WASHINGTON – October 16, 1995. In the Company of My Brothers. Words and Images by Robert Wesley Branch.
My father reached into his briefcase and pulled out a red-black-and-green button: Million Man March, Day of Atonement, I Want to be in THAT Number!, October 16, 1995, it read. “It’s for you,” he told me. “I saw them and I thought about you. Got me one too,” he smiled, sitting at the kitchen table.
Two days before the Million Man March (MMM), I still hadn’t decided to go. I had purposely not watched the news or listened to the radio in the weeks before because I was well familiar with the mainstream’s take on anything remotely related to Louis Farrakhan. Part of my resistance to attending the March was a deep-seated distrust of Black men. I could only hope the gay brothers wouldn’t become targets for their straight counterparts; and that the Christian brothers wouldn’t become whipping posts for the Nation’s Muslim brothers. I was weary of the divisive name-calling; fearful of the spirit of machismo that has separated and alienated so many of us for so long. I was 29.
Today, 26 years later, at 55, I see this behavior I describe as “toxic masculinity.”
After a few phone calls, I had arranged to march with DC-based artist and filmmaker Fred Brown, and his friend, NY-based actor Mykal Knight, who I had also become acquainted with over the years. The plan was that I would meet up with them on Sunday at 8:30 pm, stay in Washington overnight, and we’d all walk down to the March together on Monday morning. I hung up with Fred and lie across my bed, in the suburbs, where I was raised since age three. A native Washingtonian, we moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland in 1970.
Sunday was beautiful: the clouds and rain and wind of Saturday had faded into a chilly, breezy churchgoing Fall afternoon. While Fred and Mykal attended mass at St. Augustine’s in Washington, I was at home, meditating and preparing to meet up with them. Later that evening, my sister offered to give me a ride to Adams Morgan, which I accepted. I wished my father a happy march, and my sister and I were out the door.
When I arrived at Fred’s, he wasn’t there, but his roommate Greg, who I’d met numerous times before, answered my call. I noticed pinned to his shirt a red-black-and-green button: Million Man March, Day of Atonement, I Want to be in THAT Number!, October 16, 1995.
Monday morning, the day of the March, Fred and I sat together on the third floor, going through some analysis on the state of Black men. He shared his concerns about the March, which were surprisingly similar to my own trepidations. He stared ahead blankly, lost in his thoughts, doubting his intentions, questioning his motivation for both wanting and not wanting to attend the March. A few moments later, Greg came out of his neighboring bedroom, heading for the bathroom. He walked past the open door where we sat, never saying a word. Moments later, Mykal came up from a second-floor bedroom. Fred was now up and moving about. Greg and I had retreated to the patio to talk. He wanted to share with me a piece of work he’d recently written. We stood side-by-side on the terrace, the bursting sunlight crashing down upon us, the trees swaying gently, the baby-blue sky nearly cloudless.
As everyone began to shower and prepare for the day, Greg called us into his room to catch a piece about the March on the news. Fred and I became energized as we witnessed just a glimpse of the coverage, seeing a young brother with his son, and a couple of other brothers in the background embracing. The Spirit seemed to be high and we wanted to be part of that energy.
Within twenty minutes, Fred and I were driving through Cleveland Park, headed for coffee on Connecticut Avenue. As he parked the car, I noticed a group of brothers noticing me; probably had something to do with the red-black-and-green poncho I was wearing and the red-black-and-green leather Rasta cap I had pulled down close over my eyes. I’m sure I looked like a cross between Bob Marley and a Black Panther of the 60’s. That’s precisely the look I was going for; it’s exactly how I felt: powerful, culturally in tune, unstoppable.
Sitting outside the coffee shop, a brother walked by and said to me: “What’s up, brother?” Only minutes later, a sister says: “Good morning, brother!”
“Robert, you’re getting a lot of brotherly love and energy this morning,” Fred leaned over.
“Yep and look at our coffee cups!” We both looked down at the Brothers Coffee emblem on our cups. “It’s not by chance we’re having coffee this morning at a spot called Brothers Coffee.”
Fred, Mykal and I walked all the way down 16th Street to the Million Man March on the National Mall. We philosophized all the way, sharing spiritual wisdom, as we made the 45-minute sojourn to the Capitol grounds.
Maya Angelou’s was the first voice we heard booming from the vast sound system, on too tall scaffolding, manned by members of the Fruit of Islam (FOI). She was just wrapping up her poem, The Night Has Been Long.
Brothers were everywhere, dressed in everything from sweatsuits to jeans and T-shirts to traditional African regalia.
“I am transfixed,” said Mykal, who pretty much spoke for us each of us, all glass-eyed, glued to the sights and sounds and spectacle at all points and beyond. The feeling of unity and brotherhood permeated the air.
At one point, the brothers were urged to wave dollar-bills above their heads. Crowd estimates of 1.5 million were given from the podium several times.
