Michigan Department of Correction’s 60-page long list of books banned in state prisons, acquired by MuckRock through a public records request, includes 43 that are prohibited for “advocating racial supremacy.” These titles include Mein Kampf, The Turner Diaries, and, alarmingly, Black Skin, White Masks, by post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon. MDOC’s ban on an important anti-colonial text is one reminder of the inconsistent, and potentially biased, book banning practices that exist in prisons across the United States.
Fanon was born in Martinique when it was still a French colony and much of his writing was devoted to studying the psychic and social impacts of colonialism on the colonized. In the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon wrote that, “This book is a clinical study. Those who recognize themselves in it, I think, will have made a step forward. I seriously hope to persuade my brother, whether black or white, to tear off with all his strength the shameful livery put together by centuries of incomprehension.” Fanon wrote the book, which would be the first and one of the most well-known texts he would publish, in 1951. MDOC made the decision to ban it in 2000, meaning that prisoners have been barred from reading it for the past 17 years.
When contacted for comment, Maurice Wade, a professor of philosophy at Trinity College, said that “Black Skin, White Masks, is by no means advocating racial supremacy. Even in the introductory sections of the text, Fanon clearly states that his purpose is to overcome black alienation, the alienation that black people in general suffer in societies in which black skin is taken by the white-skinned majority to be an indelible sign of permanent inferiority.” Nigel Gibson, a professor at Emerson college and author of four books about Fanon, said that the MDOC’s decision to classify the book as advocating racial supremacy shows that “the person who made that claim hasn’t read the book, quite simply.”
The MDOC, speaking to MuckRock, did not have any specific comment on the decision to ban Black Skin, White Masks. Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the department described the process through which books are determined to be out of line with prison guidelines. Decisions taken at the level of individual facilities are reviewed by the MDOC centrally, which produces the list of publications that MuckRock acquired. The texts on the list are only those that have been subject to review centrally by the MDOC, so prisoners could be prohibited texts that are off the list. Gautz also said that, although the decision had been made 17 years ago, books do not tend to be removed from the list of prohibited publications unless the MDOC policy prohibiting them changes.
Fanon’s work is not the only text related to black liberation and anti-colonialism that is prohibited in prisons across the US, though it might be the most academic. Practices on prohibiting books vary dramatically between states, and the process through which books are prohibited are often far from transparent. For now, though, experts who argue that there is no basis for Fanon’s work to be classified as “advocating racial supremacy,” not to mention the prisoners barred from possessing it, have no further available process for appealing the judgement made by the MDOC.
Read the full list of MDOC’s banned books embedded below, or on the request page:
Image via Maryland Department of Corrections