“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
~Gabriel Garcia Marquez~
“Next to God we are indebted to women, first for life itself, and then for making it worth living.”
~Mary Macleod Bethune~
I remember that third Monday in October of 1995 in a way that still dances in my consciousness with a vibrancy and verve that remain palpable twenty-one years later. Everything about that day was imbued with purposeful vitality. The crisp early morning chill with its pretense of winter, the smell of morning-dewed pavement, the prattle and clank of cars playing a losing game of pothole slalom, the sight of trees and earth flamboyantly wearing their autumnal ensembles of browns, reds, yellows, oranges.
Inside my spacious one-bedroom Columbia Heights basement apartment, which as far as I was concerned only coincidentally served as the foundation for the luxuriously renovated row house above it, there was a ritualized vibration to the morning as the six other men — who had come from East St Louis, Chicago, Oakland, Pacoima, East Palo Alto and the Bronx — and I readied ourselves for our meeting with history. There are things you don’t understand about significant historical moments until after you meet them.
Like, for example, historical moments have a distinctive texture, sound, and smell, all of which pull you back to that moment whenever you are placed in contact with them. I recall the scent and sensibility of the Kush incense burning that morning, its aromatic smoke languorously raising itself up from the glowing amber orb like an ancestor coming to bear witness, as if to say — And, still I rise — the undulating ribbons of fragrant tinted air dancing to Marley’s irrepressible Redemption Song playing in the background just a notch under too loudly.
In 1995, Columbia Heights, a neighborhood in Northwest DC I called home was comprised largely of African (Black) and Latinx (Brown) folks. Which is to say, involuntary and voluntary immigrants trying in various ways to solve America’s racial and ethnic algebra, while dealing with poverty’s geometry of limited space and poor angles to create better opportunities, and who had little choice but to let poorly paying jobs work them for a living. There was just a smattering of white folks whose alabaster aspirations hung on the ledge of whispers that a Green Line Metro stop was soon to come and with it “new development.”
(Three things you can count on: Death, Taxes, and that when mediocre white folks — and their Black and Brown lackeys — in powerful political positions start talking development, whether in Africa, Latin America or in America’s urban centers, Black, Brown and poor folks generally are ‘bout to get did with no vaseline. Let’s call this the Ice Cube Rule aka the Heller Non-Lubrication Despoilment Development Clause or the HNDDC.)
In other words, my ‘hood was much like the neighborhoods the other brothers had come from; the kind of place that was paradoxically safe and unsafe, and where clarity about life critical caveats determined which experience was mostly true for you. It was the kind of place where irony, paradox, pathos, absurdity and resilience were the bridges for how most of us got over and got by. A brother in a suit coming home from work at might get robbed, while a tie-wearing white Mormon biking through the hood, kicking Joseph Smith style pretzel logic about a heaven that didn’t originally welcome Black folks, was as safe as Donald Trump at a Klan Rally.
For affluent and well connected whites doing their version of a drive-by, Columbia Heights served largely as an underground pharmacy as they passed through to quickly refill their prescriptions with the local street corner pharmacists, en route to their work on K Street and Capital Hill to further cement crippling inequities in wealth and opportunity into policy, the very policies ensuring there would always be street corner suppliers for their synthetic anesthetization, the very same suppliers that they lobbied to have incarcerated.
Columbia Heights was also where you could get some of the best Chinese food, pupusas, arepas and Peruvian chicken this side of a health code violation. A place where the discerning consumer could secure incense, oils, hats, faux Gucci wallets and purses, each with a different variation of the spelling of Gucci, books, a “previously owned” metro card with $3.45 on it for the bargain price of “whatever you feel is fair, patna” or an unlocked phone that may or may not have belonged to the dude a block down now furiously checking his jacket — all from the same person. Not surprisingly, it was the kind of neighborhood where after dark, pizza shops asked for your zip code before taking your delivery order. Capital may be global but in 1995 a lot of it didn’t cross east of Rock Creek Park after dark.
It was here in this Northwest DC nook where opportunity remained in a perpetual hunger strike sandwiched between the indifferent material affluence of the “Gold Coast” at one end of 16th Street and the disinterested political flatulence of the White House at the other that I learned a condiment, Mumbo Sauce, could also be a philosophy. No lesser authority than Wikipedia has gone on record as saying of Mumbo Sauce: “Its origin and ingredients are subject to great dispute.” Translation: the active ingredient in Mumbo Sauce is Nunya — None ya damn business.
