SLOUCHING TOWARD WASHINGTON
People, black and white, say that the throngs of upstanding black men at the Million Man March showed a picture of the Black Man different from what the nation is accustomed to. Because this has always been my primary image of the Black Man—the men in my family, my father, his friends, my friends, total strangers at traffic lights, and sometimes even myself—what struck me was not the vast crowd’s proud demeanor or the insult that the crowd’s peacefulness was a pleasant surprise to most whites and to some blacks, but that the black men deserved a message more worthy of their journey than the numerology and self-election of Louis Farrakhan.
It was not a civil rights march, or even a march, though one Nation of Islam spokesman said on television that it was a march in Washington rather than a march on Washington. As more than one of the day’s speechmakers insisted, they had come neither to demand nor to ask anything of government and whites. They had come for themselves and to ask something of themselves. It was billed as a day of atonement and reconciliation. It was a mass rally, a religious convocation, a camp revival meeting on a grand scale, with some competition among the speechmakers to see who could blow the emotional lid off the patient multitudes. Perhaps those black men and the women mingling among them—1.5 million, 2 million, 400,000, 870,000?—came to experience just what it felt like to be in command of that place where history had been made a few times before. A lot of those present on October 16, 1995, had not been born in 1963.
“Thank God it’s not a million white men marching on Washington,” a white Englishman had said to me. The mean country South of the song “I’m bound for Black Mountain, me and my razor and my gun” was all that had been radiating from Capitol Hill for months. On the shuttle on Sunday, the day before the March, a black youth dressed in immaculate baggy white, including a white knit cap, did not address a word to me across the empty seat between us, nor I to him, as if in the commuter privacy of laptops and phone calls made from the air we had succumbed, as usual, to the inhibition of being outnumbered. Then, too, I worried that he would think it presumptuous of me to assume that just because he was young, chic, and black he was on his way to the March.
Washington, D.C., is a predominantly black city, and a large percentage of its population lives below the poverty line. After the emancipated slaves came to town, Congress periodically addressed poverty’s look. Jacob Riis was brought in at the turn of the century, legislators were taken on tours of alleys, told that those were the same flies that landed on their sandwiches back at the club, and during World War I the first of a few redevelopment schemes was passed. In the 1950s the worst area near the Capitol was razed, its residents relocated. Blocks have been boarded up at other times, because of the riots in the 1960s, because of “gentrification.” Black doormen perhaps had been coming back downtown without their uniforms even before Marion Barry’s first and second acts, but a part of the excitement surrounding the Million Man March was that a precinct of official marble was about to be taken over.
That Sunday afternoon, along the broad street of trees whose leaves had not yet turned, a vanguard of black entrepreneurs had set up tables of commemorative T-shirts, caps, buttons, and sweatshirts boasting slogans and rhymes. Go-go music thumped from the rear of a parked truck. On the Mall itself, that expanse of green between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, people ambled and reconnoitered, many of them middle-aged black men. Perhaps for them the Mall had been the site of earlier pilgrimages. The black men, the father-and-son-like pairs, the lawn, and the red of the Smithsonian Castle in the distance took me back to 1967, to the centenary celebrations of Morehouse College in Atlanta, when my father tried to show me around and to show off his uncomprehending offspring to President Mays. I dimly recall their chuckling over the night Martin Luther King Jr.’s classmates short-sheeted his bed. Before the Million Man March was over, I would feel very sad for King. Farrakhan had no qualms about extracting blessings from black leaders made cooperative by being dead.
Everything was ready—the long banks of portable toilets, the giant television screens, the attitudes. Everyone seemed in a prescriptive frame of mind, willing to go on record about what black men and therefore black people needed to do. “It’s time that we as black men get together. We need this unification to start being in front,” one black vendor said. We needed to throw off that European indoctrination, I heard. We needed to trust each other, I was told. We needed to start someplace. We needed to unite like the Koreans, the first groups of whom, someone informed me, were brought over like the Cubans by the CIA and set up in business. They, whites, needed to stop stereotyping, a father of two concluded.
“We need to teach our young men,” two middle-aged black women sitting on a park bench agreed. One, who planned to accept the men-only vibe by staying home with her television, said she didn’t want to see a blade of grass when the men came. When I mentioned the objections of some black women to the premise of the March, they said, “Angela Davis needs to decide.” Other black leaders also needed to decide. “We have all these ministers. Can’t be a minister and a politician. Preaching over and over. It’s very redundant.” It was obvious what was happening to black people, and it was obvious who was doing it to them. “Look at what they had to do to try to bring O.J. back down.”
I saw a group of young black men photographing and filming one another. Some of them wore the bow ties and dark suits of the Nation of Islam. New recruits, from Portland, Oregon, they gave their names as Gary X, William X.… The X marks the spot where the slave master’s name has been crossed out. We lacked self-knowledge, one of the recruits decided. We lacked self-love. “You cannot love what you do not know.” I thought of the remote men in bow ties and dark suits who had been on the streets of my childhood, before suburbs, when most blacks—in the North, at least—grew up in neighborhoods that Black Muslims either visited or lived in themselves.
