Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 28, 2018
Deborah Willis and Natasha L. Logan, eds. Question Bridge: Black Males in America Exh. cat. New York: Aperture, 2015. 268 pp.; 280 color ills. Paperback $29.95 (9781597113359)
Question Bridge: Black Males
Brooklyn Museum, New York, January 13–July 15, 2012
Installation view, Question Bridge: Black Males, Brooklyn Museum, January 13–July 15, 2012 (photograph © Jeremiah Boncha, provided by Brooklyn Museum)

The questions that black males are asked each day by white America (or world consumers of blackness) are often debilitating in their reduction of our complex capacities and our ideologically inspired identities: questions that only scratch at the surface of a humanity forged by the depth of our roots, struggle, and emergent culture. These questions do not sincerely ask but seek to define the very nature of who we are. But, the questions that black males ask other black males are questions about soul searching; questions that begin to dismantle the myths and misconceptions that have evolved around race and gender in America; questions about finding a sense of self and how we relate to each other; questions about being and becoming; questions of healing wounds, of restoration, and communal empowerment; and questions that inspire liberated visions of the self and help to build a bridge back to ourselves and to each other. This is how I engage and embrace this beautifully edited project by Deborah Willis and Natasha L. Logan.

Question Bridge: Black Males in America begins with a powerful foreword by Ambassador Andrew Young, followed by a compelling preface by the artist and social activist Jesse Williams, and an expansive introduction by professor of photography and Oakland-based artist Chris Johnson. The book is further structured by six themed chapters: “Identity,” “Education, Community, and Family,” “Relationships and Sexuality,” “History and Politics,” “Representation and Media,” and “Last Word”—followed by five short essays with a list of selected resources, biographies, and acknowledgments.

To my knowledge, this is one of the first critical dialogues between black males to explore the most vexing, ironic, and even chronic aspects of our lived experiences in the diverse landscapes of our travels—across age, class, profession, and sexuality. The primary chapters of the book are simply constructed with a series of questions, followed by short, direct responses from black males. The prompting questions serve as section dividers: each includes a photograph of the person asking the question, and each response is accompanied by a head shot of those responding. The head shots, far from the familiar mugshots that criminalize black males, show character, personality, and play. It is a simple construction with a powerful impact, cutting through the sometimes-complicated constructions of ethnographic writing or an authoritative narrative voice in documentary films to fully feature the members of this cultural group. Those who conceptualized this project opted to provide the reader with unfettered access to the black males asking and responding to the questions. The simple format extends through the six chapters and includes forty-five questions with four to eight responses to each question. The format simulates a direct dialogue between black males of differing ages and circumstances and across time and space, which establishes an intimacy of knowing. This call-and-response is both performative and polemical, both everyday talk and spiritual communion. The questions and responses take us from the classroom to the church in ways that we recognize as similar in their no-holds-barred honesty. The questions and answers offer us a reality check and reunification of our differing cosmologies. And the combination of questions, answers, and photos creates a portraiture of black males in America. Here is a sample question from each chapter in the book:

Identity: My question: Which one do you consider first? Are you Black or are you a male? Are you an African American or are you a man? (37)

Education, Community, and Family: So, questions. Why is it so difficult for Black men to go to the doctor on a regular basis to check our physical health or our mental health? (99)

Relationships and Sexuality: Why am I considered a traitor to my race, or do you guys consider me an outcast simply because I choose to date outside of my race? (115)

History and Politics: I believe in PTSS: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. When you look yourself in the eyes, in the mirror, would you consider yourself a field nigger or a house nigger? (149)

Representation and Media: This may seem like a silly question, but I want to know. Am I the only one who has problems eating chicken, watermelon, and bananas in front of White people? (169)

Last Word: The most important question that I have is for a person that has similar experiences as mine: a Black man, maybe similar cultural environment. What type of daily practices do you have to, you know, keep your resolve, keep the faith . . . to continue to prosper in your environment? (205)

As a black male encountering this book, many of the questions stopped me in my tracks, and not because the questions challenged the sense and sensibilities of my being. But because the questions and maybe even some of the answers cut at the very core of some of my own struggles of being and being in communion with my black brothers—both biological and cultural. Each black male responding to the questions does so from his own positionality, his own particularity and lived experience. The range of responses for each question—and of the same black male to different questions—offers a litany of black masculinities; a plurality of being within the category of black maleness that informs all the participants and makes us whole as a community.

The titles of the five short essays that follow the interview chapters tell of the integrated commitments of contributing artists and the methodological complexity of the project as a whole. In “Reflecting B(l)ack,” Hank Willis Thomas offers a personal narrative on the execution-style murder of his cousin as a critical reflection on the plight of black males. He states: “The purpose of Question Bridge is to provide a safe setting for open expression and vulnerability. At times, it seems that black males’ greatest challenges are with one another. The question is why?” (241). “The Conversation” by Bayeté Ross Smith articulates a history of the broader Question Bridge project in which the book accompanied a five-channel video installation that toured the United States, including its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and appearances at other venues. He writes, “A very important aspect of Question Bridge is that it functions almost like a case study. Although we set out to investigate black male identity, it becomes apparent, given the methodology and execution of the project, that the concepts and themes are actually universal and not exclusive to black men” (245). In “What Are the Parameters of Identity? Expanding Our Capacity to Understand Complex and Dynamic Identities.” Kamal Sinclair writes, “As a mixed-race person, I grew up having to tick one box when filling out forms, which required me to select a false or limited identity. It was like being forced to lie, to participate in a surreal reality. A reality that failed to recognize that my redheaded Irish mother provided fifty percent of my DNA, because I never marked white. From a very early age, I understood the history of the one-drop-of-blood rule that citizens of the United States of America were told to apply to the question of black identity” (247–8). In “Reflection,” Delroy Lindo states: “The potential of a project like Question Bridge: Black Males is in the way it pushes its viewers to examine themselves, the way it asks them to remain open to changing their perceptions of their fellow human beings. In this way, the work can create the real and true paradigm shift its creators desire, for society and indeed for America and beyond” (255). And in the final essay, “#BLACKLIVESMATTER: Shifting Perspectives and Changing the Narratives around America’s Black Men and Boys,” Rashid Shabazz charts the 2008 development of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA). His chronology of effort and effect is juxtaposed in the title by the now emblematic protestation of #BLACKLIVESMATTER, a synchronicity of effort in shifting, yet consistent, social contexts. He concludes his essay and the volume by writing: “Question Bridge: Black Males has taken up the challenge of addressing the question of black male identity and has in many ways placed us on the path to reaffirming our humanity and rendering us no longer invisible” (261).

Question Bridge: Black Males in America is a phenomenal accomplishment. It is a must read for all interested in both gleaning a deeper understanding of the black male experience in America and building and rebuilding the community of black males and those who seek to examine the uniquely American story that translates the fullness of the human experience in which the complexity of race, sex, and gender mirrors the manifestation of desire and survival of a people.

Bryant Keith Alexander
Professor and Dean, College of Communication and Fine Arts, Loyola Marymount University