Individualism: For Whites Only?

A black writer questions the unthinking linkage of blacks and collectivism.


All blacks are collectivist in temperament and circumstance, programmed to vote for Democrats, and wouldn't be where they are today but for their dependence on subsidies from the State and legislative intervention—so many people seem to believe. This kind of ideological prejudice surfaced, for example, in a recent conversation in which a man and I were discussing the attempt by the liberal press and black leaders to characterize the national tax-limitation movement as racist. He presented the kind of credentials I'd heard before which are meant to certify that one is not a racist: while in Georgia during the reign of Jim Crow he refused to sit in the front of buses, even after being told by drivers that he was breaking the law. He then told me, rather excitedly, that he had learned only recently that "your people are a lot smarter [politically] than I thought." The proof he offered was the eagerness with which some inner-city black Bostonians signed a petition to amend the Massachusetts constitution to place a ceiling on taxation and government spending.

When he registered incredulity over my involvement in the tax-limitation campaign, I told him, "I'm no convert, you know. For as long as I can remember my father has been warning against letting government get into one's back pocket."

"Really!" he exclaimed.

"Sure," I said, amazed by his amazement. "And this was in segregated Tennessee," I added.

He was genuinely surprised. On two later occasions he said to others in my presence, "Did you know that her Daddy taught her about the evils of government. Isn't that something? And in the South too!"

Blacks can be individualists too. How do I know? I could answer simply: because I am one; but that would hardly speak to the point of my assertion, which is that any person—regardless of biological heritage, cultural heritage, or national origin—can be an individualist. The ideological prejudice against blacks not only belies an ignorance of black history and of contemporary black life but, more importantly, includes a misunderstanding of individualism which leads many to think, deterministically, that individualism is a luxury for only a select few on this earth.

Another recent experience has convinced me that these points need to be reiterated and backed up with evidence. During the question-and-answer session following Ayn Rand's 1978 annual lecture at Ford Hall Forum in Boston, a young man asked her the following question: "I just made a survey of the audience before the talk began tonight, and you can count the number of blacks on the fingers of your hand. Will you comment on why blacks do not apparently follow Objectivism or individualism?"

Rand answered: "I can only say that I am very proud of one or two blacks, or of any small number who might be here or whom I know personally, because it is much harder for them to preserve their dignity and to remain individualists than it is for other groups. But your kind of survey is totally inappropriate here. We are not racists and we are not ethnics and we do not appeal or try to be interested in any race, color, or creed. We're interested only in human beings and their minds. If you claim that blacks are not sufficiently interested, I would say it's a slur on the blacks and an insult to them. I hope you're wrong."


But blacks ought to be more interested in individualism, I insist, as they need it now more than at any other time in their history. From where I sit, this expectation is a challenge rather than the insult Miss Rand claims it is. Of more concern, however, is her apparent sympathy for how difficult it is for blacks to be individualists; for the spirit of her assessment may be taken by some as confirmation of their own suspicion that blacks are a lost cause when it comes to being individualists.

It has indeed, as Rand says, been harder for blacks (as a group) to preserve their dignity in a system that has denied or restricted their freedom than it has been for groups who, at the very least, have been guaranteed suffrage. But doesn't the philosophy of individualism rest on man's capacity to resist or transcend the social influences of a given historical era or of a given culture? The same logic that supports the possibility of an Ayn Rand rising out of post-Czarist Russia also accounts for the possibility of a Frederick Douglass rising out of the institution of slavery or an Anne Wortham rising out of segregationist Tennessee.

In his book Who Is Ayn Rand? Nathaniel Branden writes: "For the future writer of Atlas Shrugged, no country could have been more inimical a background than Russia—pre-revolutionary Russia no less than communist Russia. From her earliest years, she felt a profound antipathy toward the philosophical and psychological atmosphere around her."

In his autobiography Frederick Douglass tells of being at odds with the slavery into which he was born: "From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom."

Rand made it. Douglass made it. It stands to reason that somewhere, this day, there is a young black person determining that he will not be among the next generation of his family on welfare or a black female college student, walking the streets of her ghetto neighborhood, thinking, "I don't care what they say—affirmative action is wrong."

