America's War on Decency and a Call to the Mall:Black Men, Symbolic Politics, and the Million Man March

by Houston A Baker, Jr.


The black men undo come to Washington to march on the Mall were younger, wealthier and better-educated Black Americans as a whole, and they were far more willing to see Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan assume a more prominent leadership role in the African American community according to a Washington Post poll of participants in the Million Man March.

(Washington Post October 17, 1995)


Whippersnappper clerks
Call us out our of our name
We got to say mister
to spindling boys

( from Ole Lem by Sterling Brown)


I cannot accept that "balance the budget" will ultimately eclipse a concern to balance the distribution and availability of wealth, of chances for self-respecting ,survival.

(from Notes of a Barnard Dropout by June Jordan)



On October 1, 1995, approximately one million black men (the numbers will always be in dispute) came together on the Mall in Washington, D.C. They were of varying hues, professions, classes, backgrounds, educational levels, hair types, dialects, ideologies, religions, geographies, affective styles, and emotional temperaments. The day was crystal clear: a gift from God. Fall sunshine warmed the earth where children slept peacefully at the feet of fathers, uncles,brothers-black men who had brought them to witness a striking exercise in American counterpoise. during the two weeks leading up to the march, pundits had relentlessly declared the event would be a balkanizing disaster for America. Black public intellectuals assured their white constituents and young black disciples that it was mandatory for any truly liberated, informed, and humane black man to separate the redemptive message of Minister Louis Farrakhan from the messenger. This, of course, made as much sense as saying although Bill Clinton implicitly endorses an agenda that is Republican and has insulted Lani Guiner and Sista Souljah and Jocelyn Elders in public and approves of welfare reform that will wreak havoc on black communities, let us separate the President himself from his message." It was difficult to tell if intellectuals who argued for a mind/body split of The message from the messenger were serious,or simply offering solace to white audiences. Did they really believe they could have a foot in both worlds? Did they believe they could stand tall for black redemption, and, simultaneously, distance themselves tom the only mass message being seriously listened to by black people n the United States The black mass message was indeed issuing from the body of Farrakhan"Body"," in this instance, signifies both individual and institutional forms, For it is Farrakhan, the charismatic leader himself, who has rejuvenated and turned into a continuing force, the body of the Nation of Island following Elijah Muhammad's death during the 1 970s. And it is the embodied black messenger himself who was the unambiguous presence par excellence on October 16, 1995.

Everyone on the Washington Mall whom I encountered or moved among had eager expectations about the climactic moment at which Farrakhan would appear to articulate the notions of atonement, black manhood responsibility and community redemption that were goals of the Million Man March To be sure, the march was a spiritual occasion. Like gatherings of the Promise Keepers (those Christian athletic men Echo assemble in huge stadiums across America to profess their faith), the October 16th assembly of black men was spiritually and, in a broad sense, religiously motivated. Still, it was the ministerial zest of Farrakhan, and no one else, that determined the spiritual flavor of the event.

So, what did pundits mean when they talked of separating the message from the messengers Were they being playfully poststructuralist, suggesting perhaps the death of the orator: "What matter who speaks?"

What the separators hoped, l think, was to avoid a committed and forthright analysis of dangerous terrains -- urban inner-city war zones and a desperately depressed black psyche in an era of American racial oppression. They hoped to serve as black filters for Farrakhanic "hate." One might argue that Farrakhan's articulations are more akin to what the black writer Ellis Cose calls "rage" than to "hate." But that is a point to be addressed later in this essay. For the moment, we might simply acknowledge the minister's downside. He has created a remarkable persona as a hatemonger. He has cunningly deployed a dark voice that targets Jews as the cause for the daily misery of the masses of black people in the United States, "Hold on!" we want to shout on encountering this persona. "What do you mean by Jews, Minister Farrakhan? Don't you know the word Jews has instigated some of the world's bleakest horrors?" But such an inquiry to Farrakhan would be akin to asking Newt Gingrich what he means by balanced budget.

