As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it's important to remember that we still have a long way to go in the fight against racial discrimination. A recent exhibition that confronts stereotypes and attempts to bridge divisions between people is "Question Bridge: Black Males" -- a new video installation currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum that consists of a series of interviews with Black men in the United States today. I asked Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, two of the collaborators -- along with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair -- about their project, which originally began as a response to the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego. In 2007, Hank Willis Thomas helped to revive the Question Bridge interviews, and it evolved into the exhibition on view today. You can read the team's e-mail responses below.
HuffPost Arts: What are some stereotypes of black men that really irk you?
Question Bridge Team: Black men are angry, obdurate, lazy and thuggish beings who don't care for their families and resist attempts to educate and inspire them.
To some extent we've all internalize these impressions but we on the QB team have discovered that it only takes the process of asking them a meaningful question for these impressions to be exploded! A black man you might identify as the most belligerent will come forth with a poignant and probing question and/or answer when given the proper opportunity. How this process works is something worth exploring.
HuffPost Arts: Why was the original concept revived and why?
Question Bridge Team: As always there's an interesting story behind events like this. The original project was moving, insightful and effective in ways that surprised me so I made efforts to share it with people who I thought might find it meaningful. One of those people was Deborah Willis, who at that that time was an Associate Director at the Smithsonian Institution. Deb was an old friend and happily she did two things that proved fateful: The first is that she filed away the VHS tape that I sent her for safekeeping. The second was that she suggested to her son, Hank Willis Thomas, that he apply for graduate study in photography at the California College of the Arts where I teach.
After graduating with honors from our program Hank has gone on to a highly successful career as an artist; one day he was cleaning out his mother's video tape collection and came across that old version of the Question Bridge project. At that time he had also been invited to apply for a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute and it occurred to him that a revival of that original concept might be a good idea. (Since then we have received major project support from the Open Society Institute's Campaign for Black Male Achievement).
It's fundamental to the Question Bridge methodology to work at bridging key divisions within demographics and it was Hank's idea to use black males as the target group for the current project. This resonated with me because Question Bridge is at its heart an engaged art project and Hank and I knew that this version of the idea would be well informed by our instincts and sensibilities as black males. That has proven to be very true.
What happened next is that one of Hank's oldest friends Bayeté Ross Smith, also a CCA Alum, joined our team and together with collaborator Kamal Sinclair, we traveled to 11 cities over the course of three years to gather the Question Bridge content. The resulting installation piece has been edited and composed by collaborators Will Sylvester, Bayeté Ross Smith and Rosa White.
But there is a broader and ultimately more important reason why we did this first version using black males as a subject [since] Question Bridge has two key goals: To demonstrate that meaningful truths can be shared between people who are radically divided from each other if a setting is established that promotes the sharing of essential questions and answers. This in a nutshell is what Question Bridge does; using video to create a safe context for this process to unfold. Question Bridge provides viewers outside of the targeted group with the opportunity to become privileged witnesses to what is in fact an internal dialogue taking place within a demographic that would otherwise be opaque to them.
Our goal is for this witnessing to be transformative and we felt that if it was possible for this process of "Question Bridging" to work in the case of black males, perhaps the most opaque and misunderstood demographic in our culture, it would most likely be effective with many others. That remains to be seen but the results thus far are very promising.
(c) Brooklyn Museum / Question Bridge
HuffPost Arts: What has changed for black men since you began the project in 1996?
Question Bridge Team: At that time the class and opportunity-based divisions within the black community were far less visible and acute than they are now. Now we have a black male President while at the same time approximately 62% of incarcerated men are black, even though we only comprise about 6% of our population.
Also, since then the cultural commodity of black male media images has become just as dichotomized. On the one hand you have Jesse Williams, one of our Executive Producers appearing as a brilliant and charismatic doctor on 'Grey's Anatomy,' and on the other thug rappers appearing as role models for an enormous percentage of inner city young boys.
Question Bridge is ripe for this time in our cultural history.
HuffPost Arts: What do you hope will happen with the user-generated website? How important is participation to the piece?
Question Bridge Team: The website became a practical necessity once our team discovered that we had far more content than could possibly be contained in a conventional documentary or museum installation. The user-generated element of the website was conceptualized by our collaborator Kamal Sinclair as a way to accomplish a number of key goals for the overall project:
It provides a way for people everywhere to become "privileged witnesses" of the Question Bridge process. We know that once people see and hear what these men have to say, it will affect their ability to treat black men as a homogenous group [and] it provides us with a way to invite black men from all parts of our culture to participate in this process of with their own questions and answers. Once those men join the process, their presence will create a self-defining Identity Map that will function as a unique database of how black men view and define themselves... as opposed to the prevalent images that are routinely projected onto them. There is also a strong community outreach element of the overall project that includes smart posters at what we're calling Hot Spots that contain QR codes and NFC tags that will allow people out in the world to connect to QB content via the website.
Here's how I would assess the importance of the many components of the overall Question Bridge project:
The installations are important because they strongly present the unscripted voices and views of black males to American culture in a unique form.
The community outreach projects bring regional attention to the museum installations and also promote a much-needed dialog across generations on themes inherent to the Question Bridge mission.
The Question Bridge Curriculum, which is currently being piloted at schools in New York and Oakland with plans for wider distribution, is vital because it brings the messages, meanings and implications of the Question Bridge project into the lives of young people who desperately need alternative representations of cultural difference.
The website, which we'll launch this summer is crucially important to our overall goals because it allows for wide and comprehensive exposure of the Question Bridge content and themes and will provide a way for the public at large to interact through the Question Bridge methodology.
Interested in taking part? Check out the Question Bridge website here.
The Question Bridge is being exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum (Jan 12- Jun 3), the Oakland Museum of California (Jan 21 - July 8), the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (Jan 20- May 19), at Atlanta's Chastain Art Gallery (Jan 27 - March 17) and the Sundance Film Festival (Jan 19 - 29th).
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