It began as an ordinary evening. My grandfather arrived home as sunset evolved to dusk. A house full of women and girls, we greeted him with the usual fanfare of kisses, questions about his day, and a search for possible surprises he may have brought. He surrendered his Lykes Brothers Steamship shirt quickly—the collar marked by the marriage of dirt and New Orleans-induced sweat. By day, my grandfather—who I call Daddy because he plays that role in my life—chauffeured around Lykes Brothers executives; by night, he blew his soul into his alto and soprano saxophones, making memorable Dixieland jazz. Years before I was born, he formed the Olympia Brass Band, and by my teen years the group had become famous—a movie couldn’t be filmed in the Big Easy without a cameo appearance by Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. This particular evening, however, Daddy didn’t have a gig; his short, doughboy physique and slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair were ours for the night. We eagerly anticipated laughter, a sip of Scotch and milk out of his silver cup when my grandmother and great grandmother weren’t looking, and lies—beaucoup lies, which he called stories.
But our reveries halted abruptly when Daddy opened the door to his closet and discovered that three silk suits, his .38 pistol, and an alto clarinet were missing. (I’m unsure how he knew there were precisely three fewer suits that evening than there had been in the morning, since he had a closet full of them.) “Who took them?” he asked quietly. We knew, but said nothing.
It wasn’t the first time my brother—the eldest of my grandfather’s four grandchildren—had stolen valuables from the family. My mother knew her son had become a thief, a drug addict, and generally disrespectful, but she stored the dirty secret in her mind’s purse. I certainly knew. When I was 12 years old, he stole my $200 trumpet and sold it for $75. I learned this quite by accident: One cool fall morning, I took my ritual walk to the bakery a few blocks from my house (my mother and I had to have doughnuts and hot chocolate or coffee in the morning). The owner, an older black man of undistinguished looks, casually asked if the next time I came in I could bring the case for the horn “your brother sold me.” Startled and ashamed, I ran from the store nearly blinded by the tears streaming down my face. Another time, my brother climbed out of our second-floor apartment window with a 19-inch color television. He swore he didn’t take it; my mother knew better.
But on this evening, there was no masking my brother’s sin, no escape from accountability. When he arrived home, my grandmother was sipping from her usual glass of Imperial whiskey as she sat on the sofa near her mother. Daddy was in his easy chair. My two sisters and I were watching television in our room, but we came out when we heard the screen door close, convinced that what was about to unfold would be infinitely more dramatic than anything on TV.
My brother, even as a teen, towered several inches over my grandfather. No one looking at his golden skin, deep black eyes, and even blacker wavy hair would judge him a rogue. But he manipulated women and was expert at feigning innocence. He shifted into his usual routine, but Daddy wasn’t buying. Without warning, Daddy’s anger exploded; his fist hit the side of my brother’s head, sending his body to the floor. I thought the boy was dead. My oldest sister started to go to his aid, but thought better of it. My great-grandmother simply put her face in her hand, a quiet solicitation for divine intervention. My grandmother continued sipping her drink—seemingly unaffected by it all.
After several tense moments, my brother recovered from my grandfather’s stinging right hook and pulled himself up off the floor. My grandfather ordered him to retrieve every item, warning him that the clock would be ticking. If he didn’t return at a reasonable hour, a bloodthirsty grandfather would be on the streets. In less than two hours—which seemed remarkable to me since my brother traveled by public transportation—he returned with three silk suits, the .38, and the clarinet. None of them looked the worse for their removal. My brother never stole anything else from the family.
That none of the women in the family intruded in the exchange between my grandfather and brother was born of our understanding that the moment belonged to them. The space in which they communicated, fought, and resolved their conflict was, at that moment, a male zone.
The Million Man March, scheduled for Oct. 16 in Washington, D.C., declares publicly and indisputably what my grandfather’s actions insinuated and what the women in our house—for that matter in our community—knew intuitively: There are occasions when men must be alone and allowed to confront themselves and each other, to celebrate their successes, analyze their failures, chastise misbehavior, challenge improvement, and ruminate on the question of what constitutes being a man.
Not long ago, I attended a national workshop conducted by Max Rodriguez, publisher of the Quarterly Black Review of Books, that focused on journalists who have become book authors. One conflicted, well-dressed young black man asked: Why aren’t there more books about us—about and by black men? My mind quickly ran through the names of black male authors like Darryl Pinckney, Randall Kenan, Richard Perry, Walter Mosley, and Kalamu Ya Salaam. But I realized the young man’s question suggested a deeper problem, one of definition. He implied that many of the books he saw didn’t reflect the black male experience as he knew it.