I see them, in memory, passing the barber’s window. Sometimes they stepped inside, and if the shop owner was in the right mood, he’d let them try to sell the newspaper Muhammad Speaks, a source of new Creation myths and science fiction for the Jim Crow audience. The paper’s cartoon illustrations caused some heads in the barbershop to shake in a perplexed way. The Black Muslims rang doorbells but were less persistent than Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were regarded as members of a cult, which, in the days before Charles Manson, meant merely that some troubled souls had found a refuge, a place where they could deliver themselves up for safekeeping. However, Black Muslims were also different from the other groups of the saved, like the women who renounced lipstick and served fried chicken in Father Divine’s faded restaurants, because the face of the Black Muslim was that of a black man armed with a grudge.
The cult was known to attract ex-convicts. The men seemed contained and unafraid, as if all that hustler and jailbird knowledge had been packed down tight. They were clean and quiet, unlike the thugs hanging out on the corner, people the Black Muslims may have been like before they joined up and stopped drinking. They were left alone because black people used to have a great deal of tolerance for how people got by and also because Black Muslims were considered a little off, being reformed, single-minded, and secretive.
If anything made the barbershop customers wary of Black Muslims as possibly unbalanced behind their display of superior stability, it was their separatism. Black Muslims were scornful of the civil rights movement and especially of civil rights leaders. At a time when black people were braving dogs and rednecks to integrate schools and to get to the polls, the rejection of white institutions, the call for a separate nation, seemed unhelpful to the struggle, or helpful only to Elijah Muhammad and the John Birch Society. The cult was said to own farms in Alabama. How the Nation of Islam was financed was murky, but the barbershop’s regulars understood that Black Muslims thought of Negroes as the dupes of white society, and they, in turn, provoked by the thought that another black man considered them Uncle Toms, called Black Muslims the tools of segregationists.
James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, recalled a visit in 1962 to the Chicago mansion headquarters of Elijah Muhammad, Supreme Head of the Nation of Islam, during which the Messenger of Allah told him that the white man’s time was actually up in 1913, but Allah was waiting for the lost black nation, “the so-called Negro” in the United States, to be freed from white masters and returned to the true faith. Baldwin, as a former child preacher and Harlem street rat, had no trouble understanding the appeal the Black Muslims held for a soap-box constituency: the police seemed afraid of them, and since the white God had failed, maybe the black God wouldn’t. But having heard prophecies of divine justice from many quarters every day of his youth, Baldwin wondered how someone went home on a given night, looked around, and decided to believe. The need to hear that whites were sinners, devils, inferior, and doomed ensured that the market for doctrines of black salvation or black supremacy would never dry up.
My Indianapolis barbershop was psychologically far from the mosques and bean pies of Chicago or Harlem. The “men among men” were distant from us, “the Lost-Founds,” the still-Negro. Muhammad Ali was more famous than Malcolm X as a symbol of the kind of defiant brotherhood that whites seemed to find so threatening and that was therefore so gratifying to blacks. Ali’s name change in 1964 made a more favorable impression than Malcolm X calling the 1963 March on Washington a “circus” or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a “con game.” Malcolm X’s notoriety was derived from his appearances on the evening news as the gifted aphorist of racial apocalypse. Not until his assassination in 1965, the publication of his autobiography that same year, and the shock of the slogan “Black Power” to the country’s psyche did blacks in general feel that Malcolm X had been with them all along and that they had been in sympathy with him all that time, too.
They say that Malcolm X liked to quote a line from Aesop: “Even when you are dead, you can get even with an enemy.” He can certainly worry some whites from the grave, as evidenced by the anxiety surrounding the making and release three years ago of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a film as harmless as Gandhi. But the momentary fashion for X caps and BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY T-shirts, the possibility that young black men might be influenced by Malcolm X’s inspired belligerence, set off a delirium of alarm, even though The Autobiography of Malcolm X has never been out of print.
Malcolm X died estranged from the Nation of Islam, the cult his charisma had done so much to broaden into a movement. Among those who expressed an unsavory satisfaction in the heretic’s punishment was Louis Farrakhan. As Malcolm X’s protégé, the suspicion goes, Farrakhan had to reassure the jealous Elijah Muhammad.
The Nation of Islam first permitted its members to vote in 1966, around the time that the civil rights movement left the red roads of the South and came up North to falter among the concrete towers. The National Guard was called in to put out fires, more whites left town, and plenty of businesses and some blacks followed them. While the Vietnam War spread the mystique of revolution, racial solidarity and group autonomy, supported by rediscovered episodes of U.S. history such as Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, seemed like alternative faiths or secret passageways to power. The exasperated pointed to Muhammad as the most successful disciple of Booker T. Washington’s program of economic self-sufficiency, but blacks on campuses were busy arguing over the validity of armed self-defense and the legacy of Malcolm X.
In his lifetime Malcolm X brought large numbers of young people into what had been an organization composed mostly of the middle-aged. In death he introduced the children of the black middle class and the students everyone expected to become middle-class to what had been, historically, black working-class sentiments about race redemption. Garveyism had been most attractive to the laboring masses who migrated from the South around World War I. Garvey’s movement fell apart in the 1920s, but it left behind in its urban settings a deep feeling about the ancestral destiny of blacks.
Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole in Sandersville, Georgia, in 1897, moved to Detroit in 1923 and became a corporal in the local Garvey group. During the Depression he met W. D. Fard, the founder of the Temple of Islam, whose ideas were a mixture of millenarianism and Garveyism. When Fard inexplicably vanished from the scene, Poole, now Muhammad, claimed that Fard was the Messiah, the Mahdi, and eventually he left Detroit to spread the Messiah’s truth. Perhaps this tradition of making converts to racial mysticism among those who had left the South explains why separatists, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, always sounded like city slickers trying to wise up countrified cousins just off the bus.
