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Meditations on James Yaki Sayles' Meditations

I used to be surprised when people told me that, although they owned a copy of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, all they had ever bothered to read was the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre.  They would often be quite eloquent about how wonderful this preface was, how impressed they were by Sartre's insights, and yet they would never bother to read the actual book.  This used to be one of my pet peeves: if the preface is so great, was my standard reply, then why don't you read what it's meant to introduce?  The response was usually something like "I intend to" or "I'll get around to it soon."  But the book would be returned to their shelves, Fanon never read because he was already described in their minds by Sartre––why read a text that has been adequately summarized by a European authority?

It is not that I have a problem with Sartre's preface––in fact I think it's a very good preface––but I would prefer if people went straight to Fanon, and then maybe read the preface as an afterword.  That Sartre's introduction becomes the beginning and end of Fanon's thought is troubling especially since Sartre is demanding that the reader take Fanon seriously. 

The new English translation of Wretched is even worse because, before the Sartre preface, we have yet another authority to map out the way we should approach Fanon's thinking: Homi Bhabha.  And though Bhabha is not European in origin, he is theoretically less revolutionary than Sartre.  Whereas Sartre understood the immediacy of Fanon's thought, Bhabha turns it into an identity game and empties most of its revolutionary content.  (It also doesn't help that the newest translation is worse, in many ways, than the previous English translation.)  So now there are two authorities to tell us how to read Fanon, the newest addition possibly more damaging to our understanding of a thinker whose theory is still vital and not merely, as Bhabha wants us to think, a prefiguration of the post-colonial.

So now we have two ways to avoid reading Fanon: 1) read Sartre's preface, accept it as a succinct summary, put the book back on the shelf; 2) read Bhabha's introduction and decide that it's the lens through which to understand Fanon.  The latter method has caused serious damage to the way Fanon's theory is understood in academia, and I am always baffled by how many people accept Bhabha as a Fanon authority.

In the past two decades, however, there has been a resurgence in Fanon scholarship that is marked by its rejection of the Bhabha approved post-colonial approach.  Spear-headed by such thinkers as Ato Sekyi-Otu, Lewis Gordon, and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, this wave of scholarship advocates that we accept Fanon as a first-order rather than second-order theorist, that he is writing about far more than revolutionary violence, and that we need to get beyond the bad post-colonial scholarship that has done so much damage to how Fanon's theory is understood.  Although some of these newer Fanonists have been marginalized, others (Lewis Gordon for instance) have been quite successful in combating the Fanon-through-Bhabha academic idiocy.  Not successful enough to be invited by Grove Press to write an introduction to the newest translation of The Wretched of the Earth (a privilege reserved for the grey eminence Homi Bhabha), but successful in marking out a terrain of scholarship that has to be taken seriously by any academic interested in studying Frantz Fanon's theory.

As much as this newer field of Fanon scholarship is important, it is not the field from which the late political prisoner James Yaki Sayles wrote his Meditations on Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth.  And it is this book, this prolonged investigation of Wretched, that can possibly contribute more to our understanding of Fanon's theory than the work of any academic.  Yaki Sayles spent three decades studying Fanon in prison, along with other revolutionary texts, and his unfinished Meditations are the result of those three decades.  For Yaki Sayles, Fanon's theory is alive, vital, and not at all the dead object that most theory becomes once locked into the disciplinary isolation of academia.  Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth as a revolutionary engaged in decolonization; his target audience was not meant to be the "wily intellectuals" but the colonized and neo-colonized, the oppressed, the damned of the earth.

I have read The Wretched of the Earth three times from start to finish and countless other times in a disordered fashion––rereading passages here and there, hunting down large sections to compare with whatever I was studying at the time.  Yaki Sayles, after studying the book for over three decades, recommends a whole new order in which to read the book designed to understand the book's process and the various "voices" in which Fanon speaks.  His Meditations follow this proposed order and, because of this, suggest a different way of absorbing the book's contents.  Now I want to reread Wretched in its entirety a fourth time, but in the order Yaki Sayles proposed.

There is an immediacy to these writings on Fanon that is lacking in even the best of the academic Fanon scholarship.  There is nothing in Yaki Sayles' writing that contradicts the positions held by Lewis Gordon and Ato Sekyi-Otu because his analysis accords, in many ways, with theirs: Fanon's revolutionary humanism, his dialectics of experiences, his insights into the tragic nature of revolutionary violence––all of these things are accepted by Yaki Sayles.  He does not turn Wretched into an exercise in the "prefiguration of the post-colonial" (as those following Bhabha are wont to do) and distort it into nothing more than an antiquated exercise in colonial culturalism.  Unlike the academic Fanon scholars, however, Yaki Sayles is interested in Fanon's application to revolutionary struggle.  That is, unlike these scholars, he shares the same interests as Fanon––the interests that motivated the writing of Wretched.  He even understands that his reasons for studying Fanon are generally different than those within academia: "i've come across several references to Wretched made by academics… and it seems to me that they don't understand the book, and maybe a re-read would help them––assuming, of course, that they really want to be helped, since so many of them are representative of the 'wily intellectuals' that Fanon scorches." (Yaki Sayles, 147)

