Volume 13 Numbers 2 and 3, 2003
A Performance of Culture: Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March
Jerome Dean Mahaffey
Indiana University East
Abstract: American journalists and pundits criticized Louis Farrakhan’s speech at the Million Man March as “loopy” and “rambling” even though it augmented his image among African Americans. Was the speech really incoherent? And if not, what function did it accomplish? This essay performs a rhetorical analysis of “Toward a More Perfect Union,” attempting to account for the divergent reactions to the speech and explore its intended function. The lengthy speech demonstrates threads of coherency and shows Farrakhan to be a competent orator who, through the “pledge of atonement” in the speech’s conclusion, attempted to transform his audience by promoting a preferred version of Black masculinity drawn from the African American cultural repository.
On October 16th, 1995, approximately one million African American men gathered at the Mall in Washington D.C. for the Million Man March (MMM). The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan delivered the keynote address, “Toward A More Perfect Union,” to an audience between 400,000-870,000 (Park Police, 1995) with even more people watching on TV. Undoubtedly, the event provided a unique opportunity for Farrakhan to have a season in the national spotlight—an opportunity that warranted his utmost effort. As one would expect, journalists and pundits expressed various opinions about the meaning of the speech, its effect on the audience, and its ramifications for racial relations, but nearly all agreed that the speech itself failed as a rhetorical object. “Rambling” was a word commonly used to describe it (Holmes, 1995; Teitelbaum, 1995; Wilgoren,1995). Unconvinced by Farrakhan’s conciliatory gestures, Rich (1995) decried the “speech’s lunatic digressions into crypto-mysticism and self-deification,” exemplifying the opinions of numerous writers (p. A23).
But polls taken the day before and a week after the march indicate an upward shift in those who approved of Farrakhan from 13% to 16% nationally and, more significantly, from 43% to 63% among African Americans.1 In addition to improving the nation’s opinion of Farrakhan, the speech and its centerpiece, the pledge of atonement, appear to have imparted a positive effect upon young African American men. Exploring long-term effects of the march, Gabbidon (2000) wrote that participants “took the MMM pledge very seriously,” increased their community involvement as well as their “spirituality,” and developed an increased respect for women (p. 25). Moreover, the Urban Institute, based in Washington DC, reported a significant increase of men who endorse supporting the children they father, a change Muhammad (1999) attributed to the march.
The disparity between the apparent success of the speech and its widespread denigration point toward an interesting question: Why did influential observers and writers perceive the speech as a missed opportunity when it had a positive effect on both the community and Farrakhan’s image? Is it possible that pundits recognized the import of the event but failed to see how the speech’s messages interacted with participants in meaningful ways? Could negative preconceptions of Farrakhan have caused them to misunderstand the content and intent of the speech? Asante (1987) contends: “Often ignorant of African philosophy and culture, commentators have imposed Western constructs and values on material that grows out of coherent, albeit different, traditions. The result has been a failure to understand or value that material, as well as an inability to recognize or correct that failure” (p. 19). It would follow that an effective speech, as this one seemed to be, would cohere and provide a straightforward message when considered from the appropriate perspective.
The rhetorical analysis that follows analyzes the speech from an Afrocentric perspective to explain its “rambling” sections and reveal a lucidity apparently missed by those who negatively evaluated it. Then, from an informed outlook of the speech, the essay can explore questions regarding the relationship between Farrakhan and the African American community. My thesis is that the Minister Louis Farrakhan provided a “cultural script” within the speech that he desired his auditors to adopt—a script that would subsequently guide “cultural performances” of everyday life for those who wholeheartedly participated in the pledge of atonement. The speech itself represents a social microcosm that, when its tenets are accepted, can extend outside the immediate context to influence individual auditors’ group-relative truths, ultimately reshaping or reinforcing personal ideologies. But auditors who were resistant to influence from Farrakhan needed to interpret the speech in a way that would preserve their own belief system; thus, they subsequently produced an account that led to ad hominem attacks and negative evaluations. As this essay unfolds it will briefly recount the relationship of culture to discourse, overview what previous research has discovered about Farrakhan’s rhetoric, examine the nature and content of the MMM speech, and portray a relationship between Farrakhan and his audiences.
Culture and Discourse
“Culture” has been defined and described in numerous ways by communication scholars, but a common thread in various explications is that culture is something you do, as opposed to something you are. As members of cultural group orient themselves to one another and act out respective roles in discursive interaction, their “culture” is manifest in their performance of everyday life. The “performance of culture,” refers to the way that group relative truths and behavioral schemata are, in Silverstein’s (1997) words, “invoked—indexically called into being—primarily in discursive interaction” (p. 266). Silverstein explained that all cultures are a product of discourse that reflects and re-inscribes cultural values through interactions to establish social hierarchy and shared views of reality. Thus, cultural scripts exist in the minds and hearts of group members, but the culture itself is only manifest as those scripts indexically guide discourse and behavior in real-time interactions.2
In the African American literature these “scripts” have been metaphorically portrayed as the “deep structures” of culture. From this perspective, Daniel and Smitherman (1990) argued that the African worldview provides an underlying template for patterns of discourse in which culture is expressed. This is a worldview described by Asante (1987) as one where feeling, thinking and acting are interrelated and where the spoken word has a “generative and productive power” (p. 17). It is a world with a “fundamental unity between the spiritual and material aspects of existence,” where harmony and balance are achieved in individuals and communities “by the complementary, interdependent, synergic interaction” of these aspects in a “rhythmic and cyclical fashion” (Daniel & Smitherman, p. 34).
