Why is it so difficult for Black men in this American culture to be true to themselves? As a Black man in America, do you really feel free; are you ready for freedom? Are you comfortable with the impact of your actions on your community and in the world?
As a Black American male, I have asked myself some version of these questions numerous times. American cultural and societal terrain has been and continues to be challenging territory for Black men to navigate. Even today, when a Black man is president of the United States, that journey has not gotten much easier. On the upside, individuals gain strength and insights, form bonds and work to change perceptions through collective communication and sharing ideas.
Hence lies the significance of “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a thought-provoking project that explores a wide range of issues that Black men in America face. During the reception for the exhibition’s opening at the Brooklyn Museum, where it will run until June 3, 2012, the creators, collaborators and producers of “Question Bridge” mingled with enthusiastic guests as they presented their innovative and investigative transmedia art project.
“What can be said of the Black man in today’s society?” stated Hank Willis Thomas, an artist and co-director of ‘Question Bridge’. “We want people to go away with a different notion of Black male consciousness. With this project, human issues evolve and much thought comes from the conversation.”
Acclaimed actor and director Delroy Lindo, an executive producer of “QB,” said, “If there is one word that comes from this project it is universality. What this project says is that Black men are as broad and as deep in their being as every other human being.”
“Being a part of this was a liberating experience,” said actor Jesse Williams, also an executive producer. “It shows that Black men are not homogeneous or monolithic.”
Brooklyn-raised artist and photographer Chris Johnson first created “Question Bridge,” as a concept, as a video installation in 1996. But even two years before that, the idea was undoubtedly evolving when Johnson collaborated with Suzanne Lacy on “The Roof Is on Fire,” an unscripted televised performance event in Oakland, Calif., aimed to get mainstream American society to listen to inner-city youths talk about issues that were relevant to their lives. “Through that project, we wanted to create a safe place with a theatrical setting in which people could listen and be heard without being interrupted or judged,” says Johnson. “We even had badges that read ‘Shut up and listen.’”
Many people have stereotypical views about others, and Black males are the most misunderstood demographic in American society. The team behind “Question Bridge” hopes to deconstruct some of those impressions about Black males. Johnson avows that Black men are intelligent and sensitive, and this dramatic example is a step toward how views can be changed. The original goal behind “Question Bridge” was to make a PBS-like documentary, one that would allow Black men who participated an opportunity to ask questions of other men; to provide Black men who see the project the opportunity to witness a rich conversation about values, questions and issues they find important to their lives; and for people who are not Black, and male, an opportunity to gain insights into Black male consciousness because the men who are in the project express themselves in a honest and vulnerable way.
To bring about this worthy project, the collaborators traveled across the United States for four years, visiting cities that included Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Meeting up with an intergenerational brotherhood along the way, they taped some 1,500 video interviews with men who ranged in economic, educational, geographic and social backgrounds. (The project began with somewhere close to 200 questions; not all of them made it the final cut.) The result is a candid and stimulating dialogue among 150 Black men from diverse walks of life who discuss topics centered on themes such as family, self-identity, love, community, violence, sexuality and, more importantly, the past, present and future of Black men in America.
The exhibit is set up with five video monitors and the running time is three hours. The recorded interviews are edited in such way that the men are in engaged in a conversation that flows like a stream-of-consciousness dialogue: a question is asked and then several men respond. In some instances, while one man is talking on one screen, another person looking on as if he’s absorbing the response and contemplating his own. Just as the viewer is sure to do.
The men themselves came up with the questions that formed the conversation. “The only rule for submitting a question,” says Johnson, “was to give us a question you’ve always wanted to ask another Black man whom you felt distinctly different from.”
“What is interesting about the collaborative aspect of ‘Question Bridge: Black Males’ is that if you ask each of us the same question, you will probably get slightly different answers,” says Bayeté Ross Smith, an arts educator, multimedia artist and producer. “I would say the goal is to use video and various other forms of media and technology to represent and redefine Black male identity in America.” The project makes it nearly impossible for anyone to say that Black males are one particular thing.
“Question Bridge” is already a curriculum that is being piloted in California and New York high schools and colleges; an educators’ portal is on the site and downloadable for free. Future plans include having the exhibition travel, of course, and developing a more robust interactive website, where people can search for questions and answers by doing a key word or subject search. On this version of the website, people will also be able to upload their own answers and questions to add to the dialogue. Smith says they are also developing a mobile app and public poster campaign that will literally take the “Question Bridge” content to the streets.
One thought-provoking question from the many in the “QB” project is “What is the last word we can remember you by as a Black man?” Johnson’s response: “I’m a seeker. Meaning seeker of my life.” Ross answered, “Evolution.”
How about you?