THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH, VOL.3, ISSUE#12, JUNE-AUG/2021
Kathryn Sophia Belle (formerly Kathryn T. Gines) is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and African American studies at Penn State University and founding director of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers. Belle is the author of Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question, around which this interview is based.
Brotherwise Dispatch – Based on your outstanding work, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question, how would you characterize what initially drew you to the work of Arendt, and at what point did that initial attraction and curiosity give way to such a vehement critique that ultimately locates theoretical flaws in her discursive orientation itself, as exemplifying such a meaningful “case study for the limitations of the Western philosophical traditions” with regards to “the Negro question”?
Kathryn Sophia Belle – I was introduced to Arendt’s scholarship as a graduate student earning my doctorate in philosophy. In a seminar titled “Democracy and Difference” taught by Tina Chanter we read The Human Condition. After that I went on to read and analyze many of Arendt’s other essays from “What is Authority?” to “Reflections on Little Rock” along with several of her books from The Origins of Totalitarianism to On Violence. I respect Arendt’s writing style (she is a brilliant essayist), her insight, her influence, and her mastery at distinction making. But as you correctly point out, I often vehemently disagree with and critique her.
You also correctly note (quoting me) that I read her as a
case study for the limitations of the Western philosophical tradition. While
she makes genuine efforts to critique, confront, and even save the Western
philosophical tradition, ultimately she remains entangled within it. But as a graduate student and early career
professor, I found that Arendt was often upheld as the philosopher of pluralism
who got things “right” – not weighed down with the baggage of the Western
philosophical canon. People would
acknowledge the problematics of her “Reflections on Little Rock” essay, but
then try to bracket that essay and say that the rest of her writings celebrated
pluralism and difference. My approach to
this project was to give a very close reading of “Reflections on Little Rock”
(the first three chapters of my book are focused on this one essay) to show
that the theoretical framework operating in the Little Rock essay also operated
across several of her other major writings.
The Little Rock essay was aligned with much of her other
scholarship. I note that the purpose of
the project is to acknowledge Arendt’s keen philosophical and political
insights without ignoring or bracketing her problematic assertions,
assumptions, and oversights regarding the Negro question.
BD – In Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre draws upon Wright’s insight that “There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is a white problem”, and then applies this perspective to great effect in his trenchant critique of Anti-Semitism in Europe. And yet, for Arendt, how does her failure to seriously engage the constellation of lived Black experience in relation to her own Jewish background, become a “shortcoming in Arendt’s approach to analyzing and interpreting the Negro question is that she sees the Negro question as a Negro problem rather than a white one”?
KSB – It is worth noting that Arendt and others are very critical of Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. But yes, unlike Richard Wright - who when asked by a French reporter about the Negro problem in the 1940s responded “There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem” – Arendt consistently frames the Negro question as a Negro problem. I also note in my book that when we read Arendt’s so-called Jewish writings, we can see how her positions seem to shift when we move from the Jewish question to the Negro question. Arendt’s analysis of the parvenu and pariah has implications for some of her contentions concerning the Negro question. For example, in “Reflections on Little Rock” when Arendt presents Black parents as social climbers we might hear echoes of her account of assimilating parvenus and ask why she chooses to portray Black parents as parvenus rather than as conscious pariahs. Also, when she moves away from the Jewish question and towards the question of the political in general (and the problem of anti-Black racism in particular) there are some incongruities. She frames the Jewish question as a political question, yet she frames the Negro question (for her a Negro problem and not a white problem) as a social question.
BD – In a letter, Heidegger once encouraged Arendt, who was then his student and lover, to take a “decisive step back from the path toward the terrible solitude of academic research, which only a man can endure.” As founder of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, how would you describe the discursive singularity of your own lived response to racist patriarchy imposed by the normative gaze of a western imperialist continuum, as a rigorous intellectual undertaking which only a Black woman “can endure”?