Cultural communication in the African worldview contrasts with Western cultures, whose written texts typically house cultural values. African cultures have generally relied upon what Asante has termed orature: “the sum total of oral tradition, which includes vocality, drumming, storytelling, praise singing, and naming” (p. 60). Since the Diaspora, Africans in the Americas have maintained a reliance on orature due to both its cultural efficacy and strictly enforced anti-literacy laws of the antebellum period. Yet, even after literacy among African Americans became commonplace, a preference for orature has persisted. According to Hecht, Jackson and Ribeau, (2003), interactive verbal skills continue to be prized by African Americans. Orature, as Asante avers, provides modern African American culture with its “fundamental medium of communication” (p. 83). Grandparents, especially, function as “entrusted keepers of communal knowledge and wisdom,” in an oral tradition, dispensing cultural values as they assist sons and daughters in childrearing (Hecht, Jackson & Ribeau, p. 193). Thus, the cultural critic must examine oral “texts” for a fruitful perspective of African American lived experience. And since African Americans were formally excluded from the polity prior to the emancipation proclamation, and have been informally excluded from positions of social power afterwards, the preferred venue of public orature has usually been the Black church. Here, the numerous forms of oral thought and expression were free to continue their development along lines dictated by the African worldview.
The Black church takes on a cultural importance for African Americans in ways that the dominant American culture has eschewed. Niles (1995) argued that African Americans receive the majority of their adult education from the church and that its ministers are viewed as the central source for reliable information for the community. While this might surprise some, Daniel and Smitherman assert that in the African worldview “there is no dichotomy between sacred and secular life, making religion a central site of interest for understanding African Americans”(p. 31). In recent history, African American leaders, such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson, have all maintained strong ties to religious organizations where their leadership skills were developed and from where they drew their authority. Likewise, Louis Farrakhan followed the same path to the national stage.
To a much greater degree than mainstream America, public “performances” in African American cultures take on a purpose. Asante wrote, “there can be no art without a functional objective within the mind of the artist, whose work must do something, perform something or say something. Public discourse as an art form can only be complete when it is productive and, hence, functional” (p. 64). In other words, African American performances have a purpose; they are not just for amusement. In the MMM speech, Farrakhan had intentions of whom he wished his audience to be, what ideology he hoped they would adopt, and how he desired their worldview to develop. Thus, an important cultural event, as was the pledge at the MMM (Arthos, 2001;Gabbidon, 2000), was intended to shape and constrain subsequent behavior as participants internalized it and “performed” the script that the group relative truths contained therein suggested. So I claim that the function of Farrakhan’s speech was to call a reality into being whose possibility had existed in the cultural repository but had not been fully manifest in African American society.
Farrakhan’s rise to national prominence began when he re-organized the Nation of Islam, becoming its leader in the wake of factionalism that developed after the death of its founder, Elijah Muhammed. As Farrakhan’s voice on the national stage has expanded, the academic community has shown a corresponding interest. There exists a concise scholarly trail that illuminates Farrakhan’s rhetoric and his struggle for social change. Goldzwig (1989) challenged the over-simplistic practice of labeling Farrakhan a “demagogue” by providing a more sophisticated definition for that term in light of the mechanisms that empower demagogic discourse. Goldzwig legitimated the “demagogue” as a “special kind of lesion that precedes healing and renewed health in public debate” (p. 203). His theory of “symbolic realignment”—“the creation of alternative rhetorical reality”—explains how radical rhetorics confront existing ideologies and create conflict for the purpose of “subverting salient aspects of the status quo” and affirming the alternative version of reality they offer (p. 208). Goldzwig identified Farrakhan as a “prophet” and showed how he challenges social consensus through the use of threats, polarization, vilification, and conspiracy appeals.
But McPhail (1998a) supported a more pessimistic view of Farrakhan’s ability to affect meaningful change. Departing from Goldzwig’s foundation of symbolic realignment, and via the lens of complicity theory, McPhail argued that Farrakhan’s Afrocentric rhetoric “subscribes to the underlying epistemological sensibilities it attempts to call into question, and that it ultimately undermines its own transformative objectives and potential” (p. 419). Farrakhan’s failure to thoroughly “interrogate” the “underlying assumptions” of the dominant ideology ultimately operated to support the racial essentialism that makes White supremacy tenable. To avoid this pitfall, McPhail (1998b) believes that Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism can develop a working relationship by moving “beyond the complicity of essentialist argument to the coherence of integrative discourse” (p. 136). Such cooperation might lead to a “praxis that reconceptualizes the intellectual and linguistic coherence of integrative discourse” (p. 136).
While McPhail examined the larger issues surrounding Farrakhan’s mission, Pauley (1998) directly analyzed the MMM speech and Farrakhan’s relationship with the public. In Pauley’s view, the speech “can best be seen as an attempt to enhance his ethos by reshaping his public persona” (p. 514). Pauley’s reading is warranted by Darsey’s (1997) thesis that a prophetic tradition in America has empowered rhetorical discourse for the goals of radical reformers. Pauley echoed Goldzwig by identifying Farrakhan as a prophet and focused his analysis on the image repair features in the speech.
In contrast to Pauley’s view, Arthos (2001) argued that Farrakhan and his audience performed a subterfuge that simultaneously undercut White culture while it provided a spiritual uplift. Reading the speech and the event through the lens of signifyin’ in the tradition of the African shaman/trickster, Arthos labeled the speech a “formal masque” to reconcile the apparent inconsistency between Farrakhan’s ideological record and the march’s stated purpose. Arthos noted that “a freely offered admission of guilt, repentance, and commitment to change by these men would appear to contradict a movement that has pointed the finger at the [W]hite devil and celebrated the pride and beauty of blackness” (p. 46). Farrakhan, the shaman-trickster, led the men in “an ironized self-confession” that was actually a “confession of the sin of [W]hite America” (p. 50). Hence, critics unfamiliar with or overlooking the influence of traditional African American culture could easily miss the real meaning of the event as Whites had been doing with African American forms of discourse for centuries.
