THE MARCH’S FAILURES: A CONFUSED POLITICAL PROJECT AND THE NATION OF ISLAM’S LEADERSHIP ROLE
Although the March evidenced mass black political mobilization and signaled a degree of black political independence, its political project was never clearly articulated. The exact purpose of the March remains an enigma. Although atonement ultimately became the stated purpose of the March, when Minister Farrakhan first announced his plans, atonement for sin was not the rallying cry. Over time (and in response to incessant media inquiries), the Nation of Islam put forward the atonement theme, but, by that time, many African Americans had already decided whether to attend.
It appears that atonement was somewhat an afterthought. The fact that Minister Farrakhan called for a march but was unsure as to what ends the March would serve yielded a conceptual confusion that hovered over the entire gathering. First, the ostensible purpose of the March (atonement of sins—focus on self, not State) did not comport with the choice of venue (nation’s Capitol, not Southeast D. C.). And while it is clear that Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam excited people about the March, many of us did not really know why we marched.
Second, the Nation of Islam derives its appeal, and hence its legitimacy, from its pointed criticism at the margin of political debates. The organization earned its perceived authenticity from its ostensibly disinterested critiques. Now, the espousal of a traditional African American jeremiad places the Nation of Islam in a position almost indistinct from that of various and sundry other black organizations. The only difference is that Minister Farrakhan wrapped his political vision with a veneer of good-ole-fashioned black nationalism: we’re taking responsibility for ourselves and we don’t need the help of the State to do that.
Our general point here is that the Nation of Islam and most ideologies of black nationalism are not particularly helpful once they enter the arena of mainstream political life. As the March demonstrated, once these ideologies enter the public domain they sound very much like regular pluralistic politics. New voters are registered.
Various forms of self-help are trotted out as answers to the community’s problems. And moral conservatism, for some of these ideologies, serves as a panacea for social ills. In short, the language is not new at all. We hear it all the time: from Newt Gingrich, from pulpits in black churches, from black congressional leaders, and on and on.
The limit, then, of the rhetoric of pessimism (as it has been articulated by the Nation of Islam) is that it must exist on the margins of mainstream black political life. It remains the common sense of most of us but can never become our public politics. Moreover, by participating in mainstream public debates, the Nation of Islam not only legitimizes the very institutions that it once said were beyond repair but risks losing some of its perceived authenticity. That the Nation of Islam has somewhat recreated itself to enter the mainstream public dialogue does not alter our opinion: its attempt at hybridization will have, at best, a diluting effect and, at worst, a delegitimizing effect. Without a clear framework from which to operate, any prospective mass political movement will fail.
Another troubling aspect of Minister Farrakhan’s leadership role in the March involves the Nation of Islam’s deficiencies as an organization. Aside from the organization’s significant problems with sexism and various forms of xenophobia, it is, at root, a sectarian religious order and, as such, intolerant of different viewpoints. The Nation of Islam cannot be just a political organization; it is a religious organization with all sorts of rules, customs, and required behavior. Outside of its rhetoric on issues of race, the Nation of Islam is socially conservative: some of its views are so puritanical that even Hawthorne would shake his head in disbelief. It is therefore doubtful that a group like the Nation of Islam could attract a significant number of black Americans. We are far too diverse and would soon grow tired of the particular forms of deportment required by the Nation of Islam.
A final difficulty with the Nation of Islam derives from its antijeremiad rhetoric. A sense of pessimism regarding America’s ability to solve, or even attempt to solve, racial conflict is the essential characteristic that defines the antijeremiad. This sense of pessimism—by its very nature—cannot be sustaining. Such pessimism inevitably leads either to apathy, a wholesale abandonment of public life, or anger— anger that we will never fully be accepted in our own country, anger
that an hereditary skin privilege will forever give our white fellows an advantage, anger that our phenotype will always limit our possibility.
Minister Farrakhan, or Malcolm X a generation earlier, gives voice to this anger—a strong, unapologetic voice. While the black CEO might privately think the very thoughts that Minister Farrakhan utters, she dare not give expression to those thoughts. After all, we have real concerns about paying the mortgage and sending our children to college. The very institutions that Minister Farrakhan criticizes pay our salaries. The appeal of Minister Farrakhan’s rhetoric of pessimism and sharp criticism of the status quo is that it provides an outlet for our anger. Moreover, the Nation of Islam’s rhetoric has historically carried with it a rather pugilistic tone. How better to vent our anger?
