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Letter Collection No. 2: James Baldwin

Over the next five months, we will be creating posts that highlight the correspondence of Hannah Arendt. Each letter collection will be introduced by an Arendt enthusiast. We welcome – and encourage – everyone to read the introductory letter and the attached pdf and provide comments.


Dear friends,

This letter is a failure. Arendt fails to read James Baldwin.  Her hermeneutical neglect was not original. She, along with other white readers in 1962 —  John Updike and Norman Poderetz, for example – reduced Baldwin’s profound and complex lament on white American identity formation to a “gospel of love”.[1]

Baldwin’s preacherly style in “Letter from a Region of my Mind” was far from gospel.  He used his tone to invert the certainty of sermons of his youth, which exhorted Black people in Harlem to love their white oppressors. Instead, he expresses skepticism about whether white people can love ourselves. Baldwin exhorts a white audience to give ourselves self-love by accepting our own mortality, to stop projecting our mortal fears onto Black people. He doubted we had it in us. It does not seem as if Arendt understood any of that.

She did not, as other intellectuals of her time like Gunnar Myrdal and Richard Wright, see anti-Black racism as a white problem. She saw racism as a “negro problem”. Her framing is astoundingly inflexible, given the fact that she just read Baldwin saying:

“There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this- which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never- the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”[2]

            Baldwin’s essay was only the second ever to be published in the New Yorker by a Black writer. The first was Langston Hughes, many years prior. The editorial team was exclusively white, the readership mostly so. Baldwin’s writing took a turn after “Letter…”—he did not publish in the New Yorker again and aimed at other audiences. Maybe he was tired from receiving responses like Arendt’s, which amounted to refusals to read.

            Arendt’s failure to try to understand anti-Black oppression is disappointing. Her analysis of Jewishness—which she here refers as the experiences of “pariahs” – could have proved a ground of intersectional solidarity. In earlier writings, she described her own Jewish identity as “purely political”, not “social or emotional”.[3] But in her response to Baldwin, and her response to the Civil Rights movement more broadly, she insisted so much on the stringency of her own theoretical categories that she missed the revolutionary character of Black-led political movements. [4] Her writing on revolution, her writings on natality and mortality, could have been so useful for civil-rights era thinkers. It is too bad she missed these opportunities for friendship.

[1] Ben Fried, “James Baldwin’s Readers: White Innocence and the Reception of “Letter from a Region in my Mind”, African American Review, Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 2022, pp. 69-85

[2] James Baldwin, “Letter from  Region in My Mind”, The New Yorker, Nov. 9, 1962

[3] Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism, (New York:Schocken, 2005) 12

[4] Katherine Gines, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (Bloomington, Indiana UP, 2014)

PS – The below pdf is for educational purposes only. Details on citations can be found in the pdf. We would love for you to read this but please refrain from duplicating and reposting. Thanks!

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