This struggle for definition is at the core of the battle raging in many African-American communities. It spurred my brother’s descent from adorable son to thug. Without a father at home and unimpressed by the machismo of an old man, my brother cobbled together a patchwork definition of manhood out of the ragged mien of the boys he ran with. His confusion presaged a broader disorder in the black male psyche that can be traced to the aftermath of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when African-Americans entered into a newly integrated world, but left behind some very hard-earned lessons.
While legions of blacks in this post-civil rights paradigm found high-paying jobs, fancy houses, and open doors to Ivy League schools and corporate board rooms, a larger number lost their souls. Given a small measure of freedom, many black boys and men slowly and methodically turned their neighborhoods into armed camps where it became difficult to discern friend from foe. An endless line of African-American men could be found on an endless number of corners in nearly every black community. They were not engaged in any cultural ritual beyond passing around bottles, cigarettes, and stories about their sorry condition. And those who had homes were all too often pounding their fists into some woman’s face or, even worse, whipping the hell out of some child.
These are not the imagined creations of racists, hoping to perpetuate negative images of African-Americans; these are scenes from life in the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., New Orleans, La., and New York City—places where I have walked. They are reflections of a people struggling to define community, family, womanhood, and manhood, a people attempting to define themselves—separately and collectively—as both different and equal. It is a struggle black men have lost thus far.
The Million Man March, sponsored by a coalition of religious and secular organizations, chief among them the Nation of Islam and the African-American Leadership Summit, just may be the equivalent of my grandfather’s right hook. The march has become the locus for a genuine self-assessment of manhood, including answering the seminal question of what it means to be a man based on African-American culture, history, and current communal needs. Does it matter if he wears a bow tie, or any tie; if he wears Afrocentric clothing; if he refers to a woman as “Ms.”; if he opens doors (a gesture I require); if on the bus he stands up for old ladies and women with children; if he finds a way—however meager—to provide food, clothing, housing, and education for his family; if he defends his home against violence by those within the community or from outside; if he becomes an active participant in the political system; if his respect for women extends beyond those in his immediate family to women and girls on the street?
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has made the point that black men must be held accountable for what transpires in African-American communities around the country. The march is billed as a “Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation”—to be sure, there are reasons enough for atonement. Atonement for black men’s failure to blast Mel Reynolds’ assault on the trust of a teen-age girl; for Mike Tyson’s and Tupac Shakur’s misunderstanding of the meaning of the words “date” and “rape”; for the misogynists who fill airwaves with songs about “bitches” and “ho’s.” There must be atonement for a black man’s bombing of a black neighborhood in Philadelphia; for the exploitation of poor people at the hands of black politicians; and for the proliferation of movies by African-American filmmakers that promote and celebrate negative images of black men and women.
“We atone to God for the way we have mistreated our women and girls, who are a mercy from God to us in that only through women is our life extended into generations,” Farrakhan says. “Since women have borne the brunt of our ignorance and since our women have carried us for 440 years and have been in the forefront of our struggle, we have asked our women if they would permit us, as their men, to finally take the point and make a stand.”
I, for one, will get out of the way. My reasons revolve around the indisputable need for black men to recast themselves in their own eyes, the eyes of their families and communities, and the world. But my support also derives from lessons I learned that night at my grandparents’ home—lessons that chaperon my relationship with myself, and with other women and men; lessons that anchor me in a Southern women’s tradition yet cast me as an uninhibited explorer of the world. Although some women hoist flags of division and argue against an all-male gathering, I embrace this call to unite African-American men and boys. Who can argue that the time has not come for a greater accountability?
Women set the standard for society. In this regard, black women are equally responsible for the marginalization of black men. There have been abundant permissions granted and a lowering of expectations that expanded the sinkhole in which black men find themselves.
The women I grew up around in New Orleans understood the dynamic. They signaled their standards and forecast their value-encoded yardstick by what they were willing or not willing to accept from men. And so it is now. If women determine Pampers are a measure of fatherhood, men will buy or steal those disposable diapers by the boatload, plop them on the table, and consider their job done. If there are no rules involving the care of children, support for the home, then it necessarily falls to the women to lead the household; if “bitch” and “ho” become acceptable terms of endearment, then men will use them—even with women who have not bought into the nomenclature of the street. If women decide thigh-high, skin-tight dresses and finger-waved hair constitute presentable attire, men will gravitate toward women who sport that look. Women get just what they ask for.
