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Marching in Place

The politics of atonement

As plans were under way in Washington early this fall for the twentieth anniversary commemoration of the Million Man March—a curious kind of political revival meeting set for the National Mall in October—one could not help but notice: there wasn’t nearly as much chatter and hum leading up to this event as there was for its predecessor. The 1995 edition of the march doubled as something of a media coming-out party for incendiary Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. It was, by any measure, a successful mass mobilization, even if its specific aims were hard to pin down. The gathering, which drew somewhere between 400,000 and 850,000 people, was intended to highlight urban minority voter registration while getting the nation’s leaders to focus on the woes of inner-city black communities. In large part, though, the symbolic mission of the event was right there in its title: to marshal a dramatic confluence of black men in the nation’s capital, pledging allegiance en masse to the sturdy American values of self-help and family responsibility.

By contrast, this newer Million Man March, which promised to be open to “people of all races, ethnic backgrounds and sexual preferences” carried a tagline, “Justice or Else.” That sentiment clearly aligns the event with the recent resurgence of civil rights activism following the high-profile incidents of excessive police force against unarmed black citizens in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, and many other communities. The spontaneous demonstrations in the wake of court verdicts clearing policemen of criminal charges in some of these cases have reenergized black protest for a new generation of millennial activists—and not exactly in ways that jibe with the traditional, petitionary modes of Washington dissent that were epitomized, and in some ways misappropriated, by the first Million Man March. It’s a bit as though the original march’s organizers were priming themselves for a stirring confrontation with the white power structure, with the same import as the galvanic 1965 Selma demonstrations, and managed instead to put together for the public’s scrutiny and approval a diorama of placidly sober black family life.

In less than a year, this newest wave of black protest has given rise to the influential (if loosely organized) Black Lives Matter movement, which has drawn demonstrators both black and white into a fresh round of challenges to a deeply compromised and racialized regime of law enforcement and incarceration. The BLM movement has thrust itself in troublesome and troublemaking fashion into the public campaign spectacles mounted by such prominent white presidential aspirants as Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump (billionaire blowhard, media darling, and—therefore—early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination).

This tense atmosphere of mutually assured misapprehension is, arguably, the clearest point of continuity between the two Million Man Marches. Back in October 1995, there were plenty of white people who seemed threatened by the mere prospect of a million black men from all over the country gathering on the National Mall, even if they were there to lawfully—and quietly, as the march’s organizers insisted—assemble around the themes of “atonement,” “reconciliation,” and “responsibility.”

And for the most part, these nervous whites focused on the one man in particular who was calling the gathering to order: Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam and self-anointed legatee to the black separatist vision of the Nation’s early leader Elijah Muhammad. It’s difficult to recall, now that we’re walking the back nine of the second Obama administration, how uncomfortable Farrakhan made white Americans with his apocalyptic rhetoric, which would veer every so often into the anti-Semitic. (He had infamously dubbed Judaism “a gutter religion.”)

I didn’t go to the march, partly because I didn’t believe I had anything to “atone” for.

Still, for many African Americans, a reliable track record of making white people uncomfortable was enough to certify Farrakhan as someone worth listening to, even following. Never mind that, in strict ideological terms, the agenda Farrakhan proposed for his people was as preoccupied with individual responsibility and family values as any Reagan-era Republican whitepaper. And much like the patriarchs of the white mainstream religious right, Farrakhan was intent on using the trappings of his influence to dramatize his own inflated sense of spiritual virtue over and above any intelligible platform of reform, redress, or redistribution.

Along with onetime executive director of the NAACP Benjamin Chavis and other more traditional civil rights leaders, Farrakhan conceived the march as an effort to raise self-esteem among its participants. More specifically, the gathering was meant to dispel widespread negative stereotypes of black male behavior—stereotypes reinforced that same year by the often manic media attention devoted to O. J. Simpson’s murder trial. In those not-so-long-ago days, the respective sins of Willie Horton, Mike Tyson, and even poor Rodney King had been conscripted into pasteboard culture-war service as props in a reductive but enormously powerful caricature of African American manhood as an unstable compound of anger, law-breaking, and domestic assault.

In other words, what appeared to bring black men of varied means and motivations to the National Mall that day was a call for them to concede guilt for, or at least complicity in, real or imagined transgressions alleged by others while at the same time rededicating themselves to being better people.