If you weren’t native to the Chocolate City there were two concepts you had to grasp, without which you were forever to remain an interloper:Go Go and Mumbo Sauce. If your understanding is that Go Go is just music or that Mumbo sauce is just a condiment found in Chinese food joints of questionable cleanliness which also happen to sell French fries and chicken wings “fried hard” and offered with fortune cookies with messages written in Ebonics — Confusedcious say “Check yourself before you wreck yourself” — then you’re not ready — for an explanation, for the condiment, for the music, or to get your life.
Although advance scout teams of urban colonizers had already been dispatched to survey the area, in 1995, Columbia Heights had not yet become a haven for usual tribal whiteness perpetually in search for a heart of darkness experience and as an investment opportunity. These urban colonizers were, however, like the eventual Green Line Metro Stop, on their way. From the first clashes with the indigenous peoples with the “settlers,” gentrification was, is and has always been a type state sanctioned organized violence — a conquest with zoning codes. Gentrification is the developers’ version of a hydrogen bomb: destroy the inhabitants; leave the buildings standing. Early euphemisms like eminent domain and urban renewal were employed to sanitize the crime scene and conceal the evidence of the blunt force trauma inflicted upon poor communities, which happened most often were Black and Brown folks. Robert Moses, the patron saint of organized urban chaos, would be so proud.
The six other Black men in my apartment that morning having come from places like Columbia Heights — some of us from places much worse, and trust, there were much worse places in DC too — were intimately familiar with jagged contours of the structured economic and spatial violence that comes with living in neighborhoods with opportunities so necrotic they virtually solidified poverty as a genetic inheritance.
On this particularly beautiful Monday morning in my Columbia Heights abode with its generous pavement level view, in response in part to the incarcerating life possibilities for so many of our people face, we were animated by something profound in its giving beauty: a personalized redemptive dedication, which by now had been forged into a unified sense of purpose that seemed to be present in our every movement. Being the only one who lived in DC — having recently relocated there from Oakland that August — my apartment became base camp by default. (Initially, I hadn’t planned on attending the event; even then I had wearied of the notion of symbolic protest in a nation indifferent to substantive suffering.)
It is amazing what one remembers and how one remembers it. The various ways the constellation of memories shift and reposition themselves in the firmament of our consciousness over time. It seems as though small details about big moments retain such vividness, while really important things get hazier with time. I still hear the clinking and rattling of cereal bowls and spoons that morning but can’t recall the name of one of the three elders in our group. Can still see the collective side-eyeing of one brother, who shall remain nameless, for eating cereal like he was channeling dude from the Eddie Murphy movie, Life: “You gon eat dat cornbread?” Yet I don’t recall what I wore on that day.
I still chuckle when I reflect on the minor dust up that morning around who “drank the last of the damn juice and left the empty carton in the fridge?” Can still smell the fragranced collusion between steam, starch and freshly ironed shirts, which eventually overtook the incense and had my tilt smelling like a dry cleaners in the middle of a summer street festival. Still shake my head at the way brothers clamored for who had next on the ironing board, each of us trying to ensure that our style game was crisp. Still feel the echoes of the raucous laughter as an “old head” tried to convince us new jacks of the non wrinkle genius of polyester and the ingenuity of rolling ones clothes as a opposed to folding them (The latter point proved useful; the genius of polyester? Well…everything needn’t to go to the future, for example, misogynists, dinosaurs and double knit slacks).
Having watched the morning news, the eldest of the elders (he was seventy) suggested that we walk to the event rather than take the U Street Metro in order to avoid having to deal with the crowds. As we arose from my apartment the sun softened morning greeted us like the iridescent smile of a new love. Walking along 16th Street we synergized with some brothers from Howard University — HU! — who were similarly focused and forward leaning.
What began as seven Black men strolling with fierce determination had gradually swelled to an unofficial delegation of synchronized uneven legged strolls, shoulder dips and head bops — an embassy of blackness be-bopping and hip-hopping along 16th Street. One nation under the groove, strolling towards an appointment with history. Well, half a nation: there were only men.
And there we were: A gathering of men over a million strong: bold, bodacious and beautifully Black — a rainbow of resolute and defiant blackness against the backdrop of a cerulean sky, engaged in an ancient ritual of call and response with our better selves, compelled by an experiential double helix of individual impetus and shared destiny in a city that could still be called, without the slightest hint of irony, Chocolate.
