Whisper Not: Question Bridge Diversity and the Black Male Narrative
How Question Bridge is Working to Eradicate the Single Story
The Brooklyn Museum is the current host of Question Bridge: Black Males, which made a debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The transmedia project is co-directed by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair.
The era of President Obama has re-opened the floodgates on public discussions on “Blackness” by Black people. It seems that not since the Spike Lee films of the late 80’s and 90’s and certainly not since the late filmmaker Marlon Riggs final work Black is Black Ain’t (1995) have the voices of Black male power and vulnerability been so strong. Question Bridge: Black Males captures the multitude of stories and perspectives as co-director Hank Willis Thomas states “of men who are separated by class, geography, and philosophical differences.”
On the evening of the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday, sponsored by Target, the museum was packed and scheduled with events all designed to highlight the beauty and diversity of Blackness and Black masculinity. The all Black Brooklyn based band Game Rebellion performed. Additionally, Shantrelle P. Lewis, curator of the Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity currently on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, gave a talk that addressed the visual impact of Black male stereotypes from images in D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation (1915) and the image of the “big Black male as thug” (or brute) to her current work that addresses how Black men are re-positioning themselves in society.
Nothing was more amazing to observe than the exhibition itself and the museumgoers viewing Question Bridge: Black Males. There were people, men, women, families, of various ethnicities and cultures piled up as if the gallery space had been converted into one public living room. People were sitting on the floor, standing, and squeezing in wherever they could to watch and listen as if this was something that they had never seen or heard before, and it is likely they hadn’t, not in this capacity.
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When you enter the gallery on the 2nd floor of the museum there are 2 panels where projected, looped images of Black males are hanging; suspended from the ceiling. The fact that they are hanging, visibly alive, their faces, their necks erect, and clothed for the world to see, as themselves with locks (dread locks) and some with facial hair; hanging not as strange fruit, but as men was something to behold. Throughout the exhibition there are 4 small computers with headphones set up where people can engage in the interactive component of the exhibition.
Moving to the center of the gallery is where viewers encounter the arc of video panels on the wall. When one male is asking a question on one screen, another one or two are shown, quiet, as if he is listening to the question in real time or as if the males are in conversation with one another. There are quotes on the walls from W.E.B Dubois and others that speak to manhood and identity.
The video features the faces and the voices of every day men, some whose faces we have seen and names we know such as actor Delroy Lindo (also one of the project producers), politician Andrew Young, and New York photographer Jamel Shabazz. The faces and voices we don't know pose questions or state poignant facts such as the participant who said, "I am 58 years old and I still have father issues."
Melvin Freeman, 22, a Columbia University student from Maryland was visibly moved by the work, a pride emerged in his voice and his back clearly straightened when he said “the exhibition itself is very powerful, the candid interviews especially. The stage [panels] when you can see somebody listening to a question, then you can see that they [the respondent] may have never really considered those questions shows that there is a big disconnect in the Black male community where we don’t really translate important feelings, whether it’s between a son and a father or between a young man and an older man in the community.”
Continuing to observe the audience, there was a wide range of reactions from tears to nods of affirmations, but when people exited the gallery it was clear that they had just witnessed something profound.
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An entire family emerged from the exhibition beaming and inspired. Kenneth Brewster of Queens said, “I just loved the fact that they discuss the subject of the Black Man. One of the serious questions that they ask is ‘when do you become a man’ and that’s important.” Mr. Brewster’s 18-year-old nephew, Nashawn Henry added, “I like that they asked the question why are Black males scared to be intelligent”.
Nakeisha Jennings also a part of the family stated “Not every household has a head of house hold, or a male in it. I thought this was empowering, it was empowering for the young men to see people of different ages, different socio-economic statuses represented, people from the community, people that you see on television all coming together for a positive message and we need more of that. This is a daily message; this is a lifelong message that we can’t get enough of. I recommend this to everyone, it’s a family friendly experience.”
Despite the hectic tour schedule and opening, Loop21 was able to correspond with Bayeté Ross Smith who provided a behind the scenes look into the projects development as well as the motivation for this work.
Loop21: What is your perception of the 'state' of Black Men, specifically in America today?
