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date: 08 May 2021

Frantz Fanonfree

  • Christopher J. LeeChristopher J. LeeDepartment of History, Lafayette College

Summary

Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He died in 1961 from leukemia in a hospital outside Washington, DC. Trained as a psychiatrist, Fanon achieved fame as a philosopher of anti-colonial revolution. He published two seminal books, Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), that addressed the psychological effects of racism and the politics of the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962), respectively. He also wrote a third book, Year Five of the Algerian Revolution (1959, reprinted and translated as A Dying Colonialism in 1967), as well as numerous medical journal articles and political essays, a selection of which appear in the posthumous collections Toward the African Revolution (1964) and Alienation and Freedom (2015).

Despite the brevity of his life and written work, Fanon’s analysis of colonialism and decolonization has remained vital, influencing a range of academic fields such that the term Fanonism has become shorthand to capture his interrelated political, philosophical, and psychological arguments. Through penetrating views and a frequently bracing prose style, the small library of Fanon’s work has become essential reading in postcolonial studies, African and African American studies, critical race theory, and the history of insurgent thought, to name just a few subjects. Fanon is a political martyr who died before he could witness the birth of an independent Algeria, his stature near mythic in scale as a result. To invoke Fanon is to bring forth a radical worldview dissatisfied with the political present, reproachful of the conformities of the past, and consequently in perpetual struggle for a better future.

Childhood and Youth

Frantz Fanon was born in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, on July 20, 1925. Located toward the southern reaches of the Lesser Antilles near South America, Martinique experienced French rule beginning in the 17th century. Its political status fluctuated during the next two centuries, experiencing brief episodes of British control, but after the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), French rule stabilized. Martinique today remains a part of France as an overseas department (département d’outre-mer).

By the early 18th century, a slave-based plantation economy had been established on the island. Sugar was the key commodity produced for export to Europe—an extremely lucrative trade. The practice of slavery on Martinique took the harsh form that characterized sugar production across the Caribbean. Although the abolition of slavery in Martinique in 1848 preceded Fanon’s birth by almost eighty years, the legacy of slavery and its dehumanization marked Fanon’s history and social status as it did for so many other black men and women in Martinique and throughout the Americas. The end of slavery in Martinique resulted in citizenship rights for the island’s inhabitants—Fanon was a French citizen by birth—but continuities between enslavement and colonialism remained. The structure of inequality along lines of race and class that was forged in the crucible of slavery continued through the 20th century. This social hierarchy, with a white minority occupying the top tier, set the stage for Fanon’s worldview: a perspective defined by belonging to a demographic majority, yet one unjustly limited by racial discrimination.

The recorded history of the Fanon family starts in the 1840s with his great-grandfather, who was the son of a slave but himself free. Fanon’s great-grandparents and grandparents owned small farms. His parents, Félix Casimir Fanon (1891–1947) and Eléanore Médélice Fanon (1891–1981), lived in urban Fort-de-France, working as a civil servant and shopkeeper, respectively. They had eight children, Frantz being the fifth. His mother was métisse, with part of her family being from Strasbourg in the Alsace region along the border of Germany and France. The Germanic name “Frantz” is understood to be connected to this familial past. Fanon was born into relative privilege—a first-generation, middle-class milieu—though the degree of affluence in Fort-de-France at the time was limited. His family was not overtly political and from a cultural standpoint French. Fanon attended the elite Lycée Victor Schœlcher where, as a student, he crossed paths with Martinican poet, intellectual, and politician Aimé Césaire.1

Césaire provided a vital role model for Fanon—a black intellectual who took advantage of the opportunities of French education and culture but was unafraid of confronting French racism. The Négritude movement, in which Césaire played a fundamental role, is essential for understanding the political culture of Martinique prior to and just after the Second World War. It was Fanon’s first formative intellectual influence. Established during the 1930s by Césaire, Léopold Senghor (1906–2001), and Léon-Gontras Damas (1912–78), it encompassed a range of literary figures. Senghor was from Senegal in French West Africa, which he would later lead as its first president in 1960. Damas was from French Guiana in South America, though he also studied at the Lycée Schœlcher in Martinique, where he and Césaire first met as students. But equally important were the sisters Jane Nardal (1902–1993) and Paulette Nardal (1896–1985), as well as Césaire’s wife, Suzanne (1915–1966), all of whom were from Martinique and shaped Négritude’s meanings.2

Given its transatlantic geography, this intellectual movement must be understood as cosmopolitan in formation, but defined by perspectives from the margins of the French Empire. Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, which emerged during the same period, Négritude confronted the effects of racial discrimination and political inequality through cultural expression, primarily poetry and literature. It represented an act of counter-acculturation against the French policy of assimilation, which promised equal citizenship provided that the French language and French values were adopted. Colonial subjects had to demonstrate their intellectual aptitude on French terms. Négritude, in contrast, asserted a black identity that was not only positive, but construed as civilizational. Négritude argued for the innate unity of black African culture, a common heritage that preceded Western colonialism. Négritude thus presented a critical position, internal to the French Empire, both cultural and political in scope—a self-defined black humanism counterposed against a French colonial humanism that diminished African civilization.

Négritude was an unavoidable influence on Fanon’s early thinking. Césaire in particular cast a shadow that Fanon both respected and sought to escape. Not only was Césaire a key figure within a pivotal group of black intellectuals, but their shared Martinican origins meant that engaging with Césaire in some fashion was inevitable for Fanon. Césaire both liberated and constrained Fanon’s ambitions. In an essay published in 1955, Fanon wrote, “Before Césaire, West Indian literature was a literature of Europeans.”3 Fanon followed a path similar to his former teacher’s, but his future proved to be far different.

