Just Human Beings

Competing Theories of Decolonization in the Work of Frantz Fanon and Jamaica Kincaid

Reconciliation or substitution: which of these approaches to decolonization is better equipped to truly end colonial domination? We see these two theories reflected in the work of Jamaica Kincaid and Frantz Fanon. In the conclusion of her essay, A Small Place, Kincaid imagines a postcolonial existence in which masters and slaves shed their colonial roles and meet each other in their new shared status as “just human beings.” Her conclusion implies the possibility of peaceful coexistence, of reconciliation, between settler and native in the decolonized nation. Fanon disagrees: in his treatise on decolonization, The Wretched of the Earth, he asserts that to truly end colonial rule in an occupied territory, to achieve equality between former master and former slave, the native must replace the settler. Yet Fanon’s argument goes beyond mere disagreement — writing two decades before Kincaid, he anticipates her position and preemptively argues that not only is such a reconciliatory theory of decolonization not realistic, it illustrates the extent to which writers like Kincaid have absorbed the values of the very same colonizer she attacks in her text.

Published in 1988, A Small Place is a scathing critique of the many ways that colonialism continues in the Antigua, despite the island’s nominal independence. The colonial domination manifests itself in the form of tourism by white westerners, in the banking system, in the use of Antigua as a tax haven, in the island’s Hotel Training School, and in rampant government corruption. Kincaid addresses both Antigua’s past and its present when she writes, “all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this” (80). Yet, despite the force of her critique, Kincaid ends her essay on a note of humanist optimism that invites the possibility of change: “Once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings” (81). Kincaid holds out hope that is possible for former masters and former slaves to truly shed their colonial roles and to coexist as equals, as “just human beings,” in the decolonized nation. The ambiguity of “just” is important: masters and slaves becoming merely (just) human beings, with all that adds up to, is itself a form of justice.

The same reconciliatory theory of decolonization proposed by Kincaid is echoed in the work of scholars of decolonization, such as Mahmood Mamdani. In his work Neither Settler nor Native, Mamdani discusses the distinction between two types of violence: political violence and criminal violence. In his view, violence that is political in nature, such as the violence of South African apartheid, must be addressed with a political, rather than criminal, solution (16). Rather than punishing apartheid’s perpetrators and seeking justice for its victims (the criminal solution), post-apartheid South Africa “reconfigured perpetrators and victims — alongside beneficiaries and bystanders — as something altogether new: survivors. All groups were survivors of apartheid, with a place at the table after its violence” (17). Colonial yokes were thrown off, and a nation of “survivors,” or “just human beings,” began anew. Mamdani upholds this paradigm of survivors as the model of successful decolonization. Like Kincaid, then, he believes that decolonization through reconciliation can truly bring an end to colonial rule.

In his 1964 work The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon takes issue with such humanist theories of decolonization. He argues that to truly end colonialism in an occupied nation, the colonized subject must take the place of the colonizer: “The famous dictum which states that all men are equal will find its illustration in the colonies only when the colonized subject states he is equal to the colonist. Taking it a step further, he is determined to fight to be more than the colonist. In fact, he has already decided to take his place” (9). Equality is achieved through substituting the colonist with the colonized, the settler with the native, not through peaceful reconciliation. In sum, “the minimum demand is that the last become the first” (10).

For the last to become the first, the colonial world of the occupied nation must be destroyed. This begins with ending what Fanon describes as the compartmentalization of the colonized nation. He explains, “the colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations” (3). On one side of the line is the sector of the colonist, built from stone and steel, its belly “permanently full of good things”; on the other side is that of the colonized — “a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light” (4). The destruction of the colonial world hinges on the destruction of the colonist’s sector: “To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory” (6). It is this destruction of the colonist’s sector that makes it possible for the last to become the first.

For specific examples of the colonial compartmentalization Fanon describes, we need look no further than Kincaid’s essay. Kincaid illustrates Fanon’s analysis of compartmentalization in her accounts of tourism in Antigua and of the Mill Reef Club. Addressing the tourist, she writes, “you see yourself taking a walk on [the] beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited way, for they are people just like you)” (13). The tourist does not venture beyond the tourist’s sector, the stretches of beach reserved for them. From time to time, however, this rigid compartmentalization cracks, as when the tourist questions the luxury of his or her vacation in relation to the lifestyle of most Antiguans. But Kincaid reassures the tourist, “you needn’t let that slightly funny feeling you have from time to time about exploitation, oppression, and domination develop into a full-fledged unease, discomfort; you could ruin your holiday” (10). A more explicit example of compartmentalization, sans cracks, is found in Kincaid’s account of the Mill Reef Club. The club “was built by some people from North American who wanted to live in Antigua and spend their holidays in Antigua but who seemed not to like Antiguans (black people) at all, for the Mill Reef Club declared itself completely private, and only the Antiguans (black people) allowed to go there were servants” (27). Evidently, in Antigua, the colonist’s sector has not been destroyed.

