Artists@Google: Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 15.06.2012

>>Stacy Brown-Philpot: Good afternoon. My name is Stacy Brown-Philpot and I am an Entrepreneur
in Residence at Google Ventures. And I'm excited to introduce our guests today from Question
Bridge. So Question Bridge started, I guess the concept back in 1996, when Chris Johnson
came up with the idea of unprompted Q &A as a way of getting into the minds and the hearts
and the beliefs of the African American community in San Diego. Chris is a filmmaker and is
notably known for "The Roof Is On Fire" that he produced with a woman named Suzanne Lacy.
And it was aired on Crime TV. And he's gone on to do many other things but he's currently
a professor of photography at the California College of Arts.
So Hank found out about what Chris had done and talked to him. I guess a decade or more
than a decade later. And talked to him about this project and proposed the idea of doing
something similar for black males. Hank's work has been exhibited all over the world
and some of the more famous places, like the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art.
And one of his films along the way was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
So these two great minds thinking about media and art and photography. And the black man.
Have come together into an inspiring project.
For the last four years, I think it was, they went to 11 cities and spoke with over 150
black men. Just to ask questions. And hear the answers. And it was unprompted. I think
they got about 1500 conversations out of this project. And the idea was that people would
ask a question and someone else would answer that question. Different person, different
mind, as a way of bridging the gap between socioeconomic status and also age status.
So they've got some interactive things they're gonna show us today. I think Chris said it
well when he describes this project as a "unrehearsed, totally spontaneous expression of the truth."
And I'm sure you'll enjoy what they both have to say today. And if you wanna see more you
can visit the Oakland Museum where their exhibit will be on display until July 8th.
So please welcome Hank Thomas and Chris Johnson. Thank you.
>>Chris: Well, I'll begin. Thank you very much for being here. I wanna say that it's
really an honor to be here. And I wanna thank Daphne Mews and Anne Farmer for making this
possible for us. And as she said, we're here to talk about a project called "Question Bridge
Black Males" which has a really ambitious goal. What we intend to do with this project
is actually change the way people understand the nature of black male consciousness. Which
sounds like a lofty goal but I think you can understand, given the things that are happening
in our culture right now. And the news. Why that's really important to do.
One of the things I hope we get the chance to talk about maybe when we do questions and
answers is exactly why would an artist try to take on an issue like that and how to go
about it. So what we've done is prepare a little clip to show you just what our methodology
is. To give you a sense of what we're doing, and so, this is our trailer.
>>Male #1: Black man.
>>Male #2: Do you wanna get out of the situation that you're in.
>>Male #3: What is the reluctance for taking responsibility for our people and our communities?
>>Male #4: Are your children better or worse off as a result of your involvement?
>>Male #5: Why wouldn't you be happy with your son being gay?
>>Male #6: Why are you so violent?
>>Male #7: Why do you have that "take" mentality?
>>Male #8: Why are you afraid of being intelligent?
>>Male participants: Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
>>Male #9: What I wanna know is
>>Male #10: Why?
>>Male #11: I believe that we have incorporated a lot of things that are unhealthy to us.
>>Male #12: we are supposed to be tough.
>>Male #13: I can't let 'em see no type of sucker.
>>Male #14: Along with various other stereotypes.
>>Male #15: The level of mentorship in our community is not as strong as it possibly
could be.
>>Male #16: When I came up, crack was a quick way for a black man to make a million dollars.
>>Male #17: Sometimes I think because we think we're black we're some other kind of human
beings. But we are just like most other human beings.
>>Male #18: Why didn't y'all leave us the blueprint?
>>Male #19: We did leave you a blueprint.
>>Male #20: We did leave you a blueprint.
>>Male #21: We just didn't tell you where it was.
>>Male #22: That's something that we dropped the ball on.
>>Male #23: What do you fear?
>>Male #24: That something will harm my children, and
>>Male #25: I fear success.
>>Male #26: Am I the only one who has problem eating chicken, watermelon and bananas in
front of white people?
>>Male #27: Hah, hah, hah.
>>Male #28: Alright, that's crazy. [laughing]
>>Male #29: That word, he has to stop using it.
>>Male #30: I think black people can say "Nigga" any time they want.
>>Male #31: How dare you? What right do you have to use this word?
>>Male #32: Lot of "nigger" questions for the rapper.
>>Male #33: What is common to all of us, that we can say makes us who we are?
>>Male #34: Hm.
>>Male #35: This is the easiest question in the world to answer.
>>Male #36: The thing that we have in common is that we are male, and we are black.
>>Male #37: My question is, I try to live good, but I'm surrounded by bad. And I wanna
know, what it is I could do to do better and live peaceful. Surrounded by all evil. How
can I do that?
>>Chris: So what that brief sequence does is give you a sense of what we've tried to
do. And that is, to take the deceptively simple process of asking a question and put that
right into the heart of one of the most pressing and troubling social concerns of our time.