By these accounts, Farrakhan has been functioning in a traditional African religious role as well as a co-opted traditional monotheistic prophetic role. McPhail’s pessimistic assessment (1998a) then comes to bear as Farrakhan stands upon an essentialist conceptual system to reconstruct an African one for his audience. Yet perhaps Farrakhan was forced to continue drawing upon the Western tradition as he speaks for an African American community situated in a Western culture with members who have likewise been enculturated therein. Clearly, he portrayed an authoritarian persona for African Americans which encompassed many roles including the “prophet,” or even the “shaman-trickster.” But his self-defined role during this speech was a “doctor” (a Western version of the “prophet” or the “shaman”) who had come to diagnose the “problem” and prescribe a cure for racial tension in American society. Hence, the present analysis adopts a related view of Farrakhan as the “physician,” sent to cure the ailments of African American society and ultimately racial relations in America.
Context and Culture, Performances of Reality
The context of the MMM needs little explication for those familiar with social conditions in the late twentieth century in America. In general, the event was situated in an American social environment with many citizens becoming increasingly gloomy about the future of race relations. Even a cursory glance will find a public that had experienced the following: a) the perceived failure of 1960s integration practices to meaningfully improve economic and social opportunities for minorities, b) controversy surrounding Affirmative Action laws and their effectiveness, c) the rise of poverty levels among minorities, d) the rise of ethnic-based gang and criminal activity, e) police departments that explicitly and implicitly adopt racial profiling policies to help combat crime, f) public protests to police and judicial inequities that developed into full fledged riots, and g) the ubiquitous migration of middle and upper class citizens to the suburbs to escape the challenges and fears of life in American inner cities. Farrakhan was addressing an audience who believed that race relations were at the heart of these real and perceived ills.
Clearly, the speech had more than one audience, four being readily apparent: First were members of Farrakhan’s own Islamic religious group; second, a more heterogeneous immediate audience; third, journalistic observers and pundits, and fourth, the “public” viewing the speech via television. Farrakhan’s explicit identification of audiences demonstrate his awareness of its diversity, yet his comments were formulaic, antithetically indicating only a formal recognition of heterogeneity:
We have here those brothers with means and those who have no means. ...Those who are educated, those who are uneducated.... Those who are religious and those who are irreligious. Those who are Christian, those who are Muslim, those who are Baptist, ... those of traditional African religion. We've got them all here today.
Farrakhan certainly recognized that there was diversity even within a superficially homogenous audience; however, such a representation appears to be more a ritualistic utterance than an accurate description of who was in attendance and suggests that the audience diversity was balanced when in fact it was not. Farrakhan also indicated his awareness of media and political leaders by specific remarks directed toward them. He made no direct references to his TV audience.
Providing an empirical account of the audience composition, a Washington Post poll found a largely religious audience of mostly men who tended to be younger and well-to-do. Five percent reported to be members of the Nation of Islam (NOI); six percent were Muslims but not NOI members. Half were Protestant, seven percent were Catholic, and sixty percent reported attending various religious services at least once or twice a month. Only fifteen percent claimed no religion. Nine percent were women. Seventy-five percent of the immediate audience were under the age of 45; sixty-seven percent might be considered wealthy, earning figures substantially above the national average. Equal shares of married and single men attended with sixty-five percent being fathers. Nearly ninety percent of those polled at the march reported a favorable impression of Farrakhan.3
Toward a More Perfect Union
Considering that the speech was both complex and extremely long (two and one-half hours), the entire text cannot be analyzed in an essay length study. So the analysis will focus on sections that feature its Afrocentric conceptual framework as well as those which were widely misunderstood. While containing features from several genres of speech (i.e., apologia, jeremiad, diatribe, sermonic, deliberative) and attempting to accomplish many tasks in one discursive opportunity, I believe the speech is best viewed as a jeremiad—wherein a prophetic figure points out the evil in a society, warns of judgment, and encourages change to avoid that judgment (Carpenter, 1978).
To recognize that Farrakhan attempted to strengthen and establish his prophetic ethos is critical to understanding how he endeavored to represent a preferred version of African American experience. If successful in bolstering his standing as a genuine prophet among audience members who did not view him as such, Farrakhan’s audience is forced to take his cultural prescriptions seriously. The prophet stands on a unique epistemological foundation, presenting a message directly from “God” who establishes truth/reality by speaking it into existence. As Darcey wrote, “Here is the root, if you will, of radical rhetoric and of prophecy as a particular form of it: a commitment to an absolute, sacred truth” (p. 57). If his audience can accept him as a “true prophet,” then they can recognize the power to heal that traditionally attends that role and embrace his call for action as the “true” path toward economic and social health for African Americans, based not on deliberation or informed recommendations, but divine revelation.
Past & Present, Black & White
After an opening prayer and obligatory expressions of gratitude to appropriate parties, Farrakhan locates his body in time and place in relation to the American heritage and the various monuments in Washington DC. The day was “today;” the attendant audience recognized the location of their bodies in reference to Farrakhan’s; the mass media audience could quickly visualize the place (the Mall). Each audience member was looking at Farrakhan who was situated above them on a platform so as to reflect his relationship to them—a body of largely African American men being addressed by a cultural leader who had the last word at a lengthy meeting. Farrakhan immediately reveals two central elements of the speech’s conceptual structure that underpin the entire text: past-present and us-them:
Abraham Lincoln saw in his day, what President Clinton sees in this day. He saw the great divide between [B]lack and [W]hite. Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton see what the Kerner Commission saw 30 years ago when they said that this nation was moving toward two Americas -- one Black, one White, separate and unequal.
The “us-them” (Black-White) and “past-present” conceptual distinctions (affirmed in the terms “saw” and “see,” “his day” and “this day,” “two Americas,” and the “divide between Black and White”) are posited in a light of social stagnation. These distinctions form the framework of the text and supply a unity for the themes he will develop. Farrakhan cites Abraham Lincoln to argue that a “Black and White, separate and unequal” America was an intentional product and a fact of society in both the past and the present.