Muhammad had once predicted that Armageddon would come in 1970, but it was difficult to connect him with the Black Muslims who perished the following year in Attica. He trusted in God’s solution, but in 1973 rumors began to circulate that the Nation of Islam’s financial empire was crumbling. The Nation of Islam chain of clothing stores and bakeries may have been overvalued in the public mind to begin with. A three-million-dollar loan was said to have been obtained from Libya, and there was some talk that financial difficulties had brought about a shift in the policy of no contact with white devils and that this pragmatism had led to internal strife. Some weakness at the center was suggested by what looked like a collapse in discipline at the outposts. Stories appeared about sectarian murders of Muslims in Washington, D.C., in New Jersey; about Muslim involvement in murder cases in Baton Rouge in 1972 and in San Francisco in 1973. Muhammad countered that they were not affiliated with his temples. In those days everything made sense as an FBI conspiracy once it had been denounced as such. The Nation of Islam had had run-ins with the FBI since the 1930s.
The Dear Holy Apostle was reportedly ailing, and Farrakhan became increasingly visible as press spokesman for the Nation of Islam, much as Malcolm X had been before him. He addressed the Black Solidarity Rally in Harlem in 1971 and attended the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Later that year a violent police confrontation at the Harlem mosque resulted in allegations of police misconduct and a Muslim campaign to have only black policemen deployed in Harlem. Malcolm X, too, had first come to the attention of the New York press during a militant standoff with police in 1957. An observer of those days told me that Muhammad was probably contemptuous of Farrakhan for such claims. As with Malcolm X, he really didn’t like his people making themselves conspicuous, because that brought him to the attention of the IRS.
When Muhammad died in 1975, Farrakhan did not succeed him. One of his sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad, was affirmed as leader. He wanted to bring the group closer to conventional Islamic teachings, and within a year of his father’s death he had repudiated the doctrine about white devils and had even invited whites to join. Muhammad Speaks became Bilalian News. In 1977 Farrakhan, who had been transferred from Harlem’s Mosque #7 to Chicago headquarters, broke with the younger Muhammad over his conciliatory policies. Some of Farrakhan’s children had married some of Elijah Muhammad’s grandchildren. Muhammad’s illegitimate children sued for their portion. It looked like a corporate family soap opera along the lines of Dynasty. The Nation of Islam split into various factions. Wallace Deen Muhammad eventually renamed his group the American Muslim Mission and moved to California.
The son was free of the father, but his rival still had need of the father’s imprimatur. Farrakhan revived Elijah Muhammad’s litany. In 1981 he declared that Muhammad had been resurrected. By bringing the Messenger back from the dead, he could revise the act of succession and make himself the heir. In 1983 he said that a hurricane that had swept through Texas was Muhammad’s revenge for the execution of a Black Muslim in that state. That Muhammad’s presence was immanent removed an obstruction for Farrakhan. Unburdened of Muhammad’s watchful “dollarism,” Farrakhan could then insinuate himself where Malcolm X had not been allowed to go. He endorsed Harold Washington’s candidacy for mayor of Chicago in 1983, but it was through his fraternal association with Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid in 1984 that he perfected a talent for outrage and became an American celebrity.
In the task of remaking and expanding his constituency, it helped Farrakhan that Reagan was in office, that deregulation of capital made every day look like White Collar Crime Day to the poor, and that conservative judicial appointments seemed to most blacks like the determination of whites to take up the drawbridge, because, as Baldwin had explained years before in Nobody Knows My Name, though one could not accept his conclusions, it was “quite impossible to argue with a Muslim concerning the actual state of Negroes in this country.” It also helped that Farrakhan was so richly despised, because that more than anything gave him the aura of a true black leader. His defenders boasted that King had also been reviled by many whites in his day. The loathing Farrakhan conjured up was all the persuasion he needed with young black men who believed he spoke for them, the outcast, the demonized, and the very image of the black man we were about to be asked to chastise ourselves for at the Million Man March.
In 1985, gauntlets of security guards, the Fruit of Islam, had rapidly frisked each of the men who were part of that October night’s huge audience waiting to enter New York’s Madison Square Garden to hear Farrakhan speak. The formality said that we were being transferred to another jurisdiction, removed from the sidewalks, where policemen gave the orders, to the arena, where authority belonged to Farrakhan. Power at Last … Forever!, his cassette and videotape was titled. Ten years later the Fruit of Islam are famously on offer as bodyguards. There are reports that the Nation of Islam has been awarded security contracts at housing projects, television stations, and cultural festivals in various cities. Whereas in the old days the Black Muslims had rehabilitated individuals by urging them to surrender to their collective identity, the community service the Nation of Islam is now praised for is that of reclaiming neighborhoods through the sheer force of its reputation. Having tamed themselves, they hold out the promise to tame others.
I heard more than once on the Mall that Sunday afternoon that the Nation of Islam deserved credit for chasing drug dealers from black neighborhoods, such as a part of northwest Washington the police wouldn’t go into. Most whites and the middle class in general live emotionally and visually isolated from people who feel their neighborhoods are abandoned and under siege. Back up Pennsylvania Avenue, on Freedom Plaza, I watched a group of nine teenagers, all male, riding skateboards in the five o’clock sun. Their shirttails and the flags high above them answered the breeze. They were white, black, and Asian, but what made them seem so upper-class was that they were clearly there together.