This Monday was going to be a special. You could feel it. There was an emotional electromagnetic charge in the air. As you stepped onto the Mall the radiating waves of energy hit you, it felt as if you were walking into an air-conditioned department store after having trudged through heavy humidity. The vibrant sense of personhood, collective regard and shared purpose were unmistakable. So too was the extended self-love. The awareness of oneself as an extended being was invigorating.
The specialness of the day was confirmed for me early on, in a most ironic way. I was jaw jackin’ with the fellas and not paying attention, when I bumped into another brother, accidentally knocking his freshly, once bitten, hot link to the ground. He and I both slowly looked down at the hot link as if it were a fallen comrade mortally wounded in battle and then our eyes slowly rose to meet. There was an audible gasp that seemed to come from everywhere, at once. And then, there was silence. Absolute. Silence. Everyone standing around understood, clearly, that this was the kind of mistake that could get someone body bagged with the quickness — such is the capricious calculus of mattering when it comes to the sanctity of Black lives.
I thought: “Shit! I’m ‘bout to go down in infamy as the brother who ruined the Million Man March by causing a riot — over a hotlink! Imma be the Crispus Attucks of Hotlinks War of 1995.”
I apologized. Immediately. Profusely: Yo, did I mention I knocked a hotlink out of a Black man’s hand after he had taken only one bite? You know that first bite, where you stare at your food like you’re having a conversation with it: “I can’t believe you taste this mothaf%&kin good.” Civil Wars have been started over less. I remember the stillness. The rhythmic anxiety, the tension had a static cling feel to it. I awaited his reaction. I thought for a brief second if it came to it, I might have to throw hands. I looked at him and just kept it real, with myself, and God: Me throwing hands with this dude would be like spitting into a category five hurricane. No one will remember the spit but everyone will be a witness to the carnage afterwards.
He smiled. Then he chuckled, and said: “It’s all good homie. Shit happens.” I offered to buy him another link. He politely declined my offer, telling me: “Man, I aint ‘sposed to be eatin dis shit no way; my blood pressure be higher than a muhfucka.” (It’s important to note here by way of digression: if a brother says “motherfucker” you know he’s from those places where folks use cloth napkins and “do lunch” but if he says “muhfucka” you probably wanna check and see if someone in your crew, hell anyone in your crew, is strapped).
He added that since his wife wasn’t around he thought he and his son would sneak in a link — or two — and that, in a way, by knocking the hotlink out of his hand, the Million Man March was already saving his life. Everyone laughed — I laughed hardest because, well, ol boy was about six foot-three, 300, easy, and let’s just say I’m not — in a battle between an elephant and an ant the term battle is a misnomer. We hugged, and then he said to me: “I love you, Black man.” I returned the sentiment. Relieved. We all gave each other the universal Black man grip: the handshake, followed by the pull-in hug and the pound on the back. It was like that everywhere we ventured on the Mall that day, moving amongst what had to be on that day one of largest standing armies in the world. Just love.
As far as the speeches go, I don’t remember much about them. No oratorical gems or timeless aphorisms offering renewed understanding stand out. The cavalcade of speakers seemed earnest, but pressed. Trying to move the crowd while wearing a moment too big for you can be tough. History is so much harder to make when you’re trying so hard to make history. To be fair, you get a million Black men to DC to assemble around growth and development, there isn’t much more one can say that is going to have more of an impact than the visual essay inscribed by the sight of a million brothers.
Minister Farrakhan, one of most gifted orators of my generation and the only person in the country who had the platform, the courage, the vision and the credibility to call for this type of event, gave a speech that was too long and too galactic; seemingly more invested in the rhetorical stratosphere than the appreciating the gravitational pull of the moment. Keepin’ it real, at times the speech had the feel of Ozwald Bates struggling with the math portion of the SAT.
I recall thinking then that his speech required the Minister’s usual eloquence of vision, which is typically much more down to earth, which is where most of us brothers stood firmly. Patriarchy tends to require a lot of helium, and without women to create the kind of balance that tethers us to the real, we sometimes just float upwards until we run out of hot air and come crashing back to earth. Nature abhors vacuums but patriarchy apparently loves them.
The energy of love and togetherness on that day had the quality and sensation of the “warmth of other suns” Richard Wright had hoped for. Everywhere we moved among the million or so Black men, each of us perhaps hoping to win our most important battle–the one between who we were and the better selves we hoped would emerge victorious. Looking back now some twenty-one years later, some of us won on that day: did the work once we got home; others of us found our strides, eventually; others of us are still waging the battle, and still others of us succumbed to the comfort of our lower selves. (Take a fish out of polluted tank for a day or two and then put it back in the same polluted tank, the only thing likely to change is the fish’s level of disappointment and ennui.)