World War II and University Education

With the exception of Martinique, Fanon spent more years of his life in France than in any other country, including Algeria. The Second World War initiated this period. The war affected Martinique as it did the rest of the French Empire. On June 22, 1940, the French government signed an armistice agreement with Nazi Germany, its quick defeat astonishing France’s overseas colonies. This course of events generated a response in support of resistance, with General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) calling on a Free French movement to liberate France. A number of French colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean aligned with de Gaulle. Fanon volunteered to fight overseas, and he left in 1944 for French-controlled Morocco for military training. Fanon’s time in North Africa marked his introduction to Algeria. Stationed in Béjaïa on the Algerian coast, he was affected by the racism and poverty he encountered.

His unit eventually formed part of Operation Dragoon, a plan conceived by de Gaulle to invade southern France from Algeria. In tandem with Operation Overlord—the D-Day landing on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944—this invasion provided a counter-assault from the south. Following this crossing of the Mediterranean, Fanon suffered wounds from mortar fire in November 1944 while fighting in Europe, and he received the Croix de Guerre in February 1945 in recognition of his bravery. His wartime service ultimately proved to be important: it was his first experience with violence and, as such, provided an important example of how armed struggle could be a tactic against political injustice. Both lessons would become key themes in his final work, The Wretched of the Earth.

However, the experience of fighting for France was ambiguous for Fanon in the short term. Despite shared patriotism, sharp racial differences materialized during his service, with whites occupying the officer ranks. In Europe, Fanon experienced the racism that many colonial troops were subjected to by local communities, despite their status as liberators. Yet the war had provided him with an enlarged worldview. Martinique had limited opportunities. He consequently returned to France after the war in 1946 to pursue his university education with the benefit of state tuition support due to his veteran status. He first arrived in Paris to study, but soon transferred to Lyon to pursue medicine. It was an unlikely decision. The provincial character of Lyon contrasted with Parisian cosmopolitanism. His first year in Lyon was largely isolating as a result. Among four hundred university students, fewer than twenty were black.

Fanon pursued psychiatry, though he was also drawn to philosophy, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis. It is important to stress the differences between psychiatry—a medical field that treats mental health as part of the biological functioning of the brain and human nervous system—and psychoanalysis—a field pioneered by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who stressed the importance of lived experience in determining psychological health. Though Fanon specifically trained as a psychiatrist, psychoanalysis also had a significant bearing on his thinking, given its general influence at the time and its particular validation for treating patients on an individual basis rather than institutionally through hospitals and asylums. Fanon’s entry into the field occurred at a time when the discipline of psychiatry was undergoing a dynamic redefinition.

Fanon also studied during a vital period in French intellectual life, when a number of thinkers were grappling with the effects and meaning of the Second World War. The war occasioned many challenges and disasters of broad human importance—the rise of fascism and totalitarianism, the Holocaust and its genocidal violence, and the advent of the nuclear age among them—that raised fundamental questions of individual ethics and community politics for the postwar period. Some—such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Albert Camus (1913–1960)—had directly participated in the war, as erstwhile members of the French resistance. This intellectual milieu, represented in part by the journal Les Temps modernes, edited by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), paralleled and interacted with the intellectual circle surrounding Présence africaine, the leading journal of black culture published in France. Founded in 1947 by Alioune Diop (1910–1980), a Senegalese writer, Présence africaine provided a crucial literary venue for the Négritude movement and Pan-African concerns more generally. These two publications framed Fanon’s intellectual world.

Unlike Négritude, Fanon encountered French philosophy primarily through reading rather than personal connections. The prevalent trends were phenomenology and existentialism. Being and Nothingness (1943) by Sartre and Phenomenology of Perception (1945) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) undertook these philosophical approaches that stressed the importance of personal experience and perception for self-realization. These ideas reached a popular audience with Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (1946) and Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), with each examining the roles of public perception and regard for understanding the construction of group identities rather than dwelling on the individual alone.

This burst of philosophical inquiry held considerable appeal for a European intelligentsia recovering from the devastating effects of a war that had destroyed much of the continent physically, culturally, and morally. The notion of an indifferent world as conveyed by existentialism resonated with a public coping with the aftermath of violence and genocide. Existentialism’s argument for free will provided one answer for creating meaning in an uncertain postwar era. This approach to self-actualization caught the attention of Fanon. Indeed, Fanon’s interest in phenomenology and existentialism is readily understandable, given his earlier engagement with Négritude. Like psychiatry and this aesthetic movement, these philosophical approaches drew on notions of the conscious and the unconscious and the vital importance of these realms to advance and consummate self-understanding. These philosophical influences would have a great impact on his first book, Black Skin, White Masks.

Fanon also became romantically involved with two women during this period. Fanon had one child, Mireille, out of wedlock with a fellow medical student in 1948. He had a second relationship with his future wife, Marie-Josèphe Dublé (1931–1989), better known as Josie Fanon, whom he met in 1949. Fanon and Dublé married in 1952. This personal transition overlapped with a professional one. His first assignment after his medical coursework was an internship at the Saint-Ylié psychiatric hospital in Dôle, north of Lyon. Fanon planned to submit a thesis focusing on psychiatric issues of race—an early version of Black Skin, White Masks—which was ultimately thwarted by his advisor, resulting in a more conventional dissertation on Friedreich’s ataxia—a hereditary disease that causes the nervous system to degenerate. He submitted it after his time in Dôle in 1951.

A new position at the Saint-Alban psychiatric hospital in the Loire Valley provided an opportunity to develop his more experimental psychiatric approach. Under the direction of François Tosquelles (1912–1994)—a Catalan psychiatrist, anti-fascist against the Franco regime, and founder of an institutional psychotherapy movement that would become influential—Saint-Alban was a facility that encouraged interaction between patients, doctors, and staff such that traditional doctor–patient hierarchies were broken down and a sense of communal healing emerged. This innovative form of socio-therapy diminished feelings of difference, alienation, and exclusion among patients—a perspective on treatment that influenced Fanon’s later work in Algeria.4 After a brief return in 1952 to Martinique, Fanon returned to Lyon and eventually passed his licensing exams in June 1953.

