Consider the following situation. It is 1963. You are a twenty-one-year-old graduate of Tuskegee University, rooming in Washington, D.C., waiting to be notified of your selection as a Peace Corps volunteer. You are preparing to leave the city to visit your family before reporting to Syracuse University for training and then on to a two-year tour in Tanzania.
As you pack your bags, more than 200,000 people are participating in the March on Washington. You are not among the marchers, because your conscience won't allow it. There are many things about the civil rights movement that trouble you, among them its demand for antidiscrimination legislation that unjustly assumes the collective guilt of whites. But you don't know how to analyze your bewildered indignation, or even how to arrive at principled arguments questioning the movement's message. Instead, your objections form a pre-conceptual notion wrapped in a web of churning emotions.
I was that troubled twenty-one-year-old. Little did I know that joining the Peace Corps would start me on my own march to intellectual and emotional liberation.
The fateful day came in 1964, midway into the first year of my Peace Corps tour. A fellow volunteer had read Rand's interview in Playboy and recommended that I read it because, he said, my "weird" ideas sounded a lot like hers. Some months later, while on vacation in Kampala, Uganda, we found a used paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged at a rummage shop. Still later, the British manager of a tea plantation gave me his unread paperback copy of The Fountainhead.
"Ayn Rand helped me experience human liberation in a deeper-than-political sense."
I identified immediately with the protagonist in The Fountainhead and was so impressed by Rand's characterization of his individualism that I wrote to the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) in New York for copies of the NBI lectures that were advertised on the cover of the book. The NBI manager replied that the lecture series was not available in print and sent brochures describing the institute's offerings, including books that could be purchased from NBI's book service. He also wrote: "I am somewhat startled by your interest in the Peace Corps and in Objectivism. If you have understood Miss Rand's books, I am sure you will understand the contradiction." I did understand, and I attempted to resign from the Peace Corps but was told that if I left before the end of my tour, I would have to finance my return to the United States. I had no choice but to stay.
Despite the manager's chastisement, I ordered pamphlets by Ayn Rand, hardbacks of her four novels, For the New Intellectual, The Virtue of Selfishness, NBI's Objectivist Newsletter, Ludwig von Mises's Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, John Herman Randall's Aristotle, Brand Blanshard's Reason & Analysis, and others. With these works, I began an adventure of intellectual expansion that continues to this day, and I experienced the joy of such expansion as I read Ayn Rand's essays "Collectivized Rights," "Racism," and "Man's Rights." Her natural-law defense of individual rights confirmed my misgivings about the civil rights movement and gave me the language of freedom and justice with which to formulate my doubts about civil rights policy.
But the influence of Rand's ideas on my life went further still and helped me to understand human liberation in a deeper-than-political sense. Here I must mention the impact of Nathaniel Branden's extension of Objectivism into psychology. Rand taught me how to think and how to arrive at empirical and moral judgments. Nathaniel Branden taught me how to be myself. Branden's exposition in The Psychology of Self-Esteem showed me that I could not know myself as a unique personality and character until I understood the cognitive, emotional, moral, and behavioral dimensions of the human self. His meticulous analysis of the need for psychological visibility and its impact on human relationships inspired sessions of deep introspection and self-assessment. In time, I achieved a level of autonomous self-awareness (warts and all) that was truly, personally liberating.
Thank you, Ayn Rand. Thank you, Nathaniel Branden.
Objectivism and the Psychology of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden
Anne Wortham is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. She specializes in sociological theory, sociology of culture, race and ethnic relations. Wortham teaches classes in History of Sociological Thought, Social Stratification, and Sociology of Culture and she is the author of The Other Side of Racism: A Philosophical Study of Black Race Consciousness. Wortham has served as Visiting Scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and she formerly taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
This article first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Navigator magazine.