That evening the hall of display tables and people in African costume at the Washington Convention Center’s pre-march Prayer and Praise rally resembled Black Expos, those trade fairs that have become an annual event on the civic calendar of most U.S. cities. Inside the large auditorium itself, the delegate-like section seating reminded me of NAACP conventions. When we stood for “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem, I half expected to hear my mother’s alto at my shoulder.
Services in black churches turn easily into protest meetings, and civil rights meetings have long been conducted as prayer services, but this was a fundamentalist crusade. One speechmaker after another swore that “the devil must be mad, because he’d lost the souls he thought he had,” or proclaimed that when black men said they shall not be moved, the whole black nation stood still “in a divine way.” We saluted upper bleachers of male figures dressed in white, the Turn Germantown Around group that had walked all the way from Philadelphia. Marion Barry welcomed us. “He’s a black man and not afraid to be one,” the MC bellowed. We were going to march for the living, the dead, and the unborn, for the grieving families of gunned-down black youth, for the black children born out of wedlock, for the “millions” of black boys and girls on drugs. “Somebody needs to march for Kunta Kinte.” “If they kill you, just rise again.” Former congressman Walter Fauntroy in his guise as a pastor began to croon one of those old favorites with many verses.
Something almost deliberately foreboding in tone was to stick out in the long night of Baptist choreography. Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad speaks like a future rival to Farrakhan. I’d seen him on local television earlier. Head of Washington’s Mosque #4 and president of its Abundant Life Clinic, he was articulate, telegenic, and he’d dominated the talk show panel with the conviction of a man on the rise. He told us that there were men who said it could not be done, that black, white, blue, green, and other colors of misunderstanding had said that we would not stand, but we were “a free, liberated people in the eyes of God.” Other speechmakers told us that for “the African nation” here in America religious barriers were coming down, that “Christians and Muslims and Catholics” were forming bonds, that political and economic power was riding and resting on our spiritual power. Never again would they divide us. Satan was trying to keep God’s children apart. One of Elijah Muhammad’s sons and two of Farrakhan’s children were introduced. The promotional style of that family firm, the Nation of Islam, began to assert itself.
Some people had insisted that the message could be separated from the messenger, that black people ought to get behind any effort dedicated to unity. But others had argued that no one had come up with the idea except Farrakhan, that no one else could get them to Washington in such numbers, and several of the speechmakers at the rally were adamant that the messenger could not be removed from the message, that to do so would be for black people to let others tell them once again who their leaders were. Though the leadership of the National Baptist Convention had declined to endorse the March, the banner of the Union Temple Baptist Church stretched over the stage. Small stockholders were being sold on a merger, persuaded of a takeover the board opposed—the leveraged buyout of Jesus & Co.
We were told that the March was “totally” funded by our own community. We applauded donations. Rock Newman, the boxing manager, gave ten thousand dollars. He broke the O.J. taboo and brought people to their feet. “You can live in a big white house, with a lot of white women, and it still doesn’t make you a man.” Some stopped applauding because that sounded like a criticism. The MC reminded us that raising dollars was as much a part of the program as the spoken word and the choir, but people were leaving. Outside, in the confusion of traffic, vendors called: history for sale, up for grabs, open to manipulation. The souvenir edition of African-American Consumer and Business Magazine featured on the cover a photograph of King’s face superimposed on a crowd and another of Farrakhan’s superimposed on the same scene.
Early Monday morning we moved in the dark through the trees toward the lit-up dome of the Capitol. Black men were everywhere, atop ledges, perched on branches. Whenever someone in a bow tie and suit led forward a file of men, hand on shoulder, we squeezed aside to let them through. When the push became too great, we passed the word for everyone to take a step back. We stepped on toes behind, on heels ahead. “Excuse me, brother.” Though the March changed somewhat in character from hour to hour, depending on where and with whom I stood, this solemn courtesy never went away. “Excuse me, black man.”
Stage lights at the steps of the Capitol were aimed directly at us. I could look up at the hierarchy of illumination in the sky, stars, quarter moon, and helicopters, or behind, at the faces that multiplied away. There was little talk, because of the sense of occasion, because of the relentless drumming. Sometimes the long blast of a ram’s horn or the sound of an ululating woman came from the direction of a group that had set up an encampment. The drumming went on for an hour, until a loudspeaker crackled and released a piercing burst of township jive. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the music of the Vietnam veteran, made the men cheer, but they weren’t in the mood for Earth, Wind, and Fire. “This ain’t no party,” they chanted. “Turn the music off.” The music stopped, the men cheered, and the drumming began again. “This is all right,” a man said. “This is deep.” Assembled at the steps of Pharaoh and waiting. After another hour I followed the path made by a wheelchair and came to a lawn. The smells of incense, barbecue, and pot wafted through the cold air.