For Yaki Sayles The Wretched of the Earth is still a revolutionary text and he contextualizes it within the need to organize against capitalism and imperialism––the need to "call into question everything about colonialism, post-neocolonialism, and capitalism."  He refuses to reduce Fanon's master work to an academic exercise because it was never designed to be an academic exercise in the first place: "My understanding of Wretched and of Fanon's thought, and of the/our social revolutionary process always suffered for my failure to raise and properly answer these and similar questions." (Yaki Sayles, 191)

Understanding the context of oppression, the problem of organization, the need to organize and struggle against the current system of oppression, and how to build a better society: these are Yaki Sayles' interests in his study of Wretched––again, the same interests possessed by Fanon when he wrote the book in the first place.  Thus, Yaki Sayles places Fanon in dialogue with other revolutionary thinkers, unearths the radical dialectical materialism beneath his thought, indicates the connection to Mao Zedong's analysis of contradictions, and emphasizes the need for "a comprehensive campaign to change people, society, and the world." (Yaki Sayles, 326)  This is an entirely different focus placed on Fanon than the one advocated by the majority of academic intellectuals, even the best of them.  It is not polite to emphasize revolution in the ivory tower, unless we are doing so in an extremely vague and overly intellectualized manner.

I am not saying that Fanon's theory should not be approached within an academic framework.  What interests me is the way this framework is constructed to exclude those intellectuals who are not considered academically palatable because of their radicalism.  I have become more and more convinced that the most vital theory and philosophy comes from the margins.  Not Bhabha's imaginary margins of post-colonialism, but the margins where revolutionary intellectuals are engaged in practices aimed at changing the world.  I would even suggest that Marx and Engels, regardless of the latter's privilege, were connected to these margins and would not have provided the basis of scientific socialism had they been otherwise.

Nor am I saying that Yaki Sayles' approach to Fanon is entirely different from other Fanon scholars.  As aforementioned, there are many points where Yaki Sayles' Meditations dovetails with the work of Lewis Gordon or Ato Sekyi-Otu (especially around the concept of revolutionary humanism and the way that Manicheism distorts and disfigures).  Yaki Sayles is not an anti-intellectual, one of those pseudo-revolutionaries I've complained about elsewhere, but someone who believes, like Fanon, in fostering revolutionary intellectualism: "Get away from the idea that only certain people or groups can be 'intellectual,' and think about everyone as 'intellectual.'  […] the need for ALL people to develop and exercise their mental capacities to solve the theoretical and practical problems of society. […] To question.  To imagine that things can be different and that the people themselves––that you––can make all the necessary changes."  And then, following Lenin, Yaki Sayles concludes this insight by writing: "There will be no revolution without theory or without mass participation and the assumption of responsibility by you/the people." (Yaki Sayles, 192)


  1. Thanks for this, Josh. That HB introduction really bothers me too - I wrote about it last spring in my theory comp. Great post!

  2. Glad you liked it... I really need to stop bashing HB, though: he really is the easy whipping-post for postcolonial theory. Still, I am annoyed by how he's taken as an authority on Fanon when it's clear he has no grasp on Fanon's theory.

  3. Just picked up this book a few days ago... what do you think about the bit about Stalin wanting to maintain the Russian empire towards the end? It seems to have influenced some people in the New Afrikan Independence Movement, such as Sanyika Shakur. I'm personally skeptical, although I do agree that his interpretation of nations was somewhat euro-centric.

  4. A nice engagement with what was in many ways a profound book. Something you didn't mention that I really appreciated about this work was Yaki's methodical manner of studying the book- it inspired me to change the way that I read, and it'll always be important to me because of that. Yaki's discussion of "post-neocolonialism" brought an interesting topic to my attention I was hoping you could help clear up a bit. It seems to be that Yaki's use of this term demonstrates a misunderstanding of the interaction between settler- and neo-colonialism. But of course this begs the question of exactly how do they interact? As far as I know there hasn't been much theory produced on this; Night-Vision does mention how neo-colonialism erodes settler privilege, but that's about it. Some questions that I think could be raised are:
    -Does neo-colonialism negate settler-colonialism? Or put another way, does a state's historical formation as settler-colonial persist despite becoming neo-colonial?
    -Are regional differences, eg Oakland vs Ferguson, in conditions of oppressed nationalities the result of uneven development of neo-colonialism, particular manifestations of neo-colonialism, or a combination thereof?
    - How are contradictions within the ruling class changed?
    -How are contradictions between the settlers and the ruling class changed?
    -How are contradictions between the settlers and the oppressed nationalities changed?

    I don't necessarily expect you to be able to answer all of these, but since you've done a lot of work on settler-colonialism I figured you'd be a good person to discuss this with, just to get the ball rolling. Thanks in advance.

    1. Good comment. I answered all of these questions in the course of my doctoral dissertation, actually, which was a philosophical engagement with anti-colonial theory in the context of persisting actually existing settler-colonialism. A journal article culled from one of the chapters, which answers some of your questions about neo-colonialism and settler-colonialism, can be found here:

    2. Very interesting. I hope that you get around to publishing that dissertation sometime soon!


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