne theorises the black humanist response to fascistic anti-blackness.

Suzanne sees in the Antilles a fertile terrain that has the potential to gestate a new humanity by cultivating its African heritage.  Her poetics are indebted to the 19th century Haitian anthropologist, Anténor Firmin. His ripostes to Europe’s Manichean racism utilize the biblical figure of the Ethiopian as an exemplar of both the Black and the human.

Suzanne is also indebted to a contemporary of Firmin, the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius. Unlike Firmin’s biblical inspiration, Frobenius’s preference for the Ethiopian is, in good part, determined by his political commitment to enhance Germany’s African colonies and labor forces. He even undertakes a (failed) secret mission during World War One to reach Addis Ababa, where he hopes to convince Lij Iyassu – at that point designated but not crowned Emperor – to enter the war on Germany’s side. Anyway, from Leo she takes the idea that civilization is driven by a vital force comprised of bipolar energies: the Hamitic and the Ethiopian.

Suzanne draws upon biblical Firmin and imperial Frobenius to parody and undermine racist attributions of laziness and indolence to Black Antilleans. She argues that the Ethiopian is a vegetative energy – yet unlike the Hamitic, an energy that “lives and lets live”; in its obstinacy for surviving – even if trampled underfoot – the Ethiopian is a force for ”independence”.

There’s a class analysis here too: the Ethiopian energy of unresistable independence is unto poor Blacks, just as the Hamitic – and its fascistic urge for domination – is unto upper-class light skins.

The Martinican, claims Suzanne, is the same kind of “plant-human” as the Ethiopian; and Antillean self-determination can only be achieved by embracing the “Ethiopian desire for abandon” – the race-class inflected abandon of domination. Suzanne is adamant:  cultivating the Ethiopian in the Martinican exposes an “incredible store of varied energies until now locked up within us” and one that might bring “every living strength … together up on this earth where race is the result of the most unremitting intermixing”.

Suzanne writes these lines as Haile Selassie, British Commonwealth soldiers and Ethiopian guerillas finally drive out the fascists from Addis Ababa.

Did Fanon meet Suzanne, the wife of his teacher?

Did they speak of the black humanist struggle for Ethiopia?

Did Frantz catch wind of that legacy in France?

Did it blow him surreptitiously towards Algeria?


Extracted from: “From Ethiopia to Bandung via Fanon“, Bandung: Journal of Global Studies (forthcoming)

And especially indebted to:

  • Boittin, Jennifer Anne. 2010. Colonial Metropolis: The Urban Grounds of Anti-Imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2003. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Genova, James E. 2001. “The Empire Within: The Colonial Popular Front in France, 1934-1938.” Alternatives 26: 175–209.
  • Goebel, Michael. 2017. Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rabbitt, Kara. 2013. “In Search of the Missing Mother: Suzanne Césaire, Martiniquaise.” Research in African Literatures 44 (1): 36–54.
  • Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. 2002. Negritude Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Umoren, Imaobong Denis. 2018. Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles. Oakland: University of California Press.
  • Walker, Keith Louis. 2016. “Anténor Firmin, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire: In Search of Africa and Ourselves.” L’Esprit Créateur 56 (1): 129–44.

More on the Abyssinian general from Guyana

In a previous blog I looked at the impact of the Italian/Ethiopian war on the African peoples of Guyana.  I related an incident, in October 1935 – the month that Italy invaded Ethiopia – that was reported in 1936 during a hearing of those labour disputes that had rocked the colony. In Demerara, an oversee reported that he had discovered twenty strikers blocking a bridge to the fields. “One fellow laid down and said he was an Abyssinian General. He defied anybody to cross and said he meant to chop anyone who tried to do so.”

I think I’ve found more information on this general.

The Daily Chronicle (Guyana) reports on October 29th 1935 of a court case currently underway, where a group of labourers have been charged with disturbing the peace. They have organized over wage conditions at Pln. Farm, East Bank, Demerara. The charges against 28 labourers are of having entered the farm unlawfully on Oct 15, 1935 and having hindered farmers from exercising their lawful occupation, as well as two days later obstructing District Inspector Billyeald, a peace officer, and openly carried sticks with intent to cause alarm to the public.

The Inspector testifies that on the morning of the 17th, he met a 2-300 strong group of people about 2 miles from the public road, carrying sticks and crying phrases such as “beat all men’s who work today”. He came across perhaps the same crowd later in the morning, carrying sticks as well as two flags – a red and a black one – suspended at the end of bamboo poles. The crowd then settled under some sandbox trees for about 3 hours, with the Inspector and other police watching them.

