"There is nothing more painful to me," Jesse Jackson said a couple of years ago, "than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then to look around and see someone white and feel relieved."
Mr Jackson's famously candid remark goes to the heart of the predicament black American men sought to address in their Million Man gathering in Washington yesterday. It also went to the heart of my predicament as I ventured, a solitary paleface, into the alien throng.
I was living, on the surface of things, white America's ultimate urban nightmare. Never mind the footsteps. I had black men to the right of me, black men to the left, black men behind and black men ahead. Hundreds of thousands of them flowing up and down the mile-long Mall, between the National Monument obelisk and the domed Capitol.
It felt comfortable. Conspicuous as I was, hardly anybody gave me a second glance. Those who did nodded and smiled, as if to reassure me. No one muttered a racist comment. I felt as if I'd stumbled into a giant family picnic.
Vendors sold T-shirts, car-stickers, necklaces and quasi-African medicinal potions. Every third man appeared to be holding a camera. One posed in front of the National Monument with a fist held high in a black power salute and a big grin on his face. The elderly men sat on the Mall's park benches; some of the younger ones lay down on the grass. A lot were eating hamburgers and hot dogs and chocolate biscuits.
After 10 minutes I saw my first white man, a beggar with three days' growth of beard and a torn baseball cap. He went up to a group of half a dozen young black men. He said something to them. One reached into a bag and handed him an apricot pie.
Then I saw a white policeman reclining on a motorbike. A young marcher greeted him and asked if he would pose for a picture. The policeman smiled, the young man held the policeman's hand in a comradely grip and another man took the photograph. So much for the all-policemen-are-racist-pigs conclusion that black people are supposed to have taken away from the OJ Simpson trial. A couple of other marchers observed the scene with quizzical disapproval, but there was no sign that they planned to exact any retribution, verbal or otherwise.
This was what the T-shirts said: "We've lost more brothers to our own than to the Klu Klux Klan"; "I am my brother's keeper"; "Dare to keep kids off drugs"; "The black man is back"; "If you think all black men are criminals, dope-pushers, wife-beaters
Half a dozen white demonstrators were standing under a tree, holding banners saying: "We are against all racism - black and white". Evidently they had a problem with Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader who organised yesterday's event. Black men shook their hands and posed for group pictures.
Attracting almost as much attention was a man in a suit wearing a yellow button which read "Operation Big Vote". He handed out forms and asked marchers to sit down for a minute and register to vote. Other "Operation Big Vote" activists were doing a busy trade all over the Mall amphitheatre.
If there was one thing these marchers were not doing, it was planning revolution. They were not bowing out of the system. They were gearing up to turn out in greater numbers at next year's presidential elections, thereby giving their stamp of legitimacy to the political establishment that some of their leaders so deride.
During the morning warm-ups, speakers whose faces nobody recognised kept up a constant babble. Some of them engaged in a little race-baiting: "We're not at work today. Mr Charlie's gotta find someone else to fix his garden today!" A nice lady from Operation Big Vote explained that "Mr Charlie" usually meant a white cop, but it could also just mean any white guy.
But most early speakerstapped into the benign mood of atonement and spiritual regeneration which, corny as it might sound, was the reason most men gave for turning up.
"The difference with 1963," one said, "is that we're dealing not with a physical problem - not with segregation - we're dealing with a mental and economic problem. We have to go away with a message of love. We have to go home to our families with love." Those listening in the crowd applauded.
Then I spoke to a couple of people. One was called Tom, the other Archie. Tom, 63, said he had been passed over for jobs all his life because of the colour of his skin. "I'm here because I don't want what happened to me to happen to any man of colour." Was he bitter? "Yes. I'm bitter, real bitter."
It was almost a relief to find someone who didn't sound as if he'd eaten happy pills for breakfast. But then Tom ruined it by saying that he had no problem with white folks in general, just some: "You know, the best friend I ever had was a white man from Brooklyn."
As for Archie, who was 32 and wore black glasses and a raincoat, he insisted that the march was "not about colour". Come again, I said. "No, it's not about colour and it's not about Islam and it's not about Farrakhan," explained Archie, who said he was an unpublished writer of short stories about the urban experience. "We're not going to behave in a racist way and stoop to the level of those we criticise. It's about dealing with ourselves. It's about recognising that black women have been the backbone of black men for too long. This is about saying to ourselves we must stand up on our own two feet and make our families and our communities fruitful."
Was it working? "I've never felt this electricity before. You see that guy over there? Ordinarily I would be afraid to catch his eye because he might attack me. Now, look, we smile."
Electricity was not really the word. The atmosphere was too mellow. It was a vast exercise in group therapy. Black American men were feeling good about themselves. They were hearing plenty of black footsteps, and they were not afraid.Reuse content