KSB – Clearly this advice from Heidegger is problematic on many levels. As a man in the academy, he obviously had time for a wife and other lovers in between research and teaching. That does not sound very solitary to me. But I like the way that you flipped it here. So, I will speak to the larger point you are making about Black women in the academy in general, and in philosophy in particular. I have survived and thrived as an academic and philosopher – despite racist patriarchy imposed by the normative gaze of a western imperialist continuum – because I am intentional about being deeply connected to community. I grew up in affirming Black community spaces. I went to Spelman college, which was an affirming space for me as a Black women choosing to major in philosophy. And once I entered into predominantly white institutions, I created safe spaces for myself and others to be in community. I went to graduate school at the University of Memphis where I founded the Ida B. Wells Philosophical Forum for undergraduate and graduate students of color – a program that is still running in Memphis and holds an annual conference inviting alumni back as speakers. My first tenure-track job was at Vanderbilt University where I founded Collegium of Black Women Philosophers (CBWP) in 2007 as a very junior faculty member. CBWP is a philosophical organization whose purpose is to encourage and foster a networking and mentoring relationship between the underrepresented Black women in philosophy including undergraduate and graduate students, as well as assistant, associate, and full professors in the Academy. The objective of CBWP is to mentor and retain the Black women who are currently professors or undergraduate and graduate students in philosophy while simultaneously recruiting more Black women into the discipline. I was recruited from Vanderbilt to Penn State University in 2008 where they have continued to support CBWP. I accepted the offer because they had a strong commitment to diversifying the discipline of philosophy. I have stayed at Penn State because they have demonstrated this commitment through admissions and placement for the last thirteen years. I founded La Belle Vie Coaching in 2014. I have offered coaching and workshops for faculty and administrators across ranks at research universities and small liberal arts colleges throughout the nation to support them in their efforts to progress from assistant professor to associate professor to professor. More recently, through La Belle Vie Coaching I started La Belle Vie Writing Group in 2020 to finish my Beauvoir book in community. This empowering, transformative, Women of Color writing community helps participants develop a positive relationship to their writing.
Having said all of that, I do not recommend that Black women enter into the academy in general or philosophy in particular to merely “endure.” As Anita Allen put it in a 1998 interview with George Yancy, "With all due respect, what does philosophy have to offer to Black women? It's not obvious to me that philosophy has anything special to offer Black women today. I make this provocative claim to shift the burden to the discipline to explain why it is good enough for us; we should be tired of always having to explain how and prove that we are good enough for the discipline." I agree with Allen on this point. I do not believe in becoming a martyr in these institutions and disciplines. Audre Lorde notes in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”: “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings.” I think we could also describe the academy as a dragon. It is not a space built with our survival in mind. Lorde goes on to connect our survival to our creative powers and connections to community. In my own experience, I have been able to survive and even thrive because I have succeeded at creating positive and affirming communities for myself and others.
BD – In what sense is Arendt’s “theoretical framework of the political, the private and the social” incredibly problematic in relation to socio-historical struggles of Black liberation?
KSB – Many are familiar with Arendt's distinctions between the political, the private, and the social that she presents in The Human Condition. In the second part of The Human Condition, Arendt outlines the historical role of the public and the private spheres in the Greek polis, while asserting that the diminishing distinction between the two spheres is a consequence of the contemporary rise of the social. According to Arendt, the public sphere corresponds to the realm of the polis, which is the realm of freedom and action. But the necessities of life were provided and guaranteed in the private realm. Men were freed from dealing with them because those burdens were forced upon the subjugated. These necessities included bodily functions, labor, and household responsibilities. In the Greek polis, women and slaves were confined to private spaces, separated from the community, and constantly supervised. They were reduced to property, their functions were bodily and laborious, and their lives were controlled by necessity. For Arendt, the ancient Greek distinction between the public and the private spheres has been distorted in the modern era, and this is partially a result of what she describes as the "rise of the social." Before the modern age housekeeping, family matters, and economics were confined to the private sphere. But the rise of society has turned formerly private issues into public concerns. The life process itself, necessity, and economics--which properly belong to the private--have been channeled into the public realm by the rise of the social. But a rigid division between public and private space, both in Arendt and historically speaking, raises some key concerns. The possibility of attaining freedom in the public realm seems to be achievable only through the oppression of others in the private realm. A consequence of their exclusion from the political realm is not only a perpetual denial of their freedom and political action but also a denial of any methods by which they might obtain freedom and act in Arendt's political sense.