And that is, the fact that the black community is radically divided from itself. The fact
that black men are having to contend with being one of the most opaque, and troubled
demographics in our time. What we've done is just experiment with the idea that black
men not only have really deep questions about all the concerns that affect their lives.
But they also have the answers. And putting them together, gives us a chance to really
understand from the position of privileged witnesses, that this conversation is very
complex. And it unfolds in the installation that we created. But it has a history, as
she said, that began with my experience when I was growing up in Brooklyn.
This is a slide by the photographer Roy DeCarava. And I use this as a way of illustrating the
way that I experienced Bed-Stuy when I was growing up. As a kid in the '40s and '50s.
At that time, the black community was still forced to live in one community by itself.
I mean, there were many many generations and many different socioeconomic classes. I don't
wanna oversimplify the fact that there was obviously crime and lots of other issues.
But what I love about this slide is that it gives a sense of the way I experienced the
black community as a child. You see a mother, maybe walking her children from school. And
that sense of being part of a community that was a whole with all of the issues that were
part of it.
But then with the passage of the Civil Rights laws, one of the unintended consequences was,
there was a split in the community. Those who were able to leave the African American
community did. So this next slide by Bruce Davidson is probably more typical of the way
people think of the black community. And it typifies a lot of the problems that we suffer.
And so, what happened was, I left New York when I was 17. Came to California. I was very
lucky to have mentors. That brought me into the photography world. I studied photography
with Ansel Adams, Judy Dader, Winn Bullock. And people like that. And I became a professor
at California College of the Arts over the years.
And Suzanne Lacy who's renowned performance artist. She's really well known for going
to communities and trying to assess what the issues and values in that community are. And
she and I formed a collaboration that gave us a chance to work with kids like this in
high schools. We created a project called "The Roof is On Fire." And what we did was,
take the idea that young kids if you create a safe environment around them, will reveal
truths that they'll withhold from you if they are aware that you are there. So what we did
was, we put the kids in cars on a rooftop. We got the commission, the rooftop of a parking
garage. We put 200 cars with kids in the cars and we told the kids that they were to use
the car as a safe place to talk. And so they had a badge around their necks that said "Shut
up and listen" and that was a way for the audience to create an opportunity to really
hear the truth from their point of view. And they talked, as you can imagine, about issues
that were passionately important to them. They talked about sex, and drugs and values
and language. And it was a really animated conversation. But one of the things that inspired
it was, inspired the whole process, was that they felt as if they were given permission
to really be listened to. And you can see in this slide the woman in the background,
is performing the generous act of listening to these young people.
And it was a really powerful experience. And I think the people who saw it came away with
real different insights into what was going on in the lives of these young people.
So that project was broadcast on KORN. And I sort of became known in the art world for
doing projects like this. And a few years later, I was commissioned by the Museum of
Photographic Arts in San Diego to do a project called "Republic" And they asked me to do
something that related to the black community. And I thought back to that initial experience
I had as a young person of seeing the black community divide into those who made a decision
to leave the community, to seek opportunities and freedom. Which is great. But of course
there is a cost to that. And the one thing that I took away from the initial experience
was the fact that listening is a passive form of being very generous. But there's probably
a more active way to do that. And that's asking a question. So what I decided to do was give
people on both sides of this divide. Those who live within inner city working class neighborhoods
and those who don't. To ask questions of those on the other side and vice versa. So what
you're seeing here is Keyona Johnson. She's a woman who lives in the inner city of San
Diego. And William Gaines. And so I gave her a chance to ask questions of him. And vice
versa. So what I'm gonna show you is a brief clip of this exchange.
[on video] >>William: Have you given any thought to where
the money comes from for people who are receiving public assistance? And do you care?
>>Keyona: I've thought about where public assistant money come from. And I do care.
But for one, I am on public assistance and it's not because we don't wanna work. It's
not because we wanna sit at home and get a check. Or anything like that. A lot of people
perceive us young teenage mothers to sit at home and just collect a check. Where a lot
of times, we do go out and look for work. We do work. We can't work as long because
childcare is really up there. At this point in time, I pay 300 dollars a month and I have
two. And I pay 150 dollars a month for another child. The 300 is 'cause my child is under
two. The 150 is 'cause my child is over two and is school age. So yes, I know where the
money comes from. It comes from tax payers. But we do have people who take up American
jobs who are not taxpayers. Because they're not an American citizen. How about that? We
get decreases in our checks because we're American citizen. But yet if you're a refugee
or you're an immigrant, or a legal working alien in the united states. You get a increase
in your check when you come over here from different countries. Because the united states
government have, so called, some kinda agreement with them. They come over here and they're
able to get grants to start business. Where we are already living here working, doing
the backbone of the country. And we don't get that same type of respect. But yeah, people
look down upon us because we are on public assistance. They like to say "Oh, the black
teenage moms, they're going out openin' their legs and havin' babies just to get on welfare,
to get out the house." That is not always the case. It's a small proportion that does
that. But you only focus on this small portion.
