Trauma, Visceral Experiences of Colonial Racism & PETA’s Animal Liberation Project: Applying Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth

First published in French, in 1961, The Wretched of the Earth was, and still is, a groundbreaking literary work. Taking a Freudian psychoanalytical approach to anti-colonialism and decolonization, the author, Frantz Fanon, addresses the collective emotional and mental processes of colonized peoples.  Born in Martinique in 1925, Fanon attended college in France, focused on psychiatry, and spent a significant portion of his residency in an Algerian hospital. After witnessing the traumatic experience of colonialism by his patients who were both the colonized and colonizers, Fanon joined the Algerian national movement against colonialism (Fanon 2004).

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argues that in order for decolonization and nation-building of colonized people to be successful, the national consciousness must be focused on humanism and solidarity of the colonized subjects (Fanon 2004). Too often, Fanon notes, the nationalist elite representing the newly decolonized people are more interested in benefiting from European capitalists, as opposed to returning the resources, land, and right to determination, back to the original habitants: the indigenous people of that once colonized region.

While colonized people transition into decolonial consciousness and sovereignty, Fanon warns his countrymen of the pitfalls that many newly “free” nations often fall into: capitalist greed, tribalism, selling national resources to the West, ethnoracism, and “proving” to the West that they are a intelligent people who had a “culture” before colonialism occurred (Fanon 2004). For example, Fanon focuses on the damaging effects of internalized racism on two newly decolonized regions of Africa:

  1. The national bourgeoisie of each of these two major regions [(Saharan Africa and North Africa)], who have assimilated to the core the most despicable aspects of the colonial mentality, take over from the Europeans and lay the foundations for a racist philosophy that is terribly prejudicial to the future of Africa. Through its apathy and mimicry it encourages the growth and development of racism that was typical of the colonial period. (Fanon 2004, 108)

In the words of Audre Lorde, for Frantz Fanon, “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 1984, 112). In other words, nation-building, during decolonization, should not have its leaders seeking to occupy the same philosophical positions as the exiled European colonizers. Instead, the new leaders should push to obliterate the entire colonial system and European foundations of nationalism, economics, politics, etc (Fanon 2004). Decolonial theorist, Albert Memmi, shares a similar belief as Fanon. Memmi argues that the idea of engaging in ethnoracism among one’s own countrymen is destructive. In his book, Racism, Memmi questions the efficacy of ethnoracism among colonized subjects. He asks that if the colonized people construct their ethnicity/race as superior, “Does one not risk committing the same errors as the racist partisans of difference? Does one not soon risk affirming oneself against others?” (Memmi 2000, 50)

Towards the end of the book, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon shares with the reader his personal memos about his patients who suffered deep trauma from the violence of colonialism: both as victims and perpetrators of colonialism. From his observations, of an emotionally tortured police officer who actually tortures “insurgents”, to Algerian children who decided to killed their European friend, to an Algerian man who could not find spiritual and emotional harmony because of the French soldiers who raped his wife “while looking for him” (Fanon 2004), Fanon’s insistence of using violence to ensure decolonization, becomes rather contradictory.

I feel that Fanon’s constant reference to trauma and psychological scarring is one of the most provocative and innovative aspects of this book.  It shows how devastating and traumatizing colonialism is, for the colonized and the colonizer. Much like his Algerian countrymen that he describes in his book, Fanon believes that enacting violence on the colonizer is the only language that the colonizer will understand. The book’s underlying message is that the colonized people are enraged, angry, and ready to take back their dignity and right to sovereignty. Colonial violence has displaced their nation, fragmented their consciousness, and tore them from their connection to their  motherland.  Fanon believes that the colonized have the visceral experience of a suffering and agony that nothing but violence can resolve; nonviolence is no longer an option.

