Hannah Arendt and the White Only Shade Tree: Reflections for a First Collegium of Black Women Philosophers

Anita L. Allen, University of Pennsylvania


This keynote speech will be revised for publication in a volume of papers presented at the first Collegium of Black Women Philosophers held at Vanderbilt University in October 2007. In this talk I consider what the philosopher Hannah Arendt would say about the violence that erupted in Jena, Louisiana in the fall of 2006, over nooses hung in a white-only shade tree on the campus of a public high school. The question is apt. Arendt opposed Brown v. Board. She criticized black mothers for sending their children where they were not wanted. What can be said today about Arendt’s privacy critique of federally compelled school desegregation in the south? Why might desegregation efforts be a moral imperative for African Americans?

Jena leaves us with a powerful metaphor for understanding de facto racial segregation—the white-only shade tree. Academic philosophy, too, has been something of a white-only shade tree. This Collegium is an opportunity for black women philosophers to announce their arrival. The first black woman received a phD in philosophy in 1965. Today there are still only about 30 who have ever earned the degree and fewer still participating as scholars and teachers in the discipline.