Day of Atonement

I didn’t go, partly because I didn’t believe I had anything to “atone” for. But then, neither did most of the brothers I knew who made the trip to D.C. that day. These friends were good husbands, fathers, and dedicated wage earners from New England, New York, and Philadelphia, where I’d come to know them. So why did they go? I later asked them. They generally said it wasn’t to make amends or to accept even more responsibility than they’d taken on as workaday family men. Instead, they told me they wanted to bear witness and find communion with other black men who for varied reasons needed to be part of a joint assertion of their often besieged identities. (Get on the Bus, a 1996 feature film about a cross-country trip to the march—directed by Spike Lee and written by Reggie Rock Bythewood—replicates this sense of mutual camaraderie while acknowledging the differences in age, class, religion, and attitude among those who showed up.) As with most such events, especially those steeped in racial pride, the march promised to gratify participants’ shared desire to “feel good” about being themselves—which, whatever its other benefits, is a lot different from the need to challenge a status quo stubbornly perceiving black men as, in Ishmael Reed’s words, “sacrificial lambs for male evil.”

There were speakers on the Mall that day who submitted such direct challenges—most notably Jesse Jackson, who, by stressing in his remarks the pernicious growth of the American prison industry, made it clear to anyone listening where a fair portion of blame could be placed for demonizing and diminishing black manhood. But if those attending and hyping the march expected it to somehow confirm Farrakhan’s preeminence among African American leaders, they were in for a perplexing surprise. The minister used his I-Have-a-Dream moment for an extended paranoid rant remembered today more for its arcane references to Masonic conspiracies and numerology than for, well, anything else. As Darryl Pinckney wrote in his New York Review of Books account of the march:

The former calypso singer, the narcissist who launched a line of skin-care products in 1986, has been selling wolf tickets for so long that he was ill-prepared to play the benevolent patriarch. His debut in the sun was an anticlimax, like a tedious river-boat ride tourists regret after they’ve made such an effort to get to a place they’ve heard was so spectacular.

Farrakhan, from that day forward, recovered neither his leadership capital among black folks nor his capacity to alarm white folks.

The legacy of Farrakhan’s march is harder to assess given events of the intervening two decades—or perhaps more accurately, it’s too painful to confront. And the urgent grievances taken up by Black Lives Matter and its allies make one wonder just what it was that all those black men who showed up on the Mall twenty years ago had to account or apologize for in the first place.

The Dad Dodge

Let’s review: for all its accompanying media perceptions of Farrakhan as a politically transgressive figure, the Million Man March largely ratified a prevailing view, achieving peak acceptance during the Clinton era, that racial grievance mattered less to black progress than a call to domestic order in the black community. Especially for the kind of president who went out of his way to stage his own cynical culture-war confrontation with the hyperbolic nationalist rapper Sister Souljah, in a rhetorical joust whose imbalance of power roughly corresponded to the disproportionate show of arms in the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the main order of business was not to call white America to a sober accounting of its many ongoing racist trespasses, but to trigger anguished penance in the troubled households of black America. Clintonian neoliberals and Gingrichian conservatives were united back then in their firm insistence that black people needed to take control of their own communities, clean up their collective act, and prove themselves worthy of advancement. (Among other things, this chorus of patrician scolding raised the question of just who, except the most virulent of white racists, was still insisting they were unworthy?)

Bill Cosby seized upon his paterfamilias stature to tirelessly scold black parents.

And strangely enough, Farrakhan, for all the surface belligerence of his rhetoric, fell into line with this litany of family-based reaction. There’s little in the contemporaneous press accounts of the 1995 march indicating that the deindustrialization of inner cities, inequality in education facilities and funding, or mandatory sentencing laws enacted and supported by the Clinton administration received anything close to the attention garnered by the hidebound themes of individual self-help, personal responsibility, and general manly uprightness. (Strangely enough, that era’s get-tough crackdown on the social ills of black and poor America has lately triggered a round of dubiously manly repentance of its own, with Bill Clinton, along with erstwhile supporters of such laws from all ideological positions, coming forward in hangdog fashion to confess that the mandatory-minimum sentencing laws and casual ransacking of Fourth Amendment protections that were then eagerly advertised during hard-fought reelection campaigns turned out to be counterproductive and ill-advised. As with Clinton’s allowances about his other, more intimate trespasses against his intra-family valor later in his second term, such concessions strike the wearied ear as far too little and far too late.)

The telling absence of talk about such urgent threats to black America’s communal well-being on the MMM stump only heightens the impression that the event was far more hermetic and performative than political or progressive. A year later, civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte told TV host Charlie Rose that Farrakhan, for all his unsavory rhetoric, was still the only black leader challenging the status quo from outside the political system. But the march had been a dud: “Black people came together and said nothing.” Belafonte didn’t exaggerate by all that much—especially if you’re measuring progress since then.