One of the defendants, E. Barlow, the Inspector recognises as having previously been a policeman around 1923/24, but at this point was a labourer on the Pln.Farm estate. The Inspector reports that Barlow rose and shouted “leh ahwe mek talk”; the group then moved to some buildings across the road to converse in secret. Barlow subsequently reappeared and told the group to reconvene the next day, shouting “Come all you, my men. Come all you, Ras Tafari men, leh ahwe go home.”

The Italy/Ethiopia war is on the minds of the newspaper as well as the “rioters”. The reporter then describes one defendant in the dock, Ferdinand Browne as possessing a “shaggy head and bearded face [which] gave him the appearance of an Abyssinian”.

The Abyssinian general in the plantations of Demerera, leading his Ras Tafari men against the white plantocracy..  Oct 1935…



Liberalism and Fascism, Nov 2016

Should we defend liberal modes of governance from far-right fascist takeover?

Yes. Avowedly. Even as we would be supporting colonial difference in the same defense.

I am addressing this contradictory answer to an imagined company of liberals, leftists and alt-lefters living in European, North American and predominantly-white commonwealth countries.


Liberal governance, at least in its western forms, has always reproduced colonial difference.

What I mean by colonial difference is a multi-faceted and (only) partially mutable racialized division of humanity into the humans who deserve empathy, dignity, rights protections and the satiation of needs – and those who are not deserving of the same.

It’s true that liberal governance has and can make these divisions legally, both globally and domestically, especially in settler colonies.  Nonetheless, in the post-slavery and post-colonial era liberal governance also upholds a public sphere defined by equality – especially in terms of treatment and, possibly, opportunity.

Again, legal censures have and do sometimes guard who can partake in the public sphere. But just as importantly – and this is the point I want to emphasize – even the act of partaking in this liberal sphere is mediated by colonial difference.

Think about legal “personality” – that which allows an entity to claim and exercise legal capacity.

There is the individual personality of liberal lore that affirms entry to the public sphere (i.e. nowadays citizenship, maturity, sanity etc). However, this individual personality exists alongside and is complicated by racialized differences. These differences manifest in collective personalities that are placed in a hierarchy of competency fading through ill-competency to un-competency and implicating gender, sex, class, religion etc.  These de-facto – not necessarily de jure – collective personalities nonetheless impinge upon the universal reach and equitable character of the de-jure individual personality.

For example, in liberal global governance all (or the vast majority of) polities might enjoy a de jure personality that expresses sovereign equality: the individual state sits next to other individual states.

And yet the “international community” constitutes itself as a historically racialized collective personality that deems itself more competent to defend the law of sovereign equality than the rogues or failed personalities of statehood.

(It is telling, by the way, that the key principle in the evolution of European international law was not so much sovereignty for all but more so non-intervention for some – Europeans vis-à-vis other Europeans).

Such racialized divisions of collective personality are also de facto implicated in domestic liberal governance alongside and despite de jure individual personality.

Laws require political will to put into action and to monitor. And that requires empathy for those who are considered deserving. Yet the reach of this empathy is practically segregated through colonial difference. In other words, even within liberal governance, some collective personalities are felt/assumed to be more deserving of the law, of protection and of their needs to be satiated than others.

Remember that the era of neoliberal governance, at least in the UK, was the era of statutory anti-discrimination acts. Yet these acts in no way stopped the counter-terrorist Prevent agenda that de facto targets Muslim citizens from nursery school onwards. “British values” is consonant with the “international community”: both enunciate a competent collective personality in distinction to ill-competent and un-competent personalities (secular-Christian vs Muslims, gay and women defenders vs harbingers of Sharia etc) despite of and in the presence of the proclaimed legal equality of liberal governance.

Neither have the UK anti-discrimination acts arrested a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in UK prisons than in the United States.

Indeed, some worry that the incompetent nature of collective Black personality to be properly “civil” could even be infecting the competent nature of white personality through the reach of “urban” culture. So believes David Starkey when, in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in urban England, he claims that the whites (involved in rioting) are becoming the new “blacks”.

And we could go on.

But where is the outcry?

Tell me, seriously, where is the PUBLIC OUTRAGE over these affronts to liberal principles of governance? I will tell you. The economy of outrage is differentiated along racialized lines and made common-sense through collective personalities. (There is always outrage enough, however, for the “men in Brussels” and spurious stories of straight bananas).

True, the one thing liberal governance offers for all is “recourse” to the law. Yet that is costly and procedurally obscure. And, once more, the political will to uphold the “spirit” of the law is quite simply lacking in the first place. Worse, it seems to be a non-issue.

Yes there are legal victories sometimes, even for the “dubious” personalities. Inquiries too over institutional racism, for example.

Are these important?

Of course.

Must we pursue them?

Every time.

