How can we shape race relations of the future? Amidst nation-wide protests, artists invite fellow black males to take charge of shaping their own identity
In the last few months, we have witnessed a litany of incidents against unarmed African American men across America. From Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri to Eric Garner’s fateful chokehold in New York City, many people are expressing outrage over the strained relations between police and African American constituents. Last month’s retrial of Michael Dunn for the murder of Jordan Davis as he played loud music in his car, and the one-year anniversary of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the case of Trayvon Martin also hang over our heads as the nation deals with a crisis of confidence in race relations in the U.S.
Artists Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair take this issue head on in their collaborative transmedia art and social science project “Question Bridge: Black Males.” They argue black men are too often perceived as a homogenous group, lacking the nuanced identities and subcultures afforded to whites. Even though more African American men hold leadership positions across industries and sectors than ever before, black men are still subject to disproportionately high rates of incarceration, police brutality and violence in their own communities. Hank Willis Thomas states, “Misguided perceptions increase the likelihood of aggression toward black men and affect the way their lives are valued in our schools, on our streets and throughout our criminal justice system.”
“Question Bridge: Black Males,” attempts to represent and redefine black male identity by facilitating candid conversations among hundreds of self-identified “black men.” Participants are invited to video-record a question for other black men, and to record a response to other’s questions. And the questions keep pouring in, such as "Why Would a black man be a cop? How do you act around white officers? If a cop is harassing me, insulting me, obstructing my path, what should I do? What is the last word we can remember you by?"
As the dialogue grows, so do the opportunities for deep listening and self-expression. By allowing each individual to tag their interests and backgrounds, “Questions Bridge” demonstrates how a person can belong to multiple communities at once and proves ‘black identity’ can no longer be pigeonholed, marginalized and dismissed as a single group. The hope is to blur the lines of blackness - in all its complexities and contradictions - to into a gray area that is harder to police, imprison and profile.
It is fitting the artists chose a multimedia approach for their project. Yet despite the media’s incredible power to shape perceptions, the artists believe change must begin with African-American men themselves. If they allow others to define who they are, they unknowingly walk through life living out someone else’s narrative. As Thomas says, whoever holds the camera defines the picture. By turning the camera onto black men, they they can once and for all collectively shape their own narrative. How might their new identities shift the way society sees them, and ultimately how we all see one another? By shaping new ways of thinking to a deeply rooted problem, perhaps “Question Bridge” can help turn the tide on our broken culture of criminal justice – and humanity - in America.
Photo Credit: Bayeté Ross Smith