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Black Men Triumphed; Only Farrakhan Failed

By Michael Eric Dyson
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 13, 1996; Page C03

One year after the epiphany of the Million Man March -- a dramatic testament to the magnitude of black male hunger for racial rescue and moral requirement -- the bright light it spread through our nation continues to illumine the efforts of black communities. Across America, black men and women gather in churches and in mosques, in universities and grass roots organizations, heeding the plea of march co-organizer Rev. Ben Chavis to "keep the spirit of the Million Man March alive."

Last month I spoke on the march at Detroit's Fellowship Chapel and found as much enthusiasm and energy as I'd found a week after the march at a speech I gave in Charlotte, N.C. That appeal, duplicated a thousand times over, proves that what happened in Washington last October was neither a fluke nor a careless, exaggerated dance of black machismo.

Rather, what we witnessed was the public choreography of black male identity, a ballet of black masculine self-revelation and reinvention that had been rehearsed in millions of miniature but meaningful gestures, both in individual psyches and on the historical stage of collective aspiration. In this light, Minister Louis Farrakhan proved to be both brilliantly perceptive and opportunistic: He seized the day by defining and packaging in accessible form black huge desire -- one that is largely invisible to white eyes -- to showcase our identities in all of their splendid, undervalued complexity. Unfortunately, he has not heeded his own message.

The Million Man March afforded black men the occasion of a symbolic solidarity that had a practical and profound purpose: By combining our resources, we consolidated a vision of black masculinity that had been largely ignored by the media and other cultural myth makers. As simple as it sounds, the march took one big swipe at all of the nonsense that masquerades as intelligent opinion about black men. And as disheartening as its need might appear -- especially in light of the herculean efforts of black warriors against racial hostility and ignorance -- the march rebutted persistent stereotypes about black men and resounded as a colossal "we are" against the sophisticated denigration of black men's lives.

The march showed that we are concerned about crime in black communities. That we are consumed with the wish to make moral mayhem a thing of the past in our neighborhoods. That we are more diverse than cultural beliefs suggest. That we are sensitive and sharing. That we are brothers who can embrace one another across the chasm of class and economic circumstance.

Events since the Million Man March prove that those who claimed it was much larger than its leadership were right. While Farrakhan was undeniably at the heart of the march, the inspiration for its bold realization, he was not after all the reason that more than a million men -- marched to express centuries old grievances. (I don't care about conflicting estimates of the crowd size; I was there and I have no doubt it was more than a million men, but is the event any less potent if there were only 800,000?) Those who claimed that the march would mire in the bigotries associated with Farrakhan, or that the march's larger, more humane meanings would be drowned in a flood of ill will, were manifestly wrong.

Perhaps the biggest irony, and greatest promise, is that the success of the march won't be compromised by the tragic missteps of its lauded leader. One cannot but help grieve at the manner in which Farrakhan has squandered opportunities to extend the arc of his leadership. Having gained a considerable degree of moral authority, political capital, racial influence and spiritual power, Farrakhan has largely disappointed an array of black communities who hoped his emergence might signal a new direction for him, and renewed imagination in the movement for black equality and justice which had stalled in stale strategies and impotent ideas. Instead, Farrakhan has followed a self-defeating path that has alienated allies deeply invested in his success.

Especially troubling are Farrakhan's forays on foreign soil, bizarre missions that have produced miscalculations and mistakes that certainly betray the spirit of the march. When Farrakhan journeyed to Nigeria, instead of indicting the dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, for his cruel policies, he pleaded with human rights advocates to give Abacha three more years to live up to his promise to return Nigeria to civilian rule. Farrakhan ignored the detention of hundreds of pro-democracy activists without trial. He was silent about the executions of opposition leaders like poet Ken Saro-Wiwa. Farrakhan insulted Nigerians by telling them that severe discipline was sometimes necessary, and that Moses, like Abacha, had been a dictator as well. Thus, Farrakhan seemed to ignore the barbarous practices of Nigeria for no other reason than that the nation is black.

In Iran, Farrakhan pledged his support of the mullahs in their efforts to overthrow the "Great Satan," the United States. In the past, Farrakhan has been the guest of the Sudanese government, and on a recent trip praised it for its "wise Islamic leadership." That is a questionable claim in light of the recent resurgence of slavery there. (At the annual meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists in August, Farrakhan defied anyone to prove such a claim; this despite the report of journalists with the Baltimore Sun who had documented their purchase, and subsequent release, of two slaves.)

Farrakhan's activities since the march were perhaps foreshadowed by his bizarre speech at the march. He failed to live up to his talents as a breathtaking orator because he refused to tailor his famously marathon rhetorical style -- bathed as it is in esoteric numerology, cultural conspiracies and religious mysteries -- to the demands of American civic discourse. So while Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed in brilliant Technicolor at the Lincoln Memorial for 19 minutes in 1963, with phrases hewn from stones of racial eloquence and national character, Farrakhan's amazing, rambling, disjointed, 139-minute oration lacked cohesion, a memorable phrase and the merciful aid of brevity.

Similarly, Farrakhan has failed to discipline his leadership to the demands of a democratic constituency. The responsibility that Farrakhan preached to black men has a flip side that he has largely ignored: accountability of black leaders to black folk. Once Farrakhan forsook an exclusive identification with his Nation of Islam base, once he entered the secular arena of mainstream black leadership, charisma supported by authority was no longer viable. In the broad arena of democratic black leadership, one must argue, not acclaim, one's perspective. If Farrakhan is to live up to the brilliant potential that was unleashed at the march, if he is to seize the initiative of bold black leadership that was his mantle to claim, he must learn this lesson.

But in the end, the meaning of the march is not exhausted by Farrakhan's failures. Its greatest gains are not an empirically measured increase in political power or material success. But its effects are equally important: an extraordinary increase in self-confidence for black men; a valiant rejection of old orthodoxies, white and black, which have trapped black men between stereotype and delusion; and a determination to combat the erosion of black masculine self-esteem with a powerful estimate of the good that black men can achieve when they set their minds and hearts to it.

Such a spiritual gift is undeniably a legacy of Farrakhan's daring drive to make the march a reality. One of the march's greatest legacies may be the courage of black men to confront and criticize Farrakhan now that he seems to have lost the better part of a vision that forever changed the way black men are viewed in our nation.

Michael Dyson is a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina. His most recent book is "Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line," published this month by Addison-Wesley.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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