I remember Mid-October, 1995 I was attending an African Heritage Retreat in Baltimore. The experience was more deep, and more powerful than I can express in these words. It was facilitated by Rev. Alvin Toussaint Herring and Sister Joyce Shabazz. Countless tears spilled from the eyes of the over 100 attendees, cleansing clear the days preceding the culmination of one of the most powerful experiences of my life. At the close of the retreat on October 16, there was a healing circle in which the women of the retreat blessed the men and their boys, to head from Baltimore to Washington, DC to attend the Million Man March.
It was a glorious day – sky, cobalt blue – with a few billowing clouds. It was a perfect day.
We arrived at Baltimore Penn Station early. The station was filled, wall-to-wall, with Black Men, waiting for trains to head to DC to join the march. I was there with my boy Grayson, Alvin was there with his boys Brandon and Ryan, along with the other men and boys from the retreat.
We watched board, anxiously awaiting the trains. The station has incredibly high ceilings, with walls of marble and arching stain glass which amplified the murmurs of the hundreds, now growing, in the space. The air was filled with the scent of earthy oils and masculinity. Each line of the announcement board would count down the minutes until the train was due to arrive. Then, the word “Delayed” or “Canceled” would appear next to it. This went on for what seemed to be hours, until the frustration of the room became palpable. Alvin looked at me with a look I now recognize from our subsequent work together. He told the boys to wait with me, and made his way through the crowd.
Now, Alvin stands about 6’4. His ample head, made for football, sits assuredly atop a body that has no problem backing it up. In the middle of the waiting area of the station stood stern, wooden, 5′-high benches whose backs joined on opposing sides forming a pedestal. Alvin, with the grace of a Kenyan athlete, bounded to the seat, then to the top of the benches positioned in the middle of the great room. He appeared, standing like a gladiator above the crowd, noting but the glowing ambiance of the light-filled marble and glass around and above him, and a carpet of dark brown men below. A hush fell over the thick room – the kind of silence that declares the anticipation of a great orator. Alvin pounded his fist into his mitt of a hand, bellowing with confidence, “We Want Trains!… We Want Trains!…” His voice echoed through the cavernous space. I felt my hand pound my own fist as our words, and a synchronized, driving rhythm, progressively amplified by every man and boy in the place, until the walls shook from the intensity of 400 years of waiting for the this underground railroad to reach its destination. Within minutes that rolled sanctified like dreamtime, the announcement board started flipping hysterically. A trembling voice announced that a train would be arriving in minutes.
And they did. One after another, as if a floodgate had been opened.
We, 500 Black Men, flowed like a mighty river down the stairs onto the platform. boarded the train cars, with peace and confidence. The train pulled away from the station, and rocked us gently as city turned to suburb, then to rolling space. Alvin once again stood up towards the front of the car. Every seat was filled with men clad in African garb, gleaming sweats, military fatigues, all silently dreaming of what was to come – except one. To Alvin’s left sat a White man, in a business suit, clearly not expecting the commuter experience he was experiencing today, clutching his briefcase as if it would save him. Alvin turned to face the full car. “Brothers, we need to talk!”, he began. The man, grabbing at his briefcase, began to shake with a look of terror in his eyes – as if this was his last moment on earth. Alvin turned to the man who slowly pressed himself into the corner of the seat, wishing he could disappear. Al said. “I know what you must be thinking right now.” The white-knuckled man’s tremors now visible to the entire car. He continued, “But you don’t have anything to worry about. We mean you no harm. We bring nothing but peace.” His shoulders dropped limp like a kid’s at the end of his first terrifying midway ride, realizing he’s gonna make it out live. “My Brothers, we have this rare moment together. We also have a lot we need to say to each other that we have been holding in for a long time. What are we here to do today?” The question resounded like the voice calling for an answer that released the trains. The conversation that ensued still echoes in the chambers of my heart. All words of hope, and love that shattered even my own stereotypes of what we as Black men are capable of.
My son, squirming with delight and excitement, kept raising his little hand as he was instructed to do at school, not realizing the complex etiquette of grown brothers throwing down in conversation. Finally, one brother, Panther black military baret spun backwards on his head, spoke up to break the flow of the voices. “Let the little brother speak!” pointing to Gray. Alvin lifted him to his feet on the seat of the train so that he could be seen by all in the car.
His small voice confidently pushed out the words. “I think we need to make sure everyone has enough money.” The car erupted into sweet, affirming laughter, hoots, and Amens, as the conversation shifted to economic development in the community. I still feel the confidence of that moment in Grayson’s, now 24-year-old voice as he brings his powerful intelligence to any conversation.
The day was magnificent. One Million Brothers, standing in solidarity, to a vision we still dream of today. Sisters flanking us on the bordering streets – cheering us on as we moved aside to let each other pass. We helped the elders find a space they could be comfortable, we handed out water to each other, we put our hands on each other’s shoulders as if to remind ourselves that we were family. We were our best that day, as a foreshadowing of what are and what we can be. Due to the work of folk like Alvin, we inch closer to that vision with each breath.
I remember, as I stood near the front of the crowd by the steps of the capital with my son, then, a boy of 8 years old, perched on my shoulders. He looked out over the sea of men, sun gleaming off of our moist, dark skin, and said, “Poppy, it looks like a million stars.” He was right. We are stars, caked with the dust of years of oppression. But that day, thanks to Alvin, and Grayson, I saw a powerful vision of the future, with the velocity to propel us to manifest our true brilliance.
The time has come!