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Million Woman March fails to hit its stride

Perhaps I should say this first.

The glorious sight of several hundred thousand black women spilling across downtown Philadelphia for the Million Woman March on Saturday is still etched in my brain. No amount of second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking can take away the sheer power of that moment: mothers, daughters, young and old gathered en masse for something undeniably positive.

Yet several hours and speeches later, I was left with the nagging feeling that something vital was missing.

I'm still wondering why.

For 24 hours, I shared a chartered bus to Philadelphia with a group of visibly excited women, many of them University of South Florida students gung-ho as only college students can be. Despite cramped conditions, they never seemed to lose their enthusiasm for the journey. I admired their optimism.

There was USF senior Colleen Gordon, talking about her dream of opening a counseling center in a black community or offering bereavement services to inner-city children who have lost friends much too early.

Anita Wholuba, another senior, invoked the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington when she talked about the Million Woman March. She told a heartbreaking story about the children in her Sunday school class who thought being black was some kind of biblical curse.

During bus introductions, a young woman broke down and cried as she talked about learning the history of her ancestors and the wonders it did for her self-esteem.

"It's like an act of faith," said USF junior Jennifer Shery. "We don't know when we get there exactly what's going to happen. You can learn a lot in one day that you haven't learned in your entire life."

I hope she did. Ultimately, I learned and felt much more on that long bus ride than I did at the march.

I never really understood what drove these thousands of women to mobilize. The 1995 Million Man March had a focused theme of atonement that, by all accounts, made for a powerful moment in history. The Million Woman March had a sweeping nine-point list of platform issues that couldn't possibly have been explored fully in that setting.

All the chanting and hand-holding was nice, but where was the sense of purpose? Solidarity and affirmation are noble things, but to what end? Beyond making each other feel special and visible for a day, what could we take from this that we couldn't have achieved on a different scale at home?

Most of all, I wondered about the organizers. Who were they, and why should a million women rise up and answer their call? Why had information about the march been so difficult to get for so many people?

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the organizing committee turned down offers of help from some members of the African-American community, such as historically black fraternal organizations and prominent business leaders, to keep the movement "grass roots." But how can you call for unity while excluding a class of your own people from the process?

The most telling moment happened just a few hours into the march, when a group of women behind me began to talk among themselves. As the crowd strained to hear the speaker of the moment and waved banners, one thought aloud, visibly disappointed: "I thought this was going to be a motivating, Black Power-type thing. They're not talking about anything."

Some of my press cohorts noted that some people they were shadowing had planned to ditch the march early and head for the mall.

And then there were the predatory vendors who seemed to be everywhere, hawking sweat shirts, buttons, posters and ski caps as if this were some kind of autumn street market. The next morning at a Shoney's near our hotel, a vanload of brothers staked out the front, aggressively unloading their $5 quarry. One irritating vendor went from table to table inside the restaurant, trying to increase his sales.

I've been to plenty of events tailor-made for black women that left me feeling affirmed and energized. African-American Women on tour, for example, was an inspiring weekend of events that stressed health, self-esteem and strengthened relationships. So I wanted to be into the Million Woman March. I tried. But when I started glancing at my watch that morning, I knew I had lost interest.

I shared my dismay later with Tracie Reddick, one of my hotel roommates and a diversity reporter for the Tampa Tribune. Her thoughts matched mine _ that the day's events had fallen short of our very positive expectations. As black women and reporters who bug our editors about covering stuff like this, we struggled with the thought of casting a critical eye on the march.

I say these things because I so deeply wanted the march to be a success. If simply showing up and making a visible statement Saturday sent one person home feeling better about herself, then perhaps it was.

I hope so.

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