Balanced budget for Gingrich, like Jews for Farrakhan, is an example of what the black critic Stephen Henderson refers to as a mascon word -- a word that, like a sponge, absorbs the animus, bare intuition, disappointments, stereotypes, and rank feelings of superiority of a race. Mascon utterances don't allow for separation of the message from the messenger, the utterer from the utterance. Surely Newt's Contract with America can not be separated from a radical Republican's body called Gingrich. Nor can it be separated from a mean-spirited, racialistic national agenda to make the white American body rich and richer while eliminating completely the United States' poor, elderly, and, in particular and most expressly, minorities. Likewise, it is impossible to separate Farrakhan's recourse to mascon scapegoating from a black mass constituency.


Yet, who among us is in a position morally to forgive, filter, or separate a message of national oppression from the physical body of Newt Gingrich, or William Jefferson Clinton. Who is in a position to condemn -- with feigned innocence and incomprehension - - Louis Farrakhan for expressing an entirely justifiable rage of a mass of black people targeted by the likes of Gingrich and Clinton for a white budget balancing sacrifice And who is ethically precise that she or he can say. "Hey, black man, you better wear a sign down to that Washington march saying you separate the message from the messenger"?

Where is the sign around our own necks pronouncing on the ignominy of a United States Congress, Supreme Court, and White House posturing before the full trough of "set asides" for Big Business in America and Transnational Capitalism in whiteface? Where are the luminescent signs strapped to our backs announcing precisely how we separate our President's and Congress's messages as 'budget balancers' from their physical responsibility for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Federal employees and other unfortunate Americans struggling to hang on to homes, food, and life itself?

A flashback: Who remembers when the American nation writ large (whites in general) --but signed in lower case by particularly Jewish "leaders" -- called on all black people, and especially black intellectuals, to condemn, apologize, and sit abjectly in ashes at the crossroads because Khallid Abdul Muhammed made a silly, anti-Semitic speech at a college in New Jersey. Were the black people who then complied with such idiotic notions the same ones who called for the mind/body split with respect to Farrakhan and the Million Man March? Why do we as a group have to apologize for individual decisions and follies?

On October 16, l 995, signs, buttons, shirts, hats, banners, posters, books, arm bands, personnel, flags red-black and-green, starred-and-crescented said: In organization and iconography this Million Man March is a Nation of Islam triumph in a symbolic war. This march is as complicated, multifaceted, common sensical, and surprising as the ability of Farrakhan to call it. Perhaps, then, the Minister is the capable mass-concentrated site of African-American meaning in a time of war; a War on Decency.

Statistics of this War on Decency are by now well-rehearsed, and everyone in America, as we shall shortly consider, has an opinion about who is to blame for America's general malaise. One in three black men in the United States are in prison, on parole, or under the supervision of the criminal justice system. More than half of black American children live in poverty. Black American income is only 60 percent that of white America. Black life expectancy is more than a decade shorter than white America's Black youth unemployment is at 40 percent. Job opportunities and access to even minimal public services to sustain life are comparatively rare for most black Americans. Black homicide and AIDS are killing young black men at staggering rates. Drugs are being pumped into black communities by rich white profiteers like winter snow falling from laden skies. Is the country at large outraged by the burdens and casualties of this War on Decency against black America? Is any constituency concerned specifically , about the plight of black American men -- young and old in and their unenviable condition in the United States? A sampling of the concerns of American cohorts other than black men gives some idea of what is on America's mind with respect to politics, persons, and events.

First, white men, What are they concerned about? They are busy laying special claim to anger became, in their paranoid imaginations, blacks and women have it "so very good." A Million Man March would make no sense whatsoever to such men. Then there are white women. They assemble at ritzy spas and glitzy espresso bars to condemn the verdict and the defendant himself in the 0. J. Simpson trial. Why? Because they believe Simpson should have been convicted of murder because he battered his white American wife. Did they see the Mall filled with the terror of a "million" OJs?

Black women claimed prerogative to condemn the Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan, and the Nation of Islam because the Minister focussed particular attention on the responsibilities, atonement, and sins of the fathers peculiar to that archetype some black women love to hate: The Black Man. "Women were excluded," commented some of the foremost intellectual black women n the United States. Was this naiveness, or, did these women really not have a clue about the loci of the march in the mass-approbation that is gender discrimination in the Nation of Islam?