While reading through these translated pages of Fanon’s internal thought process on decolonial nation building, it becomes clear to me that Fanon struggles with how to deal with his own trauma, that of his Algerian and French people’s trauma, and perhaps internalized hate he has against his own early and possible collusion with the French government as an intellectual colonial subject; a educationally privileged subject who perhaps grappled with an identity similar to that of a patient he once had. This patient felt like he was a traitor to the Algerian brotherhood, simply because he had decided to disengage with his involvement in the insurrection against colonialism and instead focus on on his job skills (Fanon 2004). Unlike Fanon, Albert Memmi disagrees with the philosophy of violence as the key to liberating the colonized (Memmi 2000). Though Memmi’s experiences with colonial racism differ from that of Fanon’s (he is a Tunisian Jewish man), his nonviolent approach could also be considered as an alternative path to Fanon’s violent decolonization; particularly after one has read Fanon’s disturbing reports about his psychiatric patients and what colonial violence has done to them.   Why, after seeing the misery and violence of colonialism manifest on the psyches and bodies of human beings, does Fanon firmly believe that only violence can lead to the freedom of the colonized people?

How it Ties Into My Analysis of the PETA Animal Liberation Project Responses

Fanon’s work makes a significant contribution to my own work, as an animal rights, food justice, and health activist within the African American community of the United States. Currently, I am analyzing PETA’s Animal Liberation project. In this project, PETA has argued that non-human animal suffering and human suffering stem from the same source: dominance and power through “othering”. Their new campaign positions images of exploited non-human animals next to images of black slavery, blacks during Jim Crow era in the U.S.A., Jewish Holocaust victims, and Native American genocide. My research examines the responses from the black community who viewed PETA’s tactics as entrenched in white racism and cultural appropriation of ethnic suffering to promote PETA’s animal rights agenda. In response to the descendants of colonized and enslaved U.S.A. Africans, who were traumatized by the advertisement's images of black lynched men, PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, a white identified female, wrote in 2005, “We’re all animals, so get over it.” Newkirk’s response indicates that she does not have a thorough understanding of the psychic trauma, collectively suffered by black identified people who were born and raised in the U.S.A. Dr. Joy Leary, a specialist in post traumatic slave syndrome, explains that blacks in the U.S.A. are still trying to heal from the intense trauma of surviving through colonialism and African slavery (Leary 2005). In concert with Leary’s works, The Wretched of the Earth gives me excellent insight to the psyche of [the descendants of] colonized people; particularly the collective consciousness of the African American community that I work within.

    Fanon’s impressive understanding of the colonized subjects roots of rage help me better articulate to PETA, why their advertising strategy is more of a triggering mechanism for traumatic experiences, for many black Americans, than it is an enlightening educational tool about animal exploitation. I have found that blacks in the U.S.A collectively equate being called an “animal” (or equating one’s suffering to an animal) to the colonial connotation of the word, paralleling African peoples to a subhuman social position. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon mentions numerous times how the colonized were dehumanized and/or perceived as being animals or even lower than animals (Fanon 2004).

Upon interviewing my mother’s responses to the PETA advertisement, she responded fervently against the very idea that black slavery, Jim Crow, and continued overt and institutional racism could be paralleled to non-human animal suffering and exploitation. She admitted that as a black female from Jim Crow era, she felt offended by the advertisement. During our dialogue, she recounted the traumatic experiences of being called “animal” , “dirty”, and/or  “nigger” by her teachers during her kindergarten through high school educational experience. Though I am an animal rights and human rights activist, Fanon’s psychoanalytical approach helps me understand my mother’s interpretations of the PETA campaign. Hence, I do not reduce her responses to that of mere human-ego centric perception of animals; the latter being the interpretation that Ingrid Newkirk employed when responding to the black community’s reactions to her campaign (Newkirk 2005). Fanon’s book allows me to bring the socio-historical and psychological context of racism and trauma into understanding my mother’s (and the collective black U.S.A. community’s) interpretation of seeing PETA as equating black suffering to being an “animal”.

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004.

Leary, Joy Degruy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Portland: Uptone Press, 2005

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Memmi, Albert. Racism. Trans. Steve Martinot. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Newkirk, Ingrid. “We are all animals, so get over it.” Updated August 2005, <> (cited

14, October).

Picture of Frantz Fanon: