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Fanon declares in Black Skin, White Masks that his account of the psychological experience of black men addresses the circumstances of his particular historical period, as he says, “In no way is it up to me to prepare for the world coming after me” (Fanon xvii). At the same time, his analysis identifies white supremacist social structures that have been critiqued by later black thinkers, in ways suited to modern racial dynamics. On the surface, Public Enemy offers strikingly similar commentary to Fanon’s on the myth of white purity in their album Fear of a Black Planet, asking rhetorically, “What is pure? Who is pure? / Is it European? I ain’t sure” (Public Enemy, “Fear”). In the details of their lyrics, however, lie a challenge to Fanon’s presumption that the internal conflicts of the black man’s self, as opposed to external oppression, are the “paramount” vehicle of racism to oppose (Fanon xii). Although Public Enemy calls for concrete action against structures that subordinate black people, in a manner that is forceful yet motivated by the goal of unity like Fanon, they identify the root of this subordination not as condescension, but fear. This distinction has critical consequences for their political goals, which expand upon Fanon’s aims. I argue that, by de-emphasizing the inferiority complex in favor of demands for black women’s liberation, reparations of the past, and an end to racially motivated fear, Public Enemy contributes a more interpersonal aspect to Fanon’s view of the black experience, beyond his focus on self-perception.
For an assessment of Public Enemy’s contribution to the sociology of race above their concurrence with Fanon, his account of the psychological propagation of racism deserves elaboration. Fanon’s central claim is that while economic justice forms a significant part of black liberation, this emancipation can only become complete through the dissolution of the black man’s inner feeling of inferiority (xiv-xv). The economic obstacles of black people appear in his work mainly as contributors to the inferiority complex, which he deems the central problem (xiv). Moreover, in Fanon’s model, white society perpetuates this complex by enforcing its cultural standards upon black men in a way that treats them as childish. This is evident in his discussion on condescending linguistic attitudes, in which he claims, “A white man talking to a person of color behaves exactly like a grown-up with a kid” (14). It is this paternalistic treatment of black people that feeds oppression, because from these white authorities’ perspective, their right to demand obedience derives from their status as “‘benefactors,’” and anyone who withholds such obedience is “‘ungrateful,’” a “‘disappointment’” like a spoiled child (18). With sparse exceptions, such as the fear of black rapists, the white colonial view of the black man is, in Fanon’s estimation, not as threatening but as so inferior that he is “denied the slightest recognition” (87, 95). To the extent that this colonizer tells black men they are “‘brute beasts,’” his implication, based on the fact that he only marks them as dangerous in the preventative sense of ensuring intellectual black men are “watched,” is that such beasts can be easily tamed, without violent suppression (18, 78).
While Public Enemy also fiercely criticizes the relegation of black people to the status of inferiority, their critique responds to a racial dynamic in the latter twentieth century that manifests white superiority in the form of demonization, rather than infantilization, of blackness. Early in the record, vocalist Chuck D notes, “They say the brothers causing trouble / Hate to bust their bubble / ‘Cause we rumble from our lower level,” meaning that the derision of black men’s rebellion as a violent threat is misguided, because they are seeking to escape their subordination (Public Enemy, “Brothers”). In particular, through such lyrics as, “I’m not the one that’s running / But they got me on the run / Treat me like I have a gun,” Chuck D addresses the irrationality of oppressors’ fear of black people, whose lack of authority renders them less deserving of fear than the whites “running” society (“Fear”). Moreover, Public Enemy finds the fear they have garnered in the eyes of the white media especially absurd, because the only weapons they advocate using against their oppressors are words, as indicated by the line, “When I get mad, I put it down on a pad” (“Welcome”). This frustration with the marking of black men as dangerous constitutes a response to the racially perpetuated abuse of police authority, which concerns Public Enemy as African Americans in a manner that finds no parallel in Fanon. For instance, addressing the murder of a black man, the lyric, “It was the fuzz who shot him / And not the blood or cuzz,” condemns the displacement of responsibility for this murder from the police onto other black men, motivated by a stereotype that associates black men with aggression (“Anti”). This is in stark contrast to Fanon’s observation that authority figures such as “physicians, police officers, and foremen” are particularly prone to infantilize black men, reflecting a shift in attitudes of white civilization that complicates any attempts to view contemporary race relations through Fanon’s lens (Fanon 14).
It is because Public Enemy experiences the repercussions of white society’s fear of blackness, more so than condescension, that they reject Fanon’s focus on liberating “the black man from himself,” as well as his insistence on the necessity of a “psychoanalytic interpretation of the black problem” (xii-xiv). Throughout the lyrics of their record, Public Enemy reveals neither an experience of inadequacy under white civilization, nor a third-person analysis of this experience as seen in Fanon’s work. Rather, in a song that Chuck D calls “a black male correspondent’s view of how we looked at 1989,” his experience is one of self-assurance amid personal racial struggles: “Never question what I am, God knows” (“Interview”; Public Enemy, “Welcome”). While Fanon’s model might frame this lyric, along with the declaration that Public Enemy is “internationally known on the microphone,” as cases of overcompensation masking an inferiority complex, it is no less plausible that their self-confidence is genuine (“Power”; Fanon 189). If Fanon’s intent for his psychological analysis is to assist white and black readers alike in understanding the consequences of black men’s lack of recognition by the other, Public Enemy tackles a contemporary racial dynamic in which black men are indeed recognized, but as a hostile force (Fanon 191). Chuck D summarizes this progression: “Once they never gave a fuck about what I said / Now they listen and they want my head” (Public Enemy, “Anti”). That is, the recognition afforded by white authorities to black men is incomplete, in that such authorities do not see their full “human reality” and thus treat them in an inhumane manner (Fanon 192). At the same time, the black man in Public Enemy’s account is not erased, and so he suffers not psychologically from total lack of recognition, but more often from direct violence.