Several months before he passed his exams, his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, appeared. Black Skin, White Masks failed to draw wide attention initially: a consequence of Fanon’s status as a first-time author; the relative marginality of black writing in France; and the unusual nature of the book itself with its constituent elements of race, psychology, and philosophy. It defied easy categorization. And yet it was undeniably personal, searching for a new language of expression. Black Skin, White Masks powerfully addressed the nature of racism and individual experience, from a medical standpoint and his own.

Black Skin, White Masks

Black Skin, White Masks marked the beginning of Fanon’s life as a public intellectual. It is arguably his most influential book, more so than The Wretched of the Earth, given its attention to enduring issues of race and identity. Black Skin, White Masks is equally important for the individual meaning it had for Fanon. It presented a summation of his formal education. It also documented the start of his break from France and Martinique alike. As his most psychiatric book, Fanon inhabits Black Skin, White Masks as both doctor and patient—diagnosing the conscious and unconscious ailments of racism, while also inserting himself as a victim of such conditions. The book similarly builds on phenomenology and existentialism. They offered methods for thinking through the connections between individual perception, lived experience, and the creation of social identity. For Fanon, being black was the result of being perceived as black, rather than resting within an innate essence—a contrast with Négritude.

It is important to place Fanon’s first book within the political context of postwar France. The constitution of the Fourth Republic (1946–1958), which Césaire and Senghor helped to write, extended citizenship across the French Empire. But rather than assuage political voices in the colonies, this change revitalized debate over the meanings of citizenship. French Indochina quickly undertook armed struggle, while other colonies considered alternatives such as federation within a greater France. Fanon engaged with such sweeping issues only indirectly, though his arguments were still embedded in this context of political uncertainty. Black Skin, White Masks grapples with the meaning of being both black and French. It is critical of assimilation, yet not anti-colonial in a conventional sense. It articulates a more radical stance as compared to Négritude, even obliquely calling for social revolution, but not decolonization per se, as in his later work. It is primarily concerned with the individual rather than the community, unlike The Wretched of the Earth.

Consisting of seven interrelated essays plus an introduction and conclusion, Black Skin, White Masks spans a diverse set of subjects including language, sexuality, colonialism, the politics of social recognition, and questions of psychopathology. This thematic range reflected Fanon’s personal interests and professional training, as well as his holistic approach to the problem of racism. Indeed, his first book is predicated on an argument for the connections between these experiences and self-knowledge. They cannot be comprehended either in isolation or through pure abstraction. This layered approach reflected Fanon’s attempts at depicting the dialectic between the social and the unconscious. It also explains the book’s relative obscurity upon publication. Fanon’s text was neither a scientific study nor a philosophical treatise. Despite its intensely personal features, it was also not a memoir. It is, above all, an interrogatory work: its ambitions rest in the author’s desire to raise fundamental questions about race through the prisms of his occupational and life experiences.

Black Skin, White Masks consequently laid out a set of problems that Fanon grappled with for the rest of his life. These inquiries can be summarized as follows: how to live as a black man, how to live as a colonized person, and how to transcend these mutually reinforced conditions that constrained free will and, ultimately, humanity. Like his African American peers, whether W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) or James Baldwin (1924–1987), Fanon interrogated the limits of modern citizenship attributable to race. What could French citizenship mean if racism not only diminished its promised entitlements but denied the basic humanity of those defined as citizens? Fanon believed that black identity was rendered inferior due to its formation through white racist perceptions. In fact, Fanon contended that this inferiority complex resulted not just from dehumanization by whites, but, more provocatively, from a situation of uncritical black self-oppression through assimilation.

Chapter 1 launches this critical assessment. Titled “The Black Man and Language,” it confronts the limits of cultural assimilation through the acquisition of French language skills—specifically, how black citizens and colonial subjects, despite the attainment of such ability, were not treated as equal due to their race. This introductory discussion sets up the more vexed matter of interracial relationships as a path for social assimilation and the roles of gender and sexuality in shaping racial identities. Addressing how black Martinican women aspired to be with white men, Fanon critiques their assimilationist desire for “lactification,” a whitening of black identity.5 Chapter 3, titled “The Man of Color and the White Woman,” continues this argument by criticizing black men for engaging in similar behavior with white women. As with language, these modes of assimilation through sexual intimacy are problematic for the self-esteem and psychic health of black women and men. Aspiring to be white diminished positive senses of self.

These first chapters that focus primarily on the individual are followed by a discussion of psychoanalysis as an alternative method for understanding race and colonialism more generally. French imperial control was not simply about resource extraction or political omniscience; it also negatively impacted the psychology of the colonized. Psychoanalysis consequently raised a new set of questions for Fanon: though racism and alienation may not be entirely individual, could they be construed as wholly uniform? Fanon’s interest in and reservations about a strictly psychoanalytic approach are found in his sharp critique (chap. 4) of Octave Mannoni (1899–1989) and his book Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (1950). Mannoni had served as an administrator in French Madagascar, and he argued that the colonial situation could be understood on psychological grounds, approximating a relationship between parent and child, with colonized Malagasies suffering from an inferiority complex that incurred a dependency complex. Fanon criticized this interpretation that suggested an innate psychological predisposition for colonial rule. Overall, in this chapter and the preceding ones, Fanon outlines scenarios and critical methods for understanding colonial racism and its psychological effects.

These initial chapters set the stage for chap. 5, which forms the crux of Fanon’s book. Originally titled “The Fact of Blackness” in the 1967 English translation, chap. 5 was retitled in the 2008 version of Black Skin, White Masks as “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”—a difference that emphasizes racial identity as a social formation rather than a pre-given, permanent condition. This chapter wrestles with the question of being black and French at once. It remains one of Fanon’s best-known essays. “‘Dirty nigger!’ or simply ‘Look! A Negro!’” the chapter provocatively begins, underscoring the relational aspect of racial identification.6 The meaning of this startling episode goes deeper than the shouting of a racist epithet. It underscores how black existence is fundamentally circumscribed by white racism—a profound limitation on having any sense of free will. Against this situation, Fanon contends that only positive self-assertion can resist the problems of white recognition.