Then there were those black public spokespersons noted already who rushed to judgment in the name of principles of decency, coalition, cooperation, liberalism, and humaneness that have almost nothing to do with what one hopes is their actual sharp perception of America's War on Decency. Surely such black public intellectual spokespersons know that a war is in progress. These blade intellectual men are, one has to assume, certainly aware of the statistics of war. Why, then, would they be reluctant to see the Million Man March as an act of resistance inseparable from Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam? Were they afraid of some amorphous, threatening council of elders called the Jews? Scarcely. The motive of those famous black male public intellectuals who lamented the inseparability of the message and the messenger is clear. Their subject position as famous spokespersons is bought and paid for by white men and women who wish to have their white egos and assumptions massaged by black bucks and entrepreneurs.

"Everybody," then, was against a joined-at-the-hip, message and messenger Million Man March. Everybody, that is, except more than a million (a disputed figure) black men who came to the Washington Mall Men who waited with quiet joy (Cornel West would agree that these terms are not contradictory), easy dignity, and sober anticipation - standing at parade rest in October sunshine for twelve long hours -- for the Messenger to appear and deliver his embodied blessing, challenge, and call to local social and political action.

Black men rode midnight trains and fourteen-hour chartered buses; drove lexuses and hondas and mercedes and tauruses and "hoopties"" to the Nation's Capital to participate in an inseparable ceremony in which the opinion of the most powerful black independent mass-oriented organization in America was represented by the messenger who called the march into existence. 'The hundreds of thousands of black men who came were described by The Washington Post -- over and again -- as "middle class. " By which the newspaper meant black men with serious jobs who are not unaccounted for in of offical census rolls of this country. Whether these black men were forthright or equivocal, practicing Nation of Islam adherents or unabashedly independent, they all sensed the inseparability of message and-messenger, For it was this inseparability that is in any rational or practical account of the Million Man March caused them to chant as the hour grew near: "FARRAKHAN, FARRAKHAN, FARRAKHAN!" "Middle class black men" calling for the Messenger. Did they call for Farrakhan because they endorsed a gospel of hate, a philosophy of scapegoating Jews No. In part their chant was, quite simply, the verbal representation of a distinctively American 'Black Man Thing." It was the sounded intensity of a peculiarly American manifestation of rage and desire.

Returning for a moment to Ellis Cose and his engaging book The Rage of a Privileged Class, we find the following story of a "middle class middle-aged law-firm partner's encounter with the rituals of black success in America:

One source of immense resentment was [his] encounter of a few days previous, when he had arrived at the office an hour or so earlier than usual and entered the elevator along with a young white man. They got off at the same floor. No secretaries or receptionist were yet in place. As my friend (black partner)fished in a pocket for his key card while turning toward the locked outer office doors his, elevator mat blocked his way and asked "May I help you?" My friend shook his head and attempted to circle around his would-be (white) helper, but the young man stepped in front of him and demanded in a loud and decidedly colder tone, "May I help you?" At this, the older man fixed him with a stare, spat out his name, and identified himself as a partner, whereupon his inquisitor stepped aside. My friend's initial impulse was to put the incident behind him, to write it off as merely another annoyance in an orderly day. But he had found him self growing angrier and angrier at the young associate's temerity ."Because of his color, he felt he had the right to check me out. "(pp. 48-49)

A later formulation by Cose succinctly captures the implicit structures of his friend's experience: "Whatever difficulties Americans may have thinking of blacks as potential CEOs, no particular imagination is required [for whites]to visualize crime with an African- American face. " (p. 93) The young white man's assumption of criminal "trespass" on the part of his better dressed, older, and extremely well-heeled black companion is symbolic of white America's leap to the criminal accusation and treatment that enrages black men in America in virtually all rounds of their daily lives-regardless of class, temperament, or bank accounts. The moment of "rage" closest to the Million Man March was white America's Iynch-mob response to the verdict in the OJ.Simpson murder trial.

Candle burning mobs of middle-class whites assembled on street corners and at television studios to call for "real" justice. By which they meant -- at least -- the incarceration of a wealthy black mega-star who had named one of their own and moved into their neighborhood. At worst, they meant: string up the hick hazard!! The divide between whites and blacks with respect to the O.J. verdict was as decisive an indicator as any black man could find that white folks are now full of "temerity" and as ready as the blast of a .38 to prevent "criminal " trespass by blacks to conditions of decent living in the United States. A white War on Decency is in full, vigilante effect.