Could we even argue that liberal governance, as we know it now, is a space of formal equality at least partially molded from the struggle against colonial difference?


Is liberal governance the solution to colonial difference?

Absolutely not.


Fascism comes from colonial difference. Examine the history of the first fascist state, Italy, if you are unsure.

What does fascism do? It institutionalizes colonial difference as the fundament of governance by removing liberal instruments that guarantee a formal space of equality – especially the individual personality of civil society.

Fascism generalizes in extremis the difference that liberal governance keeps as its “underbelly”.

That is to say, if contemporary liberal governance by and large manages to effect a de facto difference in collective legal personalities via memories of precedent, tacit knowledge and cultural assumptions, then fascism grasps this difference formally – legislatively and executively.

With the fascist personality supreme, there is ONLY the deserving compliant indigens versus the alien races and race traitors (like the UK judges who dared to return the decision to implement Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to Parliament.)

With fascism, the public space of liberal governance is shut down. Colonial difference is everything.  In that situation, even white people suffer from race. Of course, black and brown people suffer more, even if some of those who already suffer the most might not quite see a difference day-to-day… I don’t know.

I teach a module on Race and World Politics. In parts, I wish to provoke my students to think on the complicity of liberalism in race and racism.

But I shiver at the prospect of not being able to appeal, in the first instance, to the liberal sensibilities of my students, especially my white students who, like all my students, undertake the module in good faith.

If those sensibilities were no longer present, then I guess I would hope that many of my students’ religious sensibilities might still be appealed to. Of course, most of those sensibilities are historically implicated in colonial difference, but then again so is liberalism.

In any case, I would not even be able to offer the module under fascism. Or, someone else would be teaching it some other way.


So now, do I think liberalism is as bad as fascism?


There is NOT an equivalence.

And I don’t believe that the FAILURE of liberal governance is the incubator of fascism.

That’s far, far too comforting.

Liberalism is the governance structure that holds what is called fascism, in abeyance – for some.

Liberalism is not fascism. But it is not the absence of fascism.

Liberal governance HOLDS fascism – in abeyance, as colonial difference.

To hold fascism is NOT a failure of liberal governance, rather, it is liberalism’s post-colonial STEADY-STATE (and post-nothing in settler colonies).

But knowing this, I would still defend existing liberal governance structures against fascism.

And every time I know that we would be left with the problem of colonial difference along racialized lines.


Am I living in bad faith with liberalism? I would prefer that than to live in good faith with fascism.

Or, perhaps, to put it another way:

Before, during, and after liberal governance there are the projects of living other-wise to colonial difference, other-wise to the unjust racialized division of humanity into collectively competent, ill-competent and un-competent personalities (legal and otherwise). These other-wise projects, as un-perfect as they always are, have nonetheless always been the wellspring of resistance to fascism – NOT liberalism.

In the current Trexit moment, AS WE CARRY THROUGH WITH THOSE PROJECTS, we need to defend liberal governance from fascist takeover. Not for liberalism’s own sake. Nor to partake in a comforting fantasy that we are working the dialectic through liberalism in order to get to socialism. But solely for being against fascism.


The impact of the 1935 Italian/Ethiopian War in Guyana

Common knowledge has it that it was in Jamaica where the Rastafari faith was first and foremost proclaimed. This is true; however, this truth belies the wider impact of the Italian/Ethiopian war of 1935/6 on the Caribbean region, and especially on its peoples of African heritage. African peoples in Jamaica were not the only ones who, using their existing political and spiritual resources, saw in Emperor Haile Selassie I their king – and even, perhaps, their God. In this post, I will look at the impact of the Italian/Ethiopian war on the African peoples of Guyana, focusing mainly on the historical context, that is, the roots and routes of this impact. My information is garnered from secondary sources as well as original research in the UK National Archives.

Let us start with the Demerara uprising against slavery, starting in 1823 on a plantation belonging to the father of future British Prime Minister William Gladstone, and spreading subsequently to sixty other locations.  In the trials that followed the suppression of the uprising, great importance was placed upon the complicity of Rev John Smith who, having been sent by the London Missionary Society, proceeded to narrate to enslaved congregations the story of Moses, pharaoh, exile and liberation. It is most likely, however, that these African congregations took what they found useful from these sermons without being too enamored by the London Mission itself. After emancipation, churches expanded greatly amongst the new “free villages” but most were organized around a strict and formal British liturgy that marked its civilized distance from “primitive” superstition. This growth proceeded parallel to a re-embracing of African faiths by the emancipated masses who had fast become disillusioned when the laity supported planters despite their decreasing wages in the late 1840s.