>>Chris: So you can imagine what it was like for me to be in the middle of this process
and have this kind of really amazing truth telling. Just emerge spontaneously from the
people who were involved with it. The piece that I put together for the MOPA installation
was an hour's worth of really poignant questions and answers that came from the people who
were involved. So I knew that somehow or another that this process was animating something
that these people wanted to share. Where did these incredibly articulate answers come from?
So that's who Question Bridge was born. I had ambitions back in '96 of it maybe becoming
an HBO documentary and going on. It turned out not to happen that way. Basically I sent
it around to a bunch of friends. Luckily one of the friends I sent it to was the mother
of Hank Willis Thomas. And I think Hank will pick up the story from here.
>>Hank: yeah. So, I had [clears throat] I went to the California college of the arts
for graduate school when I was photo major. And I was one of Chris's students. He was
my mentor. And along the way, I, both seeing image, seeing a documentary of "The Roof is
On Fire" but I also saw him do a presentation on Question Bridge. And about three years
after I graduated I was offered an opportunity to apply for a fellowship from the Tribeca
Film Institute for New Media. And around the same time I came across a VHS that my mother
had of the Question Bridge original installation. And I, it struck me as having so much potential.
Because of the rawness with which the exchange, happened. And in fact one of the things Chris
talked about was the fact that you, if you have the same people in the same room, having
a discourse, it'd be a lot more contentious. And people would be less willing to listen
to each other. But somehow by mediating a conversation through video, it allows for
a deeper way of listening and a more sincere and earnest response. And myself and one of
our collaborators Bayete Ross Smith who also went to CCA, were doing a lot of work contending
with issues about the limitations of notions of black male identity. Especially. And I
was really interested in how we could use this Question Bridge model to speak to what
I saw as the diversity within the African American male demographic. Which kind of is
frequently spoken about in monolithic ways.
And so I approached Chris about how we could possibly apply to do a Question Bridge about
black males. And so over and through that we wound up traveling with Bayete Ross Smith
and then soon our fourth collaborator Kamal Sinclaire came on board. And then actors Jesse
Williams and Delroy Lindow. And then my mother came on board as executive producers to kind
of help create this team to kind of fulfill this kind of undetermined mission. At the
time. Which soon became this vision to represent and redefine black male identity. But the
simplicity of the way the project worked has already been expressed but this is a brief
[video playing]
>>Male #33: My question to the black man in America, or anywhere else, is, what is common
to all of us? That we can say makes us who we are?
>>Hank: So we found this personality in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. And he asked this question.
And we then went around and found people to answer the question. And this is just one
of the answers.
[video playing]
>>Male # 37: Our commonality is in our history. But I think our beauty as black people is
also in our diversity.
>>Hank: And so at first we thought about just doing this as a simple one to one. Just one
person asks the question, another person answered it. One of the real essential elements of
the project was this idea that we pride ourselves in being a diverse nation, where everyone
has these kind of, can be, a space to be themselves. But we all contend with narrow notions of
who we are at the end of the day. And kind of live under these clouds of assumptions
about our own perception by other people. But one of the things that we're really trying
to contend with at our project is, how do people within that group relate to one another
and each other. And how does that affect things like the achievement gap, the discipline gap,
the over representation of black males in prison. And one of the things that we really
feel like this project has the potential to do is affect the major thing called "implicit
bias". Which was a major factor in the Trayvon Martin case where somebody sees a young black
male in a hood and makes this whole host of assumptions about that person. And that affects
the way that many African Americans, travel, navigate the world. And African American men,
especially, benefit from people seeing more whole and diverse representations of who they
are. Rather than seeing one or two or three people actually seeing how each of them is
a representation of only themselves as individuals.
>>Chris: So this is an illustration of the methodology. Just to make it clear, what we
really do, as naive as it seems, is we simply touch black men wherever we are. We, there
are instances where we saw a black man who looked interesting. There was a guy in Chicago
who had a guardian angel's hat on. The very first man in our project was someone sitting
next to me on the plane. That I said "This project is something that gives black men
who have questions about other black men a chance to ask those questions and get answers."
And so we would simply go around and we'd say "Do you have a question you'd wanna ask
another black man you feel very different from?" And surprisingly black men no matter
where we were said "Sure, I have a question." And so they would sit in front of our little
makeshift studio, and you can see me here setting up lights around this person. And
we simply give them a chance to ask the question. So the questions come spontaneously from these
And then you can imagine that once you've built a critical mass of these really powerful
questions. And one of the things that Hank said is that this is perceived as an opportunity
by the men in it to really reach inside their own lives and be reflective about what do
they think defines a difference between them and somebody else.
You can imagine how different the project would be, what a different dynamic it would
be if we said "Do you have a question for someone that you admire?" What you would get
is a very very different process.
And this man was a librarian in the museum where we were appearing. And.
>>Hank: Birmingham Alabama.
>>Chris: And because we had no idea what the men were gonna ask, it was really remarkable.
So this is a good example.
