Joy and Doubt on the Mall

The Million Man March and me

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Try to understand my problem. I am a black intellectual of moderate to conservative political instincts. Unlike many of my racial brethren, I have been denouncing the anti-Semitism of Minister Louis Farrakhan for over a decade. I was willing to state for the record my reservations about, and objections to, the Million Man March. I promiscuously expounded my view that it would not be possible to separate the message from the messenger and that, in any case, a race- and sex-exclusive march would send the wrong message. In short, my credentials as a 'deracinated Negro,' able to steadfastly resist the call of the tribe, are impeccable.

Imagine my surprise, then, when on the day before the march, as I walked along the Mall from the White House toward the Capitol encountering other black men in town for the event, I found myself becoming misty. I watched these 'brothers,' in clusters of two or three or six, from Philadelphia and Norfolk and my own hometown of Chicago, wandering among the museums and monuments like the tourists they were, cameras in hand, and the sight brought tears to my eyes. The march had not even begun and already powerful sentiments, long buried inside me, were being resurrected. I knew then that I was in trouble.

Here were young black guys, the same ones occasionally mistaken by belligerent police officers or frightened passersby for threats to public safety because of the color of their skin and the swagger of their gait, scrambling up the steps and lounging between the columns of the National Gallery building, some even checking out the 'Whistler and His Contemporaries' show on display inside. And there were others sharing an excited expectancy with Japanese tourists and rural whites as we all waited in line to tour the White House. Taking in these various scenes, an obvious but profound thought occurred to me: This is their country, too. So, embarrassed that I needed to remind myself of this fact, I wept.

The next day, as I beheld hundreds of thousands of black men gathering in a crowd that ultimately stretched from the steps of the Capitol back toward the Washington Monument, I would be even more deeply moved. Everything that has been said about the discipline and dignity of the gathering, and the spirit of camaraderie that pervaded it, is true. It was a glorious, uplifting day, and I was swept up in it along with everyone else. It almost did not matter what was being said from the podium. For the first time in years, as the drums beat and the crowd swayed, I heard the call of the tribe, big time.

Mingling in that throng, my thoughts drifted back to my late Uncle Moonie, the husband of my mother's sister, who, as head of the extended household in which I was raised, exerted a powerful influence on me in my formative years. Uncle Moonie, so called because his large, round eyes protruded like half-moons beneath his often-furrowed brow, was a barber, part-time hustler, and admirer (though not a follower) of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, an early leader of the Nation of Islam. My uncle kicked a nasty heroin habit in his youth and went on to achieve what was for his generation of black men an impressive degree of financial security.

Fiercely proud and independent, he constantly railed against 'the white man,' and he never tired of berating those blacks who looked to 'white folk' for their salvation. Occasionally he would take me with him to the state prison for his monthly visits with one or another of his incarcerated friends. 'There but for the grace of God go you or I,' he would say. He encouraged me in an intelligent militancy and even sought to extend his influence from beyond the grave by bequeathing to me one of his most cherished possessions-a complete set of the recorded speeches of Malcolm X. Had Uncle Moonie lived to attend this march, he would have thought it the greatest experience of his life.

To be sure, my uncle would not have understood my public criticism of the march, or of Minister Louis Farrakhan, for that matter. He was no great fan of the nonviolent philosophy of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He much preferred the straight-backed, unapologetic defiance of Malcolm. He would have been puzzled that I could find the opinions of 'white folks' worth taking into account. He would have rejected the notion of fealty to ethical and political principles transcending my sense of racial loyalty.

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