The state and abdication of responsibilities by black men in America are logical outcomes given the low performance requirements set by African-American women. That my brother continued to steal from us until my grandfather tried to half-kill him falls at my mother’s feet. Had she consistently demanded more of him and refused to bail him out or offer a panoply of excuses for his corrupt ways, the harvest would have been less bitter. Like my mother, women today churn excuses—societal pressures, racism, unemployment, etc.—for the male failures in their midst. These external forces may explain some things, but they excuse nothing.
Men seem to understand the role women play in keeping them straight, though few articulate it. Author and talk show host Armstrong Williams raises the issue in his book Beyond Blame: “I do not want to blame women for your behavior,” he writes in a letter to young Brad Howard, a black male he befriended who is emerging from a life of crime. “But I do think there is no faster way to discourage young men from being self-destructive than for these women to demand better.”
A page from my own book echoes Williams’ point and the lesson those ladies of the South taught me about standards. Back in the 1980s, I met a man with whom I had many things in common—a love of books, nature, laughter, and an appreciation for our history, though neither of us chained ourselves with it. We began dating, but I noticed immediately that there were certain courtesies he did not provide—for example, he didn’t open the door on the passenger side of the car. One day on a Northwest street, after having a fine dinner, he went to the driver’s side, neglecting to open my door. I refused to get in unless he came to open it. He thought it ridiculous—I thought that if he could not handle the insignificant task of opening a door, real sacrifice might overwhelm him. I caught a taxi home that night. We never went out again.
Call me old-fashioned if you want. But make no mistake, I am not filled with nostalgic longing for a 19th-century fairyland replete with corsets. Nor am I a damsel in distress—I am quite capable of opening a door or driving an 18-wheeler, if necessary. I’ve traveled the country and walked the streets of many cities alone. I am not subordinate to men, but I am different. In my past, to ensure the maintenance of those differences, Southern women rarely mowed lawns or clipped hedges or changed tires or shoveled dirt or performed any other significant manual task. It wasn’t that we couldn’t do those chores—we simply understood wearing a man’s clothing too often or too long makes a woman forget herself.
Awoman’s untimely entry into a man’s territory is akin to barging into a public urinal. But some women insist on urinating right alongside men, as if separate restrooms imply a shortcoming on their part or extend a man’s perceived power.
Some of these same women, including local journalists like radio talk show host Julianne Malveaux and newspaper columnists Donna Britt and Adrienne Washington, accuse Farrakhan and the Rev. Benjamin Chavis—another march co-sponsor and organizer—of promoting policies of exclusion, discriminating against women, and sending women back to the kitchen. They say black men and black women alike should be at the rally as expression of unity; they should fight together.
Please. Give it a rest!
The “men only” message is a confounding one for women who have been wearing men’s clothing for so long. Their protestations result from the same unquenchable thirst for power that indicted white males in the late ’70s. Let’s get real, here: The Million Man March is not a meeting of the old boy’s network. It is not a strategy session on how to lower the glass ceiling. It is not about quotas and hiring practices. It’s about men coming together to determine their own destiny. Anything wrong with that?
Too many women frame everything men do in terms of “us vs. them.” It may be shocking to some women, but “they” can and do come together without any thought of “us.” There is an underlying egotism that convinces them that what men do is always about women, but to paraphrase a Carly Simon tune, “every song is not about us.”
There is an unavoidable inconsistency at work here. Women demand inclusion from men while celebrating their own exclusionary policies—although that’s not what it’s called when women enter “the female-only zone.” Malveaux, for example, appeared for a long time on a television talk show called To The Contrary—an all-female discussion on the issues of the day. The impetus for the program stemmed from the argument that few shows proffer the female perspective. I can’t recall any men protesting the round table of female talking heads or demanding one from their ranks be given a token place at the table.
Adrienne Washington, who writes for the Washington Times, suggests that the Million Man March echoes the civil rights movement in its treatment of women as “workhorses and dutiful helpmates, all while taking a back seat to our historically wounded men with their fragile egos.”
Washington misrepresents history—or maybe she merely forgets— the likes of Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker. They were helpmates, but they certainly didn’t carry anyone’s water or jump into anybody’s back seat. And they never wasted a lot of time nurturing tattered egos.
In her Sept. 19 column, Washington inadvertently tips her hand, exposing the underlying reason for her disgust—her own bruised ego. “To whom will these million men turn at the moment of their atonement if their wonder women are left home in the kitchen?” she asks disingenuously. Clearly, the hope among the Million Man organizers is that men who have traveled from the far West, the deep South, and other parts of the United States to the march will return to their communities healed, whole, and ready to assume their responsibilities, including those alongside their women in the kitchen.
