Joy and Doubt on the Mall

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.

In short, were he alive today, I fear that Uncle Moonie would be
profoundly disappointed in me. Still, those tears welling in my
eyes at the sight of ‘our brothers’ on the Mall might have given
him hope that I could yet be redeemed. The tingle that ran up my
spine as I beheld that massive assembly of beautiful black men
seeking unity and spiritual uplift caused me to hope, for a
fleeting moment, that I could, at long last, go home again.My
pre-march analysis was a tight little piece of amateur political
theory that ran as follows: The problem with the Million Man March
is that it mixes communal and political activities inappropriately.
As a communal matter, a religiously motivated gathering of men
seeking to commit themselves to reconstruction and renewal in their
personal lives and in their respective neighborhoods, it is highly
commendable. However, as a political matter, gathering on the Mall
at the site of the great 1963 march on Washington-but now as black
men and not as Americans, under the leadership of a Louis Farrakhan
not a Martin Luther King-is deeply problematic. The sacrifice of
liberal democratic ideals, and the separatist message, are too high
a price to pay for getting our cultural trains to run on time.

Yet, when it was put to the test on the Mall, this elegant bit
of theory seemed to collapse instantly under the weight of a single
fact: At least half a million African-American men had solemnly,
prayerfully assembled to affirm their intention to take
responsibility for the condition of their people.

As a social critic, I have called for many years for the civil
rights leadership to reorient itself from a focus on the ‘enemy
without,’ white racism, toward the ‘enemy within,’ the
dysfunctional behaviors of young black men and women that prevent
too many from capitalizing on existing opportunity. Well, here were
some 5 percent of the national black male population, together in
one place, supporting this very idea. Standing there, and listening
to their collective affirmations, I found it hard to deny that the
conception and execution of this event had been a work of genius.
In the heat of those moments, I felt confused about my ideals and
commitments and deeply ashamed to have spoken against the
march.

Still, there is another way to look at the march. Despite my
emotions on the Mall, I still think that a phenomenon that seemed
like the salvation of black Americans is, upon closer examination,
no such thing at all.

Begin with a simple question: How did it come to pass that this
great moment in American cultural politics was orchestrated by the
demagogic leader of a black fascist sect, while no other nationally
prominent black leader could have pulled it off? The answer is
twofold: First, Farrakhan, whatever one thinks of him, is a
religious leader, speaking to a flock desperate to hear an
explicitly spiritual appeal. The Nation of Islam has a track record
of ‘turning the souls’ of a great many underclass men, especially
in prisons. In contrast, liberal black political leaders,
ironically drawn substantially from the clergy, have checked their
theologically conservative Christian witness at the door of the
Democratic Party. In coalitions with feminists, gays, and radical
secularists, and in reaction against the politics of the religious
right, they have muted their voices on social issues, leaving a
void in black public life that Minister Farrakhan has adroitly
filled.

Second, Farrakhan’s message of spiritual uplift is deeply rooted
in a white-man-has-done-us-wrong grievance politics. He does not
ask blacks to give up the latter as he proffers the former. In
this, he is being faithful to his teacher, the Honorable Elijah
Muhammad, who taught that the white man is a blue-eyed devil, a
mutant breed created by the mad scientist Yakub and allowed by God
to rule over the (superior) black man until such time as the black
man returns to the true faith. No serious persons, inside the
Nation of Islam or out, could take this literally. But the premise
that our reason for being is the fact of our enslavement and
subsequent persecution anchors all that the Nation of Islam
undertakes. This narrow, reactive self-conception is glorified as
manly, truth-telling, clear-eyed realism.

Thus, forcing myself to listen carefully to what the speakers at
this massive gathering actually said, I began to fear that, the
emotion of the moment notwithstanding, nothing will really change.
We all pray that half a million inspired black men will return to
their cities and towns, redouble their efforts, and with the help
of their women create nurturing families and community-based
institutions that will change the awful facts on the ground. But do
we have any warrant, based upon what was said from the podium–much
of it clichéd, resentful, and conspiracy-laden — to believe this
will transpire?

Uncle Moonie has been dead nearly 15 years now. His was a
different, harder time for black men. That he admired Elijah
Muhammad is not surprising, given the context of his life. Now,
removed from the passions of the march, and having had the
opportunity to reflect, I believe that my passionate rejection of
racial essentialism was right for me and, given the context of our
lives today, is right for ‘my people.’ The American people, that
is.There are now one and a half million Americans behind bars. This
seems to me a tragedy of enormous proportions. Our cities are
filled with poor, uneducated young people, wandering the streets
aimlessly and without hope. This is a blight that graphically
reveals the failure of our political leadership. We now celebrate
in our politics the state-sanctioned, eye-for-an-eye taking of
human life via capital punishment and the arbitrary locking away
for a lifetime of those who have made but three mistakes. I think
that this is an abomination unworthy of a civilized nation. So do
the organizers of the march. But, unlike them, I do not believe
that our outrage should depend on the racial identity of those who
suffer. What is morally significant is that they are human; their
claim on our attention derives from this fact alone.

The call of the tribe is seductive, but ultimately it is a siren
call. As comforting as the prospect may seem, the truth, for all of
us, is that we can’t go home again. For blacks, as Ralph Ellison
has taught us, ‘our task is that of making ourselves individuals…
We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great
astonishment we will have created a culture. Why waste time
creating a conscience for something [that] doesn’t exist? For you
see, blood and skin do not think.’

This is the fundamental point. Skin and blood do not think or
dream or love or pray. The ‘conscience of the race’ must be
constructed from the inside out, one person at a time. I did not
hear this sentiment expressed by a single speaker at the Million
Man March.


Glenn C. Loury is professor of economics at Boston University
and the author most recently of One by One from the Inside Out:
Race and Responsibility in America
(Free Press).

Reprinted with permission from The New Republic (Nov. 6,
1995).


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