There was, then, a raging Black Man Thing motivating chants of Farrakhan! Many who assembled on the Mall knew the minister would articulate -- publicly and at a globally-televised symbolic site -- their own discontent. Such public articulation they felt was cathartic and necessary, indeed, indispensable -- because most black men don't have country clubs or country-club estates in gated communities, or unlicensed authority and secretiveness in which to batter their wives and desert their children in the name of "job stress" like so very many white men do. Because most black men don't have the privilege or luxury of awaking to just another day in which they can ignore the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and still know like so many white men that nobody is "coming to get them" in the morning. "Spindling boys", like the white elevator clerk at the law firm, look in the mirror any time of day, see white skin, are reassured of their superiority -- their regal supremacy.

More than a logic of rage and discontent, however, was involved in the chanting summons for the messenger to appear. In a year when Allen and Albert Hughes's masterful film Dead Presidents has toured nationally, it would be shocking if black public spokespersons did not realize that Farrakhan transformed -- through pure genius and inspiration -- the Washington Mall into a frontline of symbolic political warfare. Farrakhan clearly understood that such warfare needs massive troops of black American men, the same race of men who have served eternally as cannon fodder for American wars against "decency" e.g., Indian Wars, Spanish-American, World Wars I & II, Korea, Vietnam. The Minister was proleptic. He knew future story (as opposed to the Toy Story) of current American symbolic warfare against people of color:

In Mount Pleasant [a neighborhood of the Nation's Capital] a group of about 50 Latinos gathered yesterday morning at a soccer field on 16th Street NW and unfurled a banner that said, "Latino Solidarity with the Million Man March. " . ... " We've never had anything in common with Louis Farrakhan, but we're in a war and we need allies, " said Pedro Aviles, executive director of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force, which organized the contingent.(Washington Post, October 17, l995, P. A 20)

Farrakhan "reappropriated" the Mall as the ideological turf of American decency that black American men must defend -- in the absence of historical, and, present-day "decency" on the part of white American men.

Farrakhan began his overly-long oration by pointing mystically to symbolic monuments named Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln. He went on to weave a tapestry of numerical speech acts, focusing his troopers attention on the monumentality of horror that is the American Founding Fathers' and the American Presidency's white supremacy. Earlier in the day, Jesse Jackson had tried to rouse the troops by eliding October 16th with the Birmingham, Alabama, Civil Rights events of another era. He claimed the march's actual "messengers were Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. A young black man standing near me said: "Jesse ought to go platinum with this old school stuff. We got a pastor just like Jesse at our church. One of those Old Boys. We have to raise our hands two hours into his sermon and say: Reverend Johnson you know the Game is on, don't you?'."

Even before Jackson's speech, President Clinton had stood before a mostly white audience in Texas and invoked Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson to talk about previous moments of American racial "divide." He pontificated about how the American Presidency had worked always toward national "union." But Clinton did not offer a single American Presidential dollar, strategy, or promise that might constitute a significant intervention in today's American War on Decency. Now, as the young brother said, Jesse may be vintage platinum. But Clinton is strictly, with his nostalgia for Lincoln and Johnson, a golden oldies man.

Farrakhan's oration was a brilliant stroke of numerology, a masterpiece of symbolic politics. He spoke in an era of sound-bite anti-black warfare. An era that has witnessed a remarkable and horrifying angry white voter turnout. A turnout manipulated to hatred by a politics of blame that cynically produces images of Willie Horton; white hands crumpling job rejection letters produced by affirmative action; and a wildly out of control American "crime" in blackface. In such an era how can a useful black agenda ignore, or reject, counter-symbolic political warfare? No one has been more effective at such counter-warfare than Louis Farrakhan.

The Million Man March was not Farrakhan's only, but it was certainly his most effective campaign to date. Two days after the march, he announced that the Nation of Islam -- for the first time in that organization's history -- would be actively involved in American electoral politics. If Ross Perot, Ralph Reed, and Pat Buchanan, then why not Louis Farrakhan?

