"The craziest thing about blackness is that black people didn't create blackness," says Hank Willis Thomas, artist and co-director with Chris Johnson of Question Bridge: Black Males. Created in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Atlanta-based artist and producer Kamal Sinclair, the video-based multimedia project explores the intricacy of African-American male identity.
"Five-hundred years ago in Africa there were no black people, there were just people. 'Blackness' is a product of a commercial industry that needed to come up with a sub-human brand of person so that you could sell them. And so that's where you take a whole diverse continent and send them halfway across the world and tell them that they're all the same," Thomas says. "We as the descendents have to embrace this kind of mythological identity that has very few virtues still connected to it and try to make it our own. Or make it something that we can align ourselves with, which is inherently a struggle."
On view at the Chastain Arts Center through March 24, Question Bridge: Black Males was filmed over the last four years in 12 cities across America, including Atlanta, Oakland, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. More than 160 African-American men of varying ages, politics, education, economic backgrounds, and sexual orientation looked into the camera and posed their own questions: Why do black men do this 'What's up' nod? What's the fear of exploring the landscape of your emotional self? Why don't you go see the doctor? What's so cool about selling crack?
The artists showed the questions to men they believed could answer them and edited the more than 1,600 blind Q&A exchanges into a kind of call-and-response between participants. Projected around a darkened corner of the Chastain Arts Center, the three-hour, five-channel video piece flickers between points of view, its extended run time a purposeful tactic to underscore a bigger, broader, unfinished conversation beyond the community center's small gallery space.
It was originally intended as a documentary. "The reason it turned into an art installation is we didn't want to be the controlling authoritative voice," Thomas says. "We're allowing black males to self-define as a group, so they are essentially defining black male identity through their words and actions rather than an expert doing it. If you have 200 people speaking about over 100 different things, inherently this idea of an expanded notion of identity or blackness is the result."
Of the hundreds of issues raised as part of the video dialogue, two questions in particular commanded the project, what Smith and Thomas refer to as "the blueprint question" and "the peaceful question." For the former, a Gen X-er from New York laid out his respect for his elders before admonishing them: "I know we've messed up, but why didn't y'all leave us the blueprint?"
"That really spoke to the sentiments of young people in that a lot of the people in the generations that came up after the Civil Rights Movement don't feel like they were properly mentored or nurtured, and yet they are judged," Smith says. The blueprint question inspired a Question Bridge spin-off called the Blueprint Roundtable, which confronts the dearth of intergenerational dialogue with face-to-face discussions between emerging and established community leaders. In that vein, Chastain Arts Center hosts a roundtable March 24 with Smith, Thomas, local artist Fahamu Pecou, and Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, among other local voices.
The Blueprint Roundtable is one of many steps the artists have taken to push Question Bridge into the community beyond the art show, and why its creators like to refer to it as a "transmedia" project. The dialogue is also being repurposed for the classroom with youth curriculum programs for teachers currently being piloted in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Oakland, Calif.
After a church service in New Orleans, Smith and Thomas met a 16-year-old who had a profound effect on them and their ideas about the project. The teenager asked, "How can I live more peaceful when I'm surrounded by bad?" The peaceful question, as Smith and Thomas call it, brought to light Question Bridge's inherent universality.
"What it means to be a black male is the same as what it means to be a person," Thomas says.
"Even though we're looking through the lens of black men," Smith says, "a lot of these questions are very human questions and [the peaceful question] was kind of iconic of the struggle a lot of us, particularly young people, have in a modern world."
Rather than thinking of it as a one-time project, the artists view Question Bridge as a platform, envisioning its format adapted to explore all kinds of ideas surrounding identity in the 21st century and creating common ground for conversation through our differences.