Queen for a Day?

Against my wishes, the Million Man March proceeded as planned. The
organizers did not notice that Minister Louis Farrakhan’s
anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, sexist, and homosexual-baiting
racism had left me ‘unable to support’ the march. Not ‘opposed to’
it, but unable, in good conscience, to let its supporters have any
peace. A million brothers united for peace and atonement is every
sister’s dream. But under a banner borne by Benjamin Chavis and
Farrakhan? Surely we demean ourselves and insult our fellow
Americans with such company. And why must those they claim to be
honoring remain behind; why not apologize to our faces?

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).

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