Question Bridge: Black Males in America

Printed Matters

Question Bridge: Black Males in America

By Roula Seikaly February 16, 2016

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.


The American people have this lesson to learn, that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property would be safe.1

Question Bridge: Black Males in America (Aperture/Campaign for Black Male Achievement, 2015), 2012; installation view; the Oakland Museum of California. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Yoni Klein. © QuestionBridge

Question Bridge: Black Males in America, a companion publication to the innovative, crowd-funded multimedia installation of the same name, opens with a quote from a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass commemorating the 24th anniversary of slavery’s abolition. Though drawn from a longer quote, the passage above speaks as urgently to 21st-century audiences as it did to those of the 19th century, and perhaps more so. As long as Black Americans are denied basic human rights and dignities, as long as state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies is condoned, we must not take shelter in relative definitions of “safety.”

It’s against such hard truth that this compact volume unfolds. Question Bridge is a continuation of a mid-’90s project initiated by artist and educator Chris Johnson, who teaches photography at California College of the Arts (CCA). For the project’s original iteration, Johnson asked African Americans from different socioeconomic backgrounds to sit before a camera and to pose questions to other African Americans outside of their cultural milieu. Johnson hoped this frank exchange could address the widening chasm between African Americans in disparate social classes. 

Question Bridge: Black Males in America (Aperture/Campaign for Black Male Achievement, 2015)

The project was revisited in the mid-2000s when Hank Willis Thomas discovered a VHS copy Johnson had sent to his mother, photo historian Deborah Willis, PhD. Thomas, who studied with Johnson at CCA, convinced his mentor that the project would have an even greater impact if the demographic group engaged was made up solely of African American men. Johnson and Thomas then recruited Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair to round out the four principal project organizers.

Johnson started with a deceptively simple query: What happens when we ask questions? His reasoning, which is elegantly illuminated in the book’s introduction, is that asking questions emboldens a person to reveal gaps in their own knowledge and, in turn, opens them to the person or people with whom they are interacting. As Johnson maintains, “When the process works, what has been created might be called a question bridge.”2

Asking a question, however, can be difficult; it can imply lack of knowledge and experience, rendering the asker vulnerable. No one wants to be caught out, least of all when the questions address identity, community, and most urgently, survival. The project organizers kept this in mind as they encouraged subjects to share their opinions, fears, and hopes. Reconceived as a five-channel video installation, Question Bridge took four years to produce and debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It received critical praise when presented at venues nationwide, including the Oakland Museum of California and the Brooklyn Museum. Audiences witnessed unfiltered connections driven by questions that range from the deeply philosophical (how do you know when you become a man?) to the hilariously mundane (why don't Black people surf?). Question Bridge records these conversations. Though scheduled to tour the United States through 2016, Question Bridge also lives beyond institutional representation as a book and a website available to all.

Stills from Question Bridge: Black Males in America (Aperture/Campaign for Black Male Achievement, 2015) © QuestionBridge

Question Bridge is divided into six chapters under headings including “Identity,” “Relationships & Sexuality,” and “Representation & Media.” Each section is accompanied by the questions to which participants responded and photographs of the men who asked and answered these questions. The participants represent a range of ages and cultural and socioeconomic contexts. For example, the chapter “Identity” includes the following exchange, in which participant Lolis Eric Elie asked:

I’m trying to figure out the parameters of blackness. I know the stuff that I’m supposed to believe and read and listen to and look at if I’m definitely going to be black, like in the heart of blackness. But I keep wondering—suppose, for example, I prefer to listen to classical music or to travel to places where there are no black people or I like Picasso maybe even more than I like Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence. Am I still black? How do we figure out where the boundaries are, if we want to be a part of this community?

Ronald Porter, one of five men who replied, shot back:

Oh my God, I am so fucking sick of regulatory blackness! Because this is what your question is all about. What do I have to do in order to prove my blackness? Let me just answer your question like this. I know that I come from a rich tradition that is as diverse as it is deep. I don’t have to do particular things in order to prove I’m more or less black. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and I think it makes us schizophrenic. I think it makes us crazy to run around thinking, well, if I don’t listen to hip-hop, I’m not black enough. If I go to rock concerts or something, I'm being white. If I do this or do that, I’m not seen as being a full black person in the black community. Fuck that shit! I’m black. I’m proud of that. And I don’t have to adhere to all of these cultural norms in order to prove that.

This variety demolishes what actor and project participant Delroy Lindo describes as “the black male monolith,”  wherein all Black men are presumed to possess the same thoughts, opinions, and ideas on all subjects.3 Such assumptions, which predominate in mainstream media, effectively reduce all Black men to a single abject category, denying them both agency and individuality.

Representation in the media particularly undermines African American men. “Thug” has replaced the N-word as the “polite” word of choice to describe any Black man or boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong hoodie or listening to the wrong music. Question Bridge strikes back at this false portrayal. Participant photographs are positioned next to text so as to directly align images with the emotions, ideas, and challenges faced by each man. This format emphasizes the singularity of experience and thought, thus resisting monolithic racist attitudes and elevating individuality as the project’s core concept.

Spread from Question Bridge: Black Males in America (Aperture/Campaign for Black Male Achievement, 2015) © QuestionBridge

The layout suggests televised interviews. Rather than the all-too-familiar scenario in which an African American man is brought on to speak, or more likely apologize for, the actions of all Black men while simultaneously being shouted down by pundits, in Question Bridge we hear and read individual voices. In this context, these men need not defend themselves, and they’re not asked to defend the actions of all African American men. Each speaks his own truth; that alone is radical. Delroy Lindo points out that so many participants had never been asked his opinion on any of the subjects presented in the book, that this was each man’s first opportunity to share his knowledge and experience.

Question Bridge offers an optimistic corrective to institutionalized racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, reminds us in his essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” that our reckoning with slavery and its consequences is long overdue. Coates has shaped contemporary collective discussions about race and racism more than any writer since James Baldwin. In his award-winning book Between the World and Me (2015), Coates writes a long form letter to his teenage son on matters that will or have already affected him as a Black man coming of age in the United States. Coates tells him, in the most blunt terms, that the world he and others of his generation inherit holds a gruesome legacy enshrined in our legal system and visualized by the broken bodies of murdered Black men and women. Our country is founded on the certainty that the Black body has no value, and therefore is fair game to exploit with impunity. Those who participated in the Question Bridge project, as organizer or subject, do not deny this inheritance, and they don’t try to ease the audience’s conscience. Instead, the installation and book expose the slender fissures in historical and contemporary social narratives where life, against the most harrowing odds, punches through.

I asked Hank Willis Thomas if there is another chapter of the Question Bridge project, and what he would like to see come of this work. Though clear in stating that he spoke only for himself in answering the question, he replied that he hopes the project will support healing and reconciliation across racial and social demographics. The success of Question Bridge lies in it providing a sustainable platform that both acknowledges how racism shapes African American identity and representation and also harnesses technology to shift perceptions in and outside of African American communities.

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Notes

  1. Frederick Douglass, “The Nation’s Problem” (Washington, D.C, 1889), quoted in Deborah Willis and Natasha L. Logan, eds., Question Bridge: Black Males in America (New York: Aperture, 2015), 8.
  2. Chris Johnson, “Introduction,” Question Bridge: Black Males in America, eds. Deborah Willis and Natasha L. Logan (New York: Aperture, 2015), 17.
  3. Delroy Lindo, “Reflection,” Question Bridge: Black Males in America, eds. Deborah Willis and Natasha L. Logan (New York: Aperture, 2015), 251.

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