Dancing with Fanon

In December 1958, Frantz Fanon headed the Algerian delegation to the All-African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana, a short-lived but politically powerful organisation.

In December 1958, Frantz Fanon headed the Algerian delegation to the All-African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana, a short-lived but politically powerful organisation. It was there that he met and developed close relationships with Patrice Lumumba from the Congo, Holden Roberto (alias Rui Ventura) of Angola, and Félix Moumié of Cameroon. In 1959, he was named the first Algerian ambassador to Ghana. It was there that I met him.

On that day in August 1960, I was walking across the university campus in Accra on my way to the assembly hall and was stopped by a group of four men, three of whom were dressed in dark wool suits and ties; they looked stifled and incongruous under the tropical African sun. The fourth man, Fanon, was wearing light-coloured pants and a short-sleeve white shirt, with his jacket under his arm and no tie.

He stepped forward and in basic English asked where the World Assembly of Youth (WAY) congress was taking place. I caught the accent and answered in French, leading the way. He and I spoke, making a connection immediately. He told me later that his first thought was that I was French. When he realised I was not, he was relieved: we could empathise.

The other men followed in silence and I left them at the entrance to the hall. We all shook hands, but no introductions were made. They attended the congress session and, except for Fanon, were gone the next day. To me, their silence and appearance were evocative of the underside of the war, dark and treacherous, and unremittingly clandestine. I later learnt that the group had been investigating the possibility of opening a southern front in the war against France, through Mali and the Algerian Sahara. Arms were already traveling that route, leaving the port of Conakry, wending their way through Mali to Tamanrasset and Ain Salah on the backs of camels and men.

A man in a hurry

Fanon had a long face, a strong, wide jaw, and deep-set, probing eyes. He was short, his body taut. The overall picture was of intensity, a man in a hurry and driven. As an official observer at the WAY congress, Fanon was invited to address the delegates. Mohamed Sahnoun represented UGEMA, the Algerian national student association. The two ensured that a strong resolution condemning France and supporting Algerian independence was passed unanimously. WAY had been at the vanguard of the fight against colonialism since its founding in 1949. When the organisation came out in support of Algerian independence, the French national youth council condemned its stand and withdrew its membership.

The day Fanon spoke to the conference, he revealed his roots as a psychiatrist: he read through a number of case histories from his newly published book, L’an V de la révolution algérienne (published in English as A Dying Colonialism, on the effects of war, poverty, and racism on Algerians he had treated. Losing patience as Fanon went from one case study to another, Sahnoun grabbed the microphone from him and brought the assembly back with a bang to the war for independence, to the need to support the struggle and condemn France.

Sahnoun, Fanon, and I spent hours in the conference hall and on the campus together, pushing for progressive resolutions on Palestine, South Africa and China, and agitating for the end of colonialism and the formation of an entente. We were bound by a commitment to African independence and, beyond that, to the anti-imperialist struggle. We visited Fanon’s Algerian embassy, which was no more than a small apartment. I was struck by how spartan it was, how clinical in appearance.

We couldn’t have been more different. Mohamed was sharp, quick to react; Frantz relentless and analytic. I was the willing, admiring apprentice of both. Along with Maurice Mpolo, the militant Congolese minister of youth, in uniform, who represented President Patrice Lumumba, they stood out among the delegates. They had put their lives on the line for freedom and justice. A few months later, Mpolo would be executed alongside Lumumba.

Confronting leukemia

One night, Fanon and I went dancing. A Ghanaian photographer focused his camera on us. Frantz caught him on the edge of the dance floor and warned him to destroy the photo (it appeared nevertheless in an Accra newspaper a few days later). The FLN had placed a boycott on all French cigarettes. When I shared my Gauloises with him, we became partners in guilt, breaking the ban together.

He once asked me what I wanted in a relationship. When I answered: “To put my head on someone’s shoulder,” he was adamant: “Non, non, non: stay upright on your own two feet and keep moving forward to goals of your own.” His words would come back to me often and I have repeated them to others in need of that advice, as I was at the time.

