Individualism vs. Communalism: The African-American Struggle for Social Justice

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From its origination, American society has had several defining characteristics. Among these, the most significant one is its strong tendency to promise its citizens two seemingly essential aspects of life; freedom and equality. One does not have to search much to find evidence of this inclination. Simply look at the Declaration of Independence. The main purpose of the Declaration of Independence, a very iconic and important historical document, was to announce American freedom from Britain. But a more comprehensive examination of the document will lead one to the widespread promises of freedom and equality: the fundamental social values that provide the structural foundation of America. It reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But that’s not all. It continues on to say, “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, which among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These strong assertions, conceived at the very start of our nation’s existence, have remained the backbone of American society over many generations.

the-constitution

                Unfortunately, the ‘unalienable rights’ America as a nation has guaranteed to its citizens, ‘life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,’ are not an actuality in modern-day America. When we closely examine these promises of equality, we discover that ‘liberty’ specifically, seems to be absent from contemporary America. The absence of this seemingly fundamental right however, is not, and cannot be justified. This right, along with the aforementioned ones, do not have exceptions. According to the document, we as Americans are entitled to these, regardless of our background, financial status, ethnicity, race, and gender. But still we see members of minority populations struggling to receive social equality with their Anglo-American counterparts, due to these non-existent ‘exceptions.’

Examining the Civil Rights Movement, one can see that social injustice has a strong tendency to polarize a society, often through racism and violence. Racism, the belief that a specific race produces an inherent superiority against another, has evolved through the course of American history, marring many portions of the nation’s historical timeline. Before introducing the Civil Rights Movement, however, it is necessary to consider De Tocqueville’s, Democracy in America. De Tocqueville, French political historian, questions the role of individualism in society and its significance and impact on the national community. The minority, whether discussing beliefs, ethnic background, or economic status, is often left powerless. De Tocqueville terms this concept, the “tyranny of the majority.” He includes, “The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it (De Tocqueville 7).” This excerpt reinforces the notion that majority holds supreme power over the minority. This sentiment, still present in society today, is the fundamental basis of social stratification. De Tocqueville goes on to assert that the views of the majority are primarily translated into society because of the limited power the minority shares. The concept of equality then, is contradicted and thoroughly challenged. Any possibility of equality is eliminated, or at least greatly diminished by the notion of the “tyranny of the majority.”

The effects of the “tyranny of the majority” require a response from individuals and communities alike. According to Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned social justice activist, “There can be no progress without struggle ([quoted in Sekayi] 180).” But what is progress? As Dia N. Sekayi points out in “African American Intellectual Activists: Legacies in Struggle,” there is no easy answer:

Is it when we, as African-Americans, have our own schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and businesses to support all our needs and desires. Or is it when we not only have access to but respect within European-American schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and businesses. Integration versus segregation, integration versus separation, integration versus independence. What are the goals of our activism? (Sekayi 162)”

These questions, although often left unanswered, are essential to ask in the struggle to gain social justice. We must clearly identify a definition of progress before we hope to attain it. But this definition must apply to both individuals and communities. Individual progress may signify the freedom to disregard racial social expectations, and live as a truly free American citizen. Communal progress may signify the elimination or vast reduction of racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement is comprised of many different but crucial components, and its complexity is often overlooked.

The struggle of minority populations to gain social justice has been a recurring event in American history. Not surprisingly, though, embarrassing events like these are often glossed over. Our country, similar to others, has a strong tendency to emphasize the positive points in our historical timeline, thus presenting the illusion of a utopian society. American culture seems to blatantly ignore our nation’s problems, whether they be present or previous ones. This failure to acknowledge our mistakes poses the potential risk of repeating them. Additionally, the events that are most commonly skipped over tend to deal with the ‘mistakes’ American society is prone to repeat. Its failure to provide minorities with the same social status as their Anglo-American counterparts is one of the major social issues that has plagued America in the past, and continues to be prevalent in America today.

E.L Doctorow, however, vehemently refuses to ignore these issues. In his 1975 novel, Ragtime, he offers a comprehensive social critique of twentieth century America. By examining the themes of discrimination, oppression, and social injustice, he supplies the reader with incredible insight into the racial relations of twentieth century America. The complexity of Doctorow’s novel allows it to explore many different facets of American society. Among these, racial discrimination and social unrest are most prevailing, thus forming the structural foundation of Ragtime. Doctorow’s very decision to name his work Ragtime illustrates his hope to chronicle the conflicting social, political, and economic sentiments of twentieth century America. Ragtime is a direct representation of the social unrest that plagued American society during that period of history. It is also particularly important to note the year during which this novel emerged. The work’s arrival in 1975 occurred during the prime years of the Civil Rights Movement, suggesting that the piece was aimed as a social commentary on minority oppression. The novel provides the means by which to discuss the evolution of social inequality in America.