>>Male #38: You know, I wonder, black man, are you really ready for freedom? And if not,
what would it take for you to want and need this freedom?
>>Chris: So you can imagine that once we have these questions, you are kind of assigned
by the nature of the project to try to find a place to get a poignant answer. Because
this question related to freedom, one of the things that a lot of the issues that came
up dealt with was the issue of the behavior of black men. And so we knew that we needed
to go to prisons if that was possible. I got the opportunity to teach meditation at the
county jail in San Francisco. The administration there became comfortable enough with me to
allow us to bring in cameras and lights. And so we asked, we presented that question in
video form to this man. And here's his answer.
>>Male #39. Am I ready for freedom? And what would it take for me to want that freedom?
First I would have to stop and ax myself, man. That's a tough question. 'cause freedom
to me is a mind state. You know, because you got some people that's not in jail that's
not free. You know, you got people that's in prison, in dysfunctional relationships.
You got people that's in prison with jobs. They work nine to five, that they don't like.
Some people are in prisons with alcohol and drug abuse. So I would have to, um, ax myself,
what's imprisoning me. And what's been imprisoning me is self-esteem. My lack of self-esteem.
My lack of self-esteem has led me to commit crime. To hurt people. To manipulate people.
Because if I loved myself there's no way I could walk outside this room and punish somebody.
And esteem within myself. So to be free, to me, would have to be, I would have to change.
You know. So in order for me to grow I have to change, because if change is necessary
for growth, in order for me to grow, I would have to adapt the mentality of something's
gonna have to change in me. I'd have to change my mind state. I'd have to change the way
I talk. I'd have to change the people I interact with. That would be "free."
>>Hank: So one of the things that was so fascinating to me, actually having in the room with Chris
and Bayete when we showed this question. That was his immediate, three seconds later response
to seeing that image on the screen. And I think watching some of your faces here, it's,
your experience and that feeling that we feel like really works for Question Bridge. Like,
how else were we gonna get someone to give that kind of authentic response. Or, if you
walked up on the street corner like, you know, do, what is it, you know? Asked 'em that freedom
question. "Do you really feel free?" Is that what are they gonna say? Or you go to jail,
whatever. And I think that potency for the project was something that really got us through
the doors and things like the Bay Area Video Coalition's and the Producers Institute and
Sundance where we met Eric Dovesburger who works here at Google. And Sundance New Frontier
story lab with Bayete and Kamal Sinclair. Went, were at BAVC—this is Kamal, kind of
being, kind of very efficient with our ideas. And started to think about how all the ways
our project could work. And initially we thought about doing a documentary. And as we started
to brainstorming, the documentary kind of fell to like fifth place among the ways the
project could grow. So we thought about the art installation. There's a website that we're
working on. And then Kamal, Chris and Bayete put together a curriculum that is being used
and piloted in ninth through twelfth grade classes in the Bay Area and also in New York.
And then these community events that we've been doing. And then hopefully eventually
it'll happen, we can do the documentary.
But we approached Rene DeGuzman from the Oakland Museum and also the Brooklyn Museum about
this idea of having a simultaneous launch of the installation and we showed this kind
of 3D animation of how the installation might work.
[many voices talking on animation]
>>Male #1 in animation: So much. So many of you, using the racial slur. And you know what
word I'm talkin' about. It's very serious. We have to stop usin' it. Why don't you stop?
>>Male #2 in animation: I think it's bullshit that black people can't say "nigger." I love
saying "nigger" and I think it's' fantastic. First of all it's one of the most beautiful
words to use in the English language because it can express so much. Much like the word
"f---" The other thing is, you can't give white people magic power over us with a word.
Like if we stop saying a word because white people use it poorly. That's an absurdity.
And it also gives them much more power than they would have if we just used the word freely
and enjoyed ourself with it. We have much bigger issues.
>>Male #3 in animation: I think it's a ignorant statement and I refuse to use it myself. And
I've heard the argument that by saying it in popular culture we're desensitizing the
effect of this word. I think that's foolish. And it just blows me away when I hear people
who are not even black now, like other minorities who are around black people when they say
this. Have no idea of the historical significance in this word. And I think they're showing
their own ignorance by continuing to say this word in public.
>>Male #4 in animation: For myself, among friends and people I've known for a long time,
and that we understand each other or feel we understand each other, we can use that,
use "the N word." That's the way I look at it, and I hate to hear people, when they say
you shouldn't use the word in any setting, as if no other group, no one ever discusses
that other groups, racial groups do the same thing. They use the word among Italians, Polish,
Irish, I've heard them say it among themselves. They call each other "dago," "pollack," "guinea,"
"mick," and, but you understand that you can't use that word in their group. And how it would
be taken. So it's a little different. It depends on what setting you're in and who's using
the word.
