By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Oct. 25, 1995
As a white guy, Im pretty much at the top of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s shit list. The Nation of Islam leader may hurl venom at Jews, Arabs, Catholics, gays, and any other group that his twisted, manipulative take on history and reality tells him to excoriate, but a large supply of his vast reservoir of hate is reserved for Caucasian men.
Knowing exactly where I stand in Farrakhan’s separatist vision – that is, sequestered from my African American friends and neighbors – I decided to attend the Million Man March to get a sense of the future of black-white relations. I do, after all, live happily in an integrated neighborhood of a majority-black city where race is constantly an issue. If my welcome is wearing thin, I’d prefer to find out earlier than later.
Being uninvited and considered part of the problem, I expected hostility. To my pleasant surprise, I was welcomed over the course of the day by hundreds of African American men, who politely acknowledged my presence even as they listened to blame-filled speeches that fingered me, a white male, for much of their plight. I was called “brother,” and clasped hands in an overwhelmingly positive spirit with black men in Farrakhan T-shirts. I quickly realized that, in the atmosphere of the march, race relations were much more complex and promising than the hype had led me to believe.
Race, it seems to me, is not a simple black-and-white issue, though many choose to see it that way. Its nuances are dizzying. As I tried to piece it together, I quickly grew to resent the words of Dan Berger, which I had read on the op-ed pages of The Sun that morning: “If you do not accept the leadership of Minister Farrakhan and Reverend [Benjamin] Chavis, you are not marching in Washington today. If you are, you did.” I now realize that Farrakhan’s leadership is a sideshow to the real strides toward multiethnic health that March participants took with great enthusiasm.
As I wandered the Mall, I listened to speeches and prayers, delivered by Nation of Islam ministers and Christian preachers, that reminded me repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that my European American forefathers were slave traders, or slave owners, and that they conspired – often with ruthless energy over a period of centuries – to enrich themselves at the expense of the inhabitants of much of the African continent. Strong cases were made, even without indulging the minister’s bizarre fantasies, that this white racist legacy against African American males continues in more subtle forms today.
Even without the reminders, I am fully conscious of my forefathers’ sins and those of today’s white-male establishment. And I know that they are not far removed, either in time or space, from my own experience. I will never forget Mining the Museum, an exhibit created by Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society that included a Klansman’s hood found in a Towson attic in the late 1950s and a fugitive slave notice from a farm on Falls Road in Brooklandville (owned today by the same family, the Johnsons, who were listed on the notice) which included a description of how the runaway had been marked for identification purposes by mutilation.
I grew up in that same area, just north of the city. Cold, hard, violent racism is an unavoidable part of my heritage. Occasional conversations with some of my childhood friends never fail to remind me of its living, breathing effect; many of them cultivate a racist mentality even as they say they aren’t racists. They often try to tone it down in my presence, but their educated voices still resonate with destructive words and thoughts. I tolerate their company at these times with grim defiance and open discomfort; nonetheless, they are my friends, and I still like them.
A visit to almost any corner bar in the southern or eastern reaches of this city, where many of the city’s whites reside, is likely to reveal an innate animosity towards African Americans that, in a feat of logical gymnastics, is felt to be justified by the ongoing crisis of black-on-black drug violence. Overlooked is the obvious fact that the government’s drug war targets poor, urban black males even as white suburbanites feed the trade and traffic with little fear of arrest or prosecution. When I pass by a drug corner, the excitement among the black dealers is feverish: a white face means a quick sale without the haggle. Somehow the white role in black-on-black drug violence is lost on most whites.
Many whites in Baltimore, despite living under a legal system that matured to embrace civil rights generations ago, are still in infancy when it comes to race relations. As further evidence, one only needs to remember the Democratic primary for city council president. Joe DiBlasi captured many white voters’ imaginations by overtly seeking to exploit the potential split in the city’s black vote among three African-American candidates. As he sought citywide office, he rarely if ever campaigned in black communities.
Even as the city’s white community complained rightly and bitterly about Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s race-based campaign, hardly a white voice was raised against DiBlasi for the same tactic. To me, this mass hypocrisy is every bit as great as that of Schmoke and his campaign manager, Larry Gibson. It seems to me that the city’s black political leadership and much of its white minority population are on the same racist page: they are just reading different books. Both call for retribution. One side tries to undermine black leadership because those on that side feel ignored; the other proudly proclaims that the shoe is now on the other foot. The situation make productive communication all but impossible.
And the situation with Farrakhan doesn’t help matters. He is a racist, plain and simple, and he is emerging as the dominant voice – if not the acknowledged leader – of African American males. At the march, I witnessed hundreds of thousands raise their fists and make a vow: “We accept Louis Farrakhan as our leader across the world.” Needless to say, that spectacle worries me profoundly.
But I know I can live with the hostility that Farrakhan wants to spread. He’s taken the fore as a highly visible and controversial black leader, so I have little choice but to deal with it. The trick – as in any confrontational situation – is not to take it personally, to deflect any blows, and not to hit back. Most of all, love your brother anyway. Eventually, he backs down, the hatchet is buried, and everyone gets along famously. At last that’s how it is supposed to go.
The hostility-deflection method takes patience and practiced level-headedness, but it works in most situations, as any martial-arts instructor worth his or her salt can tell you. I have gotten rather practiced at it, as I face black-to-white hostility on nearly a daily basis on the streets of Baltimore (constant eye-fucking, the occasional “yo, white bitch,” and periodic attempts to run me down on the street). In fact, I had to deploy it almost immediately upon returning to Baltimore from the march.
As I crossed West Franklin Street heading north on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (of all places), I found myself confronted with a baseball-bat-wielding youth, maybe 10 years old, backed up by four other kids. They came running across MLK from the Lexington Terrace projects, itching to kick my ass.
Unable to avoid them, I stopped my bike, stood up, faced the kid as he prepared to bash me with the bat, and said sternly with my arms crossed, “So you’re going to knock me around, huh?” He balked, smiled sheepishly, and then one of his accomplices shouted, “He’s a cop! Look, he’s packin’ a gun!”
That was their out. As they ran east on Franklin, I shouted after them, “You wouldn’t have pulled that shit if you had gone to the march today!” The last kid looked back and smiled knowingly.
I had disarmed them psychically, and each of us left undamaged and with something positive to think about. It occurred to me the march participants had managed the same thing with me earlier that day: I had gone expecting my presence to cause some level of hostility and confrontation, but I found only peace and brotherhood.
My hope is that Minister Louis Farrakhan, as he makes his rounds as a confrontational black leader, will find the same reception that I found at the march. If his hostility is met with hostility, I’m afraid we’re headed for a highly destructive showdown. If it is deflected with respectful defiance laced with genuine benevolence, maybe there’s hope, and blacks, whites, and everyone else can stop talking about blame and retribution and actually start building a common, mutually beneficial future. To rephrase the popular T-shirt, “It’s a people thing – we got to understand.”