What does it mean to be a black man in America? Is there one right answer?
Today someone asked me what it meant to be an American. I looked at them with a blank face, and immediately got to thinking about identity and identity politics.
The question of what it means to be an American is already difficult enough to answer, and adding the intersection of race and gender into the equation makes the question no easier. Through this week’s readings of A Raisin in the Sun and The Fire Next Time, it is evident that black male identity, particularly as a reaction to racism, is not a one-dimensional concept. In both literary works, we are able to see the complexities of the black male identity and the ways in which it changes in order to adjust and readjust to societal factors.
“Question Bridge: Black Males”, created by Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayete Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair, is a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine black male identity in America. The project critically explores challenging issues within the black male community through an installation of over 1500 interview-like video exchanges from 150 black men across the country. The selected men cross geographic, economic, generational, educational, and social boundaries.
“Question Bridge: Black Males” is a traveling exhibition that has been presented at the Brooklyn Museum, the Missouri History Museum, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the Oakland Museum of California, the Sundance Film Festival, Bloomfield College, and many other venues. The exhibition includes multiple screens that play video clips of the interviews, which have been edited and presented to appear as if the men are continuously in conversation with one another. Each man speaks his individualized and lived truth of what it means to be a black man in America. Unsurprisingly, the participants have different interview questions for and different answers to one another, despite their “similar demographic”.
There are numerous exchanges in “Question Bridge: Black Males” that are relevant to this week’s readings. One question that I found to be particularly useful in understanding the connection between society and black male identity-making is as follows:
As a black man in America, do you really feel free? Yes, it’s true that the 14th amendment gave us legal freedom. But as a black man in America, do you really feel free when you’re dealing with the economic restrains and the mental restraints that have been put upon you?
Though the answers to this particular question have not been posted online, the beauty of this project is that we can guess that the responses included a wide array of ideas and theories about race and freedom.
This notion of recognizing that there are different opinions and beliefs among people who seem to belong to the same group is one that is difficult for some to grasp, and therefore makes “Question Bridge: Black Males” an important presence in the museum world. According to the exhibition’s website, “‘Question Bridge’ provides a safe setting for necessary, honest expression and healing dialogue on themes that divide, unite and puzzle black males in the United States.” Not only does it seem like this experience was cathartic for the interview participants, but this healing dialogue is clearly meant to extend to the project’s onlooker as well.
“Question Bridge: Black Males” further stretches itself beyond the museum walls to places such as live and virtual platforms, dialogues, a virtual website, a mobile app, gallery kiosks, twitter, and live events and dialogues, in order to constructively continue the discussion of black male identity in America. In addition, “Question Bridge: Black Males” has a specific curriculum designed for students in grades 9-12 that uses the transmedia art project as a catalyst for learning and discussion.