Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Maintaining the Tension: Fanon and Malcolm X
“I can’t turn around without hearing about some ‘civil rights advance’! White people seem to think the black man ought to be shouting ‘hallelujah’! Four hundred years the white man has had his foot-long knife in the black man’s back—and now the white man starts to wiggle the knife out, maybe six inches! The black man’s supposed to be grateful? Why, if the white man jerked the knife out, it’s still going to leave a scar!” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 275, original emphasis)
“The muscles of the colonized are always tensed. It is not that he is anxious or terrorized, but he is always ready to change his role in the game for that of the hunter…This impulse to take the colonist’s place maintains a constant muscular tonus. It is a known fact that under certain emotional circumstances an obstacle actually escalates action” (Fanon, 16-17)
“In the colonial world, the colonized’s affectivity is kept on edge like a running sore flinching from a caustic agent. And the psyche retracts, is obliterated, and finds an outlet through muscular spasms that have caused many an expert to classify the colonial as hysterical. This overexcited affectivity, spied on by invisible guardians who constantly communicate with the core of the personality, takes an erotic delight in the muscular deflation of the crisis” (Fanon, 19).
I juxtapose these quotations from Malcolm X and Fanon not merely to illustrate the similarities in bodily metaphor and embodied racial injury. Rather, I want to pause, as Darieck Scott suggests, within the muscular tension that Fanon seeks to transcend (Scott, 93). Fanon utilizes the image of tensed muscles to corporealize the temporal proximity of revolution. The tensed muscles of the colonized are trained in the quiet resistance to the colonizer in everyday existence. This tension is productive for Fanon inasmuch as it precedes radical action, so the loss of accumulated tension in non-liberatory actions is detrimental to the momentum of revolution. The muscle tension, for Fanon, is effectively deployed when the colonized inverts his position of abjection.
However, Fanon’s description and proscription for revolutionary action goes beyond the actual counterviolence of the colonized people. Throughout The Wretched of the Earth he is deeply invested in that which comes after the creation nationhood and nominal independence. Fanon cautions against over-working the newly liberated people in world-building as they cannot possibly attain all the promises of beginning again in the shadow of colonial rule (Fanon, 135). This imperative to continue the struggle for self-determination even after nominal independence necessitates muscle tension be maintained rather than ultimately overcome as Fanon would suggest.
Malcolm X’s image of the knife in the back of the black man corporealizes racial injury and is particularly enlightening in its relationship to continued struggle in the face of supposed civil rights success. Malcolm X describes the white man as “wiggling” the foot-long knife out “maybe six inches,” or even jerking the knife out, calling attention to the muscular reaction: constant tension in the former and muscular spasm in the latter. In both cases, Malcolm X portrays the black body in a lived experience of muscle memory and trauma that prevent an acquittal of white supremacy that, after all, leaves a scar. The muscular reaction to white racism holds promises of equality in tension with racial hierarchies four centuries in the making, suggesting that black bodies will not relax until they have really begun to build their own world.