But such actions could be difficult to undertake and maintain. As a black man, Fanon felt “overdetermined from the outside” based on his skin color.7 “I am a slave not to the ‘idea’ others have of me,” Fanon deduces, “but to my appearance.”8 The fact of racism further stood against the professed promise of European Enlightenment ideals. Fanon revisits Négritude as a possible solution. Yet this cultural movement presented limitations as well, due to its acceptance of French notions of racial difference. Fanon refers to Négritude at one point as “this wretched romanticism” and emphasizes that “the black experience is ambiguous, for there is not one Negro—there are many black men.”9 Négritude may provide a means to attain self-consciousness, but it did not address the diversity of racism. Being black did not depend on a civilizational essence. It was based on lived experience.

Black Skin, White Masks consequently remains an important early critique of Négritude.

Yet Fanon’s mercurial critical positions also highlight his difficulty in finding resolution. He does not call for the end of French rule, as he does so emphatically in his final book The Wretched of the Earth. His positions instead mark a sharp internal critique, not an invocation of anti-colonial revolution. He sought self-knowledge first; application could come later. For Fanon at this early stage of his political thinking, transformation must begin, in classic psychiatric fashion, at the individual level. Fanon found himself trapped by the racial subjection that limited his French citizenship and its meanings. The illusion of racial difference, as with Négritude, and the superiority complex held by whites both needed to be confronted. The end of racism required deconstructing whiteness and blackness alike. “The black man is not. No more than the white man,” Fanon concludes in one of his better-known statements, underscoring the mutually dehumanizing effects of racism.10Black Skin, White Masks can be read in multiple ways, but it ultimately embraced an ethos of moral resistance against racism, outlining an internal civic critique from inside France.

Algeria

Fanon lived and worked in Algeria from 1953 to 1956—only three years, despite his strong identification with the country. Furthermore, the time between his professional arrival in Blida via a letter of appointment dated October 22, 1953 and the start of the Algerian War of Independence on November 1, 1954 was brief. The Algerian Revolution was among France’s most prolonged decolonization struggles, lasting until 1962.11 The Indochina War in Southeast Asia lasted a comparable length of time, from 1946 to 1954. Indeed, the Algerian War began only months after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh—a victory that proved highly symbolic. Algeria had experienced a sharp rise in activism against French rule at the end of the Second World War, with unrest starting in May 1945, the same month as the surrender of Nazi Germany. Algerian politics during the first half of the 20th century had resembled the politics found in other territories of the French Empire, being animated by a tension between local, Western-educated elites, who held aspirations of equal citizenship, and a ruling government that sought to maintain hierarchical boundaries. Long-standing ideas of racial and cultural difference played decisive roles in determining status and opportunity—a situation Fanon knew firsthand. The protests of May 1945 that resulted in violence by the French military—a crackdown known as the Sétif Massacre, named after the Algerian town where it occurred—therefore spurred a reorganization of Algerian politics that would eventually lead to anti-colonial revolt.

The Hôpital Psychiatrique de Blida-Joinville (HPB) that Fanon was assigned to in 1953 was the largest psychiatric hospital in North Africa. The HPB specialized in treating curable ailments; it did not permanently institutionalize patients. Though it had only seven hundred beds, it served up to fifteen hundred people. The HPB served as a prime symbol of the French civilizing mission in North Africa, given its dispensation of modern medical treatment. French psychiatrists believed they were “liberating” colonial patients from their ailments. Nonetheless, these intentions were deeply informed by cultural and racial biases. The Arab mind and Islamic civilization were perceived as irrational, even unknowable. These contradictory approaches informed psychiatric care at the HPB. Medicine was not a neutral form of knowledge. Treatments actively shaped, and were shaped by, colonialism.12

Departing from existing practices at Blida, Fanon applied an innovative socio-therapeutic method with weekly meetings and events designed to create a sense of community. To improve his experimental approach, Fanon made trips in the area surrounding Blida to gain a more intimate and empathetic sense of local cultural life. This professional development was cut short by the war. Fanon’s path to supporting the Algerian cause and joining the National Liberation Front (FLN) can be described as both gradual and instantly foreseeable in retrospect, given his preexisting political and medical commitments. He encountered the war through the context of the HPB, where he witnessed firsthand the effects of violence—medical cases that would make their way into The Wretched of the Earth. Admitted patients included both victims and perpetrators on French and Algerian sides alike. Known by then for his criticism of colonial psychiatry, Fanon provided medical help for the FLN after being approached, in addition to sheltering its members at the hospital and within his own home. He eventually received anonymous death threats and survived a bomb explosion outside of his home, a state of affairs that led to his resignation and departure from Algeria. In his letter of resignation written in December 1956, Fanon expressed his devotion to the hospital, but the situation in Algeria had become untenable. “Madness is one of the ways in which man can lose his freedom. And being placed at this intersection, I can say that I have come to realize with horror how alienated the inhabitants of this country are,” Fanon wrote.13 In characteristic fashion, his letter, initiated by personal circumstances, reaches for a broader context and meaning—an awareness of the history shaping his life once more, and a need to find a more effective response.