Obeah – along with drumming and dancing – were regularly outlawed in Guyana during the nineteenth century. Special attention, in this respect, was given to the African faiths that focused upon the spiritual agency known as Water Mamma. And the most (in)famous of these was Comfa. In many West and Central African cosmologies, rivers are powerful places that intersect the human and spirit worlds. The (usually feminine) spirits of the waterways are therefore powerful agents of intercession. Comfa works in a non-dualistic universe where the material and spiritual, living and ancestors are related. There is, therefore, an emphasis on spiritual mediums that actively guide the living. Baptism is easily placed within these practices, especially due to the relationship between water and the Holy Spirit. Hence in the late nineteenth century many practitioners of Comfa also attended church,  and over time a number of Comfa articles of faith came to be justified through biblical narratives.

Into this context stepped the Jordanites. The history of this faith demonstrates how interconnected the Caribbean region was during colonial times, both economically and spiritually. Joseph Maclaren, was an Anglican Grenadian working in Trinidad in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Introduced by his friend Bhagwan Das to Hinduism Maclaren also underwent a “baptism by immersion”. One of his subsequent disciples, a Barbadian man called Bowen, migrated to Guyana and there undertook a proselytizing mission, baptizing members into his “church”.  One such member was Nathaniel Jordan, a cane field laborer from whom the faith derives its name. The Jordanite Baptist faith had already been prepared by Comfa and the popularity of Water Mama. Indeed, the Jordanites place great emphasis on full immersion baptism as well as spiritual mediumship for communicating with ancestors.

Upon Jordan’s passing, Elder James Klein picked up the leadership who was a member also of the Guyana chapter of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. That there would be strong resonances between both groups (perhaps despite Garvey’s wishes) is not a surprise. Jordanites are adamant that God is Black and that Jesus had African ancestry, and this no doubt fitted the Ethiopian lens on God provided by Garvey. Indeed, both the Jordanites and Garveyites were seen by colonial authorities in the 1920s to be spreading the same seditious messages of “race hatred” against whites. Later, when the Italy/Ethiopia war began in October 1935, both organizations cooperated to agitate for Ethiopia’s defense. It was most probably the Jordanites and Garveyites who organized meetings to petition King George V for their members to be allowed to fight on behalf of Selassie I.

The Jordanites were not only strong in greater Georgetown but also along the east bank of Demerara, the rural area where, from October 1935 onwards, a series of uprisings commenced on plantations. As the Governor of Guiana noted at the time, while unrest amongst rural workers around cropping time was not unusual, in 1935 the low price of crops had combined with a “very strong sympathy which the blacks have for Abyssinia as against Italy”. This had led, reckoned the Governor, to a “new feature” whereby “combinations” of Black villagers had entered the estates and prevented mostly Indian laborers from working. The intensity of the uprisings led the Governor to approve the temporary enlistment of one hundred extra police. Additionally, the Governor requested all District Commissioners to relay the message to their local populations that Great Britain was doing its utmost to put a stop to the Italian invasion and that Black laborers could help by observing the law and keeping order. However, just one week later after this pronouncement rumors abounded that Italian doctors were poisoning black children in Georgetown and near East Coast Demerara. A similar episode had recently happened in Jamaica, and the Governor, judging the mood to be incendiary, requested a warship to patrol the coast.

A few episodes  from the rural uprisings in East Coast Demerara are of great interest to recount. In a report to the secretary of the Governor, the inspector-general of police testified that two overseers had been assaulted, compelled to carry red flags, and forced to march with strikers on the sugar estates. While rumors of communist infiltration always accompanied peasant uprisings in the 1930s Caribbean, this flag should not be confused with the hammer and sickle. For in the Comfa faith, red is the special color of Africa (as it is in a number of other African faith systems across the Caribbean). Another estate driver, providing evidence later at a labor disputes commission, recounted how a field laborer had tried to force him to perform an “African war dance” as drums were played. And in another incident, the overseer discovered that twenty strikers were blocking a bridge to the fields. “One fellow laid down and said he was an Abyssinian General. He defied anybody to cross and said he meant to chop anyone who tried to do so.” The Chair of the commission asked the driver what he supposed was to gain from these actions; the overseer replied “I suppose they thought that with the Abyssinia war on they would have a war too; in fact, that is what some of them said.”

The evidence is tantalizing. Some Africans in Guyana were, through their own spiritual and political resources, sighting the Emperor of Ethiopia as their living King and were prepared to fight for Him. Their faith systems confirmed that God was Black. Was Selassie I their King and God? Rastafari, as a faith, developed most keenly (and with most suffering) in Jamaica. Yet this does not rule out the deeper possibility that Rastafari is latent in the whole African trod out of slavery. And just waiting to emerge, in unlikely places, given the right conditions.