Toward a Politics for the Twenty-First Century

Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

Secret griefs are even more cruel than public miseries.

—Voltaire1

We have come to the end of a language and are now about the busi­ness of forging a new one. For we have survived, children, the very last white country the world will ever see.

—James Baldwin2

THE “LEGACY” OF the Million Man March is ambiguous. A few years have passed, and we are not quite sure what was accomplished. Some claim that the decrease in violent crime, particularly black-on – black crime, in most of our major cities is a result of the March, while others see the swell in local activity among African American men as an effect of the gathering. But we are not sure if either of those trends can be attributed to the March. We are certain of only two things: that a large number, be it four hundred thousand or one million black peo­ple3 (we’ll not argue about whose count is right), showed up on Octo­ber 16, 1995, and that this huge number of people, gathering to atone for their sins, signaled a significant and troubling shift in African American political culture.

The Million Man March confronted us explicitly with the limits of two traditional forms of political engagement for late-twentieth-cen – tury black America.4 First, there was the act of marching itself—the actual movement of black bodies in public space, which has been so much a part of the African American political tradition. Unlike marches in the past, no serious transgression of the organization of public space occurred during the Million Man March. Ironically, if there was any transgression at all, it was the fact that there was no disorder.

Second, there was the rhetoric of a particular form of black na­tionalism articulated by the Nation of Islam. During the March, the Nation of Islam attempted to position itself as a viable, mainstream political option. This was a significant political move; up until then, the Nation of Islam found its power on the margins of mainstream political debate, refusing to address the policies of the nation-state through traditional channels. Instead, its rhetorical stance was a fiery antijeremiad: a prophecy of the inevitable fall of America.5 This prophecy trades on a deep-seated pessimism about the possibility of racial justice in America. The context of the Million Man March, how­ever, diluted the power of the Nation of Islam’s antijeremiad. After all, Minister Farrakhan was standing on the steps of the U. S. Capitol, and his message, in some ways, offered salvation to America.