A Letter Unanswered

Did Frantz Fanon ask Léopold Sedar Senghor for a job in 1953? And what might have happened to postcolonial psychiatry in Senegal if Senghor had given him one?

Franz Fanon getting on a boat. (Leo Zeilig / I B Tauris / HSRC Press –
South Africa)

To quote the biting words of Senegalese patriots on the maneuvers of their president, Senghor: “We asked for the Africanization of the top jobs and all Senghor does is Africanize the Europeans.”

—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

In his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, Martiniquais political philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote, “‘Negro-African’ culture grows deeper through the people’s struggle, and not through songs, poems, or folklore.” The context was a scathing assessment of new Senegalese President Léopold Sedar Senghor’s political leadership.

Senghor had played a founding role in the Negritude movement, a literary and philosophical movement that emerged in Paris during the 1930s as a reaction against colonial racism, alienation, and the presumed superiority of western values. Negritude writers of the period composed poetry and prose celebrating Black experience—Senghor would later refer to this as a celebration of “African ontology.” For Fanon, however, Senghor’s brand of Negritude, which was turning out to be foundational to the political ideology and national aesthetic of the newly independent Senegalese state, seemed to essentialize Black identity, depoliticize Black experience, and mask a fair dose of hypocrisy. Fanon had watched as Senghor, an avowed Francophile, sided with France during the Algerian War; he had even gone so far as to oppose Algeria’s bid for independence before the UN. Even after Senegal’s independence, Senghor was working hard to maintain close ties between Senegal and France. In Fanon’s view, Senghor had failed to recognize that truly meaningful “support for ‘Negro-African’ culture and the cultural unity of Africa” must be “contingent on an unconditional support for the people’s liberation struggle.”

Just a few years before writing this scathing critique, however, it appears that Fanon had written a letter to Senghor, asking him for a job.

It was 1953. Senghor was serving in the Assemblée Nationale Française as a Deputy for Senegal. Fanon had published Black Skin, White Masks the previous year. He had also just completed the battery of competitive examinations that made him eligible to serve as director of a psychiatric hospital in France or its colonies. According to Alice Cherki, who would later work alongside Fanon at Blida-Joinville in Algeria, there was no place Fanon had wanted to work more than Dakar, not only because of his desire to learn more about Black Africa, but because Dakar was, in Fanon’s mind, the perfect place “to both practice psychiatry and to continue his study of societies in which the modern and the traditional exist side-by-side.” The letter, however, was never answered. Senghor never sent a response.

In my recent book, An Impossible Inheritance: Postcolonial Psychiatry and the Work of Memory in a West African Clinic (published by University of California Press in 2019), I briefly take up Fanon’s letter to Senghor in order to engage in a bit of speculative history. Before I go further, though, I should say this: I’ve not seen the letter myself. I’m not entirely sure it still exists, or that it ever did. I’ve seen it mentioned in passing in several French and English sources, with the earliest reference coming from Peter Geismar’s 1971 book Fanon: The Revolutionary as Prophet. None of the authors, however, give any indication of having seen Fanon’s letter with their own eyes, and none cite the letter directly. So, the letter, which has come to be taken as fact, may be, or may not be. Still, I take its possibility as an invitation to think about the many forks in the road of history—the paths closed, blocked, or not taken, as well as the pasts, presents, and futures that these might have brought into being.

The mid-1950s was a time of enhanced welfare colonialism in Dakar. That is, during this period, France attempted to assert its legitimacy not by force but by reforming its colonial institutions and implementing new modernization projects that would showcase French “beneficence” and provide justification for its continued colonial presence. This was a space in which Senghor’s leadership flourished. Colonial psychiatry was also transformed during the period, leading to the closure of a carceral psychiatric facility called Cap Manuel (an annex of l’Hôpital Le Dantec), and the establishment of the Fann Psychiatric Clinic (part of the Centre National Hospitalier Universitaire (CNHU) de Fann) in 1956. Under the directorship of French military psychiatrist and colonial liberal Henri Collomb, Fann became the site of a renowned project in transcultural psychiatry that would bridge the colonial era and the early post-independence years.

During the two decades (1959-1979) that he served as director of the clinic, Collomb and his colleagues at Fann (most of whom were also European) channeled their energy and resources into sociological and anthropological research, clinical practice, and theoretical inquiry. They also trained the first generation of Senegalese psychiatrists. L’École de Fann, or Fann School, as the group came to be called, positioned itself as a departure from colonial psychiatry. Taking a culturalist approach, the group challenged conventional western psychiatric and psychoanalytic models by attempting to establish a transcultural psychiatry that would, among other things, bring local ideas about madness and therapy into conversation with western approaches. For these reasons, Senghor touted the Fann Clinic as an exemplary institution of the nascent Senegalese state.

Collomb’s Fann embodied and symbolized Senghor’s new national aesthetic, rooted in Negritude, and contributed to his desired “Civilization of the Universal.” In 1980, Senghor wrote that the Fann Psychiatric Clinic brought to life a new kind of Senegalese modernity that merged the “art of our ancestors” with the “discursive reason of Europe.” One year earlier, Senghor (in an article in the journal Psychopathologie Africaine, “Henri Collomb (1913-1979) Ou L’art de Mourir Aux Préjugés”) had not only praised Collomb for being a “Frenchman [who] knew how to kill the most firmly established prejudices” but even went so far as to credit him for having made himself “nègre avec les nègres” or “black amongst blacks,” while working at Fann.

Fanon’s letter to Senghor—the very possibility of the letter—invites us to imagine how things might have turned out differently. What if Fanon had been hired in Dakar in 1953 to oversee the transition from Cap Manuel to the Fann Clinic? What if Fanon had directed the Fann Clinic toward a sustained investigation of the psychological effects of colonial subjugation, rather than toward the study of “traditional” or “cultural” (mainly Wolof and Lebu) interpretations of mental disorder and local therapeutic traditions, as Collomb had at Fann? What sort of political impact might Fanon and his work have made in Dakar during the 1950s and during the early independence era? Would Fanon have had Senghor’s ear, influenced him even? Would he have openly challenged Senghor’s desire to maintain close ties with France? “Fanon’s Fann” would have certainly been anathema to Senghor’s political objectives, and to the distinctly Senegalese style of modernity that Senghor promoted during the nation’s early years. Would Senghor have made space for Fanon’s critiques? As for Fanon, would his anticolonial critiques have developed along the same lines? What would have come of Blida-Joinville, of the FLN, and Fanon himself?

Another poignant question, for me at least, is this: If indeed there was a letter, why didn’t Senghor respond to Fanon? Why didn’t Senghor simply write back to Fanon and tell him that there was no position available for him in Dakar? Did Senghor already view Fanon as an adversary in 1953? Were Fanon’s politics already incompatible with Senghor’s vision of what Senegal’s future could and should look like? Perhaps it would have been an uncomfortable letter for Senghor to write, and so became the task that ended up being deferred indefinitely. Did Senghor mean to respond, and simply never get around to it? On Fanon’s end, how did he understand the silence? Did this make him resent Senghor, or lead him to question Senghor’s character and ambitions all the more? When Fanon invoked the “Senegalese patriots” in The Wretched of the Earth, those who lambasted Senghor for “Africaniz[ing] the Europeans” rather than Africanizing the top posts in the country, did he think back also to that unanswered letter? Did he think of Dr. Henri Collomb, of the Fann Clinic, and of the fate of post-colonial psychiatry in Senegal?

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