As a young man growing up in Toronto in the 1980s, I considered Third World Books on Bathurst St. a shrine to which I made weekly pilgrimages.
In these formative years, I, like so many other young men and women who frequented the store, was exposed to writers and thinkers - Audre Lourde, Claude McKay, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cheikh Anta Diop, C.L.R. James - and a range of ideas such as Pan- Africanism, socialism, Third Worldism, and anti- imperialism. Third World Books was the site of lively, and, at times, heated debate. We were imagining and crafting the world anew, and our tools were the books that graced the store's shelves.
Sadly, the bookstore no longer exists. It expired with Leonard Johnston, or Lennie, as we affectionately called him, who, along with his wife, Gwendolyn Johnston, was not only the proprietor but also the heart and soul of a remarkable institution.
It was Lennie who first exposed me to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The Martinican clinical psychiatrist literally wrote the book on his deathbed as his body teemed with an excess of leucocytes. At the time, he was actively engaged in the Algerian liberation struggle, serving as the Front de liberation nationale's (FLN) ambassador to Ghana. The FLN was at the forefront of Algeria's grueling battle against French colonialism. Fanon had earned the respect of the FLN during his tenure as chef de medecin at the Blida- Joinville Hospital in Algeria in the mid-1950s. He put his life at risk by publicly denouncing the horrors of French colonialism in Algeria and treating FLN fedayin who had been tortured by the French.
In retrospect, Fanon's destiny appears to have been tied to Algeria from the beginning. As a medical student specializing in clinical psychiatry in France in the 1950s, he treated impoverished Algerians, leading him to sarcastically remark, "If the standard of living made available to North Africans in France is higher than the one he was accustomed to at home, then there is a good deal to be done in his country, in that `other France.'"
He had also trained for combat in Algeria as a soldier in the French army during World War II. It was during this first visit to Algeria that Fanon encountered the virus of racism that seems to have eluded him in Martinique. White French troops were separated from black West Indians, who were supposed to be French citizens. Black African soldiers were also segregated from French troops, as were Arab Africans, whom the French reviled and treated like pariahs on their own soil. Fanon lived this experience at the very moment that the French army set out to confront German fascism, with its notions of racial purity. The irony of this situation was not lost on him.
The war undoubtedly shaped Fanon's understanding of violence. Fanon entered the war as an adolescent; its endless carnage served as his rite of passage to adulthood. It shook him to the core and purged him of the idealism he harboured when he joined the Free French Force.
Violence profoundly touched Fanon at a pivotal moment in his life. So it is not surprising that he would take it up as a theme in his writing. Since the 1961 publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon has been at the centre of a storm of controversy, most of which is based on the first chapter of the book, entitled "On Violence."
Part of the problem lies in the fact that Fanon is generally read too literally when, as York University professor Ato Sekyi-Otu and others have argued, he should be read, at least in part, in a literary way. Fanon's vivid and dramatic prose was influenced by the literary style of the Martinican poet and statesman Aime Cesaire. The French surrealist poet Andre Breton described Cesaire's 1939 poem "Return to My Native Land" as "nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of all time." In the poem, Cesaire declared:
my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against
the clamour of the day
my Negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my Negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky
it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience