The power of language in post-colonialism through the eyes of the colonized

Both director Isaac Julien’s docu-drama Black Skin, White Mask and Frantz Fanon’s work Black Skin, White Masks make room for reflection on the issue of identity of the colonized, taken away by the colonizer. The way in which this identity erasure happens is via the power of language, as Fanon discusses in one of his book’s chapters.

The Negro and Language: a Matter of Power

The issue of language is indeed a matter that Fanon felt very close to him, having experienced it first hand with his travels to France (and Algeria) from his homeland Martinique. In the documentary/drama, the question of identity and belonging to a specific country is highlighted at the very beginning (during sunrise) and at the very end (at sunset), as a man waves two flags, different in nationality.

According to Fanon, by mastering a language, a man would be able to own the world that is expressed through those words (2008, p. 9). Hence, the more a colonized person would know the language of the colonizer, the “whiter” the colonized looks (and sounded). However, from the point of view of the colonized, it seems that as barriers of language are opened up to them, they will also have greater access to the land that colonized them, if they travel to it (Fanon, 2008, p. 11). The main issue with this is that by travelling to the country – France, if we consider Martinique and Algiers for this narrative – they travel to the place that brought order and knowledge to their homeland, functioning as a point of reference (Fanon, 2008, p. 13).

The Fact of Blackness: a Dual Identity

The issue of identity explored in the film and the book is similar to some arguments that Stuart Hall advances in his interview in The Stuart Hall Project. In fact, Stuart Hall appears in Julien’s work as well, contributing to the post-colonial discourse and its issues with the relationship with the former colonizer. Hall asserts that in the relationship between colonial and colonized, there is no recognition of the latter, causing an issue of dependence between the two.

On the same issue of identity, the film Black Skin, White Mask raises an interesting point about Algerian women, their veil and their role in society, especially during the conflict to gain independence. Indeed, the local women “appropriated” the veil and used it as an asset. They carried arms that would deliver to the local fighters; the decoy was successful because French military did not suspect women of being able to carry those kind of operations, let alone women “oppressed” by a veil. The same veil that ended up empowering them and giving them a sense of purpose in the war for independence.

Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. Pluto Press.

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