In the new exhibition at the Gantt Center, one man asks, “Why do we keep using the N word?” In response, proud young black men explain their use of the word to reclaim it from its derogatory use, while others ask in disdain, “Would Dr. King use that word?”
The “Question Bridge: Black Males” exhibition is a multi-faceted video installation in which different men appear on-screen, asking and answering questions about issues significant to their culture as black American men.
Questions range from silly to sublime: “Why don’t black men surf?” “What are you afraid of?” “Do you feel free?” In each response, the individual on-screen looks at the viewer as they answer and wait for the next question. Though the forward, lasting gaze of the men is intense, the edited dialogue is engaging and engrossing.
Some answers are short; others linger, designed artfully to jump from screen to screen for maximum impact.
More than 160 men were interviewed for “Question Bridge,” created by Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. The youngest participant is 8, the oldest 80. Some are gay, others straight. Some are conservative, others liberal.
These broad perspectives sometimes conflict and collide, illustrating a W.E.B. DuBois quote that adorns one wall of the Gantt Center gallery: “One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts… two warring ideals in one dark body.”
“People who see ‘Question Bridge’ relate to who these men are… because they are all so diverse,” said Jonell Logan, director of education and programming for the Gantt Center. “Some are street smart, others are college-educated professors and doctors.”
The answers given are seemingly unscripted and at times, raw. To the question, “What was crack like?” one man’s monologue lasts several minutes as he explains his downward spiral from selling the drug to serving time. He admits providing crack to his own mother, stealing from his younger siblings, driving his sister to prostitute. At the end he claims responsibility for all of his actions.
“What’s my fault is not telling all of those children on the street corner, they are loved,” he said. “Question Bridge” covers universal themes, “What do you do to keep the faith?” and “What is your purpose?”
“I am impressed by their trust and investment in answering these questions honestly,” Logan said. “This is definitely a conversation amongst black men, but it’s for everyone.”
Manager of Youth and Family Programs Catherine Courtlandt-McElvane has toured many through the show, including school groups. “We have had great conversation afterward around the exhibit’s humanity,” she said. Many students were able to connect to questions like “How do you know when you are a man?” Though there is some strong language in “Question Bridge,” it can be put in perspective for a teachable
For audience members who are not black, “Question Bridge” is provocative but not punitive. This “mega-dialogue” is about being, not bashing.
“You’re in a darkened room facing a video screen,” reassured Courtlandt-McElvane. “Nothing’s going to get you.”
“We have come a long way and have a lot to celebrate,” said exhibit-goer Joseph Butler, who found “Question Bridge” inspiring.
Butler recently led a local discussion patterned after the exhibit called, “Question Bridge Roundtable Blueprint,” that explored a central question posed in the exhibition. The younger generation asks their predecessors, “Why didn’t you leave us a blueprint?”
The exhibition will run through June 1 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture, 551 S. Tryon St. Find more information at www.ganttcenter.org.