The central idea of individualism is the autonomy and sovereignty of individual consciousness—that is, free will. And this is a feature of human nature, independent of historical or social circumstances. Is there any clearer evidence of the ahistorical meaning of individualism than the fact that slavery existed in a nation founded on the principles of individualism, and that among those enslaved, many held fast to their individuality against the greatest odds of dehumanization? Slavery was sanctioned by the clergy and protected by the constitution. It was as thoroughly ingrained in the American economy as taxation is today. To be successful, the plantation system required the negation of human individuality by both slave and slavemaster. Yet there were those within and without the system who would not heed this requirement.


Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the ruler cannot dominate except with a doctrine that tolerates no rival. From the beginning of slavery in the United States the notion that one man was the property of another and the doctrine of white supremacy that ruled the plantation were rivaled by at least two crucial factors: the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, and the inescapable fact that those enslaved were human beings. Slavery certainly encountered a powerful force in the opposition mounted by northern abolitionists, visiting foreigners such as British writers, and nonslaveholding southern whites. But as contemporary accounts of both slaves and masters demonstrate, it also had its rival in the hearts and minds of the slaves, a fact that social historians and descendants of slaves have only recently come to appreciate.

There was never a question of whether slavery would tolerate its rivals; the issue was whether the rivals of slavery would tolerate it. (Would Congress legislate against it? Would the slaves revolt against it?) Slavery was certainly important to the southern economy, but it was an intruder on the political and moral ideals that shaped the nation. It was also an interloper on the human sensibilities of the slaves. Even those born into slavery came to see in their youth that something was very wrong with the way they existed.

"As soon as I had arrived to years of discretion, I felt determined that I would not be a slave all my days," ex-slave Henry Blue told abolitionist Benjamin Drew. Frederick Douglass, who was "already a fugitive from slavery in spirit and purpose" when he was a child of seven or eight, wrote: "I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery, he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man."

A happy slave, said William Lloyd Garrison, is "an extinct man." Slavery succeeded in keeping Negroes impoverished and ignorant, but it generally failed to extinguish their humanity. As Englishwoman Frances Kemble said of one of her husband's slaves: he was arrested in his improvement, "not by want of energy, want of sense, or any want of his own, but by being held as another man's property, who can only thus hold him by forbidding him further improvement." Though he was "as ignorant as the rest of the slaves," he was "clear-headed, self-judging, active, intelligent, extremely well mannered, and being respected, he respected himself." Thus, when she saw him, in his leisure, looking in deep thought over the river, to the fields and the forest beyond, she wondered "what the thoughts of such a man may be."

Would we freeze our perception of this slave into a prejudiced characterization of his biological and cultural heritage and say that because he was a Negro his thoughts could not have been equivalent in meaning to those of an Enlightenment philosophe? Would we exempt him from the possibility of a private declaration of independence such as that made by the hero of Ayn Rand's Anthem when he had fled the collectivized world of "we" and learned the sacred meaning of "I":

I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being and no sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.…It is my mind which thinks, and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.

Or does ignorance of Negro history and prejudice make us more comfortable with the submissiveness of Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictionalized Uncle Tom as he upbraids his wife Chloe when she bemoans his being sold to a slavetrader so that his master can remit his debts.

I'll tell you, Chloe, it goes against me to hear one word against Master. Wasn't he put in my arms a baby?—it's natural I should think a heap of him. And he couldn't be expected to think so much of poor Tom. Masters is used to having all these things done for them, and naturally they don't think so much on it. They can't be expected to, no way. Set him along side of other Masters—who's had the treatment and the living I've had? And he never would have let this come on me, if he would have seen it beforehand. I know he wouldn't.

Is this the only view we can allow ourselves to have of the oppressed slaves and contemporary blacks—that because of what they are and because of their circumstances they cannot know that rival of human depravity which is individuality? If so, then how are we to account for the credo of the Palmer Memorial Institute (1902-50), an exclusive preparatory school for upperclass black children, composed by the school's black founder and headmistress:

I have to live with myself and so
I want to be fit for myself to know.
I want to be able as days go by
Always to look myself straight in the eye.
I don't want to stand with the setting sun
And hate myself for the things I've done.


Physical and social freedom was as much as many slaves could think of. But blacks like Douglass were fired in their youth with a further craving for release from intellectual bondage. In their striving for literacy, the slaveowner met his most powerful antagonist: reason. When the wife of Douglass's second master, Hugh Auld, began teaching him the alphabet, Auld forbade it, saying it was unlawful as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read. "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell," Douglass recalled his master saying. "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master.…It would make him discontented and unhappy."