The Huxtable Hustle

The depoliticized family-first agenda of the initial Million Man March had another key accomplice in the political culture of the day—and like Bill Clinton’s crime-fighting agenda, his policy portfolio hasn’t aged well. Even as Minister Farrakhan was muttering to a fast-emptying house about the occult messages embedded within the Masonic architectural plan of Washington, D.C., a more genial, comforting, and paternal voice was raising a new refrain of patriarchal black accountability across the American airwaves and bestseller lists. I speak, of course, of Bill Cosby, a.k.a. “America’s Dad.” In a series of books and high-profile speeches, Cosby seized upon his new paterfamilias stature to commit himself rather intently to the tireless scolding of black parents he accused of shortchanging, if not altogether neglecting, their children’s education. As for black youth themselves, Cosby regarded them as an unrelieved portrait in cultural gloom, recklessly promiscuous, rap-spouting wastrels with low horizons and even lower levels of comportment and language. He may not have been entirely wrong about the symptoms. But what rankled even those who might have agreed with Cosby’s prescriptions was their hectoring, seemingly self-righteous emblazonment on all available school lecterns and talk shows of the Global Village.

Thus elevated, Cosby’s old-dad sermonizing helped reinforce the all-too-current impression afoot in America that young black men were squandering the hard-won legacies of the civil rights era while fathering a new generation of amoral sociopaths waiting to happen. By now, Cosby’s credentials to administer such stern, paternalistic talking-tos have withered, as evidence mounts that he’s spent many of his off-air hours in full-bore amoral-sociopath mode himself, allegedly drugging and raping women, with the roster of accusers now numbering more than fifty. One begins to detect a disconcerting pattern here: as with Clinton’s crusading crime initiative, Cosby’s public campaign of family self-help coexisted, in lurid fashion, with a terrifyingly predatory brand of private sexual conduct.

While sentiments such as Cosby’s or Farrakhan’s have been classified under the neoconservative or neoliberal rubrics, I’ve often been tempted to call them “neo-cast-down-your-bucket-where-you-are.” That, of course, was the gist of the late nineteenth-century tactics promoted by that first great modern avatar of black self-help, Booker T. Washington. In stark opposition to the politicized calls for economic justice by the great proto-nationalist thinker W. E. B. Du Bois, Washington seized upon the dominant individualist American gospel of success in a campaign to lift up ex-slaves and their descendants by their proverbial bootstraps—and to keep at bay what by the end of the nineteenth century was an increasingly vicious wave of white assaults on black progress. Washington’s congenial fix-it-yourself vision of blinkered black autonomy certainly helped within its studiously circumscribed limits, but then as now it didn’t keep innocent people from being degraded, humiliated, or in many cases, murdered.

Not Marching Anymore

And do such efforts at self-respect automatically yield greater respect for black people from those who aren’t black—or are in power? Let’s put it this way: less than two years after the march’s participants offered atonement and reconciliation, Abner Louima, a Haitian-born security guard living and working in Brooklyn, was arrested outside a nightclub, beaten, and forcibly sodomized by police with a broom handle. In 1999, four New York City police officers shot to death an unarmed Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo with forty-one bullets. In 2006, Sean Bell, an unarmed young black man, died in a hail of bullets from plainclothes and undercover police officers. And these are only cases in New York City, which for years instituted a stop-and-frisk policy mostly targeting people of color. Need one go on?

The Voices of Uplift never suggest anything specific that we might possibly achieve with their values: a profession, a vocation, or even a leap of creative imagination.

In the meantime, the bloating of the prison industry to which Jesse Jackson alluded in his Million Man March speech reached proportions large enough for such experts as Michelle Alexander to persuasively declare, in her celebrated 2010 j’accuse, The New Jim Crow, that the criminal justice system “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid,” with black men being “labeled as criminals in their teen years and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner-city schools to brand-new high-tech prisons.” Regardless of whether you concur with Alexander’s conclusions, the evidence she amasses makes it harder for a new wave of patriarchs to convince black people that their dehumanization is more their fault than others’.

Listen: I share, to an extent, the view that we as black people should be more responsible to each other, for ourselves, and for our children’s future. But whenever I hear a Voice of Uplift, be it black or white, telling us that following such bromides will solve our problems, I often want to shout some variation on what the comedian Chris Rock says whenever he hears some black person proudly say, “I take care of my kids!” In these encounters, Rock says, he’ll shout back, “You’re supposed to take care of your kids!” and then, for good measure, offer up a string of expletives lamenting low expectations. (Do you think you deserve a cookie, Rock later asks this hypothetical person, just because you’ve stayed out of jail?)