Tunisia

Despite his strong association with the country, Fanon only spent three years in Algeria. He resided longer in Tunisia, which had gained independence from France in March 1956. Fanon also left behind his professional life as he knew it. Though he found a position as a psychiatrist in Tunis, he committed himself more fully to the Algerian cause, as well as his political writing. Indeed, his move from Algeria to Tunisia marked his transition from committing acts of escalating civil disobedience to openly promoting total political revolution. Removed from immediate surroundings of war and surveillance, Fanon found greater freedom to express his support, without the constant threat of arrest.14

Political developments across Africa also profoundly affected Fanon, expanding his political horizon beyond Algeria. His time in Tunisia was essential in broadening his thinking. If Algeria provided a place in which he could observe the effects of French colonialism, Tunisia provided a new postcolonial vantage point from which he could begin to draw more general conclusions. It was consequently an intense and productive period defined by writing and diplomatic travel to Europe and other parts of Africa, in addition to medical work. Fanon’s perspectives on violence and popular struggle gestated, eventually resulting in his polemic of anti-colonial revolution, The Wretched of the Earth. However, his political journalism for the FLN publication El Moudjahid and his short book of essays, A Dying Colonialism (1959), proved imperative for his intellectual evolution between the cerebral Black Skin, White Masks and its more programmatic successor. Often underestimated, these intermediate writings deserve equal attention. His transformation in Tunisia into a full-time activist not only sharpened his political views; it focused his writing. Rather than addressing a select audience familiar with trends in philosophy and psychology, as found in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon embraced the tasks of speaking for a national cause and motivating a popular readership—urgent considerations that enhanced his existing skills of critical analysis.

Fanon joined the staff of El Moudjahid in June 1957. Despite its status as the FLN’s signature publication, El Moudjahid faced distinct challenges. Its circulation was haphazard and often restricted. Though published in French and Arabic, it nonetheless had a limited audience given that many Algerians were illiterate—an effect of colonialism. But El Moudjahid remained important. Its pages did not exclusively contain journalism, but often interpretations of events intended to convert international readers and political leaders, not simply Algerians, into supporters of the FLN cause. Fanon’s status as a foreigner and his cosmopolitan experience up to that point were useful in this regard. Yet the articles in its pages also reflected the work of an editorial team. While the journalism collected in Toward the African Revolution (1964) is attributed to Fanon, it must be understood as bearing the imprint of an editorial process designed to reflect the general views and positions of the FLN.

These contributions, originally published from September 1957 to January 1960, encompass a spectrum of themes that reveal Fanon’s experience of the Algerian War, his criticism of the French government and French intellectuals alike, and his thoughts on the decolonization of Africa. Early pieces from 1957, such as “Disappointments and Illusions of French Colonialism” and “Algeria Face to Face with the French Torturers,” undertake a responsive approach: explaining the FLN and its ambitions, the reasons for its struggle, and the pathological violence of French colonialism. Special malice was directed toward the French Left and its failure to support the Algerian struggle.

Though these critical preoccupations with the French would persist, Fanon’s writing turned to other vistas as well, particularly those regarding transformations on the African continent. From 1958 forward, a wider engagement surfaced in his journalism, involving references to the Maghreb context of the war, the continental implications of the Algerian struggle, and the broader landscape of the Cold War. Indeed, Fanon began to travel more at this time in his capacity as a diplomat representing the FLN. His diplomacy reflected both setbacks in 1956 and 1957—namely, the French victory in the Battle of Algiers—and the subsequent turn toward internationalization with the 1958 establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria (GPRA), a move intended to legitimize the FLN within the international community. Armed struggle alone could not defeat the French. Diplomacy was also needed.

Given the unsigned nature of articles in El Moudjahid, A Dying Colonialism (1959)—originally titled Year Five of the Algerian Revolution (L’An V de la Révolution algérienne) and first translated into English as Studies in a Dying Colonialism (1965)—provided Fanon with greater public recognition as a key spokesman for the Algerian struggle. The book consisted of his own essays. Still, A Dying Colonialism appeared at a difficult time. The book encompassed a crucial five-year period since the start of the war in 1954. Despite French military gains and the loss of momentum after the Battle of Algiers, change had occurred among Algerians, who demonstrated themselves as adaptive and autonomous. In fact, the everyday “collective sufferings” documented in A Dying Colonialism directly inform the “national consciousness” that Fanon would elaborate in The Wretched of the Earth.15 It consequently serves as a crucial juncture between Fanon’s esoteric first book and his final polemic.

The essays of A Dying Colonialism are largely self-contained and committed to addressing the hidden aspects of the Algerian Revolution—day-to-day sociocultural features underappreciated or marginalized within popular accounts of the war. Fanon dictated the book in Tunis, drawing from notes composed in Algeria. Though designed to promote the FLN, its five chapters are more extended treatments of topics than the journalism he wrote for El Moudjahid. They build on the essay style found in Black Skin, White Masks. However, suggestive of his intervening experience in political journalism, A Dying Colonialism is also more empirically focused and empathetic to a specific political cause. Fanon is less concerned with synthesizing his interests in psychiatry and philosophy to arrive at a unique critical position than he is with narrating and explaining daily dimensions of the Algerian struggle. His first book posed the fact of blackness against French claims of non-racialism; his second book posed the fact of colonialism (and anti-colonialism) against views that would have Algeria merely be a part of France.

In this regard, it is important to emphasize Fanon’s commitment to present the conflict in human terms beyond the violence of the struggle—to outline the public and private aspects of Algerian existence during a time of total anti-colonial war. These essays signal the respect Fanon held for the Algerian people and the conditions they endured. Furthermore, the combat being waged was not strictly by military means. Cultural resistance equally mattered. Indeed, the war provided a solution to the inferiority complex introduced by colonialism, as discussed in Black Skin, White Masks. The five chapters of A Dying Colonialism outline a sociocultural terrain that has continued to stimulate interest, including the importance of radio, the relationship between medicine and colonialism, and the predicament of Algeria’s European community. As with his first book, Fanon challenged oversimplified Manichean perspectives established by colonialism. He underscored instead the ways in which such distinctions were routinely dissolved and reinforced, depending on the circumstances.