Bayeté Ross Smith: I think we have made a lot of strides and accomplished many great things over the past few decades. However I think the world still harbors many misconceptions and negative perceptions of Black males that is harmful to our development as people and as citizens. This stems from centuries of misinformation about Black people and Black males that our society still hasn't resolved. Even though we have a Black president, Black males are still overly represented in the prison system and homicide rate. We have less access to education, employment and health care. There are many implicit biases that exist. Empirical data and research has shown these biases exists. Whether it's the education gap or the discipline gap. And really, if you actually think about it, and you are someone who does not consider themselves racist, does it really make any sense that Black males are about 6% of the population and over 60% of the prison population?
Loop21: Question Bridge is elegantly raw in that it shoots straight while allowing viewers to engage by observing a dialogue and how did you decide on transmedia as a tool?
Bayeté Ross Smith: We realized early on that we had very powerful compelling content. The question then became, "how do we present this, so it is engaging, entertaining and recreates, as much as possible, the dynamic and energy of a conversation?" We also wanted to create a piece that would be accessible to a broad range of people, within their daily lives. We did not want to create a project that is only accessible to museumgoers, or people who spend a lot of time online, or folks who watch a lot of documentaries. We also realized early on that a traditional documentary format would not work for this project. As we thought more and more about this we decided we needed to create something that functioned on multiple platforms. We decided that as a video piece itself, it should exist on five channels where the different men's faces would appear and they would ask and answer questions. However it also was important for them to be seen listening and responding to one another, as well as there be some thematic art from section to section. One of the goals of this project is to create familiarity with Black men.
We were fortunate enough to attend two of the Bay Area Video Coalition's Producer's Institutes. Once as observers and once as artists. It was here with the BAVC mentors where we cultivated our ideas for Transmedia. We had always planned on creating a dynamic website to accompany the project. However one of our collaborators, Kamal Sinclair, really took a lot of initiative in pushing us to cultivate our transmedia ideas and the BAVC mentors helped a lot with this as well. We developed our ideas for an interactive website, for using mobile phones (devices) as well as a series of public posters to get more people to interact with and add to the questions and answers. Kamal was also instrumental in spearheading the creation of the Question Bridge: Black Males curriculum, which is available for free via our website. We were very fortunate to take part in the Sundance Institute's New Frontier story lab, where our ideas were further refined.
Loop21: What did you, as the artist and co-director of this project, find most moving?
Bayeté Ross Smith: I wouldn't say there is a single part where I have the greatest emotional reaction. There are several parts of the Question Bridge video content I find very moving. There is the sequence about "Why didn't you leave us the Blue Print?" Both the question and the answers were very moving. "Did someone's negative behavior encourage you to live positively?” Both the question and answers to that. I found the section about "...eating chicken, watermelon and bananas in front of white people" very moving. Especially Danny Simmons answer at the end. But I also found sections with questions like "why do we do the 'what's up!?, head nod thing?" very moving, as well as "How did you know she was the one for you?"
Loop21: Has there been anyone that you have least expected that has recognized or made comments that you greatly appreciated?
Bayeté Ross Smith: I can't remember exact quotes, but I have been pleasantly surprised with how so many people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, have been sincerely moved, captivated, engaged and spent a lot of time experiencing this piece of work. The video is a 3-hour loop, which is designed for the viewer to be able to enter and exit at any time. Generally with video art and installations you get people to stay for maybe 10 minutes. However with Question Bridge people have been staying in the exhibition for upwards of 30, 40, 60 minutes. And regardless of their background they've been moved by the visual dynamic of the installation and the insight that emerges from the conversation.
Loop21: What was one of the greatest challenges in building this body of work?
Bayeté Ross Smith: Well, aside from just the effort it took, to make sure we included as wide a variety of Black males as we possibly could, I'd have to say the biggest challenge was that the project kept growing and expanding.
Loop21: Who is the audience for his project?
Bayeté Ross Smith: I think this project is very important for all people. Not just Black males or Black people. I sincerely hope everyone who has a chance to experience Question Bridge: Black Males does so, because I think it will significantly change the way we think about each other as human beings. That may sound grandiose, but I think it's true.
Question Bridge: Black Males is produced by Delroy Lindo, Dr. Deb Willis and Jesse Williams and is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through June 3rd, 2012. The exhibition will travel nationally and has a curriculum guide that is available through the Question Bridge educators.