Moments later, groups of NOI brothers in two’s came around, hoisting huge cardboard boxes amidst the crowd, urging the brothers to put their cash inside the box. People freely gave, passing dollars to whatever brother was nearest the box. I took up the money for Fred, Mykal and myself, and on my way up, another brother handed me his money to toss in.
A Please Don’t Litter graphic went up on the monitor, and the brothers were urged not to leave the grounds in disarray. The roaring lion on the waving green-gold-red Tribe of Judah flags created a brilliant tapestry against the sky’s blue. A Rasta brother wearing a purple bandanna catches my eye; he and his boy were greeting their brothers, bringing their faces close together: right cheek, then left, then right again.
I watched from a distance, my dreads hidden beneath my oversized red-black-green-gold leather cap. I wanted to be embraced by one of them; I felt what they were feeling; what we all were feeling: We were called to that place. Two NOI brothers came around, passing out white Million Man March bumper stickers with red letters. “I’ll take one, brother,” someone said.
“You got two dollars,” said the FOI brother. Apparently he didn’t, and the NOI brother kept on going.
A huge Jesus is Lord sign went up over the monitors. Helicopters flew overhead, as brother after brother took to the podium and claimed their voice for the day.
The smell of reefer sailed on the breeze. “Do you smell it?,” a brother in a fluorescent windbreaker asked, his cornrows tight upon his cocoa African scalp.
After hours of standing at undivided attention, some brothers dropped to the grass for comfort. In a rare picture, three brothers lounge upon one another’s bodies. Two other brothers to my right sat back-to-back, as if saying – proudly, boldly, defiantly – I got your back, bro! Monitors displayed the crowd scene – a slow pan out revealed a massive crowd of Black men. I Am in that number.
“Lost kids can be found at Unit 2, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW at the Mass Command Unit,” a graphic on the monitor read. A megaphone also rang out this warning. A strong, tall breeze blew through the shaded area where I stood with Fred and Mykal. “My brothas, what you see here is history,” sung one brother to my unseen left.
A camera, attached to a faceless hand, went up above the throng to capture the moment. A slow pan into the Capitol steps filled the monitor, the Nation brothers in dark suits, all lined up. It was a powerful image. In the near distance to my left, a brother in a red jacket twists his dreadlocks with his right hand, playing with the falling tangled strands, then brushing the whole back of his head quickly with his fingers. A brother in the distance sits atop a traffic light. Tears roll from my eyes. Joy.
“Why don’t they stick a microphone out here?” an older woman next to me asked. “These brothers are very politically aware.” Her husband sat on a cooler before her, intently listening to the speeches. Every now and then he would ask her what was being said, and she, in turn, would ask me, Mykal or Fred; they were both hard of hearing. Fred leaned forward and whispered in my ear: “That man is very proud of you; that a young brother is out here documenting this experience, especially since he himself can’t hear everything that is going on.”
“How do you know that?” I asked him.
“I can tell by the way he and his wife keep looking at you scribble in your notebook.”
Yet another speaker finished. The crowd yelled “Farrakhan” repeatedly.
The buzz of helicopters overhead interrupted the sound. Some sister in a blue-jean outfit suddenly tried to climb a tree to gain a better vantage point. The crowd encouraged her with their handclaps and catcalls. Without warning, she slipped and fell amid sighs of disappointment. The sister tried again and this time made it up the tree only moments later. “Ain’t no mountain high enough – to keep me from you!” Mykal teased.
The sheer diversity of brothers out there was incredible: dreadlocks were in abundance; short brothers, tall brothers; brothers of every hue, from every walk and wheelchair of life. “Too much uniqueness,” Mykal breathed.
Younger brothers and sisters slept on blankets to my right. Still others dropped to the grasslands for rest. “You better get some grass under your butt,” they urged their tired comrades.
“Look at the age range – from 8 to 87,” Mykal observed. People to my right pray. I found myself thinking about my father, connecting with him in the Spirit; perhaps he was in the crowd too, somewhere in that moment, thinking of me.
The sun was warm on my back. The world watches. Helicopters hover.
At day’s end, we walked through the area where the vendors had set up shop, stopping to buy fish sandwiches sold by the NOI brothers, incense, flavored coffee manufactured in Africa, and an Ankh that I still have to this day. The sun had gone down by now and we hadn’t eaten any solid food all day; all of us having adhered to Farrakhan’s call for a fast during the daylight hours. We caught dinner at Union Station and were interrupted several times during our meal by neighboring white diners, who both applauded us for having attended the March and who also confessed their respect for the ideals expressed. It appeared that many of our Caucasian counterparts had learned much about African American people that day.
I rode the subway home and when I got off the train, a sister behind the wheel of a waiting car in the kiss-and-ride section of the parking lot smiled at me, giving her thumbs-up. I smiled back and pointed in her direction. She’s proud of her brothers. I’m proud that she’s proud. I’m glad I was in that number. In the company of my brothers. One in a million.