On his return to Tunis from Accra, in the fall of 1960, Fanon announced to his colleague Marie-Jeanne Manuellan that he was ready to dictate another book. It was to her that he had dictated his previous work, L’an V. This one would be called D’Alger au Cap (From Algiers to the Cape) and draw on his travels in Africa. Marie-Jeanne remembers that conversation well. Fanon, his wife Josie, and Olivier, their son, were having dinner with her family “Fanon didn’t look well. His skin had a greenish cast,” she told me. Two days later, Fanon arrived at the Manuellans’ again, waving a sheaf of little papers. “I’ve got a good one for you,” he announced. “I’ve got leukemia.” And added quickly: “But I’m going to fight it.”

“With what?” Marie-Jeanne asked, in shock. “With the cortex!” he replied.

Throughout dinner, both families sat grimly, but Fanon kept talking as usual about the war, politics, his time in Black Africa. At the end of the meal, he picked up a rotting apple from the table, twirled it, and declared: “This apple doesn’t look good. It’s leukemic.”

In the afternoons, Fanon “spoke” his text to Marie-Jeanne, who wrote it down fast with a pencil on large sheets of white paper. He paced the floors and held forth. He never went back over his words. “His sentences flowed all by themselves to the rhythm of his steps around the room. He never sat down. He had no notes in hand,” said Marie-Jeanne.

She typed up the sheets and returned them at the following session. She never retyped pages; as far as she knows he made no changes, or minimal ones. And so they worked for close to six months. Leukemia was never mentioned again between them.

With Sartre in Rome

In August 1961, the book finished, Fanon went to Rome for a historic three-day meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Lanzmann, her lover and Sartre’s colleague at Les Temps modernes, were also present. It was Lanzmann who transported the text of what had become Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) to François Maspero, the progressive Parisian publisher.

According to Lanzmann, Fanon talked non-stop of the Algerian revolution, of the revolutionary qualities of the soldiers in the “interior” as opposed to the politicians in “outside” Tunisia. He analysed for them the situation in Angola and in the Congo, where his friend Lumumba had just been assassinated. “The lumpenproletariat of the cities and the poor, illiterate peasants will take up arms and transform the world,” said Fanon.

Over and over he stressed the importance of armed struggle for the future of Africa and for the healing of the individual African. Sartre listened, fascinated.

Final days

Two months later, Fanon arrived in Washington on a weekend, alone and deathly ill. The disease had reemerged. How he managed to get from the airport to a hotel in the city was a mystery, even to him. He thought it was the end: he demanded that the hotel find him a nurse. The management resisted, but finally yielded when they realised this man might be dying. On October 10, with the nurse ’s help, he was able to make his way to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where arrangements had been made for him to be hospitalised.

No one had accompanied the dying man, and our office was not informed of his arrival until after the fact. Being the only person at the Algerian Office who had ever met Fanon, I became one of two main contact persons, visiting him in Bethesda regularly.

Throughout his stay at the hospital, Frantz remained lucid, rapidly perceiving who among his visitors believed in his recovery and who did not; his discourse changed accordingly. On one occasion a Protestant minister came to his bedside, offering help should he be the object of racial discrimination. Fanon snapped back that he could take care of himself, thank you.

Fanon missed Tunis and the offices of the revolution. He missed his comrades, les frères. Once, when we were alone in his hospital room, Frantz rose from his bed, sat straight up, and, turning to me, said in French: “It’s no bad thing to die for one’s country.”

A few days before he died, Fanon received the first copies of The Wretched of the Earth containing Sartre’s lyrical, passionate preface, which many deem Sartre’s finest writing.

Claude Lanzmann was in touch with a French doctor who had introduced a new means of fighting leukemia through the renewal of the entire blood system, with some success. The doctor in question was on his way to the US and would visit Fanon. His verdict: “Too late.” Fanon died on December 6, 1961. He was 36 years old.

This is an extract from Elaine Mokhtefi’s ‘Algiers, Third World Capital’, published by Verso.

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