While the release of anger may provide some temporary solace, the antijeremiad, with its accompanying rhetoric of pessimism, is far too penultimate to provide a sustaining influence for black Americans. Most black people, at various times in our lives, have let Far – rakhan or Malcolm vent our frustrations, but we tend to reject the notion that racial justice is not possible in America. Our existential wellbeing would be in jeopardy were we to subscribe to such racial pessimism.
Significantly, Derrick Bell, the former Harvard Law School professor, has recently given voice to this sort of pessimism. Professor Bell argues that we should struggle for the sake of struggling, that racism is intractable, and that our victory is in the battle, not the re- sult.7 But the sensibilities of most black people require that we believe in more than the battle; most need to know that victory (i. e., a fair and just society) on earth is possible—maybe not in our lifetime, but certainly in future generations.
Ironically, some of the troubling aspects of the March that we have discussed combined in a way that produced the unprecedented turnout at the March. That is, black people responded, in large measure, to Minister Farrakhan’s reputation for articulating a fiery antijeremiad. We needed to vent some anger. But did the need to vent anger induce people to travel (some thousands of miles) to D. C.? Probably not. It was the fiery antijeremiad mixed with the Nation of Islam’s slow transmutation of its message to something that resembles a traditional African American jeremiad that offered enough hope in ultimate victory that about one million black folk journeyed to D. C. and supported the March.
This confluence of apparently incompatible ideologies produced an excitement in the black community not felt in years. But this excitement had to give way to the calm that always follows the storm. And so it did. After the March, not much, if any, transformative activity resulted. Roxbury is still Roxbury, Southeast D. C. remains unchanged, Harlem is unaltered, and Gary, Indiana, is unaffected. At bottom, Minister Farrakhan’s message was insufficient to act as a philosophic scaffolding to support a mainstream black political movement. To be sure, however, Minister Farrakhan and the March do provide a useful starting point for thinking about how black Americans can mobilize in a politically meaningful way.
Since the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement, Minister Far – rakhan has been the only personality able to garner the sort of energy exhibited at the March. Others have not been able to devise a political language—a way to talk about our condition—clear enough to capture the imagination of a representative cross-section of black America. And although Minister Farrakhan seemed to have come to the threshold of such a language, all the limitations that we discussed above explain why little to no reverberations can be felt from our explosion on D. C.
In the end, we believe the Million Man March demonstrated that marching and a certain brand of black nationalism cannot be the form or content of our politics for the twenty-first century. We are left, then, with a gaping void. The Civil Rights Revolution has turned into the Civil Rights Establishment with technocratic leadership. Prophetic voices from inside or outside mainstream politics are rare and, for the most part, ineffective. Many of our youth have turned to various forms of black nationalism because the ideology of rage—something we all feel—connects with their lived experiences. Others wallow in their own hedonistic desires, like most of America. So we are left groping, marching to D. C. in the image of King and trying desperately to sound like Elijah. What we saw on October 16, 1995, and perhaps this is the legacy of the March, was the eclipse of a black political public that has left us in the dark.
Ours, then, is the generation struggling to find a language, and, as James Baldwin said over thirty years ago, "the privacy of [our] experience lends credibility to any system that pretends to clarify it."8
But that can no longer be the case. A political language for the twenty – first century must include a vehicle to vent rage as well as a philosophy that allows for hope. It must also offer results that are tangible, not merely symbolic. Our brief, post-civil rights era history provides eloquent testimony in support of the proposition that de jure equality alone does not produce a fair and just society. The Million Man March showed us that Black America is ready to act, but we must act wisely.
1. Voltaire, Candide (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1918), 69.
2. James Baldwin, "Notes on the House of Bondage, 1948-1985," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1985).
3. We use "people" rather than "men" because black women, girls, and boys participated in the March, despite the organizers’ intention to limit the March to black men.
4. We use "black" and "African American" interchangeably throughout this essay.
5. The jeremiad is a form of political sermon. It is the main rhetorical form of public exhortation in the United States that joins social criticism to moral renewal. In the case of America, this amounts to a call to return to the founding ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality. It is a rhetoric of indignation, expressing deep dissatisfaction and urgently challenging the nation to reform." See David Howard-Pitney, The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 3-17. When we use the phrase "the antijeremiad," we are referring to that rhetorical position that rejects the fundamental premises of the jeremiad: There is no promise and so no declension. America begins as evil, so there is no hope for redemption.
6. See Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), ch. 3.
7. See, generally, Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well; And We Are Not Saved (New York: Basic Books, 1987).
8. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1963),