A clear morning was coming up fast on the standing, the strolling, the reclining. A man noted ruefully that we had let the Muslim dawn go by. In the developing light I could see banners, signs, sandwich boards, sweatshirts. FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF CROWN HEIGHTS; THE DURHAM, NC, POSSE; BOWIE STATE FOOTBALL TEAM; LOCAL 420. DUKE, GEORGETOWN, HOWARD, NC STATE, the caps said. A white man held up a handwritten message on cardboard: The Howard Stern Show Salutes You. The marchers themselves carried so many cameras and camcorders that one paranoid remark I heard—“They’re taking pictures to see who’s who”—became something of a joke. However, there were times when I was glad of my sunglasses, shades that went some way toward reassuring those who became suspicious of my notepad and pen, as if jotting down what became a matter of public record as soon as it boomed down the Mall offended the spirit of unity.
“Assalamu alaykum.” A Baptist preacher introduced the muezzin, who sang and translated the adhan. Everything in U.S. history can seem like a turning point, but after King’s martyrdom the feeling ran high that blacks had done more for Christianity than Christianity had done for them. Islam was increasingly perceived as being Afrocentric and a declaration of one’s Otherness in a thrilling way. Time magazine reported a year after King’s death that there were 350,000 black Jews in the United States, although two years later The Negro Almanac put the figure at 44,000. Moreover, those who have identified themselves as Muslim are not necessarily allied with the Nation of Islam. Figures about its membership have always varied widely. But at the west front to the Capitol, facing east, the stillness, the bowed heads, the American flag, the policemen on the steps, in the dome’s balcony, signaled a competing godliness in a nation getting narrower in its culture the more broadly religious it becomes. “And I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” A style brochure distributed by the American Muslim Council taught us how to spell shahadah, the declaration of faith.
One man’s unity is another man’s—or woman’s—repression. Dr. Muhammad castigated the “agnostics and atheists” who said it couldn’t be done, but Allah had given Louis Farrakhan a vision, and the call for the March had come from God Almighty through him. Ben Chavis, the executive director of the Million Man March, said that as a Christian minister he intended to stand with Farrakhan all the days of his life. A baritone was mumbling, “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.”
There was an almost complete absence of rap, of Public Enemy, the boom-box sound that had done so much to proselytize for Farrakhan and that was also so identified with renegade black youth. We had gotten to the “Sankofa” part of the program, where we were supposed to “go back and fetch it,” go back to the glory of Africa, “the creators of technology and science.” As the African Heritage Drummers and Dancers pounded, I ducked under the yellow police tape that marked lanes on the Capitol grounds and headed into what everyone was calling an ocean of black men.
Everywhere I looked the people were upstaging the speechmakers. And everywhere somebody was hawking something, mostly newspapers: Farrakhan’s The Final Call, John Muhammad’s Muhammad Speaks, Anointed News Journal, StreetWise, or The Five Percenter, the newspaper of a Muslim group devoted to land acquisition. There were self-help manuals, coloring books, and someone was autographing his reproductions of an all-black The Last Supper.
Constitution Avenue had become an immense street fair. Women and children appeared, giving the day a carnival openness. Stalls of Bob Marley posters, jewelry, incense, chicken, flags, artworks, and cassettes stretched as far as the eye could see. “That’s right. I love you.” There were Million Man March candy bars with Farrakhan’s picture on the wrapper and Million Man March official bottled spring water. Million Man March watches were also available by order. There were brochures from African Americans Uniting for Life—a marrow donor group—and from employment agencies; leaflets from video stores and the Information Superhighway for Black Membership Organizations. One could have one’s picture inserted instantly into a souvenir frame with a Million Man March poem on the cover, and the ground was littered with order forms from the African American Archives.
We heard from international representatives, radio personalities, CEOs, figures from the black revolutionary nationalist past, and preachers, preachers. Poor Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, perhaps under an obligation to Farrakhan after he came to her daughter’s defense when she became a victim of entrapment last summer, stuck to the safe subject of self-determination. Two cute children recited with great earnestness something impossible to identify, and Maya Angelou moved herself to tears. A great accolade went up to Rosa Parks, the heroine of the Montgomery bus boycott. Miss Parks was mugged not long ago in Detroit. When her neighbors found the culprits, they beat them up before handing them over.
Nobody invented the statistics about single-parent households, about whom the victims of black criminals are, about which segment of the population is most likely to die of gunshot wounds, but there was a troubling capitulation in the exhortations that black men accept responsibility for their families, swear as black men not to beat their wives, promise as black men not to abuse their children, vow as black men to give up guns, drugs, and violence, as if in order to project the news of the decent Black Man the assembled had first to humble themselves before an indictment, as if domestic violence and poverty were not also white problems. But we were supposed to concentrate on ourselves. We were made to hold up our hands if we had ever done wrong. We were told that most black children had never seen a black man at a computer, when the question should have been, what kind of equipment do these children have at the sorts of schools they attend.
Moral imperatives fell over us like tuna nets. The language about black religion and black pride was similar to that of twelve-step programs: we have surrendered to a power greater than ourselves. It is easy to abstain on Monday, and backsliding usually follows rebirth, but the speechmakers were preaching to the converted. Gang leaders stepped up to pledge themselves to a truce, but how different the day would have been had they been made to say, “We are not criminals,” rather than, “We will be good from now on,” because no one is more self-righteous than a drug dealer, white or black.
