I understand separation and individualism to be two defining ideologies of Western culture. Here — and everywhere that the West has forced its ways of being — we are trained to think of things in isolation. As if one thing has no effect on the other. As if things somehow come into being all by themselves. As if all of the small and medium things that were necessary for the big things to exist are irrelevant and unimportant; unworthy of mention or appreciation.
For example: we love bouquets of flowers but would be aghast to receive them with the roots and clumps of soil still attached. Many of us buy clothes and groceries with no thought, consideration or meaningful appreciation for the highly exploited factory workers and field hands that labored to produce and package the goods. We get our lashes installed and nails creatively decorated, with little, if any, reflection on how Black women in the hood were called “ghetto” and “unprofessional” for innovating what has become pricey, popular art forms. We venerate historical movements and figures as if they were once-in-a-lifetime phenomena — spontaneous events that are somehow unrelated to the historic, environmental, technological and political developments that preceded them.
Such culturally ingrained thinking (or impaired thinking) has allowed us to mentally and emotionally separate final products from the intrinsic processes and conditions that created them. It encourages us to focus on the fruits while ignoring the labor (and those who perform it). It keeps us from meaningfully reflecting on what impact it might have that we can’t immediately see. It shields us from what can be, admittedly, an annoying reality: things rarely come fast, clean, easy, cheap, fully formed, polished or without sacrifice (be it righteous or un-righteous) or early failures; that there is always an impact — somewhere — on someone or something.
This cultural predilection is especially convenient and useful for corporations, as it gives them a customer base that passively consumes goods, with very little risk of that base ever demanding clarity or accountability for how such goods are produced, what impact they have, and at who or what’s expense. Did we lose a large swath of the rainforest in order to have x,y,z product? Was our air quality irreversibly devastated for the sake of your profit margin? Did we all develop Leaky Gut Syndrome because it was easier and more lucrative for your company to mass produce poor quality and nutrient-deficient food? Did yall put chemicals on the Kanekelon that might be altering the pH balances of our scalps? Did children in some other country have to miss the joys of childhood and suffer terribly in order to procure some mineral that you use in your product? Were your workers right here, in the U.S., paid fairly? Did they have enough time to spend with their families? With themselves?
We don’t ask those kinds of questions (at least not enough of us do) because we’ve been trained to focus only on the finished product — what we can see, taste and touch — and not on anything else.
This works out for the American government too. When you have a culture that foolishly feeds into the idea that one person can (and should) accomplish things on their own, it tells us that a person’s successes (and failures) rely solely upon the abilities and actions of that person. It’s what allows the ruling class to blame individuals for poverty, abuse or stunted growth, as opposed to the underlying systemic issues that knowingly cause harm. It’s what trains us to look at a neighborhood rife with litter and blame the people who live there for not taking “personal responsibility” for their environment, as opposed to a lack of civic investment from politicians who are too busy catering to high income neighborhoods. It’s what prompts us to look at underperforming schools and blame the parents, or the kids, or their cultural background, instead of underfunding due to stealthy, policy-driven resource hoarding by “top performing” schools.
Corporate greed and exploitation, a refusal to provide housing and healthcare to every citizen, severely underfunded social services, targeted and terroristic policing, repressive cultural norms and strictly enforced gender binaries, profit-driven and imperialist sympathizing media, and, of course, racism — these things course through the soil of American society, deeply impacting — one could say tainting — every piece of fruit that comes to the surface.
This train of thought also supports the idea that if we, alone, are not fully formed individuals who understand and can expertly wield every tool needed to face every challenge on our path, then we are not capable or qualified to achieve certain things; that we are deficient somehow. That whatever idea we are struggling to execute alone is a reflection of our subordinate status — as opposed to, perhaps, a lack of connection to, or active participation in, a supportive community that can help — and it should therefore be left to some other once-in-a-lifetime, uniquely endowed “hero” to bring to fruition.
I thought of these ideological implications while reading the early pages of Blacks Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin. A close reading demonstrates how, with few exceptions, we have often been taught to view certain historical moments and figures in a separatist, individualist context, when it would behoove us to have learned about it in connection to the environmental and political soil from which they emerged. In all things — but especially in social movements — we should not only celebrate the flowers in their final form, but all the little living microbes that brought those flowers into existence.
