African American Men, Authenticity, Black Leadership, Black Males, Black Masculinity, Black Men, Exclusion, Inspiration, Louis Farrakhan, Million Man March, Nation of Islam, National Mall, October 16 1995, Race, Symbolism, Symbols, Washington DC
I wrote this five years ago, but the same questions can be asked, for better and worse, with an addendum. That in the light of what Black men should do and shouldn’t, should expect and shouldn’t expect — of themselves and of the world — this is a very narrow-minded way of thinking. Concentrating on some limited definition of Black masculinity neglects the need to address inequality, systemic racism, the theft of hopes and dreams, not to mention, relationships and the intersection of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and everything else (though Black women and women of color have to deal with intersectionality every day, the issue goes mostly neglected and — if ever thought about — misunderstood by Black men).
If the past five years have shown anything, the issues addressing Black men have never existed in a vacuum. Police brutality and regular killings, White vigilantism, joblessness, debt, a dismantling of already under-resourced public schools, mass incarceration. These cannot ever be divorced from the issues facing Black women, women of color, the Black LGBT community, Latinos and Latinas, Native Americans, the poor and low-wage workers of color. Nor should they have been twenty years ago.
Today’s date has meaning for millions of people. Forty-one years ago, the New York Mets won their first World Series, beating the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in five games. Crush #2 was also born forty-one years ago on this date (Happy Birthday!). But for a select group of African Americans — especially for over a million on the National Mall — today’s date marks fifteen years since the Million Man March.
I was there, though not among the million or so on the Mall that cold, windy and sunny day. I was in DC, on the Mall two hours before the gathering. I watched the highlights on CNN on the University of Maryland’s campus, all but completely clear of Black men under the age of thirty that afternoon. I met up with many a Black guy before and after the march, on the Metro as young men had taken the day off from work, school or college classes to go. On my bus back to Pittsburgh as older men talked of their broken lives, their remaining hopes and dreams. Most of all, I heard many speak of how inspired they were to go, as if God was calling them down to the Mall to find their true selves.
I didn’t go because I’d come down to the area that weekend for my dissertation research (including interviews) and to spend time with my long-distance girlfriend, who was a grad student at University of Maryland at the time. While I had some regrets about not attending, it’d been a while since I’d been involved with anyone on more than a passing occasion. Plus, I figured that my doctoral thesis on Black Washington and multiculturalism provided a significant intellectual exception to attending.
Maybe I wasn’t being truly and authentically Black because I didn’t attend the march live, because I refused to stand in a sea of bodies to hear Louis Farrakhan’s voice encouraging Black men to take charge over themselves, their lives, their families. Maybe I did see myself as being above the fray because I saw all of this as a whole bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing but symbols. Maybe, in the end, being around so many Black men doing the same thing at the same time made me uncomfortable, just because I wasn’t sure what they expected to get out of the march after it was over.
Of course, symbols and inspiration are important, because without them, there is no action, no activism, no movement toward a goal that will ultimately change our lives, individually or collectively. But in listening to dozens of men who did attend the Million Man March that day and in the weeks that followed (as I traveled back to Pittsburgh, then to Minneapolis, then back to Pittsburgh, then DC, then New York in the month after the march), I realized that symbols and inspiration was all they expected out of the march.
Fifteen years later, the realization that nothing has really changed in the lives of many, if not most, of the million-plus men that attended the march on this date is disheartening. Those in poverty on that date may well still be in poverty. Those with years of addiction, or lives of crime, or without the compassion and skills necessary for fatherhood, all still struggling with these issues. That the cultural gap between Black men and Black women has widened since ’95 is obvious.
Yet there’s always hope, inspiration, and symbols that show that not all was for naught on Monday, October 16, ’95. It brought major issues facing African American males front and center to America and African America, and inspired many to work for social change and social justice for Blacks and for Black males in particular. Even if the messages of Farrakhan and company were mixed, contradictory, hypocritical, even sexist and bigoted. The march at least provided the realization that many Blacks cared deeply about finding themselves and finding solutions to issues that haunted them then, and haunt us still. Symbols are a powerful thing, even if it means we need many more of them before change can truly take hold.