Next, in a section that was roundly ridiculed, Farrakhan embarks into a numerological argument that coordinates the mysterious and coincidental relationship of the height of the Washington Monument with a benchmark year in African American history.4 The argument, which many observers interpreted as an irrelevant digression, tried to establish his prophetic ethos. It was a move that reflected his Afrocentric perspective where God ordains such coincidences. “Farrakhan, the prophet of God,” explained Pauley, “is able to discern the divine pattern in the things around him and interpret the code for his audience” (p. 525).
Leading toward the prophetic nature of the coming message, Farrakhan continues by quoting the predictions of Washington and Jefferson in regard to slavery: “But, George Washington . . . said he feared that . . . this slave would prove to become a most troublesome species of property. Thomas Jefferson said he trembled for this country when he reflected that God was just and that his justice could not sleep forever.” Farrakhan legitimated his own prophetic ethos by showing that two of our founding fathers had already predicted that which he would specifically unveil later in the speech. Jefferson, not Farrakhan, introduced the inevitable day of reckoning; Farrakhan was merely picking up a theme of the founding fathers and reviving it for the present. The conceptual distinction of past-present resurfaces as Farrakhan cites those predictions and claims that their fears had “come to pass.”
He next points out that President Bill Clinton likewise recognized the need for healing race relations, but that Clinton’s approach—a “White” approach—would be insufficient .
Now, the President spoke today and he wanted to heal the great divide. But I respectfully suggest to the President, you did not dig deep enough at the malady...in order to affect a solution to the problem. And so, today, we have to deal with the root so that perhaps a healing can take place.
Farrakhan recognizes the common goal he held with Clinton, but he emphasizes their profound difference in perspective, again represented as a promising “Black” solution in contrast to an inadequate “White” one. Clinton claimed to be showing the “root” of the racial divide while Farrakhan criticizes Clinton’s view as deficient and offers his own alternative—an effort of symbolic realignment. Importantly, Farrakhan introduced a theme, implicit in the term “malady,” which he developed further as the speech continued: Society is ill and Farrakhan’s mission is to heal it. Thus he extends his authoritative role from “prophet” to “physician,” one of the most respected professions in Western societies. This extension provided the non-religious audience member with a perspective by which to understand his efforts and frame his prescriptions for change.
Continuing, Farrakhan says that “The Seal and the Constitution reflect the thinking of the founding fathers, that this was to be a nation by White people and for White people. Native Americans, Blacks, and all other non-White people were to be the burden bearers for the real citizens of this nation.” Farrakhan argued that the “White” perspective on racial relations provides a fatally flawed foundation for any solution. Hence, African Americans, in Farrakhan’s view, should not expect a viable solution to emerge from Eurocentrism, a worldview which has conspired against them since the beginning. In contrast, Farrakhan contended that African influenced had permeated American origins since the Revolutionary period. He draws evidence from his interpretation of historical objects and their connection with “place.” The Washington monument, according to Farrakhan, was an Egyptian design and the original proposed seal of the United States was borrowed from Egyptian culture—a culture that Asante (1987) contends should be considered fundamentally African, rather than an evolutionary precursor to Western cultures: “The Afrocentric analysis reestablishes the centrality of the ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) civilization and the Nile Valley cultural complex as points of reference for an African perspective in much the same way as Greece and Rome serve as reference points for the European world” (p. 9).
Developing the notion that the MMM constituted a pivotal moment in African American history, Farrakhan introduces a metaphor of a birth: “And now, I want to say, my brothers, this is a very pregnant moment. Pregnant with the possibility of tremendous change in our status in America and in the world.” Farrakhan is expecting a “birth,” the nature of which he describes later in the speech. As the “physician,” Farrakhan is uniquely qualified to deliver this coming child. After spending this initial portion of the speech asserting that a racial divide has continued to exist despite efforts to repair it, Farrakhan fully declared the arrival of an “historic moment:”
So, we stand here today at this historic moment. We are standing in the place of those who couldn't make it here today. We are standing on the blood of our ancestors. We must accept the responsibility that God has put upon us, not only to be good husbands and fathers and builders of our community, but God is now calling upon the despised and the rejected to become the cornerstone and the builders of a new world.
With the “pregnant . . . historic moment,” the metaphorical birth had arrived. Farrakhan anaphorically repeats the phrase “We are” while establishing a connection with “those who died,” suggesting the essence of the present in relation to the past. By employing the metaphor of a birth, Farrakhan moves beyond the notion of merely an opportune moment (which could evaporate if no action were taken), establishing a sense of inevitability. Turning to the future, he states, “We must accept,” and “God is now calling [on us] to become.” Farrakhan adds the “future” to the past-present distinction for the speech, placing his audience in the present with a responsibility toward the future. It supplies a cross-member that supports the two central events of the occasion: inevitable change and personal responsibility to implement and adapt to that change. Hence, his discourse not only explains his worldview but it invites the auditor to appropriate that view for him or herself. “The discourse,” says Ed Black (1970), “will exert on him the pull of an ideology. It will move, unless he rejects it, to structure his experience on many subjects” (p. 113). Herein lies the power of the speech. For that auditor who tacitly accepts Farrakhan’s version of reality, as expressed through the conceptual distinctions he has rhetorically constructed, this reality will dictate the ways which that auditor can understand race relations and approach solutions to racial controversy.
Farrakhan’s central claim, that change is an inevitable development in race relations and that a divinely appointed time for widespread change had arrived, is extracted from the familiar phrase “a more perfect union” taken from the preamble to the Constitution. Farrakhan deduces that the framers of the Constitution understood the evolutionary nature of democracy and left the task unfinished by the contiguous use of “more” and “perfect,” a task Farrakhan encouraged the audience to bring to completion. The introduction of the speech is now complete and Farrakhan moves quickly into the speech’s body to diagnose the “malady:” the past/present racial conspiracy. Next, as the physician, he prescribes the cure (a cure birthed through the implementation of the pledge of atonement), which is the appropriate response for African American males to the inevitable change.
