THE MILLION MAN MARCH
Undeniably, the Million Man March, on October 16, 1995, energized the Black community. Many felt empowered by this spectacular event. Its leaders spoke eloquently of uplift and rejuvenation to a community thirsting for solutions to catastrophic problems, problems such as drug abuse, Black-on-Black violence, teenage pregnancy, record arrest and incarceration rates, AIDS, homelessness, endemic joblessness, and gross racial stereotyping. But the solutions to these problems promoted by the call for the March—self-help, atonement, and men taking responsibility for their families—reflected a severely limited political vision rooted in deeply patriarchal assumptions and knee-jerk nationalism.
To intervene into the public debates about the March, I joined Angela Davis,7 Paula Giddings,8 Byllye Avery,9 Jewell Jackson McCabe,10 and Marcia Gillespie11 in organizing a press conference in New York City on October 15, 1995. Our purpose was twofold: (1) to oppose the March publicly, for it symbolized, more than anything else, a "retrograde" politics, and (2) to challenge the male-centered vision of the Black community, of the Black family, and of Black community building that the March reflected. In particular, we wanted to problematize the leadership’s advocacy of self-help as a "solution" for our community’s problems. The proffering of a self-help solution to Black disem – powerment suggests that the key problems that confront Blacks are related to personal initiative or a lack thereof. However, Black disem – powerment does not reflect an unwillingness on the part of Blacks to work hard and take responsibility for their lives; it reflects acute political, economic, and social isolation. A self-help "solution" ignores this reality. Moreover, advocating self-help as a viable solution to Black subordination is especially dangerous in our present political culture, a political culture characterized by narrowing conceptions of the federal government’s responsibilities to its most vulnerable citizens. The politics of self-help encourages the government to adopt a laissez-faire approach to Black subordination and legitimizes the governmental elimination of many social welfare programs.
The March’s focus on atonement was problematic for two additional reasons. For one thing, it elevated the atonement of Black men to the status of a core political concern for Blacks in a society that has yet to atone for slavery and Jim Crow. For another, the call for atonement proved, in large part, to be just another expression of paternalism. Indeed, in the midst of the call for atonement and mutual understanding, the leaders of the March promoted the traditional nuclear family and failed to embrace fully concepts of family and community that included gay, lesbian, and bisexual Blacks and single-parentheaded households. In this way, the March exacerbated existing tensions within the Black community and undermined the potential for Black community building.
Quite apart from the problems with the message of atonement, the politics of the March pushed an array of critical issues to the periphery of the Black agenda for the sake of centering Black politics on the lives of heterosexual Black men—issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape; the dramatically increasing incarceration rates for Black women; homophobia and homophobic violence; the social and political performance of Black masculinity; and the income disparity between Black women and other social groups, including Black men, white men, and white women.
Even as these issues were being pushed aside, it was clear that many Black people would nevertheless support the March. Supporting the March operated virtually as a litmus test for "loyalty to the race and the community." The politics of the March rendered dissenting voices racially inauthentic, especially feminist voices. Indeed, many of the leaders and supporters of the March relegated the perspectives of visionary Black feminists to the back of the bus, trivializing their significance and sometimes demonizing their message. Yet the feminist voices were voices of hope and possibility, voices that were pushing for a more inclusive and egalitarian vision of the Black community. Why, then, weren’t these voices part of the debate? In the next section I address this issue by focusing on the way in which three individuals positioned themselves vis-a-vis the March: Lewis Farrakhan (as a principal organizer of the March), Dr. Geneva Smitherman (as a self-described "womanist," an academic, and the founder of My Brother’s Keeper, a mentoring program for young Black male students in elementary and middle schools in Detroit), and Cornel West (as a self-described Christian democratic socialist whose work reflects a multicultural and multiracial politics). The reasons articulated by each of these individuals as to why they supported the March help to explain why feminist concerns were not a meaningful part of the debate.