Chris: So what you're seeing here is a CGI that we put together to help us think through
how do we deliver this content. What we've gathered is so precious. I mean one of the
things you saw on this slide was the dynamic of a powerful question letting loose so many
different answers. And we realized what we need to do is honor all of those answers and
give people a chance to feel as if they were surrounded by these black men in almost a
sacred space. That's why they're organized on five pillars in kind of an arc. So you
have a chance to sort of be embraced by the people that are talking. And what we wanted
the people who were witnessing this to feel like as if they were sort of invisible. They
were privileged witnesses to this very intense conversation that has many dimensions.
'Cause what you see from this little sequence is, a question like something like the word
"nigger." Generates so many different answers. There's no general agreement among black men
about how to relate to that word. So one of the things that we felt like we needed to
do in putting together the installation was honor that diversity of values and give people
a chance to see that there's an internal debate that goes on within the greater consciousness
of black men about all these issues. And the range of issues that this project automatically
generated was really almost it was inspiring. As she said earlier, we spent four years traveling
to a dozen cities around the country. Sampling black men talking. And one of the things that
always surprised us was as Hank said, how prepared these men were to answer those questions.
So it gave us a chance to thing conceptually, why was that possible. It's certainly a pressurized
situation when you invite a stranger into the studio. You put a camera and a monitor
in front of them and give them a chance to talk. Why does it work? And one of the things
we realized is that internally, marginalized people, and maybe all of us, are sort of rehearsing
answers that to questions that float over us like a cloud. And so what we're doing is
tapping into this question cloud that people are looking for opportunities to share. So
that's what Question Bridge is more than anything else. It's a vehicle for the transference
of inner truths that are always there and when you tap into a demographic that really
is underrepresented. One of the things that we thought about is that it's very much like
giving Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" a place to speak. That's what this is about.
'Cause if you look at black men all around you, they have so much to tell us about survival,
about accountability, about consequences. One of the things that we were, it was vital
for us to do was not populate this project with too many well-known black men. We wanted
it to feel as if you could walk out and encounter any black man in the world. And that would,
that person could be part of Question Bridge.
So we had this idea [chuckles] and then the question is, what do you do with it? And once
it sort of formulated itself into the idea of the installation, we were very lucky to
get an opportunity to do a presentation at the Brooklyn Museum and much to our surprise
they embraced it. Almost immediately. And not only were they willing to commit a six
month installation of the show, but it's actually still there. But then they encountered Rene
de Guzman who's sitting here with us and Rene and Charles Edemere decided to make a bi-coastal
representation of it. So here's this representation of black men talking on both sides of the
country. We also the next slide will show that we opened this year at New Frontier at
Sundance which was a real honor. We also simultaneously opened at the Utah Museum of Contemporary
Art and the City of Atlanta committed the Chastain gallery to a single channel version.
We'll be showing you a version of that shortly. The way the five channel dynamics looks when
you condense it down to one channel. These are installations, shots of the way it appears
in Brooklyn. Every space of course has to treat it a little bit differently. At Oakland
for example it's divided between two galleries, and what it amounts to is a three hour, five
channel, high definition experience. You can imagine for us going to Sundance what it was
like to sort of be there as directors of this high definition three hour movie. And the
project, as Hank said, organically needed to represent itself in many different ways.
So one of the different things we did was collaborate with InnoVent, a software development
and web design company. And we created this mobile app. Because what we realized was that
it was really important for us to get the experience of the presence of a black man
asking you a question out into the world. So what the kiosk experience in the museums
allows you to do is have preselected questions presented to you. You get to identify yourself.
In terms of your demographic. Also in terms of a few keywords that you think define your
sense of who you are. And then you get to use the web cam built into the kiosk, into
the iPad, to actually answer that question and present that back to the world.
>>Hank: And this is yet another Google employee, Bernardo Fernandez, was one of the first people
to come and test out the mobile app, and was actually impressed by it, which we felt like
was a major achievement.
And so what was really exciting about actually having the opening is seeing on, literally
dozens of people kind of crowd around this installation. And the fact that it is a five
channel, three hour installation is something we never expected people to engage in on that
level. We tried to make it something that people could exit or enter at any point. We
also made the education curriculum available online. So people could download it and engage
with their family, friends, but also of course students. And then
>>Chris: We should say that Kamal Sinclair, our collaborator was really key in developing
that curriculum.
>>Hank: and then these ideas, one of the things that Chris really, was most moved by early
on was this idea of this intergenerational exchange. And I witnessed that very much watching
him and Bayete relate. Especially, I don't know, me and Bayete are the same age. But
there's this really amazing kind of way which as black men, they have such different perspectives
about things. And have the three of us having these kind of different couldn't agree on
what issues were central to black male identity. While we're doing this project about black
And so Chris, had this idea of why don't we actually see what it's like to put this format
to test in the public. Where we have this intergeneration exchange where we had these
things called blueprint round tables.
[video starts]
>>Male on video: I'm trying to figure out the parameters of blackness.
[video stops]
>>Hank: Whoa. Whoa. Oops. Sorry. I don't even know how that got in there. Oops. It was going
so smoothly. [laughs]
[audience laughs]
Let me see if I can skip that particular clip.