The body of the speech orbits around recurring themes that support Farrakhan’s central claim. Farrakhan begins the body arguing that America is not perfect and it is everyone’s task to move the nation towards a more harmonious state: “Union means bringing elements or components into unity. It is something formed by uniting two or more things. It is a number of persons, states, etc., which are joined or associated together for some common purpose.” Next Farrakhan introduces the notion of evolution. Expanding the word “toward,” Farrakhan assumes a universal law of motion and evolution:
What we have in the word toward is motion. The honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us that motion is the first law of the universe. This motion which takes us from one point to another shows that we are evolving and we are a part of a universe that is ever evolving. We are on an evolutionary course that will bring us to perfect or completion of the process toward a perfect union with God. In the word toward there is a law and that law is everything that is created is in harmony with the law of evolution, change.
Farrakhan reveals his underlying Afrocentric perspective of the “malady” with the terms “union” and “harmony.” Racial inequality creates a tension as it “breaks” both spiritual and natural “laws.” The law of evolution will impel society toward “perfect completion...perfect union with God,” creating “harmony” where racial equality is actualized and the supremacy of one group over another is selected for extinction. Describing African Americans’ oppressed social standing, in the present, as unnatural, contrary to the spiritual and natural laws of evolution, Farrakhan argues that, in this case, the Afrocentric perspective can provide a remedy.
As the body of the speech further unfolds, Farrakhan develops his role as physician, explaining the nature and effects of White supremacy, characterizing it as the “malady,” the “root,” the sickness that has impeded a natural evolution toward harmonious racial relations. He introduces various themes of White supremacy, Black potentiality, and the success of other groups that adopted an inward focus. This inward focus is a key to understanding NOI doctrines, understanding why the march was exclusive to African American Men, and why the pledge of atonement promised a meaningful solution. The NOI has consistently promoted racial and economic separation as a path to improving the social standing of African Americans (Lincoln, 1994; Marsh, 1996). In Farrakhan’s opinion, African Americans will be better served by investing their energies and resources in their own communities rather than fighting against discrimination. In other words, Farrakhan is saying “Let’s take care of ourselves and we can transcend [W]hite hegemony and make racism irrelevant.” African Americans must construct their own society, in a sense, by starting businesses and building factories to keep their financial resources from enriching “the Whites.” Consequently, the MMM should not be understood as making any kind of direct statement to White Americans in general, as Arthos has suggested. It was intended for and served the purposes of African Americans.
Farrakhan asks his audience, not just to seize an opportunity, but to participate and hasten inevitable change. All of the substantive sections of the speech support or contribute to this theme. Farrakhan’s Afrocentric ideology is a worldview that deems the current state-of-affairs in America antithetical to natural or divine principles. Asante (1999) asserts that African society places constraints upon a “person’s inner-self for harmony” and that, “a social situation that distorts human development is illegitimate” (pp. 561, 554). Such a view finds expression through Farrakhan’s desire to have a “perfect union” combined with his call to end division: “Whenever you return to your cities and you see a Black man, a Black woman, don't ask him what is your social, political or religious affiliation, or what is your status? Know that he is your brother.” Farrakhan calls into being the harmonious aspect of African culture through his language, drawing upon Afrocentric resources resonating from within his auditors, resources also residing in American notions of democracy and equality. An abstract existence of such notions will not serve his audience; they must be invoked into the social situation through discourse. He demands that notions of harmony and equality supplant the current oppressive hegemonic practices of Whites—the reality of the current lived culture. Farrakhan’s discourse calls forth an ideal Afrocentric culture in which African Americans wrest control of their own social conditions away from hegemonic practices. He desires the marchers to begin that process, arguing that it is their destiny if they will take it, that true Americanism demands that White supremacy be rejected—a White supremacy painted as anathema to principles of democracy and equality. His ideology, if accepted by his audience, becomes a structural archetype that invites participatory adoption.
The next section of the speech provides an explanatory account of what Farrakhan labels an “eight stage process” that leads “toward a more perfect union.” Though only comprising eleven percent of the speech, this “process” prepares open minds for the “cure”—and it reflects Farrakhan’s deepest aspirations regarding enlightenment and appropriate change for the audience members. Several significant discursive acts occur within this section, beginning when Farrakhan states that “the first stage is the most difficult of all because when we are wrong, and we are not aware of it, someone has to point out the wrong.” Explaining that people often “reject” such advice and even “hate” the person who brings it, Farrakhan, the physician, will attempt to “heal the great divide,” and cure the “malady that divides.” Farrakhan indicates that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were hated and killed for playing the role of a physician, and likewise implied that his own vilification by the press and others is due to the same cause:
When you're dealing with forces which have become entrenched . . . their power produces an arrogance. And their arrogance produces a blindness. And out of that evil state of mind, they will do all manner of evil to the person who points out their wrong. Even though you're doing good for them by pointing out where America went wrong.
Thus, responding to the charge that he is a “demagogue,” Farrakhan underscores his role as a physician. It is an apologetic strategy of transcendence (Benoit, 1995; Ware & Linkugel, 1973) that seeks to suspend audience judgment and recast it from a larger or alternative context. Such an image repair effort indicates that not only is Farrakhan aware of his image problems, but he attempts to redefine that image into one less threatening, one that mainstream Americans and offended groups, such as Jews, could accept as well.
After Farrakhan points out the problem, the next three steps in his eight-stage process are to acknowledge the problem, confess the problem, and to repent of the problem. Here Farrakhan directly labels the “problem” as “sin,” though he earlier characterized it as “wrongdoing,” then “fault,” or “burden,” probably so as not to bluntly confront and offend any of his audience. But this is not the sin of “White supremacy” as much as a sin of the African American male’s failure to appropriately respond to “divisions” and other “sins” confessed in the coming pledge. Farrakhan defines atonement, the fifth stage, as might any Christian or Muslim: “But, atonement means satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury. It means to make amends. It means penance, expiation, compensation and recompense made or done for an injury or wrong.” The sixth stage is forgiveness, essential for harmony, which he defines and exhorts his audience to extend to one another.