A key example of this critical approach is the book’s first and best-known chapter, “Algeria Unveiled.” Its title serves as a double entendre, referring to the veil (haïk) that Algerian women typically wore, as well as Fanon’s aim of revealing the nature of French colonialism in Algeria. He specifically discusses how French officials concentrated on Algerian women as a focal point of colonial domination. They perceived allowing women to go without veils as a form of emancipation from traditional Islamic mores. But this colonial “liberation” had larger implications. “Converting the woman, winning her over to the foreign values, wrenching her free from her status,” Fanon writes, “was at the same time achieving a real power over the [Algerian] man and attaining a practical, effective means of destructuring Algerian culture.”16 Building on his critique of assimilation and the French civilizing mission in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon positions the practice of veiling and unveiling as a microcosm of colonial control. The anti-colonial agency of women and the political liberation of Algeria went hand in hand.

Despite its intention to reach a wide audience, A Dying Colonialism was banned three months after it appeared—an unsurprising development, given that accounts from within the Algerian liberation struggle were rare and, as the French feared, could encourage support. Against these inauspicious beginnings, the book has left a lasting imprint. It identified thematic elements of the war that scholars have continued to examine, in addition to advancing Fanon’s own political and intellectual development.

The Wretched of the Earth

Along with Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon’s last book, The Wretched of the Earth, defined his intellectual stature. Unlike its predecessor, The Wretched of the Earth received an immediate, enthusiastic reception—a fact that can be attributed to the relative fame Fanon had accrued by 1961, as well as to the auspicious timing of its appearance. Drawing its title from the Communist Party anthem “The Internationale” (“Arise ye prisoners of starvation! / Arise ye wretched of the earth!”), it not only summarized and theoretically expanded on the Algerian Revolution that would end shortly in 1962, but it also prefigured and rationalized armed struggles then emerging in Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and parts of Latin America. Furthermore, it would resonate with African American activists of the Black Panther Party, who embraced a militant ethos in the wake of the assassinations of Malcolm X (1925–1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). The book presented a proactive alternative to the nonviolent resistance forged by King and others.

The unqualified radicalism of violent struggle as a political strategy in The Wretched of the Earth has remained divisive. The Wretched of the Earth must consequently be understood as providing solutions to the problems of racism and dehumanization that Fanon identified earlier in his career. Symmetry exists between his first and last books. The Wretched of the Earth is Fanon’s longest book and, though unforeseen as his final work until just weeks before his death, it summarized many of his long-standing political and intellectual ambitions. It is a work of political invocation rather than criticism or social description as with his first and second books. The Wretched of the Earth reasserted a set of revolutionary ideals concerned with the plight of common Algerians, apart from the exiled FLN leadership who, in contrast to the tactics espoused by Fanon, ultimately negotiated an end to the war.

The Wretched of the Earth also continues Fanon’s personal search for answers to questions raised in his first book—specifically, how to overcome conditions of inferiority and self-oppression that colonialism inflicted. It is perhaps self-evident that only decolonization, as theorized in The Wretched of the Earth, could provide a solution to the racism and alienation of colonialism, as analyzed in Black Skin, White Masks. But Fanon is quick to assert that political change alone could not diminish, let alone completely remove, colonialism’s more lasting legacies. Decolonization only marked a political endpoint. It still remained a starting point for remaking humankind.

As with his first book, Fanon does not take a conventional approach, either through historical narration, tactical discussion, or organizational platforms. As with A Dying Colonialism, he finished it quickly in a matter of months, aware of his declining health. However, its main positions experienced a long gestation. An initial appearance of his arguments, particularly for armed struggle, occurred at the inaugural meeting of the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra in December 1958. A second key moment in the development of The Wretched of the Earth was Fanon’s speech at the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Rome in 1959. Titled “The Reciprocal Foundation of National Culture and Liberation Struggles,” this paper continued his earlier critique of Négritude—what he referred to, since the criticisms outlined in Black Skin, White Masks, as “the great black mirage”—by arguing for a national, rather than civilizational, basis for cultural resistance and autonomy.17

Against this backdrop, Fanon’s first chapter, titled “Concerning Violence,” builds on his commentary on violence in A Dying Colonialism, and it remains one of his most influential and controversial essays. Several basic points should be made. First, despite enduring popular perceptions, Fanon does not advocate gratuitous violence or violence generally as a means of psychic catharsis. Rather, he proposes a defined set of historical origins and legitimate uses for violence. Second, Fanon depicts violence as a situated act, specific to colonization and decolonization. In his words, “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon,” it “never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally.”18 Fanon’s understanding of violence is directly drawn from the Algerian Revolution. Similar to Black Skin, White Masks and A Dying Colonialism, his discussion is socially grounded and based on his own experience. Third, Fanon locates the origin of violence in the foreign colonizer. “The colonial world is a world cut in two,” with this division structured and maintained—spatially, socially, and politically—by the pervasive violence of settler colonialism.19

Anti-colonial violence is, thus, an anti-violence violence. This observation leads to a fourth point: armed struggle held the potential for personal transformation by eradicating the ontological differences between colonial “settlers” and colonized “natives.” These are the two central categories that Fanon employs from the Algerian situation and utilizes for his analysis. These political identities notably depart from the specific racial terminology foregrounded in Black Skin, White Masks—a deliberate choice by Fanon that accounts for Algeria’s demographic diversity, the complex political affiliations therein, and the ultimate importance of citizenship, as raised in A Dying Colonialism. Although they could carry racial meaning in practice, these political categories that colonialism introduced retained a flexible application beyond Algeria, a sense of impermanence, and thus were deeply tied to the political process at hand. Anti-colonial violence, in short, provided a solution to the impasse between the colonizer and the colonized introduced in Black Skin, White Masks. This violence was not reactionary—an unconscious response to foreign oppression—nor reducible to planned military strategy. Faced with a choice between continued dehumanization or fighting against it, armed struggle represented a conscious step toward the eradication of colonial identities and the possibility of, what Fanon called in his first book, a new humanism.

