by Robert Wesley
He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. He who does not love his brother abides in death. I John 2:9-11; 3:14
My father reached into his briefcase and pulled out a red-black-and-green button: Million Man March, Day of Atonement, I Want to be in THAT Number!, October 16, 1995 it read. "It's for you," he told me. "I saw them and I thought about you," he went on. "Got me one, too," he smiled, sitting at the kitchen table.
Two days before the Million Man March (MMM), I still hadn't decided to go. I had purposely not watched the news or listened to the radio in the weeks before because I was well-familiar with the mainstream's take on anything remotely related to Louis Farrakhan.
Late Saturday night, as I exposed myself to some MMM-related information for the first time, I learned that the March was conceived -- per Farrakhan's article in The Final Call, which I downloaded from the Nation of Islam's (NOI) Online Home Page on the World Wide Web -- as a Holy Day, a day of atonement for Black men not being all that we were created to be. I intuitively felt supportive of that broad theme: I know I haven't been living up to all that God called and created me to be.
Reading on through the various articles, I learned that Farrakhan was also calling for a fast from sun-up to sun-down. Sitting in front of my home computer, I resolved to do that. Without realizing it, in those few moments I had decided to attend.
It will be a first day for me -- a symbolic day when I will atone for the things in my life that have caused me to miss the mark time and time again. Drugs, sex, alcohol, bitterness, holding grudges, etc. I will turn from that evil and seek the face of Jesus. I will present my body, along with X number of other Black men, as a living sacrifice to God. I will fast from sun-up to sundown on that day. I will forgive everyone who has ever done me wrong; whether in reality or in my head. I will forgive myself for the way that I've been and the things that I've done in the past that didn't serve me on a spiritual and moral level. I will release those negatives into the universe, trusting them to God. I will be transformed by the renewing of my mind on that day.
It will be a first day -- one I did not want to see; one I planned not to see. But the reality is that I will be there -- with my camera and my care for that happens to me and all Black men.
Part of me was still ambivalent: I am not Muslim, nor do I have any desire to convert -- and Allah is not the name of my God: Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior. Another part of me just wanted to shrink away somewhere -- to God only knows where and just pretend that this thing was not even happening. But still another part of me was being pulled to the March.
It is Black men that I love and fear the most. It is Black men that have caused me the most pain in my life. It is Black men who I felt rejected by growing up. In a hallway conversation at the office last week, I realized that part of my resistance to attending the March was a deep-seated lack of faith in Black men: I simply didn't believe that the Brothers would treat me any differently on October 17th than they had on October 15th. And because I didn't believe in Black men, I didn't believe in myself. That's what I learned in that hallway with those two sisters and another Brother.
As the night grew on into morning, I realized that I'd have to fight all of my fears of rejection and judgment to be in that number on that day. I won't be marching with my father -- he never asked me to go with him; I never asked him to go with me -- but he'll be there, too; somewhere amidst the vast crowd.
As I returned home from my Saturday and Sunday morning ritual -- a walk along the Tidal Basin with a tall steaming cup of coffee -- I saw the National Guard stationed at various posts along the Mall -- a full two days before the March. It was a rainy, storm-tossed morning, yet they were dutifully stationed along the roadside. Thinking they were anticipating the MMM crowd, a sense of thrill rushed through me. I realized something, some happening, was almost upon me.
Were they there to curtail any potential for violence? I didn't know myself what would happen with the amassing of that many different perspectives; all the built-up rage and anger the Brothers have carried -- and continue to possess. Driving through the troops, fighting the wind and rain, I could only hope that whatever rage was felt on that day would be fueled in some otherly direction and not at ourselves. I could only hope that the gay brothers wouldn't become targets for their straight counterparts; and that the Christian brothers wouldn't become whipping posts for the Nation's Muslim brothers. I was weary of the divisive name-calling; fearful of the spirit of machismo that has separated and alienated so many of us for so long.