Hearing such a sincere fear of knowledge, Douglass saw that this was the key to the white man's power to enslave the black man and resolved that having been given the inch "no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell." Thus, by the end of his seven-year stay with the Aulds, employing "various stratagems" of trickery, stealth, and deceit, he had learned to read and write. And the more he read, the more discontented he became, just as his master had predicted. His freedom from ignorance waged war with his physical bondage so much that he sometimes felt knowledge to be a curse rather than a blessing. "In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.…It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it.…The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing.…I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm."

Plainly, this torment of mind and spirit was the greatest of slavery's rivals. The slaveowners knew it and so did the slaves. It forever reminded the slave that he was human—that there was at least one realm of his self that no other man could own: the sacred recesses of his intellect and soul. And the degree to which the slaves sustained their desire for freedom and literacy was the degree to which slavery was rendered impotent. "You can make a nigger work," said one tobacco farmer to journalist Frederick Law Olmsted, "but you cannot make him think." More to the point, he could not be made not to think. He could be forced to act against his human nature, but only he could relinquish his hold on the source of his personal identity. Those who held on lived to tell about it and left a legacy of endurance that matches in every sense the founding of the American nation itself.


To those who insist on seeing Frederick Douglass as some kind of anomaly, I must protest. The glorious and ennobling torment of self-liberation has been an everyday occurrence in the souls and minds of men throughout history. Literature is crowded with examples of individuals, great and ordinary, whose drama of individuation occurred whether or not it conformed to the cultural climate of a given era or was sanctioned by the political and economic order of a given society. But I know my own story best and offer a slice of it as a final illustration of my point.

During the first 20 years of my life, from 1941 to 1961, the federal government made five major advances in behalf of the civil rights of blacks: the prohibition of racial discrimination in the defense industries (1941), the establishment of the Fair Employment Committee to receive and investigate complaints of job discrimination (1941), the abolition of segregation in the armed forces (1948), the Supreme Court ruling against school segregation (1954), and the Civil Rights Act guaranteeing Negroes the right to vote (1957). With the possible exception of the right to vote, not one of these policies or the programs derived from them had any effect on my everyday life in segregated Tennessee. I don't recall that they were mentioned in school, though they must have been, and there was absolutely no discussion of such issues in my home.

Had my personal liberation and individuation depended on the knowledge that the State was in the process of increasing my civil liberty, I would have embarked on the road to adult maturity with no self-identity, self-respect, self-interest, self-sufficiency, or self-initiative. The job discrimination my father encountered, my being educated in a segregated school system, and the fact that in some states blacks were denied suffrage simply had no bearing on the kind of person I was making of myself. And I was not an isolated case. My father, after all, had lived 50 years by the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. What if he had decided not to actualize his human rights and the responsibilities they entail until the federal government recognized them in the form of civil rights? Suppose he had waited for a Jesse Jackson to tell him that he was "somebody"? What might have been the fate of his charge, me? What if my present individualism depended on a cultural climate in which being a black individualist would not be considered weird?

Taking into account the choices and circumstances of my biography, the answer is simple: I would not be the person I am; I would not be such a passionate defender of human individuality and the philosophy of individualism; and this article would not be written.


It is not true, as the 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote, that "a man only truly becomes a man when he respects and when he loves the humanity and liberty of all, and when his liberty and his humanity are in turn respected, loved, sustained and created by all." If a person does not respect humanity and liberty, we may judge him irrational, unjust, and depraved, but we cannot exempt him from humanity and the requirements of human nature on that or any other basis. If he remains human always, and if by human we mean that he possesses the capacities for reasoning and choosing, then we must allow for his capacity to be individualistic, whether or not his liberty and humanity are "loved, sustained, and created by all."

We can certainly understand that specific influences, impositions, deprivations, and obstacles of culture and social structure may make it difficult for a person to affirm and assert his humanity individualistically. The challenge before him, however, is whether he or society will have the last word in the matter.