Self-determination, self-help, self-respect: the mainstream loves to insist that black people internalize these values as though we keep forgetting what they are, or have never heard of them before. We’ve been compelled to help ourselves as far back as slavery, whether through purchasing our freedom or seizing it through escape. But the Voices of Uplift, absorbed in the serious business of reminding us, continually, of the unassailable glories of personal self-help, rarely accompany them with suggestions of anything specific that we might possibly achieve with these values: a profession, a vocation, or even a leap of creative imagination. Only in constant struggle do we seem to exist, either in our own minds or in those of others.

It’s also hard not to notice that, in spite of such struggles and a solid twenty years of urgent self-help counsel from on high, one of the most reliable measures of this brand of individual achievement—college enrollment—has lately shown worrisome signs of decline among the much-exhorted population of young black American men. The U.S. Department of Education’s latest figures show the national college graduation rate of black male students at roughly 35 percent, compared with almost 45 percent for black women students. Meanwhile, the graduation rate for white males is 60 percent. And according to a study of fifty public state universities, black men represent 7.9 percent of America’s eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds, but only 2.8 percent of undergraduates at these “flagship” schools.

Old-Time Uplift

Are black boys lost? I asked an African American public high school teacher in Washington, D.C., a couple years back. Yes, he said, though he was hard-pressed to speculate on where they all went. They can’t all be in jail, can they? I asked. He shrugged; he couldn’t say for sure, either way. Whatever else the Million Man March accomplished, its leaders have a lot to answer for—not just for failing to press those questions back then, but also for not recognizing that such questions would urgently need answers in the future.

Now our soon-to-be-ex-president has started an initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at “empowering boys and young men of color.” Whatever form this initiative ultimately takes, it has at least dared to answer those questions my teacher friend and I were wondering about. The signs, according to the White House, are grim:

As recently as 2013, only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the 4th grade reading component of the National Assessment of Educational Progress compared to 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of black and Hispanic girls. Youth who cannot read “proficiently” by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school by 19.

By the time students have reached 9th grade, 42 percent of black male students have been suspended or expelled during their school years, compared to 14 percent of white male students. While black youth account for 16 percent of the youth population, they represent 28 percent of juvenile arrests, and 37 percent of the detained population. While just over 6 percent of the overall population, black males of all ages accounted for 43 percent of murder victims in 2011.

Obama has promised to make the effort to change these circumstances a hallmark of his post-presidency. And yet something about the rhetoric he’s been using on this issue is redolent of that old and overfamiliar Uplift-with-a-capital-U—the kind of entreaties that, while recognizing dysfunction within the political system as a contributing factor, will likely emphasize personal initiative and self-determination as our panacea of first resort. One hopes Obama will also lead the charge for more equitable funding for public schools, and by extension better resources, materials, and possibilities for young black men to determine their destinies—though the charter-friendly, test-heavy track record compiled by him and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan scarcely bodes well on that score. Not that they all have to go to college, but most of them don’t have to go to jail either.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the Million Man March. Farrakhan and his collaborators were trying, after all, to seize a moment in time and galvanize the country. It had happened before, not just in August 1963, but also in 1957, when the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was staged three years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ruling racially segregated public schools unconstitutional. It was at that latter demonstration that Martin Luther King Jr. established his primacy as the leader of a resurgent civil rights movement with his “Give Us the Ballot” speech. Eight years later, his pleas were answered by the Voting Rights Act. Roughly a half-century later, that law came under siege, with the Supreme Court recently upholding a raft of state voter-ID laws all but explicitly tailored to drive down black and minority voter participation. Marches don’t always result in immediate action, and those actions aren’t always set in granite. But in their time, marches always seemed the best we could do.

What the Million Man March aimed for wasn’t concrete legislative or systemic change so much as attitude adjustment. It is in personal attitudes at all points on the racial spectrum that real change always begins. Not even the most moss-backed conservative would contend the point; indeed, conservatives have used such logic for years to argue against civil rights legislation. But minds change only when possibilities are expanded beyond parochial or reactionary presumptions. Mass gatherings on the National Mall have in the past offered the prospect for transformative moments; think of Marian Anderson’s April 1939 recital after the Daughters of the American Revolution kept her off the stage of nearby Constitution Hall. But transformations can never be reenacted; they can only be commemorated or merely simulated. This is the kind of rueful but useful wisdom we should expect from fathers, the very best of whom are capable of telling us that while nothing or no one is perfect, pursuing perfection is an ongoing process that, like it or not, means forsaking old, moldering certainties.