The consequences of compartmentalization on the island are clear. As previously noted, Kincaid writes at length about the many forms that colonialism and slavery continue to take in Antigua, despite the island’s nominal independence. The Hotel Training School is a prime example. In Kincaid’s words, the school “teaches Antiguans how to be good servants, how to be a good nobody, which is what a servant is” (55). To point out just how deeply the psychology of colonialism penetrates Antiguan society, Kincaid notes that such servitude of white tourists is celebrated by Antiguans themselves — graduation from the Hotel Training School is so highly regarded that graduation ceremonies are broadcast on radio and television (55). The exploitation of Antiguans by the former colonizer continues at the bank too. Kincaid explains how the Barclay brothers, of Barclays Bank, were originally slave-traders. When slavery was outlawed, they went into banking, which proved to be an even more profitable form of exploitation of Antiguans than slavery had been, “for look at how rich they became with their banks borrowing from (through their savings) the descendants of the slaves and then lending back to them” (26). According to Fanon’s argument, these contemporary manifestations of colonial domination can be expelled from the island only after the colonized, the native, takes the place of the colonist, the settler. That process begins with the destruction of the colonist’s sector, as exemplified by the Mill Reef Club.

While making the case that the last must become the first, Fanon examines the fallacies of other theories of decolonization, including those focused on reconciliation. He explains that arguments in favor of peaceful coexistence express the interests and values of the colonist rather than those of the colonized: “The intellectual who, for his part, has adopted the abstract, universal values of the colonizer is prepared to fight so that the colonist and the colonized can live in peace in a new world” (9). Such humanist aspirations are naive: “what [the intellectual] does not see, because precisely colonialism and all its modes of thought have seeped into him, is that the colonist is no longer interested in staying on and coexisting once the colonial context has disappeared” (9). To advocate for peaceful coexistence is to do the colonizer’s ideological bidding. Moreover, even if such a mode of decolonization could successfully bring an end to colonial domination, the colonizer would simply opt out of coexistence.

Once again, it is in Kincaid’s essay that we find evidence supporting Fanon’s argument. According to his logic, if Kincaid advocates for peaceful coexistence, it is because she has absorbed the values of the colonizer. Indeed, despite her critiques of colonialism, its modes of thought are apparent in her text. Midway through the essay, Kincaid’s use of the pronoun “you” returns in a discussion of Antigua’s library. But rather than using the pronoun to create distance between herself and her reader, as she does in her critique of tourism, here Kincaid employs it to align herself with her reader: “If you saw the old library, situated as it was, in a big, old wooden building painted a shade of yellow that is beautiful to people like me, with its wide veranda … you would see why my heart would break at the dung heap that now passes for a library in Antigua” (42–43). She cultivates kinship here with the same tourist — a contemporary iteration of the colonist — who she previously disparaged. Kincaid then reinforces this kinship by distancing herself, through insult, from her fellow Antiguans: “In Antigua, today, most young people seem almost illiterate. On the airwaves, where they work as news personalities, they speak English as if it were their sixth language” (43). Far from critiquing the colonist’s sector, Kincaid is writing here from within its walls. For Fanon, it is this very absorption of the colonist’s modes of thought that blinds intellectuals like Kincaid from seeing the fallacy of her own hopes for a decolonized world in which former master and former slave can peacefully coexist as just human beings.

As we have seen, Fanon anticipated the continuation of colonialism in independent Antigua described by Kincaid in A Small Place. He advocates in The Wretched of the Earth for decolonization-as-substitution specifically in the hope of avoiding this reality. In addition, Fanon anticipated the promotion of policies of peaceful reconciliation by intellectuals, such as Kincaid, who have absorbed the colonist’s modes of thought. Despite their differences, however, Fanon and Kincaid ultimately share the same goal: the end of colonial regimes. Perhaps, then, it is through Fanon’s means — the last becoming the first — that Antigua will achieve Kincaid’s end: a future of just human beings, with all the things that adds up to.

Works Cited

  • Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
  • Mamdani, Mahmood. Neither Settler nor Native. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.

John is a writer and artist in New York. Find more of his work at johnhoobyar.com.