Farrakhan’s seventh stage is reconciliation and restoration, which he compares to the seventh note of a musical scale, a leading tone that resolves back to the original starting note, but at a higher octave. Thus we reach Farrakhan’s eighth stage: perfect union with God that precedes harmonious racial relations. Farrakhan next asserts that restoration is “to put hostile persons into a state of agreement or harmony. . . . It means to resolve differences.” He intertwines his religious theology with a musical metaphor of circular resolution (a musical scale begins again after reaching the eighth tone) that connects neatly to his Afrocentric worldview through the metaphor of “harmony.”
But before fully discussing the eighth stage, “perfect union,” Farrakhan directed comments toward President Clinton, defending his character and reaffirming his role as a physician. “Mr. President, I'm not a malicious person, and I'm not filled with malice. But, I must tell you that I come in the tradition of the doctor who has to point out, with truth, what's wrong.” He then exhorts the President with analogic arguments from biblical stories about people who listened to the advice of slaves, encouraging Clinton to do likewise. He posits a current state-of-affairs that is disharmonious and in need of change, a state-of-affairs that “nice speeches” or mere words—the White approach—will not cure. Farrakhan is proposing that his cure—an active cure that begins by reconciling people to God and each other through the process of atonement—offers the best chance of healing the divide before God judges the nation for its divisiveness. Briefly then, Farrakhan returns to the eighth stage, perfect union, and describes its benefits—as the benefits of an actualized potential state-of-affairs resulting from an embrace of the pledge. Farrakhan cites the Koran, saying, “‘Oh soul that is at rest, well pleased with thy lord and well pleasing.’ Oh, brothers, brothers, brothers, you don't know what it’s like to be free.”
Farrakhan then continues with a lengthy section that liberally intersperses scripture from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to support his judgmental warnings. Here the focus is inward, chastising African Americans for their sins and insisting that the cure lies in repentance and atonement. At this point, communicating that he is unable to contain his divinely inspired words, that the “Spirit” has come upon him, Farrakhan exclaims, “God is sending his decision. I can't help it. I've got to make the decision known. You don't understand me. My people love me.” Farrakhan recognizes why “America” is angry with him; he asserts his independence from mainstream validation; he accuses American leaders of being “out of touch with reality;” he declares that God is “angry” with America but still is willing to extend “mercy;” he points out “the evils of Black people like no other leader does;” he explains why the African Americans were subject to so many years of oppression in the Americas; and he states that God is “going to make a new covenant with you. Oh, Black Man.” This is a lengthy, emotion-laden section that does not have a distinct ending, losing steam as Farrakhan turns to his discussion of atonement that again employs his music metaphor.
A tone means sound. And “A”, the first letter of the alphabet and the first letter of the numerical system is one. So “A” equals one. So “a” sound means when you hear the “A” tone, you will hear the right sound. And when you hear the right sound from the one God calling you to divine life, you will respond. So what is the “A” tone? In music, “A” equals 440 vibrations. How long have we been in America? Four hundred and forty years. Well, in the 440th year, from the one God, the aton, will come the “A” tone and all of us got to tune up our lives by the sound of the “A” tone.5
I have only cited one part of his explication of the word “atonement,” a section that generated great confusion for the pundits. For example, Nelson (1995), a journalist with the New York Daily News wrote: “It's too easy to laugh at Louis. His rap on the meaning of ‘atonement’ was pure dizziness.” (p. 31). Nevertheless, this “rap” on atonement reflects his Afrocentric worldview that seeks connections and harmonization in all aspects of life and relationships. The unlikely coincidences between an etymological analysis of the word “atonement,” an A major scale (“A” for African?) and specific aspects of the African American situation would be a normal consequent of that worldview, especially in the light of an all powerful “God” who is able to arrange such “non-coincidences.”
Farrakhan next explicitly reminds the audience of the purpose of the march—to experience a change of perspective from an oppressed self-image to an enlightened, racially harmonious, self-affirmed one. For Farrakhan, and those who adopt the view of society he espouses, this path must lead through his eight-stage process of atonement. At this point Farrakhan began to sense that his audience was restless. Of criticisms mentioned by journalists, the one which is warranted is the speech’s copiousness founded in trying to say too much, which even Farrakhan apparently recognized. Yet, there were still significant themes he wished to cover: he still had his pledge of atonement, and he had many recommendations for an appropriate response to the event—tangible actions that would benefit and strengthen the African American community nationwide. Though Farrakhan is known for lengthy sermons or speeches, as many as three to four hours to Nation of Islam congregations, his time was limited in this situation. Yet he was not completely oblivious to the endurance level of his audience, but noticed their apparent impatience and grappled with his own desire to complete his message.
Farrakhan continues as the divinely inspired prophet, announcing a “special message” for the President and Congressional leaders and further developing his perspective of the malady: “There is a great divide, but the real evil in America is not [W]hite flesh, or [B]lack flesh. The real evil in America is the idea that undergirds the set up of the western world. And that idea is called [W]hite supremacy.” It is the sin for which “God is angry” and intends to judge America. In the here and now Farrakhan, the physician, desires to expose it, in his words “to operate on your head,” to enlighten African Americans so that their evolutionary progress toward an Afrocentric harmony might be resumed.
Farrakhan connects the malady with the nation’s problems, explicitly identifying the destructive, evolutionary-impeding role of racism: “White supremacy is the enemy of both White people and Black people because the idea of White supremacy means you should rule because you're White, that makes you sick. And you've produced a sick society and a sick world.” Farrakhan follows by arguing that only an Afrocentric perspective and a rejection of the White approach offers hope for change: “You're not well. And in the light of today's global village, you can never harmonize with the Asians. . . . White supremacy has to die in order for humanity to live.” Farrakhan expanded his diatribe against integration and White supremacy, defining his discourse as an “operation,” a “painful” part of the healing process, discourse that many Whites may not want to hear. He concludes with the claim that, “The false idea of [W]hite supremacy prevents anyone from becoming one with God.”
