I can still remember how Bly, using a fairy tale called 'Iron John' as a model for men's lives, insisted on the importance of men's rites of passage: 'The ancient societies believed that a boy becomes a man only through ritual and effort -- that he must be initiated into the world of men.'
I was captivated by this idea, inspired by its challenge, its sense of mystery, and its connotation of primordial truths. Still, I didn't agree with all of Bly's thinking, especially his traditionalist assumptions about the 'true essence' of manhood and what seemed to me a propensity to pick and choose motifs from world mythology, buttressing a romanticized view of primal cultures and their rituals. (Also, Bly's emphasis on the ritualized hard work of 'making' masculinity made me wonder whether I had even the energy for manhood.)
Fourteen years later, a magazine assignment took me among 50,000 Christian men chanting, singing, and shouting the praises of Jesus at the Oakland Coliseum. Two weeks after that, I sat glued to C-SPAN's coverage of the black-men-only Million Man March in Washington, D.C. In both cases, I ended with feelings every bit as mixed as my response to Bly's 'mythopoetic' men's movement.
Journalist Jeff Wagenheim, reporting on the predominantly white male Promise Keepers, and author Glenn C. Loury, on hand for the overwhelmingly black Million Man March, saw what I saw: two mass gatherings where men began breaking down the isolation that keeps them fearful of their own masculinity and looking for ways to prove they're 'real' men. On the other hand, leaders of both gatherings -- Bill McCartney and Louis Farrakhan -- are on record in favor of discrimination against gays. As for the womenfolk, well, clearly men must reclaim the upper hand.
Says who? Why is it so difficult for so many of us to imagine a path other than domination, at one extreme, and submission at the other? What's wrong with partnership? Why should attorney Debra Dickerson, whose poignant essay appears in the following pages, have to express astonishment that for one 'entire, righteous day,' the day of the Million Man March, she found herself addressed by black males respectfully: as 'auntie,' 'sister,' and 'daughter,' not once as 'bitch,' 'ho,' or 'sweet thang'?
Clearly, we're living in anxious times. Once upon a time, masculinity was tacitly defined in terms of the extent to which men had control over their labor and could be self-reliant in the workplace. If a man failed, he could always head 'West' -- geographically, metaphorically -- in search of a new frontier. A self-made man could always start over.
Today, an increasingly mechanized and bureaucratic workplace offers little true autonomy. With the civil rights crusade of the 1960s, followed by the rise of the women's movement and the gay and lesbian movements, the homosocial world of the traditional workplace has a new visitor: the 'other.'
Surely, anxiety about these shifts accounts for part of the resurgent appeal of men-only events, especially for middle-class straight white men in their late 20s through their 40s, the mainstay of Promise Keepers (and of Bly's 'mythopoetic' men's movement). Still, economics is only part of the story; something else is going on.
'Responsibility' is the watchword of the growing evangelical men's movement, just as 'atonement' was a crucial theme of the Million Man March. What shifts might this return to male virtue foretell? Hopefully, a new masculine frontier -- this time not so far from home. There are babies and young children to be cared for, equally by men and women. Raising our voices in unison, we could be a mighty tide for changing hours of work and promotion rules to make that possible.
Looking further, we could work to discredit domestic violence, gay bashing, and sexual assault. We could stand up -- white men and minority men together, also women and men together -- against the systematic economic disenfranchisement of those who didn't have the time, the energy, the money, or the hope to join the millions who marched on Washington.
All this could happen. The choice is ours.