“Do you have a question for another black male?”
A group of artists asked this of black men from all walks of life, young and old, well-off and in prison, for four years. Approximately 160 sat down with them in more or less makeshift studios across the country and spoke, straight to the camera, their questions and their answers to the recorded questions of others.
“As a black man in America do you really feel free?”
“Who are you as it relates to your purpose here on Earth?
“How has your financial success or your educational success compromised who you feel that you are on the inside for what you feel that people want you to be?”
The kinds of questions asked in the safe and formal space of the video interview came as a surprise to the artists (three of four of whom are themselves black men). “Going in, we’d all feel like: This guy’s from here--this guy’s in jail, he speaks like this or he’s wearing this--so we know what kind of question he’s going to ask,” says co-creator Hank Willis Thomas. “And then, 99% of time, we were just like ... “Wow!”
The answers were equally surprising, diverse, and raw. “It’s very visceral,” says Thomas. “It’s their immediate answer. We’re recording the last part of them listening to the question and watching their immediate response to it.”
A video installation of these questions and answers was on exhibit in New York, San Francisco, and Milwaukee. It's also being turned into a documentary and a book, but the most ambitious part of the “transmedia” project may be Question Bridge Interactive, a crowdsourced video extension of the project which just raised more than $77,676 on Kickstarter.
It seems like a natural idea, since the project's straight-to-camera honesty is tailor-made for YouTube. (Though the Question Bridge Interactive site would use its own video platform.) The moonshot hope is to get 200,000 black men to put their own questions and responses online, with robust data visualization to help users navigate the site.
“Our hypothesis is that it will be so diverse it will break the container, and no one can say black men are anything because they’re everything,” says artist Kamal Sinclair. “That being said, we also could be surprised to find that most men define themselves as thugs or Obamacrats,” she jokes.
But the Question Bridge is an idea larger than the black male community.
“My big hope is they’ll be able to also create their own Question Bridges that aren’t race or gender specific,” says Thomas. “We’re all members of multiple communities, and who’s to say which one is primary, whether someone is in the Polar Bear club, or is a Guardian Angel or a New York Knicks fan.”
The goal is to create what Thomas calls a “Google Earth of identity mapping.”
Even if it’s less Google Earth than It Gets Better, it would be worthy to watch.