Fanon’s engagement with violence—an unavoidable subject, given the character and longevity of the Algerian Revolution—therefore marked an effort to reposition the issue apart from purely tactical considerations of the FLN’s guerrilla struggle. Furthermore, it attempted to move the issue beyond the conflict’s notoriety for viciousness on both sides, especially toward civilians. Fanon’s support of anti-colonial violence was set against the total violence—political, economic, and cultural—of French colonialism. Trained as a medical doctor, Fanon recognized the contradiction of being a physician and being committed to armed struggle—a paradox never fully resolved with the exception that his understanding and advocacy for decolonization did not conclude with violence alone. Violence was not an end in itself.

Fanon was equally concerned about the usurpation of political power by elites—whether a colonial bourgeoisie, native intellectuals, or nationalist party leaders—based on his strong identification with the popular masses and their revolutionary potential, particularly the peasantry and the lumpenproletariat (landless peasants who had migrated to urban areas). These social groups comprise the titular “wretched of the earth.” Indeed, Fanon was not only alarmed by the problem of colonialism, but also the predicament of postcolonialism. In his chapter “The Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness,” he drew a contrast between “nationalism,” which was often exclusionary on the basis of race, culture, class, gender, or region, and “national consciousness,” which presented the possibility of transcending colonial identities and their unconscious influence. National consciousness tapped into local concerns and politics at the grass-roots level. But it could only take shape if anti-colonial movements actively worked against embedded differences that were structured by colonialism. Overall, Fanon articulated a multipart critique of liberation movements, identifying both the locations of and the limitations to their power.

Before reaching his conclusion, Fanon’s penultimate chapter—titled “Colonial War and Mental Disorders”—returns to a technique found throughout his writing, especially in his first book: the medical diagnosis. What is striking about this chapter, however, is its contrast to his opening argument for violence. Indeed, it tempers his contentions regarding violence and liberation, thus further discrediting uninformed views that would have Fanon as an immoral apologist for violence. Fanon held no nostalgia for war, nor was he ambivalent about its effects. He presents four sets of cases—Series A, B, C, and D—drawn from his medical work from 1954 to 1959 that captured the trauma of total war on Algerian and French sides alike. These medical cases provide in acute detail the physical and psychic effects of violence for Algerians as well as French colons in immediate ways and by living in surroundings defined and enclosed by violence. These cases reinforce the need to understand Fanon’s fundamental aversion to violence once more, based on his intimate familiarity with it. Violence was not random, but the product of certain conditions. While violence continues to be an important issue to debate vis-à-vis Fanon, it is important to grasp the nuanced, even pragmatic ways in which he understood it.

The Wretched of the Earth ultimately belongs to “a literature of combat,” to use an expression of his. Similar to A Dying Colonialism, it was composed under extreme pressure within a context of war. More specifically, it was written to invoke and perpetuate revolutionary sentiment. Unlike his second book, it displays greater certainty about the end of French colonial rule and what would unfold thereafter. Indeed, The Wretched of the Earth possesses an anticipatory quality and tone—certainly of a new world ahead, but also, perhaps, reflecting acknowledgment of his own impending death. Finished while confronting this distinct likelihood, The Wretched of the Earth inhabits a shadow space of political and personal twilight.

The Wretched of the Earth ultimately raises questions about the definition and purpose of anti-colonial thought—and the endpoints of decolonization. His conclusion regards the birth of a “new man”—an incompletely defined notion that, nevertheless, he himself appeared to embody. Decolonization in its total form offered far more than political independence. It promised the establishment of a new humanity, liberated from the constraints of Western imperialism and its political, intellectual, and ontological legacies.

Death and Influence

Frantz Fanon was admitted as a patient at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington, DC, in 1961. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in Tunis earlier in 1961, after a period of exhaustion. With few options, Fanon first received treatment in Moscow. But after limited improvement, he sought treatment in the United States. His hospital stay lasted for almost two months, from October 10 until his death on December 6, 1961. His wife, Josie, and his son, Olivier, accompanied him.

His passing at the age of thirty-six contains several tragic ironies, among them his death in a country he cited as racist and neo-imperialist and its occurrence less than a year before the achievement of Algerian independence on July 5, 1962. Perhaps the most significant paradox, however, is that independence was not attained in the end through the kind of cathartic violence Fanon promoted in The Wretched of the Earth. A diplomatic process brought the war to its conclusion. A referendum held on January 8, 1961 had gained a majority of French support for Algerian independence. By March 1962, after months of secret diplomacy, a ceasefire agreement between the French government and the FLN was reached. A referendum held on July 1, 1962 for Algerians resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence. De Gaulle declared Algeria independent on July 3, with the FLN affirming independence on July 5.20

This coordinated ending contrasts with Fanon’s vision of liberation, though violence had clearly taken a toll. Figures have been consistently difficult to confirm, but approximately 500,000 Algerians died (an FLN estimate) and over two million had been displaced. In contrast, roughly 25,000 French troops died, along with an estimated 55,000 pieds-noirs (Algerians of French descent). Roughly 800,000 Europeans left Algeria during its first year of independence. From 1962 to 1968, between 140,000 and 450,000 Algerians, including many educated elites and French loyalists, also emigrated. Perpetuating a cycle of violence, between 10,000 and 100,000 Harkis (Algerian soldiers who served with the French) were killed out of vengeance, with fewer than one in ten receiving asylum in France.