Most of the speechmakers offered lofty theology and therapy, but Al Sharpton’s hope was explicit: if the political story of 1994 was that of the angry white man, then get ready for the story of 1996, when the enlightened black man votes in a new Congress. No one was more eloquent in his concreteness than Jesse Jackson, who perhaps has been set free by Colin Powell’s visibility. Jails were the number-one growth industry in America, Jackson claimed. The annual budget for them had risen from $4 billion to $32 billion. For possession of five grams of crack an offender could get five years. Young black men comprised 94 percent of that category. For possession of five grams of cocaine powder an offender usually received probation. Eighty percent of such offenders were white males. To get five years for possession of marijuana, one had to have been caught with forty-five thousand dollars’ worth; to get five years for possession of cocaine in powder form, eight thousand dollars’ worth; to get five years for possession of crack, twenty-nine dollars’ worth. There are eight hundred thousand black men in jail and five hundred thousand in college, Jackson reminded us. Prison labor produces nine billion dollars a year in goods. “If it’s wrong in China, it’s wrong in Alabama.” He said that among the investors in new jails were American Express and General Electric, and that maybe the next march should be about them. “Clarence Thomas and Gingrich organized this march,” he finished to a storm of applause.
“Jesse turned it out,” the men around me were saying. Think of the number of black men who insisted when Clarence Thomas was nominated that we had to support him because he was black. Before Jackson spoke, the sentiment around me was that he was past his sell-by date. By the time he walked off, he’d come back a ways in Mall credibility. His short lesson had resonance with the crowd, as Stevie Wonder’s voice had moved them earlier in the day, but they were really just opening acts for the main event. By four o’clock people chanting “Farrakhan, Farrakhan” were being praised for their patience. His son, a militaristic figure, Assistant Supreme Captain of the Fruit of Islam, was drowned out by the tumult when he finally introduced his father a few speechmakers later.
Three years ago Farrakhan drew a larger crowd in Atlanta than the World Series, but that same year Wallace Deen Muhammad spoke at the Pentagon and then addressed the U.S. Senate. In 1993 Farrakhan tried very hard to get on the roster of speechmakers for the thirtieth-anniversary observances of the March on Washington, attended by more than had gone to the original march, but he was refused. The Million Man March was his one-upmanship for having been excluded, as well as the fulfillment of his dream. After all, the Mall is where the coronation is held, even if King had been down at the Lincoln Memorial end. Audiences segregated by gender used to be common at Nation of Islam happenings. But the former calypso singer, the narcissist who launched a line of skin-care products in 1986, has been selling wolf tickets for so long that he was ill-prepared to play the benevolent patriarch. His debut in the sun was an anticlimax, like a tedious riverboat ride tourists regret after they’ve made such an effort to get to a place they’ve heard was so spectacular.
Farrakhan struck the pose of a history decoder and decipherer, the one who would break it all down for us. He added up 16 and 3, because this had to do with the date slaves landed at Jamestown, the height of the Lincoln Memorial, and the fact that Jefferson was the third president. It added up to the height of the Washington Monument, that obelisk shape, he interrupted pedagogically, lifted from black Egypt. Washington, a grand master of the Masonic order, and Jefferson both owned slaves; Lincoln had been ambivalent about emancipation. Hardly Masonic secrets. “What is so deep about number 19? When you have a 9 you have a woman that is pregnant. One means something secret that has to be unfolded.” That we were looking where he told us to look and listening to what he was telling us revealed only that we were less confident as citizens than he was as a self-promoter.
Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America has been retired to the cultural vaults, rather like certain founding Mormon texts that have become an inconvenience, and we don’t hear much these days about Yacub, the mad scientist back in time who was expelled from Mecca and then invented white people. Farrakhan’s address contained little straight Nation of Islam doctrine and not much orthodox Muslim belief either, apart from some liturgical phrases suitably provocative because they came from him. His knowing smile as he went on about Nebuchadnezzar and Josephus, and master builders getting hit on the head, reminded me of a story a friend told me about Farrakhan showing up at The Washington Post, where he talked a great deal about spaceships. The spaceships were left out of the published interview. Thomas Jefferson believed in the existence of extraterrestrials, but that’s not what concerns us about him, not what he’s famous for. We tend to listen to Farrakhan from a predisposition, either a determination or a refusal to find the lunatic riches, ready to engage in a war of contexts. But Farrakhan was convinced by the sheer presence of so many that he was adored, and this provided all the context for his words that anyone needed to understand him.
Farrakhan’s scarcely unusual rhetorical strategy is to declare himself the outsider persecuted for his outspoken truthfulness. Believing in him proves the bravery of his audience. In the end, only what works to his advantage reflects credit on his audience. This may come from habit, from the experience of having navigated the higher echelons of the Nation of Islam. Much is made of his shrewdness as a publicist, but what he has most clearly demonstrated is an ability to wait, to outlast everyone in the field. The reason he is under threat, his strategy goes, is that he has something important to tell his audience, something his enemies don’t want them to hear.
Farrakhan pretended to quote from a letter written in 1612 by one Willie Lynch, a slave master. “In my bag I have a foolproof method for controlling the slaves.” The words Farrakhan attributed to Lynch were not in the style of the seventeenth century. No doubt he assumed that everyone understood the letter was apocryphal, a parable about fear, envy, and distrust, the means by which blacks are kept disunited. Lynch was made to say that he pitted older males against younger males, men against women, and so on. “I take these differences and I make them bigger.… The black slave after receiving this indoctrination shall carry it on.” That, Farrakhan explained, is why black pastors and educators remained under the “control mechanism of former slave masters and their children.” In other words, the black leaders most likely to oppose him have a heritage of being brainwashed. However, in spite of all the divisiveness, he said, black people had survived, as if the sacred purpose of the sons of Garvey had been to endure and one day make a pilgrimage to Washington, where he, Farrakhan, would expose his light.