The next section of the speech specifies what Farrakhan wants African Americans to do. His “functional” prescriptions depend upon the successful articulation of an Afrocentric perspective and discursively invoke an alternative version of culture on which future actions can be founded. Farrakhan recognizes that a one-time experience is not sufficient to establish the widespread change he desires: “And we're going to get back to you. This is not a one day thing. A task force will be formed right out of this leadership to make sure that the things that we say today will be implemented.” Thus, his persuasive strategy aims much deeper than superficial change; he desires that his audience adopt his perspective of race relations in the past, present and future, that they fully grasp the differences between an Afrocentric and Eurocentric approach to solving the problem and that future actions be guided by and generated from the performance of culture which he has attempted to discursively invoke.
Such profound change must have a beginning point, so Farrakhan provides a pledge for future actions empowered by their now enlightened perspective: “Take this pledge with me. Say with me please, I, say your name ...” Farrakhan’s prescriptions are predominantly practical. Among them he emphasizes joining organizations dedicated to African American interests; he ecumenically asks ministers to “be more like Jesus, more like Mohammed, more like Moses, and become servants of the people;” he asks those present to help with voting registration. He exhorts the men to adopt a prison inmate as a friend, to adopt a Black orphan, to donate money and finally to take the pledge:
Take this pledge with me . . . I, say your name, pledge that from this day forward I will strive to love my brother as I love myself . . . will strive to improve myself spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically, and economically for the benefit of myself, my family, and my people . . . will never raise my hand with a knife or a gun to beat, cut, or shoot any member of my family or any human being, except in self-defense . . . will never abuse my wife by striking her, disrespecting her for she is the mother of my children and the producer of my future . . . will never engage in the abuse of children, little boys, or little girls for sexual gratification . . . will not poison my body with drugs or that which is destructive to my health and my well being. . . . I, say your name, will do all of this so help me God.
Following the pledge, Farrakhan continues with customary closing remarks and shifted his inspired “tone” to a practical one. Whether or not the pledge is implemented as an appropriate response for his audience members depends upon the degree to which Farrakhan has successfully called into being his view of culture and the degree to which the audience(s) would adopt corresponding social action.
Response and Ideology
The preceding analysis leads to two distinct implications regarding the speech and its relationship with the several audiences. First, contrary to the opinions of nearly all the journalistic accounts, the speech demonstrates a coherency that clearly emerges upon a systematic analysis. Such a thematic coherency is revealed through a reading informed by the conceptual distinctions that supply a framework for the text. Farrakhan consistently places his themes in the present, cognizant of the past, aware of future potentialities—both desirable and detestable—and he contrasts the Black and White solutions to the problem. Even the seemingly peculiar sections of the speech—the numerology with which he opened and the “rap on atonement” in the center of the speech—contribute to his purpose when viewed from a spiritual/Afrocentric vantage point. Even the speech’s length was not out of the ordinary for many members of his audience, especially those accustomed to gaining their adult education from ministers.
Commentators, fixated on Farrakhan's diatribes against various people and groups, have overlooked his concern for his own people in lieu of presenting an unflattering portrait of the man; instead of recognizing the capable orator that he is they have endeavored to create, in the words of Magida (1996), a "Prophet of Rage." In my view, journalists such as Wilgoren, Holmes, Teitelbaum, and Rich have demonstrated their inability to perform authentic rhetorical criticism, and instead have offered oversimplified theories or dismissed Farrakhan's message entirely. Farrakhan's speech was directed not only toward the politics of African Americans, but also toward their spiritual, ideological, and cultural sensibilities. The pledge provided a culmination for Farrakhan and the march participants, but not for the media spectators. Apparently blinded to the meaningful religious sections of the speech, they tried to place Farrakhan's comments in a pre-conceived demagogic framework, a framework that did not really fit this particular speech, resulting in a judgment that he was rambling or incoherent as the pieces of the puzzle did not fit together.
Without question, the journalists of this country have attacked Farrakhan relentlessly. The press attributed Farrakhan’s puzzling sections of the speech to a perceived incompetence on his part, rather than to the contrasting ideologies that inform discourse interpretation. To lambaste Farrakhan as having delivered an incompetent speech, as they have done, is to misrepresent his genuine oratorical skills and implicit understanding of rhetorical principles. The denigration of Farrakhan took its toll. Gates (1998) reported that “In the months following the march, Farrakhan dropped out of public view, and he spoke of having suffered from depression, in part because he was still being misrepresented by the press” (p. 45).
Second, Farrakhan presented “cultural script,” which would lead to an alternative rhetorical reality to be employed by his audience for the interpretation of states-of-affairs in American society. This alternative view would lead to the formation of first-stage rhetorical topics (Jost & Hyde, 1997) useful for both personal and collective deliberation regarding courses of social action. Farrakhan considered the stagnant African American social status in view of inevitable change and concluded that a tension existed. He also considered both Black and White solutions to the problem of racial inequality and argued that the White approach (integration) makes the problem worse and that the Afrocentric perspective is more viable. The juxtaposition of Black-White solutions intersects with the distinctions between past, present and future. Farrakhan is presently calling upon Black men to take up responsibility for future change. Only their active seizing of the opportunity set before them—a divinely ordained opportunity—can bring about its actualization.
Farrakhan is not merely attempting to connect with and persuade his audience(s) to his perspective through arguments that he felt might be effective. Rather, he is describing a portrait of the nation and culture, hoping his performative view of society will both resonate and invoke a similar view in his audience. Asante (1987) explained that “no priest can exist apart from the word; indeed, without the word, nothing can be, for the word creates reality” (p. 70). Through his discourse, epistemologically grounded in religious revelation, Farrakhan depicts an Afrocentric ideology that beckons his audience of African American males to adopt as their own. Through his orature he is enticing his audience, as Ed Black suggested, “not simply to believe something, but to be something” (p. 119). Likewise, Thayer (1988) eloquently explained: “A leader is a person who enchants him or herself with the story he or she tells.… The more people who become enchanted with it, the more “truthful” and “right” it appears to be.… It then may become institutionalized and become a part of the way the world ‘is’” (p. 260).
