WHEN I first heard of the Million Man March, my response was automatic: I telephoned my son, who’s in college nearly 200 miles away and commanded him to come to the event. Then I phoned the mothers of my 15-year-old nephew and my 16-year-old cousin — both high school males who also live some distance from Washington — to arrange for them to attend the historic march.
In the weeks leading up to tomorrow’s demonstration on the Mall, my own phone has not stopped ringing. Black men I know from throughout the country have called, excited, hyped, pledging to bring sons, col leagues and friends and making bids for a place to stay.
The enthusiasm about the rally has generated a new, refreshing sense of camaraderie among black men and rekindled an activist spirit that’s been dormant for years. I think brothers are responding to the call to march because they instinctively know we desperately need this event to boost our morale.
In a very real way, the Million Man March represents a kind of therapy for black men. It offers a lot of things that we urgently need — a chance to come together and confront our shortcomings and celebrate our strengths; an opportunity for us to take stock of our current plight and to plot a better future course; and, on a very basic level, a healthy way for black men to get a little bit of this tension off our chests.
For the past six months or so, I’ve felt that tension within myself. At times it’s so acute it actually feels physical, like a burning pressure building inside. I sense it in many other brothers, too. And given the irrational racial climate in this country today, I see strong potential for black men’s collective tensions to explode: That is the last thing we need.
The strain inside of us comes from interrelated forces operating within and outside African-American communities nationwide; it’s a confluence of social, economic and political powers that seem to be working in unison to bring us down.
And we, in our hearts, know that we share some responsibility for this downward spiral. I’m both angry and frightened to see how our self-hatred moves us to destroy ourselves. For the past decade, I’ve stood by, literally helpless and in shock, watching the steady erosion of hope everywhere, particularly among black men.
And none of those pressures shows any signs of letting up. I follow news accounts of the constantly high unemployment, poverty and death rates. I read the reports showing that black men are always in short supply in college enrollment, management jobs, heads of households — virtually every positive role you can imagine. Yet they’re routinely overrepresented in practically every negative quality-of-life measurement that the numbers-crunchers produce, from high school drop-out rates to joblessness to crime.
But the depression that many black men feel is not just confined to the so-called underclass. I see plenty of hardworking, law-abiding middle class and professional blacks — men who play meticulously by the white man’s rules — frustrated and enraged because they see those rules manipulated to white advantage.
“When you stop to think about what’s going on in this country, you know you gotta be there,” said John Gabriel, a Maryland barber.
Black men’s tension is compounded when we see how many, but by no means all, white Americans respond with apathy and outright hostility to our distress. The fashionable formula offered by white demagogues for addressing black men’s monumental woes — three-strikes-and-you’re-out, mandatory sentencing, and the abolition of parole — is especially vicious and destructive.
As an African American who’s gone the prison route, these sinister measures make me so furious sometimes that my vision gets blurred. They make me want to lash out at whites in the basest way.
Just the other day, I almost lost my cool while standing in an airport line. When an attendant called for passengers to step forward, I moved ahead and a white man standing in front of me loudly protested, shouting “There’s only room for one at a time.”
His reaction may not have been racially motivated but, in that moment I assumed it was. Looking into his indignant eyes, I saw a symbol of everything about white America that vexes me: arrogance, ignorance and selfishness mixed with the ugly assumption that I was just another black man out to get a preferential break.
I took off my sunglasses and glared at him, daring him to say another word.
I’m ashamed now to admit that I was ready to go to war. It showed me just how racially on edge I am.
I certainly don’t want to hate that white man or blame all whites for all the problems African Americans to face. But I do want them to examine their casual arrogance and understand that they do share responsibility for the sorry state of this country now.
There are many oppressed, defeated black men who have far more valid reasons than me to lose their cool. That’s why I know that, despite the controversies swirling around the Million Man March, we all need to be there.
Above all else, the focus of the march is introspective, peaceful, spiritual. Anyone who even remotely understood that couldn’t possibly oppose this march. A sober, reflective gathering of black men has the potential to benefit everyone — including whites.
America needs to understand that we need this march because we have too few brushes with self-generated success. We need to see and feel the potential of thousands of black men gathered in one place for a righteous cause. And whites need to see this, too.
“We want to show the world that we’re not the hoodlums that they think we are,” said C. Stephen Jones, director of the Metropolitan Ecumenical Ministry, which is coordinating march efforts in Newark, N.J., and surrounding black communities. “This is not just about what white folks are doing to us, but also what we’re doing to ourselves.”
This march is especially important for young black males. Many of them are genuinely confused about what it means to be a man. They need to have a male-bonding experience that counteracts popular macho notions about the value of being “hard” and aloof.
Those people most troubled by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s leadership role in the rally are losing sight of one of its chief stated goals: atonement. As black men, we’re being asked to make amends for the wrongs we’ve done. Perhaps Farrakhan’s critics should be encouraged that he proposed the idea; maybe it’s a signal that he too plans to atone for the wrong he’s done.
I suspect that, for some white Americans, complaints about Farrakhan are a smoke screen to conceal their blanket contempt for any black man who attempts to lift us up. White America may now pledge allegiance to the memory of Martin Luther King but black America has not forgotten that King, who preached love, peace and every other noble virtue that we claim to embrace, was intensely disliked and opposed by many whites when he was alive. His plan for a march on Washington 32 years ago was also described as divisive, unnecessary, potentially violent.
I have even less patience with so-called black church and political leaders nationwide who have criticized the Million Man March. With all that black men have been going through in recent years, there’s been no broad-scale effort — symbolic or otherwise — by national black politicians and clergy to inspire us. If there were more black leaders out there with courage and imagination, we’d have done something like this long ago.
Everywhere I’ve gone in recent months, from barber shops in Prince George’s County, to college campuses in Kentucky, the irrelevance of this traditional leadership has been clear. Black men — the regular brothers whose voices are seldom captured on TV or in print — say they don’t need to consult so-called black leaders to determine whether or not to attend the march.
There is one group that I sympathize with in all this: black women. I think it was a mistake not to include sisters in the march. It’s true that if black men atone for their wrongs, black women stand to benefit. But they, too, need to be there for this therapy — they’re hurting as much as anyone. I’m hoping that those who feel strongly enough about taking part will come out to the Mall and join the men.
I’m well aware that the media will be quick to gauge the success of the march by its turnout. And I’m sure that many of its critics are hoping, praying even, that the march will somehow flop. For me, the numbers are irrelevant. It makes no difference if it’s 1 million or 100 black men. The march is already a success because the seeds have been planted nationwide for black men to stand up and be strong again.
Nathan McCall is on leave from the Washington Post. His autobiography, “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America,” was published by Random House.