As the march neared, I feared the worst: whites, whipped into a post-O.J. frenzy, blowing something else up; swaggering black youths expressing their newfound pride as racial and sexual aggression; our women working that much harder while our men attend male-only meetings. In this pre-election year, I dreaded the political fallout most of all. I foresaw a direct relationship between the number of marchers and the number of new prisons planned. And then, just before the march, I went shopping.
My sister, her husband, and my nephew had driven in from St. Louis so I needed something in the fridge besides beer and portobello mushrooms. Laden with packages, I struggled from the supermarket behind three young black men who looked back briefly when one of my bags toppled. One of them stopped, grabbed the other's arm, and gestured toward me. 'We should... do something?' he whispered with almost comic intensity. He looked 18 and scared to death of me.
The others stopped, blocking my path and looking stupidly around. Brainstorm. 'The door! I'll hold the door!'
The pattern kept repeating itself. Black men stepping aside with exaggerated courtesy to let me pass, black men giving me their Metro seats, black men calling me 'sister' instead of 'baby.' Not all, not even most, but a very noticeable few.
I followed the march's progress in the media and my own excitement grew; clearly, we were groping not for Minister Farrakhan but for unity and self-respect. By the time my family arrived, I was still 'unable to support' the march, but much less vigorously. We stayed up all night while they told me of the caravans heading for D.C. and the camaraderie they shared with these strangers on the road. People had helped each other with repairs and places to sleep; they'd shared food, child care, directions, life stories. My criticisms seemed like non sequiturs to them.
'We didn't come to join the Nation,' my brother-in-law told me in a tone that suggested I might actually be misinformed.
At the march, my sister and I roamed that ocean of black manhood for eight transfixed hours. It was the happiest, most peaceful solemnity I will ever witness. We saw no alcohol, no empty liquor containers (although I did smell marijuana once). There was almost none of that male horseplay and loud talk that characterizes typical social situations -- the brothers were serious and subdued.
There were so few women, we turned heads all day. We grew hoarse returning the respectful greetings, we starred on camcorders and posed for innumerable photos. Few seemed to resent our presence; rather, their eyes widened, their feet stumbled, and their hands grew awkward. They were embarrassed. All our dirty little secrets were being aired today, and there didn't seem to be a man on the Mall who could look at us without seeing the women they'd left at home to do the scut work. Paths opened before us; chairs appeared from nowhere; men yanked their sons aside saying, 'Boy, let your auntie by.' For an entire, righteous day I was 'auntie,' I was 'sister,' I was 'daughter.' Not 'bitch,' not 'ho,' not 'sweet thang.'
If a man brushed against me, I knew it was only to steady me as he passed. My purse swung loose and unzipped as it bulged with souvenirs. I had no fear of drunken brawls, no dread of macho confrontations, no insults to be borne silently. I could initiate conversations, meet my brothers' eyes, and smile as they neared. Or, what was even better, chastise that lone disrespectful man, confident that he would slink away ashamed.
America is right to hold us responsible for the company we keep, and our answer must be the same it gave us about Afrikaner apartheid -- concerted, sincere constructive engagement. Farrakhan is not the best we can do, he's just, unfortunately, the best we can do right now. Deserving leaders will emerge, and we'll stabilize our moral core again. One rally won't cure black America of its ills but, when all was said and done, I found myself standing proud, unafraid and disobedient among a million of my brothers -- and finally able to support the march.
Reprinted with permission from The New Republic (Nov. 6, 1995).