Ragtime encompasses members of three major social subcategories; wealthy upper-class individuals, working-class immigrants, and African-American males. These social groups are characterized by Father, the head of an Anglo-American upper-class family, Tateh, a socialist Jewish immigrant, and Coalhouse Walker Jr., an African-American ragtime pianist. Father’s household has achieved the American dream as a result of its manifestation of the Anglo-American ideal. The remaining two households, direct representations of racial and ethnic subgroups, have not. During their journey to achieve that goal, they come to the realization that they will have to sacrifice their moral, cultural, and social principles.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr., however, does not ever come to this seemingly apparent realization. Or rather, he comes to this realization, but makes a conscious decision to ignore it. His moment of realization is noted in the following excerpt. “He was not unaware that in his dress and as the owner of a car he was a provocation to many white people. He had created himself in the teeth of such feelings (Doctorow 174).” Coalhouse is fully aware of his incongruity with African-American social expectations. This excerpt suggests even, a birth of his identity from this difference.  He is unrelenting in his resolve to gain social equality for himself, and for the African-American race as a whole. His internal struggle stems from his desire to share the same freedom his Anglo-American counterparts have to truly be themselves. He greatly desires this freedom. Coalhouse wants not have to be enslaved by African-American social expectations, but to have the capacity to rise above them. His personal dilemma is very common to those of African-Americans during that time period, and his emotional transformation is observed throughout the course of Ragtime. Doctorow writes,

“Father noted that he suffered no embarrassment by being in the parlor with a cup and saucer in his hand. On the contrary, he acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The surroundings did not awe him nor was his manner deferential. He was courteous and correct. He told them about himself…was a professional pianist (Doctorow 158). “

Within this excerpt, it is particularly important to note the level with which Coalhouse’s mannerisms differ from the expected African-American mannerisms of the time. These differences, which can be translated into a refusal to adopt the expected social norms, pose a major threat to his success as a social justice activist. Coalhouse willingly puts any chance of social progress aside, during his fight for social justice, and instead chooses to assert, or at least try to assert, his rights as an American citizen. And so the internal battle ensues; Coalhouse, like many other African-Americans at the time, is caught between deciding whether to act based upon his individual interests, or act based upon the interests of the African-American race as a community. Coalhouse’s differences are particularly evident in the following passage. Doctorow writes,

“It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn’t know he was a Negro. The more he thought about this the more true it seemed. Walker didn’t act or talk like a colored man. He seemed to be able to transform the customary deferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient’s…Father recognized certain dangers in the man. Perhaps we shouldn’t encourage his suit, he said to Mother. There is something reckless about him. Even Matthew Henson knew his place (Doctorow 162).”

Father reaches a moment of self-epiphany within the above passage, and has a revelation that Coalhouse is ‘not aware of his race’. During that time, race was a direct translation of social status. Father’s observation is an attempt to explain Coalhouse’s pride and conduct, which so greatly differs from that of other members of his race. Because Father is a symbolization of the Anglo-American sentiment, his views of African-American inferiority can be translated to the racial attitudes of twentieth century America.

The internal struggle Coalhouse undergoes is clearly demonstrated within this excerpt. He has made a conscious decision to disregard the social expectations of African-Americans at the time. This decision creates major conflict because of its dissimilarity to Anglo-American social expectations. Coalhouse’s refusal to adhere to the social norms of African-Americans, and challenging of preconceived racial stereotypes earns him a great deal of resentment and exasperation from the Anglo-American community. This frustration is conveyed through the interaction between Coalhouse and the firefighters. Doctorow includes,

“He made his way to the car. It was spattered with mud… six-inch tear in the custom pantasote top… deposited in the back seat was a mound of fresh human excrement…The nigger here parked his damn car…Listen, there’s no real damage…forget the whole thing. I want my car cleaned and the damage paid for. The officer had now begun to appreciate Coalhouse’s style of speech, his dress, and the phenomenon of his owning a car in the first place. He grew angry. If you don’t take your automobile and get along out of here, he said loudly, I’m going to charge you with driving off the road, drunkenness, and an unsightly nuisance (Doctorow 178).”

