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Slouching Toward Washington

1.

People, black and white, say that the throngs of upstanding black men at the Million Man March showed a picture of the Black Man different from what the nation is accustomed to. Because this has always been my primary image of the Black Man—the men in my family, my father, his friends, my friends, total strangers at traffic lights, and sometimes even myself—what struck me was not the vast crowd’s proud demeanor or the insult that the crowd’s peacefulness was a pleasant surprise to most whites and to some blacks, but that the black men deserved a message more worthy of their journey than the numerology and self-election of Louis Farrakhan.

It was not a civil rights march, or even a march, though one Nation of Islam spokesman said on television that it was a march in Washington rather than a march on Washington. As more than one of the day’s speechmakers insisted, they had come neither to demand nor to ask anything of government and whites. They had come for themselves and to ask something of themselves. It was billed as a day of atonement and reconciliation. It was a mass rally, a religious convocation, a camp revival meeting on a grand scale, with some competition among the speechmakers to see who could blow the emotional lid off the patient multitudes. Perhaps those black men and the women mingling among them—1.5 million, 2 million, 400,000, 870,000?—came to experience just what it felt like to be in command of that place where history had been made a few times before. A lot of those present on October 16, 1995, had not been born in 1963.

Thank God it’s not a million white men marching on Washington,” a white Englishman had said to me. The mean country South of the song “I’m coming with my razor and my gun” was all that had been radiating from Capitol Hill for months. On the shuttle on Sunday, the day before the March, a black youth dressed in immaculate baggy white, including a white knit cap, did not address a word to me across the empty seat, nor I to him, as if in the commuter privacy of laptops and phone calls made from the air we had succumbed, as usual, to the inhibition of being outnumbered. Then, too, I worried that he would think it presumptuous of me to assume that just because he was young, chic, and black he was on his way to the March.

Washington, D.C., is a predominantly black city and a large percentage of its population lives below the poverty line. After the emancipated slaves came to town, Congress periodically addressed poverty’s look. Jacob Riis was brought in at the turn of the century, legislators were taken on tours of alleys, told that those were the same flies that landed on their sandwiches back at the club, and during World War I the first of a few redevelopment schemes was passed. In the 1950s the worst area near the Capitol was razed, its residents relocated. Blocks have been boarded up at other times, because of the riots in the 1960s, because of “gentrification.” Black doormen perhaps had been coming back downtown without their uniforms even before Marion Barry’s first and second acts, but a part of the excitement surrounding the Million Man March was that a precinct of official marble was about to be taken over.

That Sunday afternoon, along the broad street of leaves that had not yet turned, a vanguard of black entrepreneurs had set up tables of commemorative T-shirts, caps, buttons, and sweatshirts of slogans and rhymes. Go-go music thumped from the rear of a parked truck. On the Mall itself, that expanse of green between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, people ambled and reconnoitered, many of them middle-aged black men. Perhaps for them the Mall had been the site of earlier pilgrimages. The black men, the father-and-son-like pairs, the lawn, and the red of the Smithsonian Castle in the distance took me back to 1967, to the centenary celebrations of Morehouse College in Atlanta, when my father tried to show me around and to show off his uncomprehending offspring to President Mays. I dimly recall their chuckling over the night Martin Luther King, Jr.’s classmates short-sheeted his bed. Before the Million Man March was over I would feel very sad for King. Farrakhan had no qualms about extracting blessings from black leaders made cooperative by being dead.

Everything was ready—the long banks of portable single toilets, the giant television screens, the attitudes. Everyone seemed in a prescriptive frame of mind, willing to go on record about what black men and therefore black people needed to do. “It’s time that we as black men get together. We need this unification to start being in front,” one black vendor said. We needed to throw off that European indoctrination, I heard. We needed to trust each other, I was told. We needed to start someplace. We needed to unite like the Koreans, the first groups of whom, someone informed me, were brought over like the Cubans by the CIA and set up in business. They, whites, needed to stop stereotyping, a father of two concluded.

We need to teach our young men,” two middle-aged black women sitting on a park bench agreed. One, who planned to accept the men-only vibe by staying home with her television, said she didn’t want to see a blade of grass when the men came. When I mentioned the objections of some black women to the premise of the March, they said, “Angela Davis needs to decide.” Other black leaders also needed to decide. “We have all these ministers. Can’t be a minister and a politician. Preaching over and over. It’s very redundant.” It was obvious what was happening to black people and it was obvious who was doing it to them. “Look at what they had to do to try to bring O.J. back down.”