Perhaps the most unbelievable comment to erupt from the cadre of sister journalists originates from Donna Britt. In a column she penned following a press conference on the role of women in the Million Man March, Britt raises concerns about how men would react if females decided to have their own rally. Excuse me? What did men say during the last two decades when women held at least two major, national demonstrations and two international conferences? To my recollection, there hasn’t been one man—of any color—who publicly tormented those women or debated their right to gather, discuss their problems, and lobby for solutions.
“We’ve had our meetings, let them have their march,” says Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women—an organization that grew out of a national meeting of women back in 1935. Height, Maya Angelou, and Rosa Parks are just a few women who understand the need for the all-male gathering and have lent their support. Attorney Faye Williams serves as Washington, D.C., coordinator for the march, and Linda Greene is in charge of the national fund-raising efforts.
Farrakhan and other march sponsors have not said women will be thrown off the mall grounds if they show up. (They couldn’t be: It’s public property.) What the men have asked is that they be permitted time to be with themselves. And for this, some want to crucify them.
Female critics of the march anchor themselves in the tenets of a movement that erroneously advocates that men and women are the same. They spout neologisms to neutralize the unique qualities of both men and women while the cultural grounding of a suffering community takes second place to their genderistic goals.
The push for equality has exacted a high price from the African-American community, separating, at the most ill-fated historical moment, black men and black women. African-American men and women—as evidenced by the female opposition to the Million Man March—have come to see each other as enemies instead of complements—each part with equal responsibilities, equal value, and each critical to the ultimate success of their families and communities. It’s ironic that this battle of the sexes should play out in the African-American community, since black women were extremely reluctant initially to join a movement whose primary emphasis seemed to be about snatching power from the pockets of white males, rather than caring for families and improving the general conditions of black people suffering the ravages of widespread racism.
Despite deep-seated opposition to the women’s movement, feminist philosophy seeped into African-American communities. Black women aggressively competed with men in the marketplace, and the development, maintenance, and furtherance of women’s careers became driving issues; the value of the care and attention devoted to family and community eroded significantly under this paradigm. Where before a black woman rarely threw the bacon in a man’s face when she brought it home, the woman’s movement freed those words from once-muted mouths. Language—what word was and wasn’t offensive—became so complicated that men bit their lips before offering compliments, fearing they would be accused of being sexist. A humming, covert conflict developed between African-American men and women. The challenges between black women and their men heightened with the insidious two-fer practice of some corporations ascribing to affirmative action quotas, which counted African-American women twice—first as women and second as black. In some instances, African-American men were denied jobs because of this limitation in the quota factory.
Prior to the women’s movement, the workplace was not a battle zone between black men and women; history records a noncompetitive, shared labor experience from slavery through the civil rights movement. Moreover, regardless of the work performed outside the home, African-American women took great pride in the care of their families—preparing meals, caring for children and their husbands. Yet the feminist agenda came to characterize women who prioritized their lives around these domestic duties as oppressed or backwards. This durable duality of the African-American woman as workplace participant and homemaker is represented in the powerful images of people such as Mary Church Terrell, who, along with Mary McLeod Bethune, organized the National Council of Negro Women. The truth about who black women are lies somewhere in a powerful, complicated gray area: We are both strivers and nurturers, homemakers and home builders. Educator Anna Cooper articulated it best decades ago when she said, “All I claim is that there is a feminine as well as a masculine side of truth. That these are related not as inferior and superior, not as better and worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements—complements in one necessary whole.”
No one can deny that the women’s movement has benefited the entire society, reducing discrimination and sensitizing both genders about workplace habits and politics. But some of the externalities of the movement are beginning to outweigh the advantages at this juncture in black history. African-American women must decide whether the feminist movement serves their current needs and whether some of its tenets obstruct a restoration of black male/female relationships, of black families and communities.
Before black men and women can truly work or fight together as Malveaux suggests, there must be this redefining for each—man and woman. Two confused people traveling together can only arrive at a place of greater confusion. For women, it could be a newer form of black feminism that weaves itself into the fabric of our culture rather than tears away at it.
“Black feminism is about self-definition. But it’s also about self-initiative, proscribed action, not based on actions and efforts of other women,” Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought. “[It is] based on a legacy of our mothers, grandmothers, and expanded as to take into account our own lives and those we wish for our granddaughters and great granddaughters.”
That the men are coming together to atone and hopefully restore offers an opportunity for African-American women to analyze and reflect on the role they have played in desecrating themselves, their families, and their communities. The natural next step might be their own atonement—perhaps there is a need for a Million Woman March, which Britt advocates—but that march is for another day.