After a few phone calls, I had arranged to march with one of my best brother-friends, DC-based artist and filmmaker Fred Brown, and his friend, NY-based actor Mykal Knight, who I had also become acquainted with over the years. The plan was that I would meet up with them on Sunday at 8:30 pm, stay in town, and we'd all walk down to the March together on Monday morning.
I hung up with Fred and lie across my bed. I will pray continually on that day. I will not smoke reefer. I will not drink alcohol. The days of drugs and alcohol are over for me. It's taken me this long -- 29 years -- to finally recognize and understand what drugs and alcohol do to me. I don't want that clouded and confused feeling anymore. I can't anesthetize my pain forever; it's only a stop-gap measure that leaves me feeling more guilty than relieved. It's suppressive; not curative.
I can be better than I've been. I will personalize this March to meet me where I am -- and use it as a catalyst to propel me where God would have me to be. Farrakhan is a man of his God, and I am a man of my God -- the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth, my Redeemer, the Great I AM...Jehovah, the God who healeth me.
Yes...I will take Jesus with me...
Sunday was beautiful: the clouds and rain and wind of Saturday had faded into a chilly, breezy church-going Fall afternoon. While Fred and Mykal attended mass at St. Augustine's in Washington, I was at home in suburban Maryland, meditating and preparing to come into town to meet up with them. Later that evening, my sister offered to give me a ride to Adams Morgan, which I accepted. I called Fred to alert him of my arrival, but got his answering machine. I left a message that I was on my way. I wished my father a happy march, and my sister and I were out the door.
When I arrived at Fred's, he wasn't there, but his roommate Greg, who I'd met numerous times before, answered my call. "He's not here," Greg told me.
"Well, I'm supposed to meet him here at 8:30; I'm a little early," I informed him.
"Well, him and Mykal went for a walk about 4 o'clock," he went on.
I paused, expecting him to let me in to wait. He never extended the invitation. I'd been to that house many times before, and had always waited for Fred when he wasn't there. Greg had just moved in and probably wasn't aware of the house rules. He played it cautious and I didn't push him.
"Okay, well, I guess I'll go for a walk, too and come back later," I said reluctantly.
"Okay...," he said, closing the door. Just as I turned to walk away -- not knowing where I would go in the cool Washington evening -- I noticed pinned to his shirt a red-black-and-green button: Million Man March, Day of Atonement, I Want to be in THAT Number!, October 16, 1995. The Brother was supporting a million, but couldn't -- or wouldn't -- let one brother inside to lay down a heavy bag and rest his feet. The irony was chilling. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more (Romans 5:20).
As I walked away, I pulled out my cellular phone to leave another message on Fred's machine upstairs. I spent the next several hours walking in the park, reflecting on the March, leaving messages for Fred; walking through Adams Morgan, reflecting on the March, leaving messages for Fred. I finally hooked up with a friend who lived not-too-far from Fred and crashed at his house for the night, leaving another message for Fred before closing my eyes.
I like things to run smoothly -- and they weren't. Part of me just wanted to shrink away somewhere -- to God only knows where and just pretend that this thing was not even happening. But still another part of me, inspite of all the missed marks, was being pulled to the March.
For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. (Leviticus 16:30)
I woke up on Monday and quickly called Fred. No answer. I left another message, and then walked the ten minutes to his house, where I stood on the porch for an hour and fifteen minutes knocking on the door and ringing the doorbell before he came down to let me in. During the time I waited, I was strangely calm about the whole thing. I wanted to be mad. I tried to be mad. But I wasn't mad. Circumstances of the past 12 hours that would have normally pissed me off to no end, had, on this day, not even shaken my peaceful spirit. It simply didn't matter to me that the events of the previous evening had not been ordered around my personal preferences. I was cool with it.
It only took Fred and I a few minutes to pinpoint the breakdown: Greg refusing to let me in to wait. Fred seemed stunned, perhaps even hurt that his roommate could have been so cold to his brother-friend, and as we sat upon his bed, we intuitively began to go through some analysis on the state of Black men. He shared his concerns about the March, which were surprisingly similar to my own trepidations.