I do not mean to give the impression that there is no connection between a free mind and the contexts of communication, social memberships, and cultural participation. Take my case, for instance. Though I lived in a segregated social system, I did so as an American influenced by the wider culture as was every other American boy and girl. To lock me out of that culture, which prides itself on being individualistic even when it isn't, the segregationists would have had to enslave all blacks under a rigid system of apartheid, deport us to some far-off land, or exterminate us.

True, the American subculture in which I grew up would have preferred to deny my humanity with impunity. But the issue for me, in survival terms, was: would I deny my humanity? Stated differently, how would I develop my self-identity within the context of my membership and participation in the subcultures of the South and the black community? For individualism requires, not escape or release from the influences of family, class, community, or culture, but rational selection of the best influences. It is by this means that a black woman, born and bred in the segregated southern United States, can be as fervently opposed to affirmative action (and for the same reasons) as a woman of Jewish ancestry, born and bred in post-Czarist Russia.


The question remains, Why the apparent disinterest of blacks in individualism? Why don't more blacks recognize the heavy hand of government? Why don't more blacks show up for Ayn Rand's Ford Hall appearance? It's a legitimate question, whether Rand recognizes it or not.

A definitive answer would require a full-scale study of the history of ideas in the black community and of the exposure and response of blacks to mass culture. Even without such data at hand, however, some answers are suggested by the role of intellectuals in a culture and the flow of information in this particular culture.

The first thing one has to accept in considering this issue is that contemporary Negro Americans, like all Americans, are participants in a culture of mass education, mass media, mass entertainment, and the centralized State. Of the mass-oriented, though, blacks are the least exposed to individualist thought. Although the opportunities for black students and educated laymen to meet up with a mass-marketed work like Atlas Shrugged, for example, are greater today than when I found Atlas 14 years ago, it is hardly among the works most recommended by today's intellectuals. Standing between blacks and individualist literature is the same intellectual establishment that stands between the rest of the country and the philosophy of individualism. If ever the day comes when it is embraced by professional interpreters of ideas in the society, then we can expect it to take root in the black community as well as the society at large.

To a great many Americans, individualism is a myth, a conception of man that they have known only as a historic triumph accomplished by men of another time and a different breed. Everywhere there is the craving for security, social belonging, personal status, and political and economic standardization. And this is reinforced by the image of man projected by 20th-century intellectuals and mass-produced in popular literature—an image Robert Nisbet describes as "the disenchanted, lonely figure, searching for ethical significance in the smallest of things, struggling for identification with race or class or group."

Such is the state of our mass culture and the irony of blacks' increased participation in the culture, that they struggle with increased social freedom and its myriad of choices without the underpinnings of internal freedom and moral certainty. And this is no less true of the culture at large. As Nisbet points out: "The undoubted necessity of unity within the individual leads too often to the supposition that this may be achieved only through uniformity of the culture and institutions which lie outside the individual. And external power, especially political power, comes to reveal itself to many minds as a fortress of security against not only institutional conflicts but conflicts of belief and value that are internal to the individual. A peculiar form of political mysticism is often the result."

So it is that people who tell us they want to free their own are able to enchant a security-seeking nation with the mysticism of politicized ethnicity, the politics of victimization, economic redistribution, and distributive justice. It is plainly not in the interest of black leaders and the State that blacks become individualistic, no more than it was in the interest of slaveholders that slaves learn to read and write. But while the majority of blacks have tended to view the State as caretaker, the commitment to enter the mainstream of American society has required the willingness of individual blacks to place less emphasis on the political mysticism of racial solidarity and more on self-interest. One simply cannot progress and be a perpetual victim. It must be acknowledged that in the process of losing their victim status, blacks and other minorities have become victimizers protected by the fortress state, and it is difficult indeed to see any trace of individualism at work in this realm. But are we not to remind them of their betrayal?

For various reasons—choice, circumstance, psychology, knowledge—one black person surmounts the dehumanization of slavery and the repression of discrimination that another does not. But even as we understand the difficulty of blacks to achieve individuality, they must not be excluded from that goal. To merely "understand" why they don't seek it without insisting that they can—that is the insult. It is an insult to those of us who do seek it. For I can think of no better vindication of individualism and no better evidence of its continued existence than the presence of a black individualist in 20th-century America.

After 13 years as a media information researcher in New York, Anne Wortham is now a doctoral candidate in sociology at Boston College. Her articles have appeared in the Freeman since 1966 and in REASON since 1975.