There is often just enough historical truth in Farrakhan’s uses of history. Slaves were separated from other slaves who spoke the same language; educated blacks were trained up to bourgeois ways. But the import of the history lesson was in its application to himself. The Lynch letter served Farrakhan by dignifying his warnings about division. By locating disunity in the historical conspiracy of whites against blacks, he showed that acclaiming him was not a personal but a collective triumph over those who did not want to see blacks united. “We are a wounded people, but we are being healed.”
The elaborate process by which blacks could heal themselves involved coming into “a state of recognition that you are in the wrong.” The aim of confession, forgiveness, and atonement was a more perfect union with God. But his prophecy, his healing, turned out to be a rehash of personal reform—black pride as inner peace, black pride as the foundation of domestic order—mixed with black capitalism, as if he were addressing a population of small retailers rather than low-wage earners. Once again, everything referred immediately back to him. “When you’re sick, you want the doctor to make the correct diagnosis. You don’t smack the doctor.” However, the person who points out what is wrong with us as social beings is hated and misunderstood, especially by those who have become “entrenched in evil” and been made arrogant by power. He has been mistreated for our sake. The difference between his message and the same message from others in the past was that he was not a false prophet.
The atmosphere was like that of those concerts where nostalgic fans, waiting to embrace the electrified Greatest Hits, concede the new, wobbly, acoustical tunes. The crowd relished the showmanship in Farrakhan asking each of us to take out a dollar bill, to hold it up, to wave it in the air, a display of our potential economic power, and to keep it there until his officials arrived with slit cartons for us to jam the money into. But some two hours later, when he was searching for yet another way to tell us why we were afflicted and why we were ready to come out of the furnace, I noticed men packing up their coolers and walking away.
Farrakhan directed to the appropriate sign-up booth those who were willing to adopt some of the thousands of black children in the United States who needed homes. He announced his voter registration drive, as if such drives had not been the main activity of black groups for the past thirty years. But he was the seer who could also get things done. He promised to get an outside accounting firm to scrutinize every dollar he’d collected, saying that he wanted to “open the coat” to show he did not have a hidden agenda. In the distance I saw people leaving in droves, rather like the rush for the parking lot at a sports event when the outcome is assured before the end of play. Farrakhan’s voice followed us down to the sidewalk. It ambushed us from car radios, from hotel televisions.
On a day supposedly devoted to self-criticism Farrakhan did not offer much of an apology for his uses of anti-Semitism. He claimed that he pointed out the evil in black people as no other black leader did and that black people didn’t call him anti-black or “a purveyor of malice” for it. “They know I must love them.” He left out that he tends to paint those blacks who don’t acknowledge his leadership as anti-black. He was trying to imply that he was no harder on Jews than he was on blacks. He expressed gratitude for Moses and the Torah among “the servants of Allah” and said he did not want to “squabble” with Jewish leaders anymore. Farrakhan’s olive branch was so tentative because, having set up a refusal to back down as the litmus test, he couldn’t be seen to be doing so.
A key to unity these days is a group’s perception of itself as being disliked and surrounded. Fear is a part of fund-raising for Jewish groups and Jewish charities. Exploiting that fear has been a part of Farrakhan’s career. It was clear, for instance, that the Anti-Defamation League would not let his baiting remarks over the years go unchallenged, but had Farrakhan gone on about white people in general all this time, he would not have gotten half the attention. He wanted a way to inject himself into public consciousness. He could then advertise the reactions as evidence of his dynamism.
Most white men find it hard to imagine that a black man could think of himself as using them, just as few black people can admit that a black man who comes on as so rebellious could be using them. Because of historical pieties and griefs, many people assume that a black man is telling the truth if he sounds harsh enough, just as many assume that someone willing to express anti-Semitism in public is being honest. There are, of course, black anti-Semites, Jewish anti-Semites, and white anti-Semites, just as there are blacks, Jews, and whites who don’t like blacks. Some familiar anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have been circulated by whites prominent in the Christian Right, which has put Jewish neoconservatives in an awkward position.
But the liberal coalition of blacks and Jews in electoral politics has suffered most. Maybe the coalition was falling apart anyway, but Farrakhan has never wrecked a Jewish politician. He has caused problems for a few black ones. James Forman, the executive director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and now president of the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee in Washington, pointed out that three days before the last mayoral election in New York City, Farrakhan applied for a permit to hold a rally that he later called off. David Dinkins was thus embroiled in a dispute over Farrakhan’s right to the permit. If it didn’t cost him votes, Forman said, it diverted some of his energies. Farrakhan has touched several bases and tainted them all in the process.
Farrakhan’s leadership seems fresh because it is untried. He seems like a truth teller because he can pretend to candor. As Murray Kempton once said, there must be a little of Malcolm X in every black, and that is what Farrakhan finds and goads. He can appear to let go and to let loose in a manner that many who come to hear him can’t when on the job or in the street. Other black figures seem ineffectual because they are circumspect in public or bogged down in consensus politics while not much changes for the majority of blacks. Farrakhan can remain as unapologetic as Jesse Helms. But the troops toward whom Farrakhan behaved as though he were pacifying them may find him no different as a spokesman in the wider world than other blacks already there. In a way Farrakhan is in a position similar to that of Malcolm X when he left the Nation of Islam and complained that his followers wouldn’t let him turn a corner.
