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Leading post-colonial studies scholar discusses new book

Bridgit Brown
April 15, 2011

nigel gibson interdisciplinary studies emerson college

Nigel Gibson, director of the Honors Program

Post-colonial African studies is the field that occupies Nigel Gibson, director of the Honors Program, which is housed within the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. Gibson’s most recent book, Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo, was celebrated this semester at Emerson’s Iwasaki Library. Gibson, a recipient of the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Fanon Prize for raising the bar on Fanonian political thought, is an expert on Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who revolutionized black philosophical thought and studied the psychological effects of colonization. Today, Fanon’s findings have been applied to oppressed people everywhere, and scholars, such as Gibson, have called his work revolutionary humanism. Gibson talked about his work in a brief interview:

How does your book, Fanonian Practices in South Africa, relate to the interests of the Institute?

I’ve taught Fanon in seminars on post-colonialism through the Institute, and one of the important discussions I’ve had with students is about Fanon’s critique of the internalization of white values in his book Black Skin, White Masks.

Can you talk more about the internalization of white values?

Fanon’s concern in Black Skin, White Masks was what he called the “disalienation” of the black; namely liberating the black self from the internalization of the idea that whiteness is the measure and the center of the way in which one judges everything. The process is a long and hard one, but he also insisted that it was not simply an individual project. It had to be part of a social transformation.

After Black Skin, White Masks was published, Fanon worked as a psychiatrist in Algiers and joined the anti-colonial liberation movement there. The Wretched of the Earth, completed on his deathbed in 1961, was a product of those experiences. He was the first theorist from within the liberation movement to criticize its limitations and pitfalls. This was significant to me, but then many Emerson students would ask me, “What’s the use of this? How can I put this to practice?” It is one thing to think historically about it and another thing to apply the theory to their own work. I was trying to do the same in my own work on South Africa. So Fanonian Practices really takes this issue seriously by looking at how Fanon’s thought was put to use and recreated.

How did you become interested in Fanon?

I came to Fanon by reading a book written by two African Americans on Fanon and Steve Biko in the late 1970s. Fanon was very influential in the ’60s in the U.S. and it is through the black movements in the U.S. that Fanon made his way to South Africa. It was 1968 and the middle of the black power movement in the U.S. and Fanon was also being discussed in the burgeoning black theology movement in seminaries and churches and so forth. These writings surreptitiously made their way to South Africa and to a young Steve Biko. Fanon’s idea of mental liberation struck a chord. You might think it is easy to talk about now, but at that point it was really powerful, after living under apartheid and thinking about black self-determination and that blacks had to discover their own source of freedom without any sort of outside liberator.

How did Fanonian practices come into play?

It has to do with Biko’s critique of white liberals. It involves thinking about the fact that apartheid ended in 1994, at the high point of neo-liberalism, which emphasized individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps rather than a systematic critique of the structural legacies of apartheid. Biko’s critique of liberalism takes on a new meaning since post-apartheid in Africa has become a sort of liberal society where many blacks have property but all too many remain in the same conditions they had during apartheid. The liberals are essentially saying that apartheid is over and it’s up to you to become an entrepreneur. But in reality many people are just struggling to survive. So there is a real class element to it. “Fanonian practices” is that, in a way, but it’s also something else.

What is that “something else?”

So one element of “Fanonian practices” is a critique of the limitations of liberation, but another has emerged from the “wretched of the earth.” In 2005 a new movement emerged involving the shack dwellers in Durban. This movement became a central element of “Fanonian practices.” What do theorists do when new and very practical movements occur? In the past five years, this movement has grown and has been subject to a kind of political repression, which I speak about in Fanonian Practices in South Africa, and there’s also many different stories to be told.

How does this relate to the “humanism” of Fanonian practices?

The connection I made to how the shack dwellers’ movement expresses itself in terms of putting the human being and needs at the center of any political project—human needs at their most basic, and not just in a material sense, but in the sense of a common social humanity. They may want toilets and houses and water, things that we take for granted, but they wouldn’t be involved in the decision making of where those houses would be built and how they were built. They want to democratize and humanize all those bureaucratic decision-making devices. So in a certain sense they were talking about the rights to a city, the rights to be in a city and having a say, which is quite a challenge when you think of how South Africa tries to sell itself to the world as a tourist attraction. It really speaks a different language than the dominant discourse but it is a language that one has to become attuned to. So that’s one sense in which there was decolonial humanism in terms of how Fanon talks about decolonization from the grassroots up rather than the top down.

Did the shack dwellers read Fanon?

Unlike Biko they didn’t begin thinking in such terms, but like Biko they considered themselves “on their own.” And being on his or her own, one begins thinking about his or her own struggle. And fortunately I have been able to be a part of that, which is why one special Fanonian practice is that the foreword of the book is written by the elected chairperson of the shack dwellers movement, S’bu Zikode.

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