What Does it Mean to Be Black and Male in America?
by Nick Bovee | published Nov. 7th, 2014
“What is common to all of us?” one man asked.
“What do you do to keep the faith and prosper in your environment?” another said.
One teen spoke, “How do you know when you are a man?”
In a darkened room at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center, the faces of these men are displayed on-screen, insistent and wondering. Typography borders the entrance, asking further questions and announcing the arrival of the Question Bridge: Black Males installation in Rochester.
More men appear on-screen to answer these and other questions in a seemingly endless stream. Meted out in turn, this steady procession of viewpoints creates a stream of consciousness presentation of what black men wonder about the world and society that surrounds them and what roles race and gender play in their lives.
Why Now? “Post”-Racial America
With this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Harlem and Rochester race riots and the shootings of Mike Brown and Voderrit Myers Jr., the issues discussed in this exhibit seem relevant to where society stands today. Nevertheless, race as a topic of discussion and conflict is often avoided, despite the remaining stereotypes and disparity.With this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Harlem and Rochester race riots and the shootings of Mike Brown and Voderrit Myers Jr., the issues discussed in this exhibit seem relevant to where society stands today. Nevertheless, race as a topic of discussion and conflict is often avoided, despite the remaining stereotypes and disparity.
In order to combat the continued existence of these issues, artists Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair created Question Bridge and its digital dialogue. In order to capture a group consciousness, Question Bridge filmed over 1,500 response videos, edited them together and combined the footage into a the three-hour-long looping video now installed downtown.
By bringing together these responses, originally collected from 150 interviews with black men from various backgrounds, Question Bridge aims to present a trans-media space for candid questions to be answered by other black males. The project premiered at the Sundance Film Festival New Frontier in 2012 and has been shown worldwide. Other incarnations besides the physical exhibit exist as well, cementing the role it looks to take as a public record of the dialogue. Simple web and mobile versions are available that allow viewers to select a question from a list of topics and see the published answers at will. In this capacity, Question Bridge also allows feedback. Users can upload their own answers, or even questions, to the project. These tools and the project itself were intended to address some of the stereotypes and disparities in the perception of black men, internally and externally.
Kevin McDonald, vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at RIT, has been involved with the Rochester exhibition. “There have been a number of pieces of dialogue prior to Question Bridge that suggested that maybe race wasn’t much of an issue anymore, but when you start to look at and even see some of their efforts, why Question Bridge was created was that existing disparities are still shown.”
As a dialogue rather than a repository, the physical installation still trumps the mobile versions. In that dark room, the exhibition hall's only focal point is the projected video. Five separate men can be shown on screen at any time, and as one finishes his answer, another begins.
Further questions touch on establishing common ground even within the dialogue. Participants are asked “What's with the code of streets?" and "How can you take a bullet for someone and say nothing?” establishing the fear that sometimes the street is all a man has to fall back on. “Why are we afraid of appearing intelligent?” addressed both the internal and external stereotype of appearing to act gay or white. Answers to these questions alone could take hours, but still more are asked.
Questions framed as humor still raise valuable responses. “Why do we do that 'What's up' head nod?” and “Do you have a problem eating chicken, watermelon and bananas in front of white people?” open up the floor to topics of both solidarity and the way black men are viewed by white culture. Respondents also mention the unease with which outsiders react to black men enjoying their own culture and the fear of nonacceptance because of that.
Even more touching is when those questioned can't muster a direct answer; it shows the depth to which a question affects the participants. Responding to the question “Why don't black men seek mental therapy or go to the doctor?” one man being interviewed broke down, because he had been reminded that he lost his brother to this exact problem. “He could've done something, he could still be here, he could still be with me.”
Another man took a different tack, relating the lack of medical trust to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.
“The other thing that's valuable about Question Bridge, and what I applaud them for, is wanting to create a space in which people can really see the individuality within the African American community,” McDonaldsaid. “I think one of their desires is for our society as a whole to be able to look at constituency groups and see the important individuality that is among them.”
The installation has also pressed into community initiative, prompted by one of the more compelling questions asked by a participant: “Why didn't you leave us a blueprint?” That young man's feeling of being lost in the modern day reveals the lack of guidance he feels.
Answers men gave to his question, while varied, all pointed out a need for discussion within the community. In that spirit, localized events began with the purpose of opening a dialogue between generations and the community at large.
As part of the installation in Rochester, weekly discussions are taking place; one was held by RIT’s Men of Color, Honor and Ambition (MOCHA) on Oct. 29.
McDonald said he sees these discussions as evidence of continued progress within the city. “Over the last two years, there seems to be even greater intentions about discussing race in Rochester. Part of it could be that this year celebrates 50 years after the riots of '64. An initiative called 'Facing Race, Embracing Equity,' the D&C has created a blog, Unite Rochester, to talk about race,” he said.
“I have appreciated what the city has attempted to do as of late. There's a history here, but also a willingness to engage in this kind of discussion.”
The Question Bridge: Black Males exhibit will be at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center through Nov. 16. More information can be found at http://www.rochestercontemporary.org/questionbridge.html.