Masses of Men

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What does it mean that many men are gathering now, as men? Why did black men respond in such great numbers to the call of Louis Farrakhan to come to Washington to hear him exhort them to take back their role in the black family? 'Put down your gun and pick up your baby,' read one placard at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Why are so many men filling stadiums at Promise Keepers gtherings across America to declare their fealty to God, family, and interestingly, each other?

I think the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March have attracted so many men for reasons few observers have noted, and the organizers and participants themselves may not even realize. The way I see it, men are massing these days because they're confused, they don't know who they are or what their role is in the family and the community. They come because the Promise Keepers and Farrakhan acknowledge their confusion and offer clear visions of a way out. The patriarchal palliatives offered in these gatherings may be regressive and dangerous; but I don't believe these conservative visions are what these gatherings are really about. Men may be drawn to Farrakhan and the Promise Keepers for the vision, but they stay because of the tears.

These gatherings give men an opportunity to grieve. The Million Man March, as Glenn Loury reports in this issue, left a sea of tears on our nation's capital. And as Jeff Wagenheim saw, Promise Keeper gatherings are not all sweetness and light.

Robert Bly said it years ago: Men learn to be men from each other by sharing their grief. Men find their power -- paradoxically -- by making themselves vulnerable through the sharing of their pain, confusion, and bewilderment, their sense of abandonment by their fathers, their inadequacy and shame as husbands and lovers, and their estrangement from their children. By talking and failing together with other men.

The Promise Keepers and Farrakhan are offering men a choice to gather with other men and feel their pain. This is a very rare opportunity in a culture where men are raised to compete and to withhold feelings of vulnerability, even from themselves. There are 130 million jobs in America today, 90 million of which are threatened with technological extinction in the next decade or two. Man as the breadwinner of the family is already an anachronistic anomaly -- in the majority of American households today both parents work full-time. Being tough, macho, or the strong silent type keeps the pain and confusion buttoned up. Men need to feel and express their pain, not just with a woman who's willing to offer a sympathic ear, but -- and here's the risky part -- with other men. The Promise Keepers and Farrakhan's march weren't advertised as therapy or healing, but in essence that's what the men who attended the gatherings received. Now, we might ask, where will men who are turned off by the patriarchal messages of Farrakhan and the Promise Keepers turn to safely share their fears, to find their own sense of solidarity and support?

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