Going Beyond Self-Help

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Robin D.G. Kelley

ON OCTOBER 16TH, while hundreds of thousands of African-American men and some women filed into Washington, D.C., to pray, fellowship and listen to inspirational speeches and poems, I was lecturing at New York University on the subject of slave women in the antebellum South.

It just so happened that the Million Man March (MMM) took place during the week my undergraduate class read Deborah Gray White’s book, Ain’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South and Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

It was an amazing coincidence, especially given the MMM leadership’s instructions to women to stay home and Louis Farrakhan’s explicit message that one of the purposes of the march was to “declare to the Government of America and the world that we are ready to take our place at the head of our families and our communities and that we, as Black men, are ready to take responsibility for being the maintainers of our women and children and the builders of our communities.”(1)

I made it clear to students they would not be penalized for not coming to class, especially if they planned to go to the march, but unlike most of my Black colleagues I decided to hold class in spite of directives to stay home.

By the time class was over, my best students realized there is nothing natural or inevitable about father-led, two-parent families. Nor does it follow that men should naturally lead communities or community-based institutions.

They learned about the extensive kin networks and extended families formed during slavery; they discovered a world where men and women–or sometimes just women–governed families collectively, where mutual obligation and responsibility were far more important than the idea of male-headed households.

I think I did the right thing by holding class and offering African-American and other students an implicit critique of Farrakhan’s clarion call to Black men to take back their families and communities. In many ways, Farrakhan’s call was not only ahistorical, but also a step backward, akin in some respects to the conservative “family values” advocates who insist the root cause of Black people’s problems is the lack of male-headed households.

“While I’m not in principle opposed to male or female-only political initiatives when it’s appropriate, I think the assumptions and rhetoric that drove the march were fundamentally sexist and conservative. For this reason alone, I could not attend the march. Let me explain.

Personal responsibility was the march’s central theme. Besides a few vague remarks about white supremacy and the negative impact current Republican proposals will have on Black people, the call for the march essentially let the government (federal, state, and local) off the hook.

This problem is reflected in the “Million Man March Pledge,” an oath Farrakhan asked Black men to take during his address to the marchers. The pledge was part of their atonement. A mixture of basic common sense (do not abuse women and children or use violence except in self-defense), the only thing the pledge called on people to do, besides personal improvement, was “to build business, build houses, build hospitals, and to enter international trade.”(2)

More significantly, the MMM leadership did not make any concrete proposals as to how the African-American community ought to respond to the assault on affirmative action, the dismantling of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the decline of good-paying jobs in the cities, or the proposed tax cuts for the wealthy.

Instead they asked Black men to atone for their “sins” and prove to the U.S. Government that we could be responsible, independent citizens. Attorney and writer Patricia Williams is absolutely right to suggest that the march’s day of atonement “starts to sound like a day for [B]lack men to forgive themselves for the stereotype of themselves, even in the name of `showing the world who we are.'”(3)

The fact that the White House supported the march should not come as a surprise. If the purpose of the march had been to protest policies that helped create the situation we’re in, to call on Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress to atone for supporting immoral, draconian legislation directed against the poor, I might have attended–particularly if the march embraced Black women and men.

Second, I don’t buy the argument that one could separate the “message” from the “messenger,” especially if the messenger has defined the meaning and purpose of the march. The Nation of Islam has been and continues to be a largely conservative organization that has remained aloof from political participation throughout most of its history.

The Nation’s policies center on self-help, the creation of Black business, and the maintenance of traditional relations between men and women.

Although women are “exalted” in Farrakhan’s teachings, he insists, nonetheless, that women should take primary responsibility for the home and child rearing. And while he called on Muslims to be respectful toward homosexuals, he still characterized them as sinners who needed to be set straight.

“I’ve been among lesbians,” he told an audience in 1983, “’cause that’s my work, my work is to clean up our people, reform our people, get them ready for their destiny under the guidance of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and it’s a big job. But you can’t do it if you’re disgusted with the people you’re trying to serve. You can’t do it if you’re judgmental.”(4)

To be fair, many people who supported the march are neither conservative nor sexist, and some of the points made in Farrakhan’s initial call I can agree with–such as his point that the incarceration of African Americans is related to the fact that prisons are now big business. While the march failed dismally to produce a clear, progressive political agenda, few can deny the positive spiritual and emotional impact it had on most of its participants.

In the end, however, it is hard for me to be enthusiastic about a massive march on Washington that lacks a concrete political program beyond voter registration and fund raising. The sheer magnitude of the march and the excitement it generated does not negate the leadership’s conservative ideology or its emphasis on personal behavior as the central problem facing Black America.

The NOI’s vision of self-help is much too limited. African Americans have a rich tradition of self-help that includes movements for social change. The Civil Rights movement, Black involvement in the labor movement and various other organized struggles for justice, equality, and political power were “self-help” efforts at their finest.

Sometimes we fought in alliance with others; sometimes we fought on our own. But we fought. We organized and made demands as citizens who created wealth for this country, who paid taxes to its governments, who justifiably expected something in return for our investment.

Personal atonement can be a powerful, positive thing, but without that tradition of militant protest, a sense of entitlement as citizens of the nation, and an ability to transcend racial politics and build alliances, liberation may come to mean little more than upward mobility and entrepreneurship. If that’s the case, then maybe those who did attend the march should have been selling T-shirts instead of buying them.


  1. “Minister Louis Farrakhan Calls for One Million Man March,” Final Call, December 14, 1994.
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  2. A copy of the oath, which Farrakahn read at the march, is available through the Nation of Islam’s home page on the World Wide Web.
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  3. Patricia J. Williams, “Different Drummer Please, Marchers!” The Nation 261, no. 14 (October 30, 1995), 493.
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  4. Quoted in Robin D. G. Kelley, Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 84.
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ATC 60, January-February 1996