For our coterie of seven (the youngest among us a precocious nineteen year old from Oakland — a mentee of mine who used the word hella as a verb, noun, adjective and a diss with stunning precision — and the eldest of the elders, an ebullient but serious septuagenarian from Chicago, Ullysses “Duke” Jenkins — a mentor of mine — who has since become an ancestor), the most important part of that day occurred after we bounced from the gathering of a Million Black Men in search of some grub.
We were making our way back home from Adams Morgan after dinner at Caribbean restaurant whose name is as forgettable as was the cuisine I had that evening, when we noticed a bouquet of four beautiful sisters about fifty yards away walking down 16th Street towards us.
We saw them.
The sisters saw us.
Then they hesitated.
The four sisters seemed uncertain. As if they were trying to decide whether to stay on the same side of the street as us or cross the street to the other side. Perhaps their hesitancy derived from a shared algorithm created from all too familiar, all too real and all too unpleasant experiences with brothers playing out their own feeble versions of stop and frisk, taking liberties with Black women’s bodies and space. I can only guess. I do know there was a heavy silence among us, freighted with a kind of anxiety usually reserved for encounters with Five-Oh, it was accompanied by an unspoken acknowledgment that we needed these sisters to believe in us enough not to cross the street — on this of all days. (In some African societies during the male rites of passage, while it is the men who guide young boys through the rituals of manhood, it is the women who provide the final seal of approval of manhood before the boys are officially recognized as men.)
As the sisters approached, we parted like the Red Sea to let them pass. As they moved through us you could feel our heaviness, our anxiety, bourn of the damp weight of unfulfilled hope. We greeted them as they moved through us:
“How you Sistas doin’?”
“We fine. How you brothas doin’?” They sang.
“We cool,” we replied.
With that they passed through us giving us inspiration disguised as fresh air. You could literally hear us collectively breathe easy. And then, something generous happened: the sisters turned around and in unison said: “We love ya’ll. And we real proud!” And just like that our personal earths shifted on their axes. It got really quiet. I think I saw tears undulating down the side of one of the one elders’ face. I’m not sure because I looked away and then down. I don’t remember shedding a tear but I do remember having a saline problem with my eyes. What I remember clearly though is the feeling of deep gratitude and pride, of feeling substantial, meaningful.
We had spent a day amongst a Million brothers, yet it was these four sisters, who we didn’t know and hadn’t bothered to ask their names, who had in their own way given us what we needed most — their seal of approval. The general mantra was atonement these Black women had put me — and I believe the other brothers as well — in contact with a deeper understanding of our purpose.
The walk the rest of the way was comprised of footsteps on pavement echoing a quiet knowing: We — Black women and us — belonged to each other, not as an act of possession, but as an act of the willful acceptance of extended self-love anchored in shared tumultuous and triumphant social history, one rooted in earth and ancestry, watered in blood and love, the scarred bark of existence telling of the hurt, betrayals and emotional scar tissue, the tree rings still speaking of an ancient love still trying to find a way to continue grow in intemperate racial climates.
On occasion when I have had the opportunity to talk with other brothers who were there on that day what seems to have been lost in the remembrances of the Million Man March is just how much of that day was made possible because of Black women. Every aspect that made the gathering of a million Black men possible involved Black women at its radiating core. I saw sisters at the airport handing out care packages, others whom cheered us on as we made our way onto planes, trains, and buses, still others whom attended the March themselves. I heard numerous stories from other Black men about how a mother, or sister or an aunt, a girlfriend or a wife provided support of various kinds, paving the way for them to attend.
It is a truism not reflected often enough in our actions: that Black (African) life, love and the possibility of liberation all rotate on the axis of Black womynhood, its essence and its varied expressions. And yet time after time, with a kind of depraved indifference that can only be called suicidal, too many of us brothers have asked Black Women in variety of ways to subordinate their best selves, their images and their interests (which, paradoxically, are our best selves, best image and best interests too) to an illusory Black unity that pushes them to the margins — a sort of trickle down theory of social justice — that is neither rooted in our collective best interests or in the fullest appreciation of our collective humanity.
Separating Blame from Responsibility
A large part of our lives are squeezed into the contours of its spastic violence. From structural racism to institutional racism to micro-aggressions to systematized and structural racial animus, white misanthropy informs and disfigures the contours and context of both the behavioral and structural dimensions of our existence — it poisons the waters of our social ecology, literally and figuratively. Somebody say Flint, Michigan?