To be sure, Arendt’s framework is very limiting when it comes to racial oppression and Black liberation in the United States. These limitations result, in part, from the lines she draws between the public, the private, and the social. Her commitment to this grid distorts her perceptions and inhibits her understanding of anti-Black racism and resistance in the United States. Arendt does not problematize the foundation of segregation and racism and the impact of these systems of oppression in the social and political lives of Black folks. This restrictive delineation of the Negro question as a social issue is also alarming given her alternate analysis of the Jewish question, which she insists is political.
BD – In chapter Six of your book, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question, the qualitative discourse of your philosophical engagement with the thought of Sartre and Fanon against Arendt’s critique is profound and indeed moving. Rather than settle for mere apologetics, your own voice as a thinker achieves a register that leaves a lasting impression on the reader. As such, what does Arendt get so wrong about violence and revolution in relation to her strident denunciations of Sartre and Fanon?
KSB – In chapter 6, "Only Violence and Rule over Others Could Make Some Men Free," I argue that while Arendt is uncritical of violence in some contexts, she is hypercritical of violence in other contexts. In The Human Condition there is a troublesome relationship between violence and the private and public spheres, or the use of violence to leave the private realm and to make entry into the political realm possible. And in On Revolution Arendt attempts to situate violence outside of the political realm even while acknowledging the constitutive role of violence in the creation of a political realm. Additionally, in The Jewish Writings Arendt’s arguments for a Jewish army is made in explicitly political terms – linking self-defense to fighting for freedom and equal rights. Yet in On Violence Arendt critiques Fanon and Sartre for their stances on anticolonial violence in The Wretched of the Earth (1963) and Critique of Dialectical Reason, volume 1 (1960). Arendt, Fanon, and Sartre are each clear that European expansion in Africa was violent. But Arendt presents an uncritical view of the violence against Africans deployed by Europeans (in Origins), while Fanon and Sartre critique the violent colonial system, taking into account the role of violence in establishing the colonial system and the corresponding role of revolutionary counterviolence against this system. Using Arendt against herself, I juxtapose her presentation of the violence used to master necessity and to enter political space with her vehement critiques of the violence used by the colonized (whom she characterizes as violent). Arendt's apologetics for European violence and her insistence on the formation of a Jewish army as a political issue on the one hand, contrasted with her criticism of Sartre and Fanon concerning counterviolence on the other, further confirms her biases.
In On Violence Arendt launches an attack against Fanon and Sartre on the matter of anticolonial violence. She misinterprets Fanon's and Sartre's analyses of violence, and her critique of violence in the works of both authors is biased. For example, Arendt describes Fanon as praising the practice of violence, but this is far from the case. Rather than glorifying or praising violence, in The Wretched of the Earth Fanon is describing the struggle for liberation in Algeria from a historical, philosophical, and psychological standpoint, analyzing the events that are opening up before him. Arendt misses the nuance and insight of Fanon's analysis of violence, brotherhood, and the formation of a new humanity. His starting point for the phenomenon of intragroup violence and the collective violence of decolonization is the violence of the colonial system. Fanon explains that the violence of the colonizers against the colonized is internalized with the psychosomatic effects of muscular tension and cramping. Fanon posits that the colonized must figure out how to turn the atmosphere of violence into something productive for decolonization. Violence becomes a unifying agent for the colonized when they all take hold of that violence as a tool against their oppressors instead of one another. Decolonization alters beings, transforms spectators into actors, and creates new men, a new generation, a new language, and a new humanity. But Arendt does not see the struggle for freedom in Algeria as an instance of one attempting to liberate oneself from necessity, as self-defense, or as a method to properly balance the scales of justice.
