While bounding down the corridor carrying a US mail container, I’m stopped by someone who asked me if I was picking up the mail. I explained pleasantly that no, I wasn’t. The person grew indignant and insisted that I do pick up the mail, and that she saw me do so the day before. I didn’t bother explaining that I worked in a different unit and that the mail guy is the other African American man on staff. I just walked on.
Generally speaking, there are not many instances in my day-to-day life where I’m reminded that I’m someone else’s “other,” a featureless being with no identity or a feared mongrel possessing an identity foreign to my own. There are others who fight these battles on a regular basis more than I do. But events of the world and a curiosity for things often force me to reflect on my station. Identity is a serial number branded on the soul. As such, it will dictate the terms of one’s life, whether one wishes or is able to acknowledge that fact or not.
Question Bridge – Black Males, currently on exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, presents the viewer with five video monitors mounted on five evenly spaced, black columns arranged in a semicircle in a darkened space. On the screens are various African American men from all walks of life holding a conversation. One man asks a question and others respond, one by one. The men are not filmed together, but are linked by the topic discussed at any given time. One question that came up was, what is common to all of us that we can say makes us who we are? Most reflected on how their identity causes others to treat or perceive them in a negative light.
Perception from others, mostly white folks, formed a common theme in many of the conversations, sometimes with humorous effect. One brother asked if anyone else had a problem eating watermelon, chicken, or bananas in front of white people. Most laughed. Several brothers said that they didn’t like watermelon, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this distaste came from social programming rather than their taste buds. Maybe. But then again, though I’ll eat watermelon in front of anyone, I can recall times when I felt odd that food vendors offering samples always seemed to offer me chicken. My indisposition did not stem from my vegetarianism.
I loved how this question used Chris Rock-like humor to discuss the very real issue of how others see us, and what steps we take, sometimes subconsciously, not to meet stereotypes that we perceive might hurt us. W.E.B. DuBois, in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folks, referred to a veil of invisibility that separates the black world from the white. It prevents those outside the veil, white folks, from seeing the true nature of those living within the veil’s confines. And it is confining, a prison, preventing us from seeing our own true selves.
Some brothers spoke from prison. The most powerful that I saw during my time at the exhibit talked about how crack was nothing but evil, that with it he ruined lives and ultimately it ruined his life. Crack, he insisted in increasing decibels, his image flashing from screen to screen, is definitely not cool, in response to the question, what’s so cool about crack?
The questions and conversations run the gamut. House nigger or field nigger? Why use the N-word? Do you feel free? Much to my delight, questions did not shy away from the gay. One man asked if any of the straight brothers in the conversation felt threatened by their gay brothers. One brother, neatly dressed in pinstripes, said no, but that he was tired of gay men trying to “convert” him.
Question Bridge acquires its power from allowing its subject, the black male, to explore himself. In this setting, those of us watching the conversations get caught up in them. We begin to supply our own answers and explore ourselves, a phenomenon not limited to black males. Others watching the screens with me at the time, some female, some white, some Asian, some Latino, were as rapt as I was.
In answer to the question about commonality among black men, one man answered simply that we are common because we are all black and we are all male. At the time, I identified strongest to his answer. On one level, I felt that it appealed to my sense of universality. But I’ve since come to recognize that the answer, like a poem, has many layers, many of which my mind continues to explore even now. None of the questions had wrong answers.
Do yourself a favor. Become a part of this conversation, regardless of who you are. Visit this exhibit if you get the chance. It is the scissors that cuts the veil to ribbons so that those outside can see in and those trapped inside can see ourselves better.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.