McPhail has argued that Farrakhan’s goals are undermined by his own essentialism. If, on an ontological continuum, essentialism (that things and human groups have an essential, rigid nature that expresses itself in everyday cultural praxis) can be understood as the dialectic counterpart of constructionism, then we must pause to reflect. Beckwith and Koukl (1998) have published a strong challenge to pure constructionism as a viable philosophy, claiming that it is unable to provide any standard whatsoever on which to found value judgments necessary for successful societies (pp. 61-69). In the face of ubiquitous value judgments, they explain, it must be concluded that few pure constructionists actually exist. Thus, in a world where so many aspects of social life are ostensibly “relative,” one can locate a swath of enduring values that provide a foundation for “justice” in human society, including “values” that justify labeling racism as “wrong.” Neither pure essentialism nor pure constructionism can supply a practical ontological perspective.
Perhaps, then, the more fruitful question to ask is “how near is Farrakhan to being a pure essentialist?” And I think that the reality-generating function of the MMM speech combined with Farrakhan’s belief that it would be effective demonstrate that he cannot be neatly classified as an essentialist. That Farrakhan is attempting to change the reality of African American life through the spoken word reveals his belief in the mutable nature of so-called “essences.” Moreover, given that the practical rhetorician attempts to persuade by departing from existing beliefs, perhaps Farrakhan feels forced to depart from essentialist beliefs with many members of his audiences to persuade them to change? The reality-transforming strategies in the speech suggest that he is not the essentialist that he appears to be.
Perhaps judging Farrakhan’s essentialist tendencies on the merits of his aims can help resolve the ontological tension in which Farrakhan finds himself. In its cosmology of spiritual and natural planes, Afrocentrism itself would lean toward a degree of “essentialism” in that it views all human groups as “equal”—existing on a plane, between the “spiritual” and the “animal.” Inasmuch as essentialism leads to racism, it is certainly to be condemned. But perhaps Farrakhan’s rhetoric can be viewed in a helpful light when, through defining and identifying cultural differences, one recognizes his goals to achieve unity and harmony between disparate human groups. Whereas the essentialist nature of traditional European societies have conspired to maintain existing hegemonies, Farrakhan’s “essentialism,” by empowering Blacks, is attempting to bring American society back toward some sense of balance that the Afrocentric worldview claims is the “natural order.” So without excusing some of his notorious statements about other human groups, one can observe Farrakhan’s more noble aspirations—an altruistic desire to create a better world, not just for African Americans, but, as he claims, for all Americans who will ultimately benefit from a “just” society.
Nevertheless, many pundits continued to attack Farrakhan, refusing to acknowledge his conciliatory remarks as genuine (Taylor, 1995). And on the other hand, Arthos (2001) was not willing to take Farrakhan’s “freely offered admission of guilt, repentance, and commitment to change” at face value, causing him to explore other possible explanations (p. 46). But based on this reading, Farrakhan genuinely desired meaningful change and empowerment for African Americans and was willing to soften his demeanor toward offended groups and admit the failures within his own community. Perhaps I am overemphasizing Farrakhan’s goodwill and a more balanced view encompassing a larger body of his discourse, as McPhail (1988a) offered, would be appropriate for an overall evaluation of the nature of Farrakhan’s divisive remarks. But in this speech, at this event, Farrakhan seems to have transcended his critics’ assessments and shown genuine leadership skills, regardless of how “outsiders” interpreted the event. And for now, the problems of racism and economic hegemony have no chance of being seriously addressed other than through the spokespersons chosen by their represented groups. As long as Farrakhan is a leader in the African American community, his discourse must be taken seriously and his prescriptions should be included in discussions of solutions for racial conflict. Deeper insight into the discursive practices of African American religious leaders can lead to identifying and eliminating the prejudicial barriers that moved to the fore in the aftermath of the Million Man March.
1. Three polls were consulted to determine the shift in Farrakhan’s approval rating: CBS News Poll (October 16, 1995), Time, C.N.N., Yankelovich Partners Poll (October 23, 1995), and Fox News Opinion Dynamics Poll (October 31, 1997).
2. Silverstein (1996) defined “indexical order” as the “necessary concept that shows us how to relate the micro-social to the macro-social frames of analyses of any sociolinguistic phenomenon” (p. 266). The coherence of social action is guided discursively from an unwritten cultural code and is evidenced in a “index” of conceptual distinctions that provide structure to performances of culture (e.g., past-present-future, I-you, us-them, Black-White, good-evil, etc.). In Silverstein’s (1998) view, such conceptual distinctions compose a “matrix of relational positionings toward represented states of affairs—such as epistemic, ontic, and phenomenal” and are the fundamental unit of analysis with regard to human discourse (p. 267). By mapping how discourse is structured linguistically with specific regard to conceptual distinctions, the analyst can compose an “index” of “group-relative truths and schemata of value” that are semiotically invoked in discursive events (p. 266). Thus a Farrakhan speech, or any other kind of discourse for that matter, may be evaluated for the degree and manner that it provides an “index” to a conceptual system, indicating orientations the author and audience took toward conditions and events.
3. The MMM survey was conducted for The Washington Post by Ronald Lester & Associates, an African American polling firm in Washington. A total of 62 Black interviewers, positioned on and around the Mall and at nearby Metro stations, conducted interviews with 1047 randomly selected marchers. The survey's margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points (Marchers express, 1995). See also Taylor and Lincoln (1997) for an analysis of the poll.
5. An object that vibrates at 440 CPS (cycles per second) will emit a tone that has been arbitrarily labeled by music theorists as “A.”
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