In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman comments, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Franz Fanon evokes a similar concept of identity in Black Skin, White Masks, but while Whitman exults in his utter complexities of being, Fanon seems to become completely mired in them. Fanon seems to be concerned about irreducibility – he writes on page 13, “I belong irreducibly to my time,” and throughout the essay he struggles to categorize himself or anyone else as anything but utterly complex. And yet, at the same time, his description of the world’s vision of him is entirely reducible- he is called almost exclusively “nigger” or “negro” in the dialogue portions, and the people he discusses seem preoccupied with defining people by their skin color before anything else. While Fanon seems desperately to wish to break out of this categorical process of identifying, we find that ultimately he feels he has failed. He concludes chapter 5 with the thought, “without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep” (140).
In contrast, Cesaire struggles with some similar identity issues in his poem. His conclusion also falls to a reducibility of sorts, but he reduces his own identity past categories into “the essence of things.” The racial term that he uses to define himself, “negritude,” breaks itself down into something that is essentially nothing (the repetition of “it is not,” “it is not,” on page 35) except for the root of everything (“it takes root in the red flesh of the soil / it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky”). In this way, Cesaire solves the problem by universalizing a “canvas” for identity – the canvas being “the essence of things” – and allowing people to build their pride in themselves upon that rather than basing it purely in something visual, cultural, or historical. Ostensibly, Fanon is against this type of universal identity, as he writes on page 135 “I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal.” And yet, he declares himself “the poet of the world,” only a few pages earlier, showing that even as he makes bold statements, he cannot quite hold them together. It seems to me that he wants what Cesaire finds, and yet still cannot be satisfied by it.
Thus, these vastly differing concepts of what it means to be black – arising from similar problems, and yet diverging in their ultimate conclusions – reveal the concept of identity to be both utterly essential and yet fundamentally broken in the aftermath of colonialism.