He stared ahead blankly, lost in his thoughts, doubting his intentions, questioning his motivation for both wanting and not wanting to attend the March. A few moments later, Greg came out of his neighboring bedroom, heading for the bathroom. He walked past the open door where we sat -- never saying a word. After several silent passes, I said to Fred: "He doesn't say 'good morning'?"
"He usually does. He probably feels guilty for the way he treated you last night," Fred went on. "See, that proves to me that what you were saying is true," he went on.
"Well, today is not about that for me. It's a day of atonement. I hold no bitterness against the Brother. For one day, I will be and do what I am supposed to be and do," I told him. "Good morning, Greg," I spoke loudly as he came by for another pass.
"Hey, good morning, Robert," he said, pausing to lean inside the room. Moments later, Mykal came up from a second-floor bedroom; Fred was up and about; and Greg and I had retreated to the patio to talk. Knowing I'm a writer, he wanted to share with me a piece of work he'd recently completed. We stood side-by-side on the patio, the bursting sunlight crashing down upon us, the trees swaying gently, the baby-blue sky nearly cloudless. I felt good about not holding a grudge against him.
Robert, (left), consulting with Greg on the patio before the March.
As everyone started to shower and prepare for the day, Greg called us into his room to catch a piece about the March on the news. Fred and I became energized as we witnessed just a glimpse of the coverage, seeing a young Brother with his son, and a couple of other Brothers in the background embracing. The Spirit seemed to be high; we wanted to be a part of the energy.
Within twenty minutes, Fred and I were driving through Cleveland Park, headed for coffee on Connecticut Avenue. As he parked the car, I noticed a group of Brothers noticing me; probably had something to do with the red-black-and-green poncho I was wearing and the red-black-and-green leather Rasta cap I had pulled down close over my eyes. I'm sure I looked like a cross between Bob Marley and a Black Panther of the 60's. That's precisely the look I was going for; it's exactly how I felt: powerful, culturally in-tune, unstoppable.
Sitting outside the coffee shop, a Brother walked by and said to me: "What's up, Brother?" Only minutes later, a Sister says: "Good morning, Brother."
"Robert, you're getting a lot of Brotherly love and energy this morning," Fred said.
"Yep, and look at our coffee cups," I instructed. We both looked down at the Brothers Coffee emblem on our cups. "It's not a coincidence that we're having coffee this morning at a coffeeshop called Brother's Coffee," I told him.
Fred, Mykal and I walked all the way down 16th Street to the March. We philosophized and shared spiritual wisdom as we made the 45-minute trip down to the Capitol grounds.
Maya Angelou's was the first voice we heard booming from the vast sound system -- manned on elevated scaffolding by members of the Fruit of Islam (FOI). She was just wrapping up her poem. Brothers were everywhere, dressed in everything from sweatsuits to jeans and T-shirts to traditional African regalia.
"I am transfixed," said Mykal, who pretty much spoke for all three; each of us focused glassy-eyed on the sights at all points and beyond. The feeling of unity and brotherhood permeated the air, as evidenced by the comments made by Stevie Wonder: "I may not be able to see you, but I can feel you," he soft-spokenly informed the crowd a little later in the program. Stevie punctuated his remarks with the reading of the lyrics to the title song of his latest CD, Conversation Peace: All for one, one for all/There's no way we'll reach our greatest heights/Unless we heed the call/Me for you, you for me/There's no chance of world salvation/Less the conversation's peace.
All tall Brother wearing a black baseball cap with pink letters "HBO Studio Productions" walks by my left; a walkie-talkie stuck in his back pocket.
At one point, the Brothers were urged to wave dollar-bills above their heads. Crowd estimates of 1.5 million were given from the podium several times. Moments later, groups of NOI Brothers in two's came around hoisting huge cardboard boxes amidst the crowd, urging the Brothers to put their dollars in the box. People freely gave, passing dollars to whatever Brother was nearest the box. It was a wonderful example of Ujamma -- cooperative economics. I took up the money for Fred, Mykal and myself, and on my way up, another Brother handed me his money to toss in.