This achievement of recognition by black men in Public Enemy’s time is likely their motivation for criticizing the erasure of black women, to a degree that is lacking in Fanon’s work. By stating, “Forget about me, just set my sister free,” Chuck D acknowledges that while black men’s struggles are significant, he would prefer that the relentless attention paid to Public Enemy be redirected to the black women whose oppression “never made the paper” (Public Enemy, “Revolutionary”). Their self-awareness of misogyny within the African American community is particularly clear in the spoken sample, “Why is it [sic] every time you brothers make it up there, you leave us sisters out in the cold?” (“Pollywanacraka”). This intersectionality of Public Enemy’s approach fulfills the standard Fanon sets for himself in claiming that “it is utopian to try to differentiate one kind of inhuman behavior from another,” even as he limits his quest for psychological liberation to black men in particular (Fanon 67). Further, Public Enemy’s attention to sexism reflects a broader implication of their transcendence of the inferiority complex: when internalized racism is no longer the most pressing concern, as is evidently the case for Public Enemy in their historical context, an oppressed class is empowered to resolve its interpersonal conflicts. This is why Chuck D remarks that America “made us attack our woman in black,” in repudiation of the process by which the patriarchy turns black men against women, thereby hindering the unity necessary to dismantle institutional racism (Public Enemy, “Revolutionary”).
In addition to consideration of gender, from Public Enemy’s rejection of the inferiority complex emerges a heightened acknowledgement of the past compared with Fanon. On one hand, Fanon distinguishes the “intellectual alienation” faced by black Frenchmen, on whom his analysis centers, from the direct experience of “exploitation, poverty, and hunger” that motivates other black individuals’ resistance (Fanon 199). Hence, the latter would sooner have reason to fight external racist structures directly than to resolve self-hatred, and so Public Enemy’s approach does not contradict Fanon’s, but rather adapts his principles against forced assimilation into whiteness. Nonetheless, Public Enemy challenges Fanon’s supposition that “the past can in no way be my guide in the actual state of things” and that disalienation requires a rejection of the past (201). Though their reasons for this perspective are not explicit, samples from the beginning of the record – most notably, “The race that controls the past controls the living present, and therefore the future” – suggest that Public Enemy considers equality achievable only through efforts to correct the lingering material effects of past racial injustices (Public Enemy, “Contract”). Therefore, not only do they consider economic justice crucial in the broad sense implied by progression beyond the inferiority complex, but also specifically this weight assigned to the past informs their demand for reparations for slavery, as seen in lyrics such as, “we’re waitin’ for the big payback” (“Who”). Chuck D remarks that this latter song is an indictment of America’s tendency toward “ducking the issue of historical involvement,” thus standing in direct opposition to Fanon’s claim that he has “neither the right nor the duty to demand reparations” (“Track”; Fanon 203). Fanon’s implicit defense against Chuck D’s view flows from his highly individualistic values as an existentialist, as he claims, “I am my own foundation,” arguing that to require white people to answer for the crimes of their ancestors is an obstacle to the freedom of the black individual (205).
Fanon and Public Enemy therefore confront much of the same difficulties of black existence under white power, yet provide divergent accounts of the importance of self-liberation as a result of their respective experiences. Critically, these accounts do not exist in philosophical isolation. Rather, they motivate each of these thinkers to prescribe different priorities as to which sources of racial struggle merit the most immediate attention. Fanon may well value economic equality, women’s rights, and prevention of violent abuse of authority, just as Public Enemy would lament the self-loathing of any black person. However, Fanon’s history as a Martinican assails him with evidence that the “black man is comparaison,” hence he theorizes that the self-worth of a black man must be affirmed as the prerequisite to racial justice, going so far as to say that “the meaning of [man’s] life is condensed” in the other that recognizes him (185, 191). This emphasis comes at the detriment of concern for issues relating to certain interpersonal relations that oppress black individuals, and are of utmost importance in Public Enemy’s perspective. Their lyrics, including, “How to fight the power? Cannot run and hide / But it shouldn’t be suicide,” display familiarity with the life-threatening nature of what they call “fear of a black planet” (Public Enemy, “Welcome”). Such familiarity leads these musicians not only to highlight police brutality, but also to support women’s liberation and reparations, on the grounds that the recognition of black men paves the way for women’s recognition, and that, as Chuck D notes, it is imperative for the black community to become a “force that everybody has to deal with on an economic level” if this fear is to be overcome (“Interview”). To the extent that Fanon offers a study of subjectivity, which had been neglected by his predecessors, Public Enemy shows the power of objective factors to shape this subjectivity, and vice versa.
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