Arendt saw the “Negro question” as a “Negro problem” rather than a white problem.
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Kathryn Sophia Belle (formerly Kathryn T. Gines). Belle is Associate Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies at Penn State University. Her book is Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Kathryn Sophia Belle: The current political and social climate was not created in a vacuum. It’s always already informed by past political and social climates. This does not mean that the past and present are one and the same. But it does mean that they are deeply interconnected. My book explores and critiques how Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the so-called “Negro Question” is very sympathetic to white segregationists, parents, student protesters, and colonizers. But she is quite unsympathetic to Black integrationists, parents, student protestors, and anti-colonial resisters. Given Arendt’s negative characterizations of Black subjects, protestors, and resisters and their political action in earlier historical contexts, we can imagine how she might similarly mischaracterize today’s movements for Black Lives (that also take seriously Black Trans Lives, Indigenous Lives, Asian and Asian American Lives, Immigrant Lives) as social but not political movements.
Today, we continue to observe the differential representations of and responses to Black and other People of Color (POC) subjects in politics and protest. We can observe this in the negative representations and interpretations of Black and other POC subjects and protestors; in the use of force and often deadly state sanctioned violence against us; and in the use of force and violence by white “civilians” and self-appointed “vigilantes” (wielding tiki torches, cellphones, and/or guns) against us. We are murdered in private spaces (our own homes) and public spaces (in plain sight in the streets). We are beaten and tear gassed in the streets. In sharp contrast, many white subjects, mass shooters, and insurrectionists are allowed to scream in the faces of police officers demanding their rights to get haircuts during a global pandemic; allowed to commit mass murder in churches and massage businesses; allowed (even encouraged) to storm the Capital. But they are not met with the same use of force and state sanctioned violence.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I have more to learn from activists and community organizers than the other way around! Having said that, my book does take up how national and international Black activists and organizers (from Civil Rights and Black Power to Anticolonialism) were mis-represented historically (and going back to the previous question, how those mis-representations persist in our current context).
I argue that Arendt sees the “Negro question” as a “Negro problem” rather than a white problem–meaning she frames the issues of slavery, segregation, and colonialism/imperialism in a way that presents Black subjects as the problem rather than situating white people’s anti-Black racism as the problem (as did Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Gunnar Myrdal, for example). For Arendt the problem with desegregation in Little Rock has to do with the Black parents who put their children in harm’s way, not with the white parents and politicians exerting the harm (“Reflections on Little Rock”). The problem with integrating schools and neighborhoods is that Black students cause the schools to break down and the presence of Black families turns previously good–code for white–neighborhoods into slums (“Crisis in Education”). The problem with protesting on college campuses has to do with violent, irrational, and unqualified Black students, not with the systematic racism in higher education against which these students are protesting (On Violence). The problem with violence is not the constitutive violence of America’s founding fathers and Europe’s imperialists, but rather the anticolonial violence and resistance of the colonized in Africa (On Revolution, The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Violence).
So it is disappointing but not surprising to see how contemporary Black activists and organizers are also misrepresented as “the problem” rather than the systematic oppressions being confronted and dismantled. Reading my book puts these current political and social climates in some historical and philosophical context, encouraging readers to learn from the past without seeking to glorify and idealize it at one end of the spectrum, or oversimplify and condemn it at the other end of the spectrum.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
There are the ongoing efforts to dismantle what Anna Julia Cooper calls “the race question and the woman problem”; what the Combahee River Collective calls “interlocking systems of oppression”; what Audre Lorde calls “the master’s tools”; what bells hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” etc.
Of course, Western philosophical figures (including Arendt) have played major roles in producing and disseminating these ideologies that require dismantling. Many like to think of Arendt as a philosopher or theorist of pluralism who does not have the same baggage as the rest of the Western philosophical tradition. They acknowledge the “Reflections of Little Rock” is a problematic essay, but then try to bracket it off from her other writings. In this book I give a close reading of Arendt’s Little Rock essay (the first three chapters of my book are focused on it) in order to show how the theoretical framework operating that essay is also operating across several of her other major writings. The Little Rock essay is not an anomaly; rather, it is very much aligned with a lot of her other scholarship.
More generally, as a Black woman philosopher, I am simultaneously hoping to dismantle myopic conceptions/perceptions of who and/or what counts as “philosophy”–while also emphasizing and expanding philosophy beyond the limited Western philosophical canon and traditions that all too often worship problematic dead white men (and a few dead white women).
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
For my Arendt book I was inspired by my mother who was an attorney and taught me about the legal cases on segregation in education in my youth. I was fortunate to have an informed counter-narrative before encountering Arendt’s mis-representation of Black parents and leaders in her Little Rock essay. Beyond my mother, I was also inspired by the counter-narratives offered by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Frantz Fanon. For example, I draw on Wright’s claim that there is not a Negro problem, there is rather a white problem. Baldwin’s articulating the specificities of being Black in the American context–the violence of everyday life, police brutality, unequal power relations, and the advantages of rejecting the myth of whiteness in “Letter from a Region in My Mind” (later becoming a part of his Fire Next Time). And Ellison’s scathing critique of Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock” in which he notes that she “has absolutely no conception of what goes on in the minds of Negro parents” forced to initiate their children into the harsh realities of racism.
My most recent book project on Black and other Women of Color’s critical engagements with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, is inspired by: Loraine Hansberry (who wrote an early review of the text in 1957) as well as Angela Davis, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Deborah King, Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, Mariana Ortega, bell hooks, Kyoo Lee, Stephanie Rivera Berruz, Patricia Hill Collins, Janine Jones, and Alia Al-Saji–all of whom also explicitly and directly engage The Second Sex. I also pay special attention to Claudia Jones and Audre Lorde, both of whom implicitly and indirectly engage that text.
And I am always inspired by Black women’s intellectual (and emotional) labor: Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Claudia Jones, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Beverly Guy Sheftall, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Joy James, Shirley Moody Turner, and too many others to name!
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
One way that my books helps us to imagine new worlds is by highlighting the constant past/present/future world-building that we have done and that we continue to do. This imagination has never been only theoretical and symbolic, it is also made tangible and material. In the context of institutional chattel slavery, we imagined new worlds and manifested them through resistance strategies, fictive kinships, running away/escaping, fighting for abolition, etc. In the context of segregation and Jim Crow, we continued to imagine new worlds–from Black Nationalist separatism to legal strategies for exposing the fact that separate was never equal. In the contexts of colonialism and imperialism, we imagined new worlds beyond those imposed by imperialists and colonizers through anticolonial resistance. And today we imagine a world in which Black Lives Matter. These visions and imaginings exist at myriad intersections of identities, oppressions, resistances, and ways of being in the worlds that we are constantly co-creating.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.