WIf you are driving along the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, you can turn onto Riverside Drive at 72nd Street and follow it to 181st Street. You get on a pavement that means the world – or, strictly speaking, several worlds. Drive through the affluent Upper Westside, Columbia University area, West Harlem, Sugar Hill, Washington Heights. On the way you cross the Color Line. It’s roughly midway between buildings number 370 and 730, and it also separates their most famous residents, Hannah Arendt and Ralph Waldo Ellison. In her new book, Marie Luise Knott deals with these two street neighbors separated by a transposed digit: the German-Jewish-American philosopher and the most important Afro-American author of the second half of the 20th century alongside James Baldwin, who – as she aptly puts it – “not a dedicated , more of an enraged writer”.
Apparently Arendt and Ellison only met briefly, their racial exchanges consisting – if you could summarize them in the form of a tennis match – a serve, a short rally and abandonment of the game. The serve came from Hannah Arendt. In the essay “Little Rock”, one of the most controversial in her oeuvre, which is rich in controversial texts, she took offense at the “forced desegregation” of “racial segregation in public schools”, especially at the so-called bussing, in which black children were transported from one neighborhood to the next to be educated alongside white children. Zoff was programmed. For the political authorities and for the parents who bussing operated, Arendt showed no understanding, she saw in it an inadmissible interference of politics and law in society and private life.
Ellison’s return was a long time coming, but came with force. In 1965, he accused Arendt of being “terribly wrong” and having “no idea” what was going on in the minds of black people. He saw the role of black people in turning the state in which they were trampled on to their own “ideals”. According to Ellison, the “implicit heroism” of blacks included a willingness to accept the struggle for survival and to embrace the “ideal of sacrifice” (sacrifice, not victim). He also included the fight against racial segregation in schools.
Warning against false shame
Arendt’s response to Ellison’s punch came as a surprise. She noted unconcernedly that her essay had been rejected by “friends” and “non-friends”. But she wrote Ellison a letter in which she conceded that he was “absolutely right.” (Three times in her short letter Arendt wrote “completely” or “entirely” in bold letters.) It was only through his reference to the “ideal of sacrifice” that she realized that she was taking “a completely wrong direction”, the “complexity of the situation ‘ and underestimated the ‘elementary’ controversy in which the blacks were stuck. So Ellison’s return was followed by Arendt’s impressive display of weakness.
There are three strange things about this letter. First, only a carbon copy of the same is found in Arendt’s estate, but not the original in Ellison’s papers. Perhaps the letter never reached 730 Riverside Drive, because secondly, there is no indication of Ellison’s reaction. The game crashed as soon as it started. Third, there has been no public statement from Arendt that would have echoed her message to Ellison.
In her long essay, Marie Luise Knott draws portraits of her two main characters, sheds light on their backgrounds and initiates the dialogue between them that has gotten stuck in the wings. She sees parallels between Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man, in which the title character goes through an ordeal of contempt and abandonment, and Arendt’s celebration of public space, as well as her talk of the “darkness” that reigned in the American slave world.