The Last Angry Man

By Coates, Ta-Nehisi | The Washington Monthly, January 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Last Angry Man

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Washington Monthly

What happens when the Nation of Islam turns into a black version of the Promise Keepers?

ON MONDAY, OCTOBER 16, SEVERAL hundred thousand people heeded the call of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and assembled in the shadow of the Washington Monument to celebrate the Million Family March. The march was a sequel to Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March, which had ranked as the largest civil-rights march on the nation's capital.

The Million Man March had proved that no public figure had his finger better placed on the pulse of black America than Louis Farrakhan. Using the rhetoric of the "endangered black male," Farrakhan created a historic gathering that appeared to be the beginning of a new popular movement. The march also propelled Farrakhan into the spotlight of respectability, and although his credibility had taken a few hits since then, hopes for the Million Family March still ran high.

The Million Family March was designed to expand on the themes he first outlined five years earlier and to include women, who had been excluded during the first go-around. But last year's event proved to be an altogether different kind of gathering. The Sunday before the Million Family March, Farrakhan prefaced his agenda on "Meet The Press," telling Tim Russert that it was time to "put God back in the center of our marriage ... and take responsibility as fathers to shepherd our families."

The following Monday would bring thousands of black families to the Mall, but the march would also showcase an amazing collection of oddballs united under Farrakhan's dubious banner. There was the record mogul Puff "Too Rich For You" Daddy; Jewel Howard Taylor, the wife of brutal Liberian dictator Charles Taylor; former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry; and Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the ultra-conservative leader of the Unification Church, who helped bankroll the event.

Aided by the Rev. Moon, Farrakhan presided over a massive and lengthy group wedding and railed against pro-choicers, saying that the entire abortion dilemma could be solved if women didn't give themselves over to loathsome men. "Sisters, your womb is sacred," lectured Farrakhan. "You have the right to choose. Choose well the man you will give yourself to."

The image of Farrakhan lecturing black women about chastity while officiating a mass wedding was a strikingly different picture from the incendiary minister black America had grown accustomed to. For almost two decades, Farrakhan has served as black people's official middle finger to the Man. We knew that whatever our problems were with Farrakhan and the shaky foundation of his movement, we could always count on him to give American racism an uncompromising rebuke. That Farrakhan was an anti-Semite was irrelevant to us--we just couldn't figure out why he kept singling out Jews. To paraphrase James Baldwin and Chris Rock, we had a beef with all quarters of white America and saw little point in categorizing.

But at the Million Family March, Farrakhan subverted much of his usual anti-white rhetoric in favor of Liebermanesque calls for a return of God to the lives of Americans. Gone was the fiery condemnation of white racism, and in its place was a bizarre sort of multiculturalism. At its core, the Million Family March turned out to be little more than a black version of the Promise Keepers that showcased one of the great chameleon acts of our time: Minister Louis Farrakhan morphing from the tireless voice of black angst into a vanilla social conservative.

That transformation did not happen in a vacuum, and the reasons behind it say as much about the change in the black community over the past decade as they do about Farrakhan. One thing is certain, though: While white America might celebrate Farrakhan's evolution, black America has suffered a real loss.

One Million Men

In 1995, you didn't need a deck of tarot cards to predict my attendance at the Million Man March.

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