In the cultural wars by which leadership is won, few tools could match the cleverness of the Million Man March. The vague call for atonement and reconciliation by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and a slow-growing list of more mainstream black leadership summons every black man to define for himself the myriad meanings of his manhood and then accept them as the call of the march itself. This is most effective at a time when genuine confusion and frustration inundates the grass roots--where, politically and economically, most black men in America live. Needs unmet, hole in the pocket, can't get a hearing--this march, whatever it is, is for those who live that angst. Thus, the march's true meanings are found only in the mirror where black men, deciding whether to attend, see their images reflected.
Perhaps the only point of consensus is that it doesn't matter what white people think of this march. Fears that the event is somehow a militant show of force, designed by Farrakhan to enable him to enter the mainstream and fill a leadership vacuum, go unrebutted, shrugged off as the latest attempt by a majority culture to tell black people what to think. Following an almost universally contemptuous white reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdicts, most black men could care less about who or what the general public thinks we should follow.
Yet, by perceiving the event as a mass reflection of self, black men risk conflating the goals of the march with their own identity. Speakers, some Nation of Islam literature and black-press clips variously describe the march as a day of atonement for unmanly behavior, a time for religious unification, voter registration and the start of a national agenda of community-building--yet from a distinctly masculine foundation. Even if you can't attend, you and your family are supposed to not work and boycott all commercial activity. New and bigger objectives are manufactured daily. So the march remains a mystery of mixed metaphor, exciting mixed emotions as it nears. In all, three dominate: suspicion, support and ambivalent scrutiny.
Suspicion begins with the leadership, especially Farrakhan, and ends with the exclusion of women. In this view, the idea of Farrakhan speaking for all black men is absurd. Many see his co-sponsors, including Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as tag-along endorsers in various states of career panic. If anyone should atone to women, it's Farrakhan and Chavis. If anyone's leadership grasp is slipping during Colin L. Powell's current book tour, it's Jackson and Sharpton. Something is not quite right, and suspicious men won't march for macho opportunism.
Nor for hypocrisy. To many black men, particularly Christians, the march is strongly identified as a Nation of Islam production disguised as a civil-rights affair. Black Baptist leadership has been openly critical and, with traditional civil-rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League, have encouraged members not to go. They question Farrakhan's call for religious unity without apologizing for his past criticisms; they doubt his sudden espousal of identifiably Christian protest methods while seeing no sign of transformation. And the vast majority who are hard-working family men are shocked to be asked to atone for their domestic relationships.
But, it's the exclusion of women that most offends this idea of manhood, unnaturally distancing men from their feminine complements. The idea of community-building without the shared input of black women casts the march in the fantasy of symbolic power. Yet, this, too, is characteristic of the sex-segregated ethos in a lot of Nation of Islam thinking. In the Nation's rhetoric, patriarchy reaches extremes that become stereotypes.
But not if your ideal of black manhood supports the march's symbolism. Imagine: A million black men in a swollen, undifferentiated mass, like a unified army or a giant soul breathing life upon the heart of a nation. A million free black men is four times the number in prison. A laying down of arms in exchange for a noble embrace. Communion over a holier peace than the constant ills that plague. Not panhandling. Not dunking basketballs. Just the bare strength of atonement and the sheer safety in numbers.
Support for this symbol stems from an almost instinctive appeal to stand in solidarity with your brothers on behalf of your besieged community. As a result, many, if not a majority, of black men in attendance will overlook the Farrakhan aspect others suspect. They seek the spiritual coming together that inheres in any large fraternal gathering with a positive vibe. Spirituality, many believe, has never been sufficiently equated with black manhood.
Ultimately, the march becomes a symbol of mobilization itself--and what it might become if enough segments of the community unify. Many who criticize Farrakhan's views on women and Jews will not deny the plain-spoken sense of his call for economic self-sufficiency and individual discipline. By raising the spectacle of a Monday without black labor or black consumer spending, mobilization for the march symbolizes what could happen if blacks united around a more specific aim. The nation would cease to function, just as it is expected that the Capital will stall when the march begins and ends at rush hour. So starts the next economic agenda for black people: when we prove to ourselves the dual powers of our purse and our presence.
Of course, the power of the spectacle itself will not be missed by a largely white media, and that is becoming part of the ideal. Recently, angry men have bristled anew as they watched O.J. Simpson retried in the press after his acquittal, his dedicated black male attorney dissected as a racist by many whites and a predominantly black female jury vilified as morons after a year of civic duty. This seems like evidence of a freshened hatred. From that perspective, the Million Man March could not have come at a better time.
Yet, hopefully, even supporters will act on their unspoken ambivalence and subject the march to deeper scrutiny. Yes, a march is badly needed. But there remains a basic problem with feeling good but not quite knowing why. Whether it was for the abolition of slavery, peace in Europe or civil rights, black men in this country have always marched with clear purpose. This will be an exception--since no single purpose is clear. Only that the marcher is black and male.
Historically, race and gender alone could be an appropriate rallying cry--but it no longer serves the complicated interests of the grass roots. The danger in such vague symbols is that the marcher is sold the suffering of his status and told to defend it. But what happens to your suffering if you go? That's where collective purpose must replace a million little ones. If leaders get credit for whatever this becomes, they ought to be able to tell marchers what it's meant to be.
There's the rub. For lack of any clearly articulated vision for the march, it becomes the embodiment of people's greatest fears and hopes, depending on their vantage. For whites fearful of Farrakhan's influence, the march becomes a sign of his legitimacy. But for many blacks who desperately seek solutions to endemic problems in our communities, the Million Man March, seasoned with spiritual overtones and suggesting salvation, is big enough and magical enough to absorb every conceivable hope for change.
To talk of the need for symbols is to assume black people have few already. To hope for a fresh start is to ignore hard work in progress. The same old talk of symbols and new starts is unlikely to establish any substantive agenda for dealing with such unmistakably real issues as a lack of jobs, overincarceration and undereducation.
Serious leadership should have recognized this failing of the call to march. Unfortunately, Farrakhan and others are the only black men certain to gain tangible benefits from such symbolic events--because they will be regarded as the men who filled the void. But the question nags: If nothing comes of the symbols, then to whom will our leaders atone?