Questioning The Black Male Experience In America

Questioning The Black Male Experience In America

2:10pm Apr 28, 2015
"Question Bridge: Black Males" attempts to represent black male identity in America via a video question-and-answer exchange. At top center is Jesse Williams, the project's executive producer.
"Question Bridge: Black Males" attempts to represent black male identity in America via a video question-and-answer exchange. At top center is Jesse Williams, the project's executive producer.
Question Bridge: Black Males
  • "Question Bridge: Black Males" attempts to represent black male identity in America via a video question-and-answer exchange. At top center is Jesse Williams, the project's executive producer.

    "Question Bridge: Black Males" attempts to represent black male identity in America via a video question-and-answer exchange. At top center is Jesse Williams, the project's executive producer.

    Question Bridge: Black Males

  • "Question Bridge: Black Males" traveled to museums across the country, but is now a website and mobile app where black men can upload their own videos.

    "Question Bridge: Black Males" traveled to museums across the country, but is now a website and mobile app where black men can upload their own videos.

    Missouri History Museum and Cary Horton

How would you like to be remembered, in a word or two? That question was posed by a black man and answered by other black men in a multimedia art project called "Question Bridge: Black Males."

Some of the answers to that query included "warrior," "sincere," "motivated," "dedicated," "family-oriented" and "father."

A group of black artists created "Question Bridge" and they're getting an Infinity Award this coming week from the International Center of Photography, recognizing their achievement in new media. Executive producer Jesse Williams, an actor best known for playing Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey's Anatomy, says the project is an attempt to take back the narrative of "this country's most opaque and feared demographic," and to expand society's idea of who African-American men are and what they can do.

"Can he be the doctor, can he be the lead? Can he not be the jivey best friend who talks about how black people don't know how to swim?" Williams says. "Can we just be ... people?"

The "Question Bridge" artists went to nine different cities across the country. They talked with all kinds of people — dads, businessmen, incarcerated men, gay men — and filmed them asking and answering each others' questions.

"Question Bridge: Black Males" traveled to museums across the country, but is now a website and mobile app where black men can upload their own videos.

Missouri History Museum and Cary Horton

"We just cast as wide a net as possible to try and find diversity in how they looked, diversity in perspective, class, education, age," says Bayeté Ross Smith, a Harlem-based artist and one of the "Question Bridge" creators. "Our youngest participant was 8 and our oldest was 80."

They used those videos to curate virtual conversations that traveled to art museums across the country. But to move beyond the museum-going crowd, they've also established a website and mobile app where black men can upload their own videos.

The artists let their subjects ask whatever comes to mind. So, if you visit questionbridge.com you might drop in on a virtual conversation sparked by young men curious to know when you've met the woman you should marry or those eager to find out why the civil rights generation didn't leave a blueprint for their generation to follow. Some questions are profound, some not — at least on the surface.

"I want to know if I'm the only one who has problems eating chicken, watermelon and bananas in front of white people," says one of the men on the site. (There are no names or titles on the videos).

Smith says the man posing the question is a filmmaker. "He was talking about being on set and how it was hot and in the summer and they brought out some watermelon, and he was like, 'Oooo, watermelon!' " Smith says. "Then he realized he was the only black person there and he felt like he needed to wait and let some white people get the watermelon first. He didn't want to just run over there."

Smith says what he loved about that question were the thoughtful responses that followed the initial laughter from most of the men. Racist imagery connected to fried chicken, watermelon and bananas ended up being a real concern for some. Others said they ate those foods with pride. A businessman whose family has sold watermelon since 1953 said he had no problem eating watermelon and concluded by saying, "I like fried chicken — in fact, I'm going to make some tonight."

Smith and Williams say there's always been an appetite among black men for a media space where they can speak for themselves. Because the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and now Freddie Gray have put the public spotlight on society's perceptions of black men, there's more demand than ever for "Question Bridge: Black Males."