Brothers lift dollars in the air in a pledge of collective economics, while the FOI claims the inheritance.
A "Please Don't Litter" graphic was sent up on the monitor, and the Brothers were urged not to leave the grounds in disarray.
The roaring lion on the waving green-yellow-and-red Tribe of Judah flags created a brilliant tapestry against the sky's blue. Today is a new beginning for me. I will take self-esteem from this event. I will not let my gifts go unnoticed. I am a man. I am a man. I have never felt more like a man than I do now. I can do all things. I can do all things through Christ. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you Jesus for keeping me alive to see, feel and experience this day.
A Rasta brother wearing a purple bandanna catches my eye. He and his boy were greeting some other Rasta brothers, bringing their faces close together as if to kiss on the right cheek, then the left, then the right again. It was as if only people within their circle knew what that meant. I watched from a distance, my dreds hidden beneath my oversized leather cap. I wanted to be embraced by one of them. I felt what they were feeling; what we all were feeling. Something called us to the Mall; something bigger than us all.
Congressman John Conyers thanked Colin Powell for his attendance. Inspite of Powell's reported non-support of the March, when it was all said and done, he too was there for this historic occasion.
Two NOI brothers came around passing out white Million Man March bumper stickers with red letters. "I'll take one, Brother," someone said.
"You got $2," said the FOI Brother. Apparently he didn't, and the NOI brother kept on going.
A huge Jesus is Lord sign went up over the monitors. Somebody brought Jesus; somebody brought Christ. I was personally happy to see that. Praise His Holy name.
Helicopters flew overhead, as Brother after Brother took to the podium and claimed their voice for the day. The smell of reefer sailed on the breeze. "Do you smell it," a Brother in a fluorescent windbreaker asked, his cornrows tight upon his cocoa African scalp.
After hours of standing at undivided attention, some Brothers dropped to the grass for comfort. In a rare picture, three Brothers lounge upon one another's bodies. They knew who they were, and they loved and trusted one another; you could tell it by their body language. Two other Brothers to my right sat back-to-back -- as if saying proudly, boldly, definitively: "I got your back, bro!"
The Rev. Al Sharpton reached the podium amid raucous cheers, throngs of people yelling their support, approving of their Brother. He was dressed in a black tie and suit. In his remarks, he urged Black men to "stand up."
I'm gonna feel this day for all it's worth. All my fantasies of universal, unconditional brotherhood will be lived this day.
All the speakers were brief, and between each one an NOI Brother would tease Minister Farrakhan's forthcoming message. Just the thought of the Minister taking the podium brought the roar of the crowd to the heights of excitement.
Monitors displayed the crowd scene -- a slow pan out revealed a massive crowd of Black men. I am in that number.
"Lost kids can be found at Unit 2, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW at the Mass Command Unit," a graphic on the monitor read. A megaphone also rang out the warning.
A strong, tall breeze blew through the shaded area where I stood with Fred and Mykal. I felt at home with my brother-friends. "My brothas, what you see here is history," sung one Brother to my unseen left.
Jesse Jackson took to the podium in a grey suit and red tie. He acknowledged Marion Barry, his friend of many years. He referenced the "spiritual power of a great people." I can only imagine what the view was like from his vantage point. Jackson also thanked the Executive Committee and Farrakhan by name -- for pulling off the March. "...let nobody stand between us and the love of God," he said, adding that: "This meeting was never allowed on the plantation." Jackson ran off a list of our ancestors, among them: Dr. King, Malcolm X, Mr. Muhammad, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and Whitney M. Young, Jr., concluding: "If they could see us now!"
A camera, attached to a faceless hand, went up above the throng to capture its perpetuity.
"You can tell Jesse studied under Martin," a Brother to my right said.
