QUESTION BRIDGE Question Bridge: Black Males is a project that explores critical and challenging issues within the African American male community by instigating a transmedia conversation among Black men from a range of geographic, economic, generational, educational, and social strata. The innovative video installation on display here begins a dialogue that is continued through a website, a curriculum offered to high schools, and special community events across the country. Question Bridge aims to provide a forum for necessary, honest expression and healing dialogue on themes that divide, unite, and puzzle Black males in the United States today.
The Question Bridge concept originated in 1996, when the artist Chris Johnson was looking for a way to use new media to initiate a meaningful conversation around class and generational divisions within San Diego’s African American community. Johnson invited ten members of the Black community to express their deeply felt beliefs and values through candid question-and-answer exchanges in front of a video camera. None of the questions or answers were prompted.
Building on this idea, over the past four years Johnson, along with Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair, traveled the nation collecting a video catalogue of 1,500 questions and answers from more than 150 Black men in twelve cities: New Orleans; New York; Philadelphia; Miami; Chicago; Birmingham; Atlanta and Fayetteville, Georgia; and San Francisco, Mountain View, Oakland, and San Bruno, California. These questions and separately filmed answers were then interwoven to create a stream-of-consciousness “megalogue” around issues such as family, love, interracial relationships, community, education, violence, and the past and future of Black men in American society. From these exchanges emerge surprising insights and new possibilities for witnessing our common humanity.
This is a critical period in history for the African American community. In recent years, many have been able to transcend racial, cultural, and economic boundaries, while others have found themselves increasingly confined to the margins of society. African American men are particularly challenged by this paradoxical disparity. A Black man is the president of the United States, yet incarceration and high school dropout rates remain disastrously high among Black men, who also suffer disproportionately from various preventable health risks and as victims of homicide.
Representations and depictions of Black males in popular culture have long been governed by stereotypes of race and sexuality. Far too little is known about the range of internal values and dynamics of this group. Scientists, social scientists, theorists, historians, politicians, and activists have investigated the plight of the African American male on various levels and from diverse perspectives, yet not enough has been done to offer a multifaceted and self-determined representation of this demographic. Question Bridge: Black Males opens a window onto the complex and often unspoken concerns and questions among African American men. Creating an intimate experience for viewers and subjects, it provides new opportunities for understanding and healing. Leaving behind a simple, monochromatic conception of “Blackness,” this project brings to the fore the full spectrum of what it means to be “Black” and “male” in America.
—Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair
Question Bridge: Black Males was created by Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. The Executive Producers are Delroy Lindo, Deborah Willis, and Jesse Williams. Will Sylvester is the Post-Production Producer, and Rosa White is the Supervising Story Producer. The Transmedia Producers are Antonio Kaplan and Elise Baugh of Innovent.
The Brooklyn Museum presentation is co-organized by Patrick Amsellem, former Associate Curator of Photography, and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Project Curator, Brooklyn Museum.
Question Bridge: Black Males is a fiscally sponsored project of the Bay Area Video Coalition, supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Film Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, the LEF Foundation, the Center for Cultural Innovation, and the California College of the Arts. Additional support was provided by the Jack Shainman Gallery.
The broader Question Bridge: Black Males project includes interactive hot spots at a number of locations around New York City, an interactive website, a curriculum, and community events held in cities across the country. Related installations will be presented at the Oakland Museum of California, Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program, and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City; the Chastain Art Gallery, Atlanta, will present a youth-focused installation. The Question Bridge: Black Males curriculum is designed for high school students and can be accessed at questionbridge.com. The website includes additional question-and-answer sequences and more answers to the questions posed in this installation.
The Question Bridge curriculum was designed by Kamal Sinclair in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Chris Johnson, in consultation with Jinan O’Connor, Dr. Joy Angela DeGruy, and Dr. Deborah Willis. The Question Bridge website concept was conceived by Kamal Sinclair.
"The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self."