So this is a question that inspired this blueprint roundtables. We had our last one on Saturday
in Oakland which was supposed to be just a two hour exchange which went on to be this
four hour conversation with hundreds of people that stayed. And the one at the Oakland Museum
was very moving. I got teary eyed, and it was pretty amazing.
But this is the question that inspired that. [video starts]
>>Male #1: I love older people. I respect older people. I live for older people. 'cause
I come from somebody that's older. So first and foremost, I wanna say, we did do wrong.
We did things, we stuck on ourself. We did a lot of wrong things. You know. And for the
most part, it's I don't respect how you look down on us. You treat us a certain type of
way. It's alright. We gonna do it for the next 30 years. We gonna show you all. We gonna
do what we gotta do. But my whole thing is, my first and foremost. I should have just
said this from the beginning, but I'm gonna sum it up with this. Why didn't y'all leave
us the blueprint? Peace. >>Male #2: I suppose some of us, myself included,
feel like we did leave a blueprint. If you had experienced the euphoria that we felt
during the 60's,when we would see one another on a corner, and there wasn't no such thing
as you had to throw up some kinda gang sign. When you saw the black people, you weren't
like this, they weren't like that. Everything was just fine. That's not the way it is now.
I thought, me as an individual 'cause I can't speak to other people. I thought there would
be a continuum, I thought if I raised my children a certain way that things would stay that
way. I thought that we were progressing. I underestimated the seriousness of our enemies.
I underestimated them. That so much time and effort would be spent in dismantling those
things that brought about self-esteem, those things that brought about self-love. Those
things that brought about respect for one another. A great deal of time and energy was
spent dismantling that. By our enemies. And it is our fault. That we did not see that
for what it was. And combat it more thoroughly.
>>Male #3: I think maybe we did leave you a blueprint. And yet, we too were so busy
trying to survive, that we were not as organized and disciplined as maybe we should have been.
But speaking from the platform of Martin Luther King's civil right's movement. Martin Luther
King never had more than 100 people on his staff. And that was only for one or two movements.
He never had more than a half a million dollars a year to try to change the world. None of
us had a blueprint. But what he taught us to do and what we learned from Gandhi in India,
was that we could find our own way by standing up for the truth.
>>Male #4 Well, after the civil rights movement of the 60's proved to be very very successful,
I think blacks felt that we have crossed a threshold, and it's easy going from here on
in. But the worst was yet to come. I kinda think we thought that the waves would continue
to roll. And we did drop the ball. Only to find out later that other people were making
plans and were putting certain kinds of Negroes in heads of organizations and paying them
well. And they became the spokespersons for black people. And they became the protectors
of the plantation. Being paid by white people.
>>Male #5: I think that we left you the blueprint, we just didn't tell you where it was. It's
there. But we didn't just show it to you or lay it out. You had to look at us and see
what we were doing to find out. How to go about that blueprint. You see, some things
can't be explained to you. Some things you gotta look at a person and then you gotta
see what it is that they're doing. The blueprint is, you get an education. You don't just be
in the middle of the road. You don't try to be with the kids who don't do well. You try
to be the best. OK? You do as good as you can, no matter how angry people become when
you're really good. You know, what? Success is not easy. It is not. If it was, everybody
would be successful. It takes time. It takes hard work. And everybody's not geared for
hard work. Some people want it overnight. And it's not gonna happen that way. So what
you have to do it, we old people, we've laid the groundwork for you. We've already put
the blueprint out there. Now you might not like that blueprint. You might wanna alter
it in some way. And you can. But if you alter it, and it's not for the better, you will
not achieve what us old folks have achieved.
>> Chris: So again, you can imagine. You can see that what we're doing is, we're telling
a story. We're allowing the men in this project to tell the story. And in this case there
was a hunger for an intergenerational exchange that doesn't happen when the men don't have
fathers and grandfathers who are there. And so this project becomes a vehicle for talking
between generations.
[video starts]
>>Male #6: I'm tryin' to figure out the parameters of blackness. I know there's stuff that I'm
supposed to believe and read and listen to and look at if I'm definitely gonna be black.
Like in a heart of blackness. But I keep wondering, Suppose for example I prefer to listen to
classical music? Or I prefer to travel to places where there are no black people? Or
I like Picasso maybe even more than I like Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence. Am I still
black? Or exactly how do we figure out where these boundaries are. Or what we're supposed
to be if we want to be a part of this community?
>>Male #6: Oh my God. I am so f---ing sick of regulatory blackness. Because this is what
your question is all about. What do I have to do in order to prove my blackness. Let
me just answer your question like this. I know I come from a rich tradition that is
diverse as it is deep. I don't have to do particular things in order to prove that I'm
more or less black. I mean, that's absolutely ridiculous and I think it makes us schizophrenic.
I think it makes us crazy to run around thinking, well, if I don't listen to hip-hop, I'm not
black enough. Um, if I go to rock concerts or something like that, I'm being white. If
I do this or if I do that, I'm not seen as being a full black person in the black community.