A slow pan into the Capitol steps filled the monitor -- the Nation boys in dark suits were lined up. It was a powerful image.
In the near distance to my left, a Brother in a red jacket twists his dredlocks with his right hand, playing with the falling tangled strands, then brushing the whole back of his head quickly with his fingers. That's probably what I look like when I do the same thing.
Jesse, longer than the other speakers before him, was preaching as if fire had been shut up in his bones. Eyes were rapt to his words of truth. Jackson called out: "What can a million men do?"
A Brother in the distance sits atop a traffic light.
"Honor their God -- with all of their hearts and their minds," he answered himself. "Use our vote to bring about change...when we go home," Jesse went on. "Use your vote," he exhorted. "Take out Dole, Graham and Gingrich -- get them out! Use your vote," he preached.
"What can a million men do?" he asked again. "Meet your child's teacher; exchange home phone numbers...What can a million men do," he charged. Seek power, unity and coalition -- as a humane people should, Jesse urged. Jackson went on to say that Farrakhan didn't organize the March, but Newt Gingrich and Clarence Thomas did. He spoke to the inner city youth, giving them words to fight their circumstances: "Tell them, 'My dream is bigger than my ghetto'," he roared. "Tell them...I am somebody," he closed to thunderous applause.
Tears rolled from my eyes. Tears of joy. "I believe," I wanted to tell Brother Jesse. "I believe."
His speech was laced with fire, upsetting the status quo to many. "He ain't gotta worry about going to no more formal parties," one Brother said after Jackson left the podium.
"Why don't they stick a microphone out here?" an older woman next me asked. "There Brothers are very politically aware." Her husband sat on a cooler before her, intently listening to the speeches. Every now and then he would ask her what was being said, and she, in turn, would ask me or my boys -- Mykal and Fred. Come to find out, she and her husband were both hard of hearing.
Fred leaned forward and whispered in my ear: "That man is very proud of you; that a young Brother is out here documenting this experience, especially since he himself can't hear everything that is going on."
"How do you know that?" I asked him.
"I can tell by the way he and his wife keep looking at you scribble in your notebook," he answered.
I was proud of them being proud of me. It felt good. I was home, amongst my Brothers. And I loved each and every one of them.
This writer tried hard to both observe and record the events of October 16, 1995.
Yet another speaker finished. The crowd yelled "Farrakhan" repeatedly.
Some Brother reminded us that Jesse Jackson's middle name is Louis. "It's a lot of Louis's up there," he said proudly.
The buzz of helicopters overhead interrupted the sound. One of the Brothers said "they'll try to drown out Farrakhan's speech" with the distantly circling noise.
Some Sister in a blue-jean outfit suddenly tried to climb a tree to gain a better vantage point, to listen to Brother Minister speak. The crowd urged her on -- people motivating her on with their handclaps and cat-calls. Without warning, she slipped and fell amid sighs of disappointment. The Sister tried again and this time made it up the tree only moments later. "Ain't no mountain high enough -- to keep me from you," Mykal teased.
"Jesse done pulled her up into that tree," laughed Fred in agreement.
The sheer diversity of brothers out there was incredible: dredlocks were in abundance; short Brothers, tall Brothers; Brothers of every hue, from every walk and wheelchair of life. The concept of beauty was redefined by sheer exposure. All these beautiful Brothers here.
Who among us had ever seen and been in the presence of that much Black male diversity? Surely not I.
"Too much uniqueness," Mykal said.
Younger Brothers and Sisters slept on blankets to my right. Still others dropped to the grasslands for rest. "You better get some grass under your butt," they urged their tired comrades.
"Look at the age-range: from 8 to 87," Mykal observed.
People to my right pray. And I'm doing what God gave me to do: writing. I'm so glad to be alive on this day.
I found myself thinking about my father -- connecting with him in the Spirit. Perhaps he is in this crowd somewhere, thinking of me in this moment, too.
