Spotlight: "I'm Not Supposed to Exist"


When Anne Wortham entered Tuskegee Institute in 1959 to study social studies and secondary education, the civil-rights black-consciousness movement was just taking form. Martin Luther King was emerging as a leader, and all around Wortham there was the view that international humanism would solve all the world's problems and that because blacks were victims, they were morally superior to whites. But Anne Wortham turned out to be an individualist.

In 1962, she went to Ethiopia with Operation Crossroads Africa, on which the Peace Corps had been modeled. "I had culture shock encountering the extraordinary human misery," she says, "the almost disorienting openness of poverty and disease—it was like going back in time." The next year, she went as a Peace Corps teacher to Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), partly to help in her planned graduate study. "Things began to change for me then," she says.

Wortham was beginning to have a problem with the incipient civil-rights movement, centered around its anti-white sentiment—its indictment of the white race and its embracing of all blacks. "I was also catching on to white liberals and their paternalistic world view," she recalls.

She also began to learn about Third World politics. Western intellectuals proclaimed that the Third World was morally superior to the West. Wortham says, "I was supposed to be an authority on being repressed, but I didn't know what to tell white liberals who treated me as a black instead of as Anne Wortham. It was complicated even further, because I needed their approval to make it. That's when I realized these guys really wanted me to do the jig."

In 1964, some friends handed Wortham a copy of a Playboy interview with novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. She was not much impressed, but a few months later, while shopping for curios in Kampala, Uganda, she ran across Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged and bought it. Again, she was not overwhelmed, but she was interested in Rand's individualist philosophy. A few months later, she read another of Rand's major novels, The Fountainhead. The experience changed her. "I finally could justify my misgivings about the demands and expectations coming from civil-rights and peace-movement colleagues. I knew my responses were not idiosyncratic—it wasn't just that Anne was weird. I got to Africa and met myself, in an objective sense."

She began a study of individualist philosophers and economists. Her father shipped her some basic works on capitalism, and she pored over them. Her relationships with Peace Corps friends turned bad, and she asked to be sent home.

In 1965, she returned to the United States, ready to write her position on the civil-rights movement. She tried to get a job at the Ayn Rand–allied Nathaniel Branden Institute. When that didn't come through, she went to Esquire as an editorial researcher, the first black to work at the magazine. While there, she wrote for the liberty-minded Freeman and became a vocal critic of the civil-rights movement.

In 1967, Wortham went to work at NBC as a research assistant for Chet Huntley. She had decided not to go to graduate school in international relations, because she "wasn't ready to run around apologizing for America." She also wanted to put it on record that not all blacks think alike. But her experience at NBC convinced her that she "didn't have a chance in hell" of writing from her perspective at such a place.

She would work for a while at ABC and the Ford Foundation before beginning in 1974 to write "the book"—The Other Side of Racism: A Philosophical Study of Black Race Consciousness. When it was published by Ohio State University Press in 1981, noted critic John Chamberlain called it Wortham's declaration of independence. She did most of the writing in her leisure time, while working as research librarian at King Features Syndicate.

After writing the book, Wortham decided that she didn't want to keep saying the same things over and over, "screaming and yelling from the outside"—that is, as someone without the "proper" credentials. So she decided to pay the dues to gain legitimacy and finally went to graduate school, at Boston College, where she received her doctorate in sociology in 1982.

Wortham is now at the prestigious Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, teaching ethnicity and public policy and political sociology. Now that she has acquired respectability, Wortham says it can still be discouraging, always answering questions about her experience as a black. She recognizes a desire, among some people, to have their doubts about civil-rights policies legitimized by blacks' criticisms of those policies.

Individualist whites, says Wortham, often place unrealistic demands on individualist blacks. "They want us to take the beachhead, for us to be called the Toms and the sell-outs," she says. "They hope that the movement will gain some ground—but who will take the abuse? You are controversial as a black individualist—a walking 'no' sign. There is a daily battering by blacks who disagree with your visibility. By most standards, I'm not supposed to exist. I don't know what the toll is, but I do know that you tend to guard your privacy—so you go home and listen to music. You know you'll catch enough hell when you release your next bombshell."

Patrick Cox is public affairs director of the Pacific Institute in San Francisco and a frequent guest columnist for USA Today.