F--- that shit. I'm black. I'm proud of that. And I don't have to adhere to all these cultural
norms in order to prove that.
>>Male #7: See, I've always believed in dealing with different type of people. I never was
set in stuck in like one type of box. So, basically the answer for that is, like, you
can do basically whatever you wanna do. Just always remember that everything comes from
black. You know what I mean? So if like, you can deal with whoever you wanna deal with.
I like white people. I gotta few white friends. You know what I mean? And there's not nothin'
wrong with that. It's your choice to do what you wanna do. But just always remember, try
to rub off and always try to take what you need to take from certain people and do what
you need to do with them, and create whatever you wanna create. Brothers.
>>Hank: This is one of the more compelling exchanges that we came across. Which I think
when we heard this question, I was, that was the first one when I was like OK, I think
we've reached our, our stopping point.
Whereas, Chris decided to forge forward and you kind of see where it led us.
[video starts]
>>Male #1: Alright, cool, so this is my question. I've got a lot of brotha's in the hood, listenin'
to a lot of rap music. And I just wanna know, what is so cool about selling crack? Cause
someone tell me that. Why is that so glorified in the music and the things that we talk about?
>>Male #2: Well, for myself, when I came up crack was a quick way for a black man to make
a million dollas. I'm 40 years old. In '85 when the crack scene hit. I was 15, 16 years
old. Watching two parents work dog hard to death. And watchin' the dude next door who
was selling crack ride big cars. To me, I thought that was cool. And once I learned
how to sell crack, and learned how to acquire my own money. And steal, learn how to have
things white folks was havin' and get up when I wanted to get up. To me, that was cool.
>>Male #3: To me, crack is wack. But to most people I think, why to most people my age
and where I come from, my community, I think it's cool because you could make money. You
know, you could really just sit on your butt and, you know, make some money. Don't really
have to do nothin' except you have to watch for cops and you be paranoid and everything.
>>Male #4: Ain't nothing cool about being up there. Taking life chances. Sitting on
my corner. Not knowin' what's gonna occur at any given minute. Tryin' to get some, what
material possession. [coughing]
Ain't nuttin' cool out there. I mean, oppressing my people because I'm hurt. Hurt people hurt
people. Ain't nuttin' cool with that. Ain't nuttin cool with me sellin' crack to my mama.
Takin' the Christmas toys away from my little siblings. 'Cause I'm charging my mama a hunnred
for a dime on credit.
>>Male #3: I believe, like, sellin' drugs is just, um, as much of an addiction as the
person that is using it. You know, you see that money, you get a high.
>>Male #4: I gotta answer for everything I do. My actions and my inactions. And I've
been a part of bullshit. And I didn't see it on the streets, I was blinded to what,
the delusion of grandeur. Thinkin that I'm greater than life itself. And I wasn't. you
feelin' me? I'm responsible for hella hurt that I caused people like broken families
out there. I'm responsible for children that's incarcerated right now as we speak. I'm incarcerated
for death out there based on me selling crack because I never know what a person had to
do to go get it. You feelin' me? I'm responsible for that shit. Ain't nuttin cool with that.
And at nighttime I sit and I sleep in my cell man. And I sit there lost in thoughts man.
Damn. I'm responsible for a lot of things. And um [sighs] Man. I ain't know why it's
up for that. Just sitting here with the bullshit that I created. Just sittin' here and watch
my people sit here and cry. I'm responsible for everything. I hold myself accountable.
Shit. But I been committed suicide a long time ago when I was a part of that bullshit.
Now I claim my life. And I'm a part of something that's greater. And that's the solution.
>>Chris: [sighs] So, again, you can imagine what it was like to be in the presence of
that kind of disclosure that came spontaneously from this man just given an opportunity to
do it. The same thing is true in this example here. We had no idea what this man was gonna
[video starts]
>>Male #1: This may seem like a silly question. I wanna know, am I the only one who has a
problem eat'n chicken, watermelon, and bananas in front of white people.
[other men laugh and comment]
>>Male #2: I don't have a problem with it. Period.
>>Male #3: No, I'm gonna be honest with you. I don't even eat watermelon because of the
connotations that it has around black people. Um, but I will eat some chicken though.
[men laugh]
>>Male #4: I never heard the bananas one. I never heard. Bananas, really?
>>Male #5: I don't know if you the only one, but it's not a problem for me to eat whatever
I wanna eat in front 'a anybody.
>>Male #6: you're not the only one brother, to be honest. Every time I still eat chicken.
I eat a lot of watermelon. And I love bananas. But I'm always lookin' over my shoulder. Wherever
I'm at, seein' who's watching me eat this watermelon and this piece of chicken. And
this banana. Always. You not the only one.
>>Male #7: No, I know plenty of African Americans who as a rule will not eat watermelon in front
of white folks. Now, for me, I've difficulty relating to the question only in the sense
that I've never ever liked watermelon.