This is not a perfect march: Some of the men who lead the crowd have sinned. Farrakhan sometimes spews malodorous verbiage; Chavis offers money to hush sexual discrimination charges; the Rev. Jesse Jackson dances in the spotlight but rarely bends to plant the seed or till the soil. But, we all know, no saints live among us. Properly couched, this is a rally of sinners seeking penance.
The discourse around the “Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation” should not devolve into the petty divisions that have in the past crippled African-Americans’ ability to garner and sustain power and influence in America. It does not matter whether the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention did or didn’t endorse it; whether it will or won’t yield a “Contract With Black America” similar to the Republican manifesto; or how many African-American men will register to vote. And stamp irrelevant the issue of whether the rally serves as an unofficial launch pad for Calypso Louie’s vault into the national political scene during a presidential election year. (Is Farrakhan’s possible participation in the political arena any different from Strom Thurmond’s, Patrick Buchanan’s, or David Duke’s? If there is to be a censorship or a halting of the minister’s aspirations, the electorate and the general public will make that decision.) This is not Farrakhan’s hour. He and other organizers are merely conduits for a movement that has been stewing for more than five years in black urban centers.
Some will say not all black men are villains and should not be seen as criminals holding their own people captive. Author Ishmael Reed offers reminders that the black community is no monolith. He told Rebecca Carroll, editor of Swing Low: Black Men Writing, he boils when broad-brush descriptions are applied: “It is tremendously dangerous to lump black men all together in one category, or to blame one or all of us for the actions of a few.”
But those good men have permitted bad things to happen in their communities. In some ways, they have been co-conspirators in destruction, sitting idly as a river of blood flows through their neighborhoods. Howard Croft, chairman of the urban studies department at the University of the District of Columbia, points out that more than 400 young black men have been killed in his community in a five-year period. It’s compelling evidence of a people turned on themselves, but Croft and his positive peers have little to offer besides hand-wringing and regret.
The Million Man March provides an opportunity for African-American men to strip themselves of the mantle of victim, to cast off the label of “endangered species,” to assume complete, unequivocal responsibility for what happens to them, their families, and their communities.
A genuine evaluation of the rally can’t even begin until Oct. 17—after the portable toilets have been returned, the vendors have packed their wares, the shouts between march organizers and the National Park Service over just how many people actually came to the Mall have subsided, and the buses have gone home. Talk show host Derrick McGinty suggests that observers not focus on the specific numbers in spite of the name of the march. He says even if there aren’t 1 million men, is 250,000 or 300,000 like-minded black men an insignificant phenomenon? And even it there isn’t tangible evidence of change, the march still may be judged a success for a much larger reason: “The level of spiritualism, the level of inspiration, the level of symbolism might be what’s needed to get some folks on the right track,” he says.
Years after my brother suffered my grandfather’s brutal blow, he landed himself in jail as an accessory to murder: He and a cousin got in a street fight in Dallas, Texas. The boy they fought got the better of my brother. My cousin and my brother went home, returned with a sawed-off shotgun, and fired it into the boy’s chest, knocking him to the ground. And then they kicked the boy to death.
My grandfather’s right hook may have protected our material possessions, but it didn’t save my brother’s life or his soul. The reason for the failure may lie with my grandfather’s general disgust with my brother: The two rarely interacted after their altercation. They didn’t talk much and didn’t do things together. My grandfather gave up. My brother died at 27—an argument over some biblical scripture was all my mother was told. She knew better, but believed the lie anyway.
The Million Man March won’t save every African-American man and it most certainly won’t erase the challenges facing black people in this country as we enter the 21st century. But it’s an occasion to revisit an important piece of our history while laying the groundwork for the future. It’s a chance for black men to remember a time in their not-too-distant history when they found a place to stand—despite the sting of the whip across their backs—by their ability to continue to provide, however meagerly, for their families, by the love they showed their wives and children. The march may be a zone in which men will realize that male irresponsibility has torn apart families more effectively than any plantation boss ever did.
Other than me, the women in my family never participated in any mass public rallies for or against voting rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, or any other rights. They find the concept of an all-male gathering astonishing, but they are far more amazed that women are angry because they aren’t invited for the ride. Perhaps they are from another time, but for the women who raised me, the legacies of manhood and womanhood in the African-American community still seem fresh, untarnished by victimization jargon, endangered species reports, or matriarchal labels festering in federal reports. They are not confused by the shifting language or role reversals. Some people might argue against renewing boundaries, but the lack of demarcation has wrought a wholesale anarchy that threatens to tear us apart in a much more devastating way.