Absent from the march A woman wonders about the agenda

October 22, 1995|By Rhonda M. Williams

I DID NOT SUPPORT the Million Man March. I did not share the jubilation in anticipation of the convergence on Washington. And even if Minister Farrakhan had invited women, this black woman could not and would not have marched.

I could understand, but not affirm, the efforts by those who said they would march, but do not support Minister Farrakhan and disagree with his politics. I could not set aside Minister Farrakhan's years of racism, gay-bashing, sexism, and anti-Semitism. I was deeply troubled to hear some of my longtime allies explaining that the march was "bigger than Farrakhan," and I was comforted by knowing that Mary Frances Berry (the chairwoman of the U.S. Com mission on Civil Rights) and Roger Wilkins (a historian at George Mason University) -- the old heads -- shared my concerns and positions.

In the days prior to the march, I wondered how African-Americans would have responded to the following scenario: David Duke calls for a march to end the attack on the living standards of working people and to reject a tax system that soaks the regular stiffs and gives the rich one write-off after another. How would we regard white allies who said the march would be "bigger than Duke"?

As the battle over the march's meaning raged on, it became clear many men saw this march as an opportunity -- a much-needed opportunity -- to redefine and re-envision their lives.

I heard and saw the final hour of Minister Farrakhan's address. I was struck by the extent to which he moderated his message and reduced his litany of vicious verbiage. He offered a lesson on white supremacy as a cultural system, but spared us the "bloodsuckers." If Minister Farrakhan could reduce the hate-mongering in this speech, then why not before? Was it because many African-Americans historically have reveled in and consented to his polemics? Was it because this time, he spoke to his largest audience? Was it because of the demands of the other march leaders and organizers? I don't have the answers to my questions, but I do not embrace or trust a man who denies his record and takes no responsibility for his past.

And finally, the path forward was revealed: Black men should take a pledge of renewal. In the call-and-response tradition, the marchers promised to renounce violence, substance abuse and to support their families. The minister also called upon black men "become involved" -- to join some political organization working for the betterment of African-Americans. I can't argue with the call for civic involvement.

But the next step will be even harder, for activist men will have to tell us their vision of the good society, and how to get there. What is responsibility?

As an example, consider this call for personal responsibility. Now what exactly does that mean? If it means being accountable for your actions, it's hard to be against personal responsibility. If it means more black men mobilizing to challenge a political economy that leaves millions of them -- as well as black women and millions of nonblacks -- unable to earn a decent wage, then I say yes. If it means more black men will be thinking critically about old norms of manhood, and whether they are conducive to a life-enhancing existence, I say amen. However, if it means that more men are capitulating to a type of thinking that says black families are simply broken and pathological, unaffected by economic and cultural change, and simply needing some more good ole-fashioned male supremacy -- I can't sign on.

Or consider the anti-drug pledge. If the pollsters are correct, only 13 percent of blacks are involved with drugs. A much larger percentage faces poor health care, unemployment, plant closings and discrimination in many facets of daily life. Unless I missed it, Minister Farrakhan was silent on corporate and state responsibility. If your pockets and savings accounts are empty when you return to the house of God, how do you generate the capital to build the homes, hospitals, schools and factories called for by the minister? It seems that Minister Farrakhan has imagined personal responsibility as a sufficient response to a historically generated and huge black-white wealth gap (unless this is where the call for a separate state and reparations comes in). Whatever the appropriate response, black men cannot create it alone. They will have to organize and share power with like-minded black women, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans.

Minister Farrakhan clearly touched a chord -- many men were ready to convene, to share, to laugh and to pray. So now I wonder anew: Will the participants become agents of economic and social justice today and ever after in their communities? How many will renounce and work against homophobia, corporate tyranny and sexism? And how many will renounce racism in their neighborhoods, at the polls and in their organizations? How many will struggle, form principled alliances and share power with like-minded citizens who are not black men? Will those who don't support the politics and ideologies of the Nation of Islam make that clear in their future words, covenants and actions? Only time will tell.

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