James Baldwin once said that the protest novel, far from being upsetting, was a comfort to U.S. society, and something of the same applies to Farrakhan: adversarial, menacing in tone, as if in telepathic communication with a black rage that he can harness or unleash as easily as turning on a faucet. Whites like to think there is someone in control of the taps of emotion, but Farrakhan also confirms the image of the black as separate, not a part of things, not to be trusted. The moment when a civil rights figure could be elected to high office has perhaps passed. Colin Powell’s military career would have solved a problem almost without bringing it up. His institutional background was reassuring, a promise that he represented something larger than the special interests of blacks, as if civil rights or economic aid were not concerns for whites.
Malcolm X told Coretta Scott King that he was so militant because he wanted the government to think that the only alternative to him was dealing with a moderate-seeming man like King. But Farrakhan has no intention of sacrificing himself so that someone else can be influential. He was quick to put President Clinton’s speech on race relations earlier that afternoon in Texas into his Million Man March address. He treated Clinton’s remarks as an attempt to negotiate with him in some way, a sign of the weakness of the civil rights movement that he is able to exploit. When Ben Chavis was executive director of the NAACP, having defeated Jackson for the post, he was criticized when he invited Farrakhan to a symposium of black leaders. Perhaps Chavis included Farrakhan because of his popularity among the young. When a sex scandal later forced Chavis to resign, he landed in Farrakhan’s camp. James Forman doubted that Farrakhan could have organized the Million Man March without Chavis’s connections. The logistics would have been beyond his expertise. Now Farrakhan can do himself what the big civil rights groups used to do.
The most disturbing thing Farrakhan said all day came at the end of his speech, disguised as a benevolent idea. He said the mainstream groups hadn’t supported him. “So what?” He said he didn’t need to be in any mainstream. The mainstream was sitting in boardrooms, out of touch with reality, he said, even though most black groups are grassroots in structure. “I don’t need you to validate me. My people have validated me.” He proposed setting up an economic development fund with the money raised from the March and from future marches. Maybe its board, he said, would be composed of the leadership onstage with him. One of the things the fund could do would be to “free” the Urban League and the NAACP. He could imagine, he said, going to Myrlie Evers-Williams, the executive director of the NAACP, and asking what was the NAACP’s budget for that year. “Thirteen million? Fifteen million? Write her a check.” Then, he said, the NAACP would be accountable to the board of his economic development fund.
Farrakhan was suggesting that he buy out and buy off the black organization that has been most prominent in the history of desegregation, an organization that, because of its prestige, however battered lately, has blocked his way by remaining critical, opposed, unconvinced. Blocked his way to what? So much of what Farrakhan has to say is not only about black America’s plight but about his status in the mainstream he affects to despise and to find so irrelevant. He comes from that old-fashioned world where race politics represented one of the few career opportunities open to blacks. But his is also a generation that still thinks there can be only one hand at the faucets of emotion. Blacks used to have a nickname for Booker T. Washington, who very much saw himself, and was seen by whites, as the mediator between North and South, black and white, the one who went to the White House and reported back: HNIC, Head Nigger in Charge. Perhaps that was why when Farrakhan repeated that he—and God—deserved credit for the March, he was expressing an insecurity as much as he was gloating.
In every issue Farrakhan sees a Farrakhan-shaped hole. He said he hadn’t come to Washington to tear the country down. The country was tearing itself down. Derrick Bell, who attended the March but was not among the speechmakers, said he disagreed with those who objected to the March because it seemed like little more than an imitation of the conservative ideology called family values. He said he hoped that the Christian Right did not have a monopoly on such things. Blacks are not necessarily society’s natural liberals, contrary to stubborn fears and even more persistent expectations, but Farrakhan’s ambition to create yet another religious political force also draws attention away from the secular civil rights movement. Farrakhan and black conservatives agree on what they see as the corruption to black souls in looking to government for solutions to their problems. That the atonement Farrakhan offered turned out to be along the guidelines of moral choice and community responsibility is very agreeable to whites in a political climate hostile to affirmative action and the like. Thurgood Marshall as a litigator was more of a threat to the status quo than Farrakhan will ever be, because Marshall could win in the courts. Perhaps that was why Marshall dismissed one of Clarence Thomas’s heroes, Malcolm X, as little more than talk.
The morning after the March I went back to the Capitol. There were a few men here and there taking last photographs of themselves at the monuments that had been coated with people the day before. Traces of straws, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, and plastic rings from bottles glinted in the grass. People had collected the garbage into heaps, but the wind had blown it around during the night. A fifty-nine-year-old black groundskeeper said he thought the March was uplifting, but he was reluctant to say too much because he worked for those people “up on the Hill.” He went back to his rake. All through the thirteen-hour shower of sweeping phrases about self-reliance I’d kept thinking that there has never been a time in U.S. history when blacks did not depend on self-help. As Du Bois once said to Booker T., blacks have had self-help for ages, and what he wanted to know was, what had it done for them so far. Between the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Castle seagulls scavenged where all those men had stood.
These days, Message to the Blackman in America is available through Amazon.
Copyright © 2019 by Darryl Pinckney
Foreword copyright © 2019 by Zadie Smith