For example, many of us were taught (if we were taught anything on the subject at all) to understand the Black Panther Party in this way: a man named Huey Newton masterminded a movement that centered on Black people carrying beretta’s and wearing berets, and that the Party was a collection of young Black rebels who would no longer march their way to freedom. This gives the impression that 1. A single, solitary, heroic individual (or duo if you were taught about Bobby Seale as well) was responsible for this highly impactful, culture-shifting historical movement, and 2. That it was primarily driven by a desire to make a splashy change in regards to the image (or brand) of Black activism.
Not only does this framing obscure the vital, highly consequential roles of numerous people and preceding movements that went into forming the ideology and actions that Newton and Seale advanced, it fails to properly account for why the Panthers decided that marching was no match for how dire their situation was. Bloom and Martin’s book helps to serve as a corrective.
First, it connects the dots between Huey Newton and the rarely acknowledged but deeply influential Robert F. Williams — a self-proclaimed inter-nationalist, author of Negroes with Guns and “a pioneering advocate of armed black self-defense” who mentored the mentor of one of Newton’s mentors. The authors claim that Negroes with Guns “greatly influenced Newton.”
Second, their book gives credit to the small underground magazine, The Movement — which “generated information available almost nowhere else” and was considered by Radical America to be “the best single source of information and commentary from the New Left.” It was in those pages, Bloom and Martin say, that Newton read about some brothers who’d organized something called a Community Alert Patrol (CAP), which “monitored the police, driving around the black neighborhoods of Watts with notepads and pencils, documenting police activities.” This sparked an epiphany for Newton and his comrades to do the same in Oakland. Newton then took the CAP brothers’ idea to the next level by joining it with the knowledge he’d gained, through diligent study, of California gun law. In order to avoid the harassment and abuse that CAP got from police, the Oakland brothers decided to legally carry guns with them.
Third, the book traces the lineage of the iconic Black Panther logo back to the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, an independent Black political party in Alabama that was an extension of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was developed as a response to the consistent lack of meaningful action and true allyship — as well as racism — from Democrats.
Crucially, their book explains the environmental, cultural and sociopolitical context from which this radical Black organization would emerge. I think the authors put it best: “For many blacks, the Civil Rights Movement’s victories proved limited, even illusory. Especially for young urban blacks in the North and West, little improved. The wartime jobs that drew the black migration had ended, much remaining industry fled to the suburbs along with white residents, and many blacks lived isolated in poor urban ghettos with little access to decent employment or higher education and with minimal political influence.”
“And many cities developed containment policing practices — designed to isolate violence in black ghettos rather than to keep ghetto residents safe. Although black people were formally full citizens, most remained ghettoized, impoverished, and politically subordinated, with few channels for redress. Starting in 1966, young blacks in cities across the country took up the call for ‘Black Power!’”
In short, none of this happened by itself. All of it came from somewhere. I’m sure many Panthers would have loved to be able to just march or vote — or not have to do either at all — but doing so hadn’t changed their socioeconomic conditions, which forced them to take another course of action. The American government — and the limitations of pacifist civil disobedience — had a big hand in creating the Black Panther Party, but it isn’t always taught that way.
So, what is the impact of these root causes being obscured or removed from the popular narrative? Not just when it comes to the way we teach the Black Panther Party, but in relation to how we teach all manner of people, products and historical movements? In my view, without even realizing it, these narratives that encourage us to focus on a single “heroic” person or to understand highly collaborative movements as some spontaneous burst of energy make us 1. Think that if we don’t have “it” all together — with all the plans figured out and all the tools to get us there — then we are not able to embark on a big/scary/hard project or effect change, 2. Feel like because our contributions seem small or unimportant that they aren’t worth doing, and 3. Neglect the importance of the environmental, cultural and sociopolitical context surrounding both “them” back then, and “us” right now.
In a culture that values and prioritizes collectivism while refusing to separate cause from effect — like many of the indigenous cultures that Western society tried its hardest to wipe out — we get a much more wholistic understanding of the world, and therefore have a much easier time navigating its complexities. It allows us to see ourselves and our small contributions reflected in “big” moments in history. It makes us feel connected to and invested in the history making process.
As ingrained as our current culture is, making a mass shift away from the ideologies of separation and individualism would take some effort. But in an effort to harness our collective power for the sake of our collective future, I think it would be worth it.