Despite these high figures, Fanon’s perspective on the revolution in The Wretched of the Earth is atypical. The disjuncture between Algeria’s negotiated transition to independence and Fanon’s political convictions poses fundamental questions of past and present meaning. An uncritical triumphalism must be resisted with regard to assessing Fanon vis-à-vis Algeria. It is essential to situate Fanon once more within a broader context to appreciate his arguments. By 1961, Fanon was poised between an Algerian situation reaching a diplomatic end and a sub-Saharan Africa still in the midst of decolonization and potential revolution. Amílcar Cabral (1924–1973)—the revolutionary leader from Guinea-Bissau—shared a vision similar to Fanon’s regarding the importance of armed resistance, the threat of neocolonialism, and the role of popular culture within national liberation struggles. In South Africa, Steve Biko (1946–1977), a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, drew extensively from Black Skin, White Masks for his own essays that sought to resist the psychological effects of apartheid racism and generate black self-empowerment in their place. Further afield, Huey Newton (1942–1989), a founder of the Black Panther Party, called Fanon a key influence on his militant civil rights politics in the United States. In sum, despite his short life, Fanon’s work had a decisive impact on liberation movements in the decades after his death.

Current Literature and Debate

Since his death, Fanon’s influence has increased exponentially within academia. His work has provided a critical vocabulary that has been applied across disciplines. Yet, this intellectual range has also generated a distinction between Fanon and a secondary discourse about his work—what has commonly been referred to as Fanonism. This situation—a difference between his life and the life of his ideas—has generated debate, with scholars such Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cedric Robinson both praising and critiquing the appropriation and misappropriation of Fanon’s insights.21 On the one hand, the use of Fanon has vitally underscored the pervasiveness of racism and colonialism in the making of the modern world. On the other hand, the frequent citation of Fanon has at times overwhelmed the discussion of these themes, to the exclusion of his contemporaries and other thinkers from different places and time periods—as well as to the exclusion of his own history.

Debate has also emerged over certain aspects of his thought, the gender politics of Fanon in particular being a source of discussion based on his engagement with the status and agency of Algerian women. This scholarship by academics such as Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Anne McClintock has commended his attention to gender while also noting the limits of his thinking, which reinforces certain stereotypes.22 More recent work has focused on Fanon’s psychiatric work and its impact on his political and social analysis of colonialism.23 This renewed interest in this less-examined dimension of his life has been aided by the anthologizing of his medical journal articles in Alienation and Freedom (2015), the most important compendium of his writings since the 1960s.24

Fanon has also resurfaced as an important reference point for activists involved with #BlackLivesMatter in the United States and #RhodesMustFall in South Africa, given his arguments against systemic racism and for decolonization. Fanon undoubtedly will continue to be cited and debated. His struggle for a new humanism will continue to inspire future political work and scholarship alike. Indeed, Fanon’s arguments remain relevant because the conditions of racism, colonialism, and economic oppression that he fought against still exist, if in modified—and at times silent—form. Despite the brevity of his life, Fanon’s ideas and innovations endure by having opened original ways of addressing colonial histories, while also aspiring toward new and better political futures.

Primary Sources

Works by Frantz Fanon (Recent Translations Only)

  • Fanon, Frantz. Alienation and Freedom. Edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J. C. Young. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2018 [2015].
  • Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York, NY: Grove, 2008 [1952].
  • Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York, NY: Grove, 1965 [1959].
  • Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York, NY: Grove, 1967 [1964].
  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York, NY: Grove, 2004 [1961].

Further Reading

  • Alessandrini, Anthony C. Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014.
  • Bulhan, Hussein Abdilahi. Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression. New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1985.
  • Cherki, Alice. Frantz Fanon: A Portrait. Translated by Nadia Benabid. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
  • Church, Emily Musil. “In Search of Seven Sisters: A Biography of the Nardal Sisters of Martinique.” Callaloo 36, no. 2 (2013): 375–390.
  • Connelly, Matthew. A Diplomatic Revolution: Algerias Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post–Cold War Era. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Evans, Martin. Algeria: Frances Undeclared War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Fanon, Joby. Frantz Fanon, My Brother: Doctor, Playwright, Revolutionary. Translated by Daniel Nethery. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014 [2004].
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Critical Fanonism.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3 (1991): 457–470.
  • Geismar, Peter. Fanon. New York, NY: Dial Press, 1971.
  • Gendzier, Irene. Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1973.
  • Gibson, Nigel C. Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination. London, UK: Polity, 2003.
  • Gibson, Nigel C., ed. Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999.
  • Gibson, Nigel C., and Roberto Beneduce. Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
  • Gordon, Lewis R. Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York, UK: Routledge, 1995.
  • Gordon, Lewis R. What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought. New York, UK: Fordham University Press, 2015.
  • Gordon, Lewis R., T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renée T. White, eds. Fanon: A Critical Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996.
  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2006 [1977].
  • Keller, Richard C. Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • Lee, Christopher J. Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015.
  • Macey, David. Frantz Fanon: A Biography. New York: Picador, 2000.
  • Marriott, David. Whither Fanon? Studies in the Blackness of Being. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.
  • McClintock, Anne. “Fanon and Gender Agency.” In Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue. Edited by Nigel C. Gibson, 283–293. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999.
  • McCulloch, Jock. Black Soul, White Artifact: Fanons Clinical Psychology and Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Memmi, Albert. “The Impossible Life of Frantz Fanon.” Massachusetts Review 14, no. 1 (1973): 9–39.
  • Miller, Christopher L. Nationalists and Nomads: Essays on Francophone African Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Peterson, Charles F. Du Bois, Fanon, Cabral: The Margins of Elite Anti-Colonial Leadership. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.
  • Rabaka, Reiland. Forms of Fanonism: Frantz Fanons Critical Theory and the Dialectics of Decolonization. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.
  • Robinson, Cedric. “The Appropriation of Frantz Fanon.” Race & Class 35, no. 1 (1993): 79–91.
  • Sekyi-Otu, Ato. Fanons Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.
  • Shepard, Todd. The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.
  • Vergès, Françoise. “Creole Skin, Black Mask: Fanon and Disavowal.” Critical Inquiry 23, no. 3 (1997): 578–595.
  • Zeilig, Leo. Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of Third World Revolution. London: I. B. Tauris, 2016.

Notes