WASHINGTON — Cheryl McCrimmon of Washington heard Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's message for women to stay home but chose to ignore it, feeling that her 9-year-old son, Ray, had to be here--because his father wasn't.
"Somebody had to bring him," she said, squinting into the bright sunshine of a brisk fall morning. "I don't know where his father is," she added. "But isn't that what all this is about? Black men taking responsibility for their families?"
McCrimmon said she brought Ray to expose him to a positive image of the black man--different from the only one he knew.
Although a number of women were sharply critical of the march's deliberate exclusion of them, others were more understanding--and even supportive--of the approach.
Black men are confronting a staggering, painful array of problems--from crime, drugs and violence to unemployment and hopelessness--and must find the strength within themselves to overcome them, many of the women said. And the long common struggle against racism always has had more immediacy within the black community than other battles, such as sexism.
"America and the world needs to see our men assert their unity, strength and commitment to their families," said C. Delores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women. "The present social, economic and spiritual crisis in black urban America demands that we put aside our ideological and political differences. . . .
"This is a cause which I hope will be turned into a hurricane force to rid our communities of denigrating music, violence, drugs and crime," she added. "The world needs to see black men standing straight, marching tall and dedicated to assuming their rightful place in this nation and the world."
But if Tucker--a veteran civil rights activist and feminist--could transcend the exclusionary vision of the event laid out by Farrakhan and his supporters, other prominent women's leaders could not.
Critics--among them Angela Davis, the former Black Panther and current college professor, and Marcia Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Ms. Magazine--denounced the march as degrading to women.
"The call of this march was a call that was blatantly sexist," Gillespie said. "Listen carefully to what the leaders of this event are saying: 'We've been bad masters; now we're going to be good ones.' Many women have said to me: 'C'mon girlfriend, don't rock the boat. This is a start.' But I also think there are great numbers of women who have been made profoundly uncomfortable by this march."
And, Davis said: "No march, movement or agenda that defines manhood in the narrowest terms and seeks to make women lesser partners in this quest for equality can be considered a positive step. . . . There are ways of understanding black masculinity that do not rely on subjugating women."
At the Mall, however, many of the women who came did so not to protest Farrakhan's edict but to show an unusual display of solidarity with the men.
Lisa Powell, a graduate student at George Washington University, said she came to support the opportunity presented by the march to enable black men to come together in an atmosphere of warmth and love that could help dispel negative images that white America holds of them.
"This is the time for them to say: 'We're not like this, and we don't want to be thought of like this, as violent, or drug addicts or thieves,' " she said. "This is a unification of all African American men, for them to take their rightful place in our community as well as in society. The message to America is that we are human."
Vonda Roberts, McCrimmon's cousin, said she believes it is crucial for black women "to stand together" in support of black men seeking to assume responsibility for their families.
"All these men should support their families, and stop killing one another, and stop abusing the women," she said.
Speaking of her son's father, McCrimmon said: "He should be down here with his family. He should be here to support his son. But he's not. In our community, mothers often have to be mothers and fathers."
Several of the men, while welcoming the participation of women, struggled to explain why this event was geared to men.
"When women get together to protest about breast cancer, it's because breast cancer is \o7 their \f7 problem," said Vincent Roberts, a disabled veteran from Chattanooga, Tenn. "It's the same with the black men who came here today. We came to confront and take responsibility for our problems, and they're \o7 our \f7 problems."
David Bruce, a Baltimore-based agent with the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, agreed.
"The message to women is that today is the day that we come together as black men," he said. "Regardless of what our shortcomings are, we want to find out how we can be better husbands, sons and brothers to our women. Allow us to get together, to bond, to find out what we need and who we are."