—W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903
"Believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life."
—W.E.B. Du Bois
"Last Message to the World," 1957
“There is something called black in America, and there is something called white in America, and I know them when I see them, but I will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them, because they are not real, even though they have a very real place in my daily way of seeing, a fundamental relationship to my ever-evolving understanding of history and a critical place in my relationship to humanity.”
"Eminem: The White Negro," in Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture, edited by Greg Tate, 2003
November 1, 2011:
Question Bridge: Black Males, an innovative video installation created by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Chris Johnson in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, will feature dialogue among 150 Black men recruited from eleven American cities and towns. On view at the Brooklyn Museum from January 13 through June 3, 2012, it will also be presented at the Oakland Museum of California from January 21 through April 21, 2012. The exhibition will include multiple video screens, placed in two arcs, playing videos of the men responding to questions. The videos were edited so that it appears as if the men are having a conversation.
For the past four years the four collaborators have traveled throughout the United States to locations including New York, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, creating 1,500 video exchanges in which the subjects serve as both interviewers and interviewees, posing and answering one another’s questions. Their words are woven together to simulate a stream-of-consciousness dialogue, through which important themes and issues emerge. The subjects addressed include family, love, interracial relationships, community, education, violence, and the past, present, and future of Black men in American society. The men represent a range of American geographic, economic, generational, educational, and social strata.
The artists hope that the Question Bridge project will be a catalyst for constructive dialogue among Black men and others in the nation that will help deconstruct stereotypes about Black male identity in our collective consciousness. “In the end, the objective is to create something that resonates as essentially genuine to viewer and subjects, and provides audiences with an intimate window into the complex and often unspoken dialogue between African American men,” they note in their Artists’ Statement. “In this light, ‘Blackness’ ceases to be a simple, monochromatic concept. A major ambition is to transform our audiences’ appreciation of any demographic and provide new opportunities for healing and understanding.”
The Question Bridge videos are a part of a larger project that also includes a user-generated website and a curriculum currently being offered to high schools and universities throughout the United States.
The Brooklyn Museum will present a wide range of public programs in conjunction with the project. Question Bridge will be the theme of the February edition of Target First Saturdays, the Brooklyn Museum’s monthly free evening of art and entertainment. There will also be a roundtable discussion with invited community leaders and youth inspired by a moment in the video when a young Black man asks members of the civil rights generation, “Why didn’t you leave us the blueprint?” The exhibition was also included in two programs for educators in the fall of 2011 in which the Question Bridge curriculum was presented.
About the Collaborators
Chris Johnson (codirector) originated the Question Bridge concept with a 1996 video installation created for the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Malcolm X Library in San Diego California. Professor of Photography at the California College of the Arts, he is also the Media Wall Project Manager and member of the Public Art Management Team at the Oakland Museum of California.
Hank Willis Thomas (codirector) is the creator of many digital media works including video exhibitions. His work was awarded the Aperture West Book Prize and has been shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Smithsonian, the High Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.
Bayeté Ross Smith (producer) is a former photojournalist whose work has been presented at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the Goethe Institute (Ghana), Leica Gallery, Rush Arts Gallery, and the Oakland Museum of California.
Kamal Sinclair (producer) is the founder of Universal Arts and director of The Beat and Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She has directed numerous arts and arts-education projects and has served on the boards of the Children’s Theater Company and Fractured Atlas, and on the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Ambassador’s Council.
Other collaborators include award-winning actor, director, and producer Delroy Lindo (executive producer) and Deborah Willis, Ph. D. (executive producer), a 2000 MacArthur Fellow and Chair of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. A 2005 Guggenheim and Fletcher Fellow and an artist, she is one of the country’s leading historians of African American photography. Question Bridge: Black Males is co-organized by Patrick Amsellem, former Associate Curator of Photography, and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Project Curator, Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition was supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Institute and Tribeca Film Institute. Additional support was provided by the Jack Shainman Gallery.