More nightmare than dream

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The decision of Louis Farrakhan'sNation of Islam to hold a rally atBroadwater Farm, north London, is a magnificent piece of showmanship. Ten years after the riots that led to the death there of PC Keith Blakelock, and the suspicious convictions that followed, Broadwater Farm remains an emotional flashpoint for the black community. Where better to hold a recruitment drive for his movement, which sermonises about black pride while simultaneously demonising the white race?

But then the movement, with its severely suited masculine disciples selling its apocalyptically entitled newspaper, The Final Call, has an alluring theatricality. And Mr Farrakhan has generated an international media frenzy with his "Million Man March" on Washington, in which a million Afro-Americans will today demonstrate their political muscle by walking on the nation's capital.

His avowed intention is to show the world "a vastly different picture of the black male" and though he exploits popular memories of the great civil rights marches of the Sixties, the Million Man March is not "the dream" that Martin Luther King envisaged. Mr Farrakhan's order that black women stay at home, and his frequent racist remarks, will mean that instead of a spirit of brotherhood, the march must take place in the sort of atmosphere of hostility that would make Dr King spin in his grave.

Mr Farrakhan is the most recent in a long line of legendary black leaders who have preached separatism and conjured up dreams of black independence. Charismatic and clean-cut, he is in many ways the shadow side of General Colin Powell. But while General Powell symbolises the still enduring possibilities of the American Dream, Mr Farrakhan is the product of the nightmarish obverse.

Many black people are profoundly offended by Mr Farrakhan's anti-Semitism and belief in the subservience of women. They are unconvinced about the fantasies he spins about a separate black state. But his rhetoric does at least acknowledge the profound sense of disenfranchisement and disillusion that many blacks feel. Indeed, his message of black self-empowerment and pride have been enormously seductive to many Afro-Americans. And there is no reason to imagine it would be any different in Britain, where a disproportionate number of black men are winding up in prison, on the dole, or in mental institutions.

It is likely that his rally will be a success. It will be hard to resist the enormous hype by proxy that will be generated by the Million Man March. But it will be a success built as much on our failure to provide support for those who are poorly served by our community as much as one built on the often reprehensible message Mr Farrakhan conveys to the world.

Andrea Stuart is a lecturer in cultural studies at Central St Martin's College, London.