Last year, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam went on a national tour, asking thousands of black men to pledge that they would not -- in effect -- behave like beasts.
At the Baltimore Arena, Minister Farrakhan asked each man to promise that they would respect their mothers, take care of their children, and refrain from slaughtering each other.
Men of any other race or ethnicity would have reacted to such a request in one of three ways: they would have been dumbfounded, amused, or outraged at the suggestion that someone has to tell them to act like a human being.
But apparently no one in Farrakhan's audience even blinked. After hundreds of years of negative stereotypes, even blacks today seem to accept that savagery is the norm. And so, an estimated 9,000 men raised their hands and solemnly took the pledge.
Next day, headlines across the country screamed, "Black Men Pledge To Respect Their Mothers, Not Kill."
It was, I suppose, good news.
On Oct. 16, Farrakhan and the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP, plan to lead 1 million black men in a march on Washington, D.C. They are calling it a "Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation" and they are expecting busloads of "intelligent, disciplined and sober brothers" to converge on the nation's capital in a show of strength reminiscent of the original March On Washington in 1963, though the Million Man March could be several times larger. Those who cannot make it to Washington are asked to participate in a nationwide boycott by staying home from work or school and by not spending money.
Organizers hope the march and the boycott will send a powerful message to both blacks and whites, but mostly to blacks themselves. They hope to use the march as a springboard to a voter registration drive and a renewed push for greater economic opportunities.
Says Dr. Chavis, "The Million Man March is a self-responsibility march, a self-empowerment march, a self-respect march. Black men must return to being providers and builders and protectors in the black community."
There is a great deal of grass-roots enthusiasm for this march -- and for good reason. Black America is reeling from a sustained backlash against the gains won through the civil rights movement. Blacks remain the last hired and the first fired. Blacks suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty, poor medical care, substandard education.
Yet most of America now seems to feel the country has done enough to combat those problems.
Ordinary black people seem to be hungering for a show of political unity against such attitudes, even if the gesture is more symbolic than substantive.
But I keep thinking about the farce at the Baltimore Arena.
I do not believe I could stomach a bunch of speeches in which black men are urged to stop raping and pillaging and killing -- as though all are guilty of such behavior -- or televised scenes showing tens of thousands of black men congratulating themselves because they have managed to come together without tearing the place up.
There are millions of black men who continue to be, in Dr. Chavis' words, "providers, builders, and protectors." They love their mothers. They care for their children. And they manage to resolve their disputes peacefully.
Such men constitute the backbone of their communities, and yet they are invisible -- even to black leaders. Rarely do leaders seek to build upon the strengths of black neighborhoods -- the men and women who work hard everyday to raise their families. Those pillars of strength exist, in even the most desolate sections of town.
The Million Man March potentially could bring the invisible men together into a unified, motivated political and economic force. That would be an awe-inspiring sight. On the other hand, we may have a million marching black men accompanied by a million stereotypes about who those men are and what they are doing.
Do we dare to show ourselves in public when we apparently are not clear on who we are?