Williams says they eventually want to expand the project to other demographics — but not just yet: "Let's just let them have their thing for a second; let's have this dinner table conversation, let's have this private exploration into identity and all the different things that demonstrate that the black male in this country is not a monolithic group."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

How would you like to be remembered in a word or two? That question was posed by a black man and answered by other black men in a multimedia art project called "Question Bridge: Black Males." Here are some responses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And the last word as a black man that I would like to be remembered by is warrior.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Sincere.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Motivated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Dedicated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Family-oriented.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Father.

RATH: The group of African-American artists created "Question Bridge." And this week they'll get an award for achievement in new media from the International Center of Photography. From our Code Switch team, Shereen Marisol Meraji spoke with a couple of the creators.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Visit questionbridge.com and you get to be a fly on the wall for a conversation sparked by this...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: So this question is for all the black gay men that are out there - how do you really feel about yourself? Are you frightened about living openly in this country?

MERAJI: Or this.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: How do you know when you become a man?

MERAJI: There are three hours of questions and answers on the site, so you're not quite sure what conversation you're about to drop in on or who exactly is doing the talking. There are no names or titles on the videos. It's a safe space to have and to hear conversations about what it means to be black and male in America. Executive producer Jesse Williams says "Question Bridge: Black Males" attempts to redefine this country's most feared and misunderstood demographic.

JESSE WILLIAMS: We're not waiting for Hollywood or media to - can you recognize our humanity and show us in a way that's not neck jiving, cornrow robbing - some, you know, just nonsense archetype. Can you just show our humanity? Can he just be the doctor? And can he just be the leader? And can he just not be the jivey best friend who talks about how black people don't swim? Can we just be people?

MERAJI: Williams is an actor by day playing Dr. Jackson Avery on "Grey's Anatomy." But for "Question Bridge," he helped film all kinds of people in nine cities - dads, businessmen, incarcerated men, gay men - and recorded their questions and answers.

WILLIAMS: We just cast as wide a net as possible.

MERAJI: Bayete Ross Smith is a Harlem-based artist who was a part of the core group that created the project.

BAYETE ROSS SMITH: To try and find diversity in how they looked, diversity in perspective, class, education, age - our youngest participant was eight and our oldest participant was 80.

MERAJI: They used those question and answer videos to curate virtual conversations that first traveled to art museums across the country. But to move beyond the museum going crowd, they've also established a website, questionbridge.com, and mobile app, where black men can upload their own videos. Some questions are profound, some not - at least not on the surface.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: This may seem like a silly question, but I want to know am I the only one who has problem eating chicken, watermelon and bananas in front of white people.

MERAJI: Smith says that one came from a filmmaker friend.

SMITH: He's talking about being on set and how it was hot and in the summer and they brought out some watermelon, and he was like, oh, watermelon. And then he realized he was like the only black person there. He felt like he needed to wait and let some white people get the watermelon first. He didn't just want to run over there.

MERAJI: Bayete Ross Smith says most of the guys laughed at that question at first. But what he loved about it were the thoughtful responses that followed. The racist imagery connected to fried chicken and watermelon was a real concern for some of the men who answered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: I'm always looking over my shoulder wherever I'm at seeing who's watching me eat this watermelon and this piece of chicken and this banana - always.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: I don't even eat watermelon because of the connotations that it has around black people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: My family sells 50,000 pounds of watermelons every week and have been since 1953. And we're OK with that. And by the way, I like fried chicken. In fact, I'm going to make some tonight.

MERAJI: Smith and Williams say there's always been an appetite among black men for a media space where they can speak for themselves. And the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and now Freddie Gray have only increased that appetite because society's perceptions of black men are in the public spotlight. Jesse Williams eventually wants to expand "Question Bridge" to other demographics, but not just yet.

WILLIAMS: Let's just let them just have their thing for a second. Let's have this dinner table conversation, let's have this private exploration into identity and all the different things that demonstrate that the black male in this country is not a monolithic group.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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