And I don't eat meat. So I don't find myself in the situation [laughs] where chicken and
watermelon comes to a head. But I do know that there are times where you feel like you
are the stereotype. Because you know, if they say "Hey do you wanna go play some basketball?"
And of course I love basketball. I played it every single day. But there's a part of
me that wants to say "Nah. I don't wanna play any basketball. What makes you think I wanna
play basketball?" But in those moments, I think we have to be honest with ourselves.
And just know that there are some things that are true. Yes. You know. We like chicken.
We like watermelon. And there's nothin' wrong with that and it's nothin' to be ashamed of.
>>Male #8: it's not a silly question brother. My family sells 50,000 pounds of watermelon
every week in the streets of South Chicago, Milwaukee, and Gary, Indiana. And have been
since 1953. And we're OK with that.
[laughter] And by the way, I like fried chicken. 'Fact,
I'm gonna make some tonight.
>>Male #9: I don't know if you're the only one ashamed. I'm not ashamed, but I do give
chicken a second thought sometimes. Even when I mention it. But I always pass it off as
sort of like in a jokey joke way. 'Cause I do love chicken. Watermelon. I don't eat watermelon
so much. So I'm not really so much ashamed of it. Bananas, I hadn't thought about bananas
because I was always thinking about banana, because I'm gay in a sexual way. So when I
put a banana, I'm always self conscious in front of anybody. Just because, sexuality.
But not because of race.
>>Male #10: I thin really the question leads to a deeper question. Why are we so concerned
what they think about us? I mean, you know, that's what the real question is. I don't
really care. You know, I know somewhere in there, I do care, but in my consciousness
and what I'm gonna say is, I don't really care what they think. You know, I don't need
their approval in order for me to go ahead and be me. Or for me to do my job. You know,
or for me to be who I'm gonna be. I don't need their approval. I don't need their jaw.
None of that. You know, I think it's' really important that we stop worrying about what
they think and start worrying about what you think about yourself. And maybe what the little
black kid next door to you thinks about you. F--- some white person thinkin' about what
they think about you eatin' a watermelon or anything else. Your shoes, your jacket. Your
hat backwards. I don't go with the saggin' pants but you know, whatever you do. And that's
because it's your cultural identity or your food or whatever. What they think about it
is not really important.
>>Hank: So this is, and you saw that exchange between the heaviness of the crack questions
and kind of the, I think the, we have so many other, my favorite answer to that particular
question isn't even in here. Because we had, there's so many different kind of answers
and what we found is everyone is an expert about something. Everyone like, we found this
guy who said my family's sold watermelons for 60 years. You know, like these are the
kind of things that lie beneath, in every one of us in this room there's all these things
that we don't ever think about how they relate, how we relate to one another. I'm gonna skip
this one. And then show you this clip and then we're gonna pretty soon wrap up.
[video starts]
>>Boy: I have a question. How do you know when you become a man?
>>Male #1: Wow, that's deep question for such a young person. How would you know when you
become a man. Well, basically, responsibility. You're able to take on assume responsibility.
Hold fast to your commitments to yourself first, your family and the community of which
you live in. And if you can do those things, you're on your way to manhood.
>>Male #2: The question of when you become a man, you're born a man. When you become
of age, may be a more relevant question. But some of us become of age, many many times
throughout the course of their lives. I thought that I was a man at 21, ready to write memoirs
of all my experience. You know. And so I don't know how many times that I thought I knew
the answer to everything. And so I'm here again [laughs] thinking that I know it all.
But you, you'll know.
>>Male #3: Young man, there are a couple of different factors that make you a man. You
have to be financially stable. That's one. You definitely got to have your own place.
Own roof over your head. You have to go to college. You know that's for all the young
men out there. That's one step that you gotta take in order to lead to financial stability.
And you have to be taking care of yourself. And buy your mama a house. Then you become
a man.
>>Male #4: I think sometimes, I still try to answer that question, whether or not I've
become a man. I grew up in a single family home without a father. But I'm the youngest
of seven and I have six older brothers who taught me about being a man. And so part of
that is trying to be responsible to my family. And to my loved ones. And being a responsible
citizen. But I think each of us have to find our own way to that path. Of what it means
to be a man.
>>Male #5: Young brother, it, you know, I knew I became a man when I had to take on
certain responsibilities and obligations with family, community and otherwise.
>>Male #6: Oh, that's a fine question there. I think that one of the mistakes that we often
make is thinking that the first time that we're intimate with a woman, that now we're
a man. In traditional societies, in order for boys to go into manhood, they had to go
through certain rituals which included them being prepared to fit whatever role they had
in that society. If they were hunters, they'd learn how to hunt. If they were farmers, they'd
learn how to farm. If they were fishermen, they learned how to fish. And when they were
through with everything that prepared them to be a responsible member of that particular
community and that particular town or village or tribe or whatever, they were given visible
symbols of their completion. A scar on the face, a type of clothing, a type of jewelry
or something that they wore that a woman could look at them and say "Well this person is
now a man."
>