WASHINGTON -- At times, it felt like some village filling a
great African plain with the ritual sounds of ancient celebration. The drums talking in deep, resonant tones, a flute floating high above like a great bird, men chanting in time to the pulse beat of the drum.
At times, it felt like a revival meeting under a tent on a street corner in a bad neighborhood. Voices rising like tides, cadences flowing like rivers, the preachers calling and the people responding, shouting themselves hoarse, shouting salvation, their fists punching into a hard autumn sky.
At times, it felt like a shaky bipartisan deal, a political truce as fragile as a Bosnian cease-fire. The hard-core separatists of the Nation of Islam, the determined integrationists of Christendom and all those in between gingerly sidestepping past their differences to lift up their commonalities.
And at times, it felt like the embrace of home.
In that, Monday's Million Man March, organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to atone for the failures of black manhood, fulfilled a psychological necessity. African-American men who missed it missed more than they will ever know.
Two years ago, I stood watching a gay-pride march on RTC Washington. What passed among those gay men and women, what rose from their simple act of coming together in common cause, was a binding, consoling thing so powerful that even I could feel it, standing on the outside. I was envious.
Monday, I did not have to be.
The media have made much of that question in recent weeks. Why would black men respond to a call issued by Mr. Farrakhan, a known hatemonger? Superheated suppositions have flown like cruise missiles, with some pundits employing threadbare ''logic'' liken this event to a march headed by Mark Fuhrman or David Duke. Why, they demand. Why?
Cannot or will not hear
And time and again, black men and women in polls and in interviews have answered, speaking with such stunning unanimity that one is forced to conclude that the questioners either cannot or will not hear the answer.
''This ain't about him,'' said a man at a hotel full of black men. ''It's about us.''
Dick Gregory put it plainly when he addressed the assemblage. ''We are here today,'' he said, ''because we are in pain.''
It is a pain that should come as no surprise to any thinking American. Did we really need the O.J. Simpson trial to tell us that black and white America live on opposite sides of a growing chasm?
Didn't we see young mothers lost to the false ecstasies of crack? One in three young black males on a dead-end sojourn through the judicial system? White racism enjoying a new shield of political and intellectual respectability? And yes, too many black men failing miserably in their responsibility to confront and expunge our community's grief.
Maybe you've read this news story so many times that it makes your eyes glaze over. But this is not just a news story in Harlem, in South Central, in Liberty City. In these places, it is life. In these places, it is crisis.
Had it ever been acknowledged and attacked as such, had Americans not become so comfortable with ''writing off'' generation after generation of young black men, had the media been half as energetic in rooting out the problem and seeking the solutions as they have been in asking questions and then ignoring the answers -- had any of that happened, none of this would be necessary.
There would be no march. There would be no need for black men to atone.
There would be no pain.
Monday was a pain reliever. I stood at the subway station the night before, showing my cousin the workings of the D.C. transit system, and was heartened to see other black men doing the same for their kin. I took my two youngest boys downtown by subway and got off in a crowd of brothers who mounted the stairs with a deep, manly chant of affirmation.
We stood in the crowd as Maya Angelou invoked the sacrifices of ''the old ones'' in that proud, stone-cutting voice of hers. Old men in patient dignity walked side by side with youngbloods, and I saw the boys' scowls of wary cool melting, their faces looking younger, boyish even. Strangers hugged. Men went out of their way to greet one another. And the talk, everywhere, was of atonement.
''No more drive-bys!'' shouted one man.
''If we don't take back our community, ain't nobody gonna do it for us,'' a brother counseled.
And a wiry, dark-skinned little man rushed through the crowd, trying to shake every hand at once. ''Look at these black men here!'' he cried. ''This is us.''
He folded a fist across his chest and repeated it: ''Look at us!''
I looked. I stood in that African village with an arm draped around each of my sons. The drums pounded. And there was no pain.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.