Ben Chavis, wearing a dark suit and an orange multi-colored tie, reached the podium to lukewarm applause -- perhaps because people couldn't hear him introduced. He urged a "...greater responsibility for the nurture...care of our community."
"This March was organized by nobody else but the Honorable Louis Farrakhan," said Chavis, flanked by NOI bodyguards. He concluded his remarks by introducing Mustafa Farrakhan -- the Minister's son -- who greeted the crowd in Hebrew. We couldn't quite hear him, but yells of support went up as he spoke of his father. The sound was improved within a few minutes.
"We have been the brunt of a whole lot of attack," said Mustafa. "Never be afraid to stand up and say that Farrakhan is a friend of the Black man. My father's not a racist...not an anti-Semite," he declared to the multitude. "To the President...Farrakhan is in your midst today," concluded Mustafa, just before calling out his father.
The huge monitors cut to Farrakhan skipping down the Capitol steps, flanked by his bodyguards. Yells go up! The sun's shadow follows him down and to the podium. HE smiles.
Minister Farrakhan wears a black suit, bow-tie and glasses. He smiles slightly. "Thank you," are his first words, before greeting the crowd in Allah's name. He acknowledges Jesus, among other "worthy servants of Allah." He also gave props to Rev. Chavis and Dorothy Height, and all the "Sisters involved in the planning" of the March. He thanked Bob Johnson, CEO of BET, and Bev Smith for this appearance on her show, Our Voices -- and for the full-page ad that BET took out in USA Today in support of the March.
"The media planned it for mischief, but God planned it for good," said Farrakhan to rousing cheers of agreement. Somehow you just knew what he meant by the statement. I especially knew what he meant, having struggled with attending for several weeks before that day.
"God called us to this place," he said.
The monitors cut to a shot of Betty Shabazz sitting next to Rev. Jackson; decades-old squabbles seemingly put to rest. Both applaud the Minister.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, I listened to a history lesson (fear, envy and distrust was used by slavemasters for control of the slaves, instructed Farrakhan, reading from an ancient slavemasters' manifest); and a fiery sermon ("undeserved suffering is redemptive," preached the Minister). When Farrakhan was done, it seemed as if only minutes had gone by. I scarcely noticed my feet beneath my body. I hardly noticed anything other than what came from his mouth. At the close of Farrakhan's speech, we walked through the area where the vendors had set up shop, stopping to buy fish sandwiches sold by the NOI Brothers; incense; flavored coffee from manufactured in Africa; and various other souvenirs of the day. The sun had gone done by now, and we hadn't eaten any solid food all day; all of us having adhered to Farrakhan's call for a fast during the daylight hours. We caught dinner at Union Station, and were interrupted during our meal several times by neighboring white diners, who both applauded us for having attended the March and confessed their respect for the ideals expressed. It appeared that many of our Caucasian counterparts had learned much about African American people that day. Perhaps a change in consciousness was on the horizon.
As I rode the subway home, after bading farewell to my brother-friends, I silently gave myself the day's benediction: Let us now be AT ONE with one another as Brothers and leave our differences behind for the greater cause of Brotherhood, unity and forward movement. Let's make our ancestor's proud; proud to have shed their blood so that we -- Black men -- might be free to lead our women and children into an unshackled tomorrow. It's time to take off the shackles; not from around our necks and ankles, wrists and feet; but from our minds. Volunteer slavery must no longer be in vogue. It's time for purposeful action.
When I got off the train, a Sister behind the wheel of a waiting car in the kiss-and-ride section of the parking lot smiled at me, giving the thumbs-up sign. I smiled back and pointed in her direction. She's proud of her Brothers. I'm proud that she's proud.
Yeah...it was a good day for Black people. A good day for Black men. A good day to be a Black man. I'm glad I was in that number; in the company of my Brothers. I'm one in a million.
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. (I John 2:20, 24) In The Company of My Brothers
Robert Wesley is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC. His essays have appeared in Essence, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and The Washington Afro-American newspapers.
Last updated: 28 June 1997 by Chuck Tarver