Arendt critiques Sartre's account of violence (in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth) in the body of On Violence, but she reserves her criticisms of his Critique of Dialectical Reason for the second appendix at the end of On Violence. In my book I give a close textual reading of Sartre and Arendt’s analysis of Sartre, showing that the quotes that she attributes to Sartre’s Critique are extracted from Laing and Cooper's Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy 1950-1960, which is a highly condensed version of three major works by Sartre: Saint Genet: Comédien et martyr (1952), Questions de méthode (1960) and Critique de la raison dialectique (1960). To complicate things further, she provides few references to page numbers, which may lead the reader to believe that she is actually quoting Sartre.
Arendt's critiques of Fanon and Sartre are a byproduct of problems in her analysis of the political in general (e.g., the public-private distinction) and her analysis of the interconnection between violence, race, racism, and colonialism in particular (e.g., her understanding of racial oppression in the colonial system). Although Fanon, Sartre, and Arendt each identify the central role of violence in the colonial system, they are not led to the same conclusions. Rather than learn from Fanon and Sartre, she remains critical of their descriptions of violent resistance to oppression.
BD – How would you describe the response to your book, in terms of controversy, criticism or even praise, and did any of it catch you off guard or surprise you at all, and if so, in what way?
KSB – The reception of my scholarship on Arendt falls into roughly three groups. At one of end of the spectrum, there are readers who believe that I am not critical enough of Arendt. I call them the “Hannah Arendt espoused antiblack racism” group. Clarence Sholé Johnson’s “Reading Between the Lines: Kathryn Gines [now Kathryn Belle] on Hannah Arendt and Antiblack Racism” in Southern Journal of Philosophy (2009) is one example. At the other end of the spectrum, there are readers who believe that I am overly (and inaccurately) critical of Arendt. I will call them the “Hannah Arendt is innocent” group. A negative review by Charles Snyder Snyder in HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, Volume 3/2015 is one example. And someplace between those binaries, there are readers who take me to be offering a thorough critical analysis of Arendt and anti-Black racism and those readers inquire about where we go from here – how do we read, teach, engage Arendt in light of these issues? I will call them the “What do we do about Hannah Arendt’s antiblack racism?” group. Peg Birmingham’s unpublished comments from an American Philosophical Association “author meets critics” session is an example of that group. In Birmingham’s words, “the question of racism in Arendt’s work has been a troubling murmur at the edges of her thought” to which my book has given full voice. Birmingham asks: How are these sympathetic readers to judge Arendt’s work in light of this? Does Arendt’s anti-Black racism reveal something fundamentally flawed in Arendt’s conceptual framework that cast doubts on her entire political theory? These are questions that Birmingham leaves unanswered. I will say that I have no expectations that Arendtians, even those sympathetic to my arguments, will denounce Arendt. And that was not my intention in writing the book. But if readers of my book begin to teach and write her work in a more honest way – a way that places these issues at the center of Arendt’s work rather than as murmurs on the margins, then that is a notable improvement. Grayson Hunt offers another positive engagement with my book noting that it, “…makes original and significant contributions to feminist philosophy by applying various feminist and anticolonial strategies, including standpoint theory and multidirectionality, to Arendt’s political essays and concepts…Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question offers a novel and comprehensive racial critique of Arendt’s major writings” (Hypatia Reviews Online, 2015). I was not particularly surprised by any of the responses. I definitely anticipated Arendt defenders to do what they do and defend her. I started presenting parts of this project early on in space where people worship at the altar of Arendt. That was very helpful for me to see where I would get the most pushback and showed me where I needed to strengthen my arguments. I feel good about the finished work, especially as this was my first single-authored book.
BD – This has been another one of our BROTHERWISE FIVE interview series, during which THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH interrogates intellectuals, artists and activists with five probing questions to the delight of our readers.
On behalf of Kathryn Sophia Belle and THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH,
-A. Shahid Stover
(this interview of Kathryn Sophia Belle for THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH was conducted by A. Shahid Stover through email correspondence from March 23rd – April 16th 2021.)