To acknowledge this is to identify the system’s ongoing culpability for our oppression. The question of our liberation, however, is more complex. It involves a kind of fission, splitting of the atom of oppression: separating blame from responsibility. Which produces some volatile and inconvenient truths around questions of our complicity with these systems of oppression and our responsibility for armoring and fortifying ourselves against these systems. Handling the fissile material of blame and responsibility is difficult and requires great care. On one hand, if mishandled in form of regressive respectability politics it can blow up in your face. One the other hand, if you get the fission right you can create enough atomic energy to power a people to liberation. Freedom is what you are given; liberation is what you take.
As we witness the re-intensification of the racial animus of Tribal Whiteness, it’s critical that we get the clarity around the questions surrounding the assignment of blame and responsibility. In other words, what has/is being done to us, currently and historically (culpability and blame) and what can we do about it (responsibility). In that regard, very few of the contemporary conversations have focused on what African (Black) people owe one another and I fear that we will miss, yet again, another opportunity to acknowledge the essentiality of placing African (American) women’s struggles at the core of our reinvigorated struggles for liberation.
Until we grasp that street harassment and police profiling, that dying while black at the hands of law enforcement and dying while Black and woman at the hands of Black men are both different expressions of a singular essence — a corrosive toxic oppressive dynamic — we will continue to run on a treadmill of misery wondering why we aren’t making any progress.
It takes a particular kind of patriarchal pretzel logic to assign value to Black women based on how they are dressed and then as Black men decry being profiled by white society because of how we are dressed. The latter employs a racist pretzel logic; the former a sexist pretzel logic. Discrimination and oppression are metastasizing cancers — they spread. Thinking that discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender will not impact our lives in other ways is like thinking cancer of the liver wont effect kidneys because they are different organs, forgetting that are housed in the same body.
Despite the depictions of us in the media and poorly sourced anecdotes about black men as enemies of Black women and predators, there are a lot of Black men who show up as fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, friends, and mates in ways that are meaningful and felt. There is both celebration and contradiction in the ways we understand Black manhood. Not enough of us Black (African) men recognize that the greatest threat to the cancerous system of white misanthropy is Black Love; that good character is the product of soul conversations between our spirits, our people, our soil and our destinies; that sane, secure and centered partnering is revolutionary; that committed and consistent fatherhood is a kind of divinity; and that respect for Black women and creating safe spaces for our children will fertilize revolutions for thousands of years after we have passed on.
It is these concern that brought me back to that historic day in October 1995. More specifically to thoughts about what we, Black men, owe Black women — and what we owe ourselves.
The Debt: What we our Black Women and Ourselves
In that spirit, at a bare minimum, we, Black (African) men, are indebted to African women for continuing to keep the worn and frayed fabric of the African (American) community sewn together with the threads of love and ancestral memory; for the many loving sacrifices they have made and continue to make for us; for the myriad times our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces, daughters, mothers, homegirls, wives and women-friends weaved their magic in our heads producing both braids and brains; clothed us and covered our backs; visited us in jails, hospitals, basketball courts and, sadly, morgues; for singing a healing and harmonizing song called forgiveness; for summoning the courage and the audacity to try and raise us up as men; for deftly demonstrating the courage to love us without knowing if that love would be valued, acknowledged, or reciprocated.
Black women should be able to move through our communities with impunity; should be free to swim in the ocean of feminine agency and power; to enjoy relationships that are centered, whole and healthy; to be heard on their terms; to be emancipated from the plantations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse; to be released from the prison-house of men’s definitions of who they are, who they should be, how they should dress, how they should act; to be seen as the personification of divine possibility rather than as objects of Black men who have not only lost their imaginations but their divine minds and ancestral memory. The truth of the matter is we need African women like plants need photosynthesis: for life.
Well over a million of us issued promissory notes to ourselves, to Black women, to our children, to our communities — to our collective future. We can do better. Let us remake a new world and let us start by remaking ourselves. Hor em Aket (The Great Sphinx) speaks to us across the ages reminding us that when we do the soul work to subvert our lower natures, our divine nature rises. We win this war because eventually Black Love will prevail and when it does white misanthropy will be about as strong as tissue submerged in an ocean.
Brothers, we signed a promissory note on October 16, 1995. Interest is accruing. Payment is due.
In life, love and liberation,