The Myth of American Individualism

Now that Black History Month is upon us, we typically venerate black historical figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Frederick Douglass to name a few. They are monoliths for institutional change in their respective spheres, and their legacies have become almost mythicized. In many ways, this individual-based adoration is similar to how most Americans celebrate history in the first place. As Sociologist, Peter L. Callero describes, this phenomenon is known as the American “myth of individualism”. 

Martin Luther King Jr. at St. Paul Campus

In sociology, this “myth” describes how American and western thinking tends to be individualistic—think the lone, solitary hero or the American Dream fantasy. This myth is perpetuated by the common belief that human behavior and social change are the result of free choices made by autonomous and solitary actors (e.g., MLK, Malcolm X). In reality, we should see social movements and progress as a process that is compounded by multiple, interdependent social forces—which is more in line with collectivist schools of thought. 

The historian Benedict Anderson, notes in his book “Imagined Communities”, that this individualistic myth is most likely influenced by America’s strong sense of nationalism and the fact that the national imagination of the solitary hero is firmly embedded in our collective consciousness (think George Washington and Davy Crockett). In many ways, these individual heroes come to symbolically stand for the nation itself. 

We see this national imagination and heroism with Black historical and political figures as well. We admire how Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and went on to become a great writer of his time and we look to Martin Luther King Jr., who survived death threats, bombs and jail cells stoically before being assassinated and turned into a martyr for the Civil Rights Movement. All of their, and others, accomplishments, should not be taken lightly. Their legacies and their goals are remarkable, but we should also be mindful that these individuals, who are typically presented, as singular figures, were also a part of vast, complex communities who were driving for social change. 

For example, when we think of the Montgomery bus boycott that was organized in December of 1955, we immediately think of Rosa Parks being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white patron. She stands as a singular figure of fighting against injustice, and her pivotal role in the civil rights movement should be acknowledged. However, how many of us know that this singular woman’s moment had a predecessor? Did you know that Mary Louse Smith, Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Jeanette Reese filed a civil suit, Browder v. Gayle, to challenge state and local laws related to bus segregation in 1956 and that all five of these women were amongst the many women who were arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats prior to the Montgomery bus boycott and Parks own arrest? While we view Rosa Park’s courageous actions in history as purely solitary, she and other women were part of a larger, more complex community that were all working towards social change.

Claudette Colvin, a key activist for desegregating buses before Rosa Parks

For this reason, we need to briefly problematize the mythic way that we historically and currently view social change. While individuals can emerge as leaders and figures within a group—social change is never brought about by one single person. The manner in which we romanticize the lone hero in many ways, works against the idea of what social change wishes to bring forth in the first place: community change. If we look to recent social movements like the Movement for Black Lives, we see that they specifically define themselves as leaderless or “leader-full” to lean into the collectivist school of thought. This aligns with CORE and our own mission as well: providing collective organizing and radical empathy for the group wrests social change in a sustainable manner that lives beyond the individual agent. 

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