However the politics of the Million Man Much were not exclusive. Everybody - Marxists, Leninists, advocates for black "economic development," defenders of Mumia Abu-Jamal, voter registration adherents, Civil Rights Movement Christians -- everybody had a political and cultural forum on October 16, 1995. Thanks to the Call to the Mall, some black men had their first acquaintance with political agendas, strategies, and events relevant to black America unknown before all-night bus trips from Georgia hamlets, Detroit suburbs, American college and university campuses, and Chicago ghettos. The men and women who delivered formal addresses from the stage in front of the Capitol outlined expansive and varied ranges of political, social, and spiritual programs Hundreds of thousands of black men (and some women) stood, listened, and paid attention.

What has transpired on local levels since the Washington march? Jesse Jackson brought to his television show black men who spoke passionately about local, urban organizations either founded or given additional financial and personnel resources by the Million Man March. In Philadelphia, young black men have organized a black economic development agency. On December 30, 1995, hundreds of black Philadelphians "in the Spirit of the Million Man March" demonstrated to bring attention to the imperiled state of the last black-owned supermarket in the city. In North Carolina, black men "in the Spirit of the Million Man March" campaigned for parents not to celebrate Christmas by buying elaborate gifts and toys. They urged blacks with financial means to purchase family health insurance, to invest in black businesses.

Oh, yes, there have been concrete, positive, local results. By the close of his address, Louis Farrakhan had each member of his symbolically-armed regiments ready to take an oath: "I,. Houston Baker . . ." Yes, I was an advocate for and participant in the Million Man March. There was for me no logical possibility of separating, in a time of war, the message from the messenger. Louis Farrakhan, chief spokesperson for the most expansive independent organization of black Americans in these United States, has managed to stay alive and active. That is a miracle of no small proportions. I went to the Million Man March with the support of my family. My mother and mother-in-law sat enthralled all day on October 16th by C-Span's coverage of the march. My brothers called the night before to convey a single message: Represent. My son, who is a graduate student on the West Coast, said: " Dad, you know if I were anywhere near we'd be going together. " All of this I interpreted to mean: There is a war going on in these United States. The message and the messenger of the Million Man March stand in a relationship best captured by the Reverend Joseph Lowery when he said on the Sunday before the march: "If my house is on fire, I don't care who brings the water. " As fate and an American politics of blame would have it, God gave Minister Farrakhan the "rainbow sign." There is precious little water for the burning house of most of black America. Unless we take symbolically-armed, forthright, thoughtful local action now in our own black interests and self-defense, the fire next time of late capitalism will consume us with the hot intensity of Microsoft glee.

As his last words echoed over the Mall, I turned from Farrakhan and the group of extraordinary Black American Men with whom I had shared field duty for a day. I headed for home. I thought about what I had witnessed.

Amazing scenes of young black children sleeping on the warm October ground at the feet of men who had brought them to the Mall. Teenagers in hoodies and skull caps and baggy jeans who tipped reverently by these sleeping youngsters, as though the ground on which they rested were hallowed. I saw single files of black men, hands on the shoulders of the person in front, zigzag through crowds of a hundred thousand black men who politely and quietly parted for them. I heard a young man behind me say: "Excuse me, Sir, do you mind if I smoke" The "Sir" was me. His was an uncommonly polite gesture since we were standing in the open air.

On October 16, 1995, I watched black men embrace, weep, listen, stand tall, feel simply and confidently relaxed in each others presence. We looked at ourselves, our children, all our brothers on that day. We knew the American war in which we were engaged, and for that "moment" were not afraid.


Notes

1. Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York; William Morrow, 1973), P. 44.


Bibliography

Brossard, Mario A. and Richard Mann. "Leader Popular Among Marchers' The Washington Post, October 17, 1995 P. Al.

Brown., Sterling. "Old Lem " In The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, ed. Michael S. Harper, New York: Harper & Row, 1980. pp. 170-171.

Cose, Ellis. The Rage of a Privileged Class. New York: Harper Collins, 1 99n.

Fletcher, Michael A. and Hamil R. Harris. "Black Men Jam Mall for a Day of Atonement." Washington Post, October 17, 1995 pp. A1,A20

Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. New York; William Morrow, 1973.

Jordan, June. 'Notes of a Barnard Dropout " In Civil Wars: Observations from the Front Lines of America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. pp. 96-102.


(This essay is reproduced with the kind permission of Prof. Baker.)


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