by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Getting on the bus to DC this October 10? BAR managing editor Bruce Dixon wishes you safe travels, but he ain't coming. “Justice or Else” is a meaningless slogan, he says, and MMM continues a century old tradition of black leadership dependent on an unprincipled pretense of “black unity” so empowered leaders can speak for us while we serve as their mute (unless commanded otherwise) backdrop.
Why I Ain't Getting on the Bus for the MMM This Or Any Other Year
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
When the buses pull out for the MMM 20 next week they'll do it without me. I ain't going. I missed the 1995 MMM on purpose too. I had a moment of unclarity ten years ago, and thought seriously about going to the MMM 10th anniversary, but didn't, and I'm sure I did the right thing. Why?
According to the Nation of Islam. the theme of the first MMM was “atonement.” The main problem of black America, NOI explains, was the perfidy of black men. So a million, maybe 2 million of us converged in DC, led by figures like Rev. Ben Chavis, who undeniably has a great deal to atone for, to protest against ourselves. Traveling hundreds of miles to the seat of government to “atone” and to protest against myself just didn't make much sense. Letting myself appear to be led by a crew as famously patriarchal, homophobic and misogynistic as the Nation of Islam in the name of “unity” made even less sense. Those were ugly, even deadly tendencies to be fought, not minor quibbles to be ignored for the sake of the day's display of imaginary black unity.
And what was, what is all this “black unity” stuff about anyhow? Nobody could tell us exactly in 1995, and nobody can tell us today exactly what it is we're supposed to be “unified” around, apart from the personalities of our leaders. All that MMM 20 organizers and publicists have to offer this time around are rehashes of the bogus 1995 “atonement” narrative, updated with references to ghetto violence and mass incarceration, seasoned with discredited myths about “harnessing black buying power” and “Justice or Else, ”the kind of militant sounding but meaningless trash talk slogan for which Farrakhan is justly famous, available for purchase on T-shirts, pens, tote bags, hoodies, baseball caps and more.
As a professional organizer for parts of the 80s and 90s, I know the first thing you do when you bring 3 or 30 or 300 people together is you get their contact info. So the first thing I asked brothers returning from the 1995 MMM was “Did they get your digits? Did they put you on the Million Man Mailing List for future contact?” They all replied that while MMM organizers remembered to collect buckets of money, nobody took names or contact info. They were organized, but not THAT organized. Apparently MMM organizers never for an instant intended to put massive numbers of ordinary black people into action as anything other than a backdrop to their leaders.
The 1995 MMM catapulted Louis Farrakhan, in the eyes of white America and many blacks as well, to the status of paramount leader of African Americans, despite his crackpot racial origin stories, his right-wing economic beliefs, his backward views on women, families and more. A few months later Farrakhan and Ben Chavis surfaced in Nigeria, holding aloft the bloodstained hand of Nigeria's looter-in-chief General Sani Abacha, proclaiming him a “good Muslim” bidding Nigerians to be patient with continued brutal military rule. That's how Farrakhan spent the political capital those million black men on the mall in 1995 earned him. The real tragedy is that he is hardly unique.
In the real world, all that the pretense of “black unity” has ever done is empower the long line of traditional black leaders and aspirants from Booker T. Washington through DuBois and Garvey to Jesse, Sharpton, the first black president and the Congressional Black Caucus and even the current #BlackLivesMatter leadership. Every one of them did or still does claim to represent the supposedly “unified” voice of black America, or black youth, and “the movement” whatever that is. This pretense is the foundation of their leadership credentials and it makes things a lot simpler for white allies and foes alike, both of whom frequently have trouble with the notion that black America might be a complex, class divided and sometimes contradictory polity.
Quite a few people told me that the MMM then and now was and still is bigger than Farrakhan and my differences with the NOI. They're right, but not the way they imagine. It IS bigger than Farrakhan because it's about the way we experience black leadership. It's about the way we imagine our own responsibility in the struggle. MMM and its successors are about using mute and “unified” black masses to lend credibility to the incredible, legitimacy to the illegitimate. MMM is about resurrecting and reinforcing the 120 year old tradition of top-down black leadership that ignores the needs of most of their supposed constituencies.
I'm through supporting leaders whose status depends on our failure to challenge and criticize them when they deserve criticism. I'm finished with thin skinned leaders who don't tolerate open discussion of differences and who cannot or will not build bottom-up membership-driven democratic organizations. I'm done with leaders who don't encourage ordinary to get deeper into politics and economics, and who don't work to empower ordinary people to come up with their own visions and plans of how to build pieces of the new world.
Malcolm X was done with Saturday DC picnic-marches back in 1963, so we won't even talk about that.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. Contact him via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.