I saw a group of young black men photographing and filming one another. Some of them wore the bow ties and dark suits of the Nation of Islam. New recruits, from Portland, Oregon, they gave their names as Gary X, William X…. The X marks the spot where the slave master’s name has been crossed out. We lacked self-knowledge, one of the recruits decided. We lacked self-love. “You cannot love what you do not know.” I thought of the remote men in bow ties and dark suits who had been on the streets of my childhood, before suburbs, when most blacks, in the North at least, grew up in neighborhoods that Black Muslims either visited or lived in themselves.

I see them, in memory, passing the barber’s window. Sometimes they stepped inside, and if the shop owner was in the right mood he’d let them try to sell the newspaper Muhammad Speaks, a source of new Creation myths and science fiction for the Jim Crow audience. Muhammad Speaks‘ cartoon illustrations caused some heads in the barbershop to shake in a perplexed way. The Black Muslims rang doorbells, but were less persistent than Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were regarded as members of a cult, which, in the days before Charles Manson, meant merely that some troubled souls had found a refuge, a place where they could deliver themselves up for safekeeping. However, Black Muslims were also different from the other groups of the saved, like the women who renounced lipstick and served fried chicken in Father Divine’s faded restaurants, because the face of the Black Muslim was that of a black man armed with a grudge.

The cult was known to attract exconvicts. The men seemed contained and unafraid, as if all that hustler and jailbird knowledge had been packed down tight. They were clean and quiet, unlike the thugs hanging out on the corner, people the Black Muslims may have been like before they joined up and stopped drinking. They were left alone because black people used to have a great deal of tolerance for how people got by and also because Black Muslims were considered a little off, being reformed, single-minded, and secretive.

If anything made the barbershop customers wary of Black Muslims as possibly unbalanced behind their display of superior stability it was their separatism. Black Muslims were scornful of the civil rights movement and especially of civil rights leaders. At a time when black people were braving dogs and rednecks to integrate schools and to get to the polls, the rejection of white institutions, the call for a separate nation, seemed unhelpful to the struggle, or helpful only to Elijah Muhammad and the John Birch Society. The cult was said to own farms in Alabama. How the Nation of Islam was financed was murky, but the barbershop’s regulars understood that Black Muslims thought of Negroes as the dupes of white society and they in turn, provoked by the thought that another black man considered them Uncle Toms, called Black Muslims the tools of segregationists.

James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, recalled a visit in 1962 to the Chicago mansion headquarters of Elijah Muhammad, Supreme Head of the Nation of Islam, during which the Messenger of Allah told him that the white man’s time was actually up in 1913, but Allah was waiting for the lost black nation, “the so-called Negro” in the United States, to be freed from white masters and returned to the true faith. Baldwin, as a former child preacher and Harlem street rat, had no trouble understanding the appeal the Black Muslims held for a soap-box constituency: the police seemed afraid of them, and since the white God had failed, maybe the black God wouldn’t. But having heard prophecies of divine justice from many quarters every day of his youth, Baldwin wondered how someone went home on a given night, looked around, and decided to believe. The need to hear that whites were sinners, devils, inferior, and doomed assured that the market for doctrines of black salvation or black supremacy would never dry up.

My Indianapolis barbershop was psychologically far from the mosques and bean pies of Chicago or Harlem. The “men among men” were distant from us, “the Lost-Founds,” the still-Negro. Muhammad Ali was more famous than Malcolm X as a symbol of the kind of defiant brotherhood that whites seemed to find so threatening and that was therefore so gratifying to blacks. Ali’s name change in 1964 made a more favorable impression than Malcolm X calling the 1963 March on Washington a “circus” or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a “con game.” Malcolm X’s notoriety was derived from his appearances on the evening news as the gifted aphorist of racial apocalypse. Not until his assassination in 1965, the publication of his autobiography that same year, and the shock of the slogan “Black Power” to the country’s psyche did blacks in general feel that Malcolm X had been with them all along and that they had been in sympathy with him all that time, too.

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