Coalhouse deplores the antithesis of his socially inferior existence and the social freedom of the Anglo-American community. Coalhouse’s life, though, seems paradoxical. He eventually transforms into an extreme representation of the Anglo-American social expectations of blacks, an identity he once despised. His evolution from a polished, educated, pragmatic man, to a stereotypically violent, angry, African-American male is noted over the course of the novel. His strong disapproval of the African-American social injustice and desire to gain social equality are the drive behind his revolutionary ideas, and at times, radical actions. Coalhouse’s morality, and his desire to keep his moral principles intact, hurt him in his struggle to gain social justice. The realization of social equality is his interpretation of the American dream. Unlike most other minority groups, Coalhouse refuses to believe he must make sacrifices in order to achieve this dream. His version of this idealistic notion revolves around ideas of social freedom and social equality. Similar to the other prominent civil rights figures, Coalhouse must convey intelligence, practicality, and sophistication. However, his outrage at the social injustices African-Americans had experienced is a catalyst in his moral destruction. His transformation into a quasi-terrorist can be attributed to his hatred of the unjust American society in which he lived. Coalhouse uses this anger to propel his personal ideals of justice into his society, emerging as a militant civil rights activist in the latter part of the novel. While most would not condone his actions, many can acknowledge the challenges he, along with many other African-Americans, face. The novel ends with Coalhouse’s complete transformation into a civil rights militant. Doctorow writes,

“I want the infamous Fire Chief of the Volunteers turned over to my justice…I want my automobile returned to me in its original condition. If these conditions are not met I will continue to kill firemen and burn firehouses until they are…An isolated crazed killer was one problem. An insurrection was another…Squads of police…asked questions about Coalhouse Walker Jr…To headquarters the word filtered back: Not one of our Negroes. Not one of ours (Doctorow 212).”

Coalhouse epitomizes the individualistic approach to the African-American struggle for social justice. As evident in the above excerpt, Coalhouse believes individualism should triumph over communalism in the struggle to achieve African-American social justice.

There are, of course, numerous ways to approach the civil rights issue. A more communalistic approach has been seen by individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington. Both seem to act primarily based on the interests of the African-American race as a community, as opposed to their personal benefit.  In Ragtime, Booker T. advises Coalhouse to set aside his individual social beliefs, having considered the implications his actions will have on the Anglo-American perception of the African-American race. Booker T.’s approach to the civil rights issue is illustrated within the following excerpt. Doctorow writes,

“Every Negro in prison…has been my enemy…What will your misguided criminal recklessness cost me! A thousand honest industrious black men cannot undo the harm of one like you… I look about me and smell the sweat of rage, the impecunious rebellion of wild unthinking youth. What have you taught them! What injustice done to you, what loss you’ve suffered, can justify the doom you have led them into, these reckless youths? (Doctorow 282)”

Washington’s more diplomatic approach stood in stark contrast with that of Coalhouse. Both individuals share entirely different visions for the progression of the Civil Rights Movement. This contrast, and inability to understand one another, was present among African-Americans during that time period. Differing views created many subdivisions within the African-American community. Booker T. spoke of “the Negro’s advancement with the help of his white neighbor,” and “counseled friendship between the races (Doctorow 279).” Some African-Americans shared the same views as Washington, and believed racial harmony between blacks and whites was an essential component to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Although very rational in nature, Washington’s proposition failed to appeal to many African-Americans. A great number of African-Americans believed a reliance on whites would deter rather than advance African-American social progress. They felt it would result in an increased dependence on whites, thus preventing them from gaining autonomy in their fight for social justice. It is important to note that even African-Americans as a community, were not united in their approach to achieve social justice. These conflicting views greatly deterred African-American social progress.

Booker T. Washington’s outlook on the Civil Rights Movement, however, did not solely involve racial harmony.  It illustrated his willingness to make great sacrifices in order to create this harmony, as well as his recommendation of African-Americans to do the same. Washington’s major sentiment included that blacks must compromise in exchange for racial harmony. He did cared not if the price of a racially harmonious America was the permanent inferior social status of African-Americans. Washington’s internal struggle of morality most directly relates to that of the African-American community. He symbolizes the internal conflict between compromising one’s morals and gaining more social freedom.

Martin Luther King Jr., another prominent figure in African-American history, seemed to believe communalism triumphed over individualism in the struggle for social justice.  In “Final Words of Advice,” a piece from the final year of his life, he examines the communal fight for social equality. In doing so, he discusses the negative impact the racial discrimination of blacks had on African-American self-perception. King writes,

“Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seems ugly and degrading…there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least 60 of them are offensive… there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable…maybe the English language should be reconstructed so teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child 60 ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority (King).”

Within the excerpt above, one clearly sees King’s concerns of the African-American community. No trace of self-concern is evident, which demonstrates his entirely communalistic approach to the Civil Rights Movement. He places the interests of the African-American race as a community above his own. King further discusses the notion of self-perception. He includes,

“As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation or Johnsonian Civil Rights Bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own Emancipation Proclamation…we must stand up and say, “I’m black and I’m beautiful,” and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him (King).”

King discusses the notion of African-American social progress during his 1963 Lincoln Memorial address. He states, “One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, ‘the colored America is still not free but rather is sadly ‘crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chains of discrimination…We have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check.” Jesse Carney Smith, author of ”Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience,” also acknowledges the length of the Civil Rights Movement. “Activists of the modern Civil Rights Movement have inherited a revolution that began over 300 years earlier (Smith 1).” The Civil Rights Movement has made appearances in numerous social commentaries of America.

Ronald Takaki, in his commentary of multicultural America, references a similar type of social freedom. His reiteration of America’s past is comprehensive, and recounts history from the colonization of the New World to contemporary America. Takaki’s social critique encompasses many, if not all of the minorities that comprise multicultural America. Not surprisingly, he speaks of the social equality fight Coalhouse sacrifices his life for. He writes,

“The struggle to ‘let America be America’ has been America’s epic story…Marginalized and degraded as the ‘Other,’ minorities came to believe even more fiercely and fervently than did the Founding Fathers in the ‘self-evident truths’ that ‘all men are created equal,’ entitled to the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.(Takaki 20).’”

The Civil Rights Movement is quite possibly one of the most complex social issues America has endured. While African-Americans as a community have been subjected to a great deal of racial discrimination, efforts to eliminate this discrimination have been unsuccessful. It is important to examine why. Conflicting perspectives on the manner in which to fight for civil rights have greatly deterred African-American social progress. The internal struggle of individuals and communities has been, and will continue to play a key role in the fight.

Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr., two prominent figures in the struggle, are known for their “extraordinary contributions to the enduring fight against racism, injustice, and discrimination (Knight xvii).”Some African-Americans share views similar to those of MLK Jr., and Booker T. Washington, both of which value communalistic approaches, and place the interests of the community higher than their own. Booker T. emphasizes the concept of racial harmony, urging blacks to compromise in order to achieve this goal. Other African-Americans’ views coincide with those of the fictional character Coalhouse Walker Jr., who believes an individualistic approach is necessary. He, along with many other African-Americans, refuse to be a function of their community. They strongly believe in their right to social freedom, because of their American citizenship. Conflicts arise with both approaches. The issue of morality surfaces in Washington’s approach. How can one disregard their moral principles and right to social freedom [as an American citizen], to experience racial harmony? Coalhouse’s approach, on the other hand, fails to take into account the implications one’s actions may have on African-American social progress. What are the consequences of [one’s] irrationality on the progress of the Civil Rights Movement? Racially discriminant Anglo-American views of blacks are often characterized by single ‘bad’ individuals.  As a result, social activists must be careful not to harm the collective reputation of the African-American community. Regardless of the approach one employs, there is no easy way to eliminate African-American social injustice. It is an idea so deeply rooted in America. Stemming from its origins as an Anglo-American nation, the idea of African-American inferiority has been integrated into American societal values. The complexities of this issue are often overlooked, which makes eliminating social injustice an even more difficult task. It is multidimensional, and involves the internal and external struggles of African-American individuals and the African-American race as a community. When asked to determine whether individualism or communalism is the better approach to the struggle, there is no definitive answer. There is no correct way to approach the civil rights issue.

Works Cited:

DeTocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. France. 1835. Print.

Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Random House, 1975. Print.

Howard-Pitney, David. African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (2nd Edition).

Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Jr., Martin Luther King. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Harper & Row,

  1. Print.

Knight, Gladys L. Icons of African American Protest: Trailblazing Activists of the Civil Rights Movement.

Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009. Print.

Sekayi, Dia N. African American Intellectual-Activists: Legacies in the Struggle. New York: Routledge,

  1. Print.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Wynn, Linda T. Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil

Rights Experience. Minnesota: Visible Ink Press, 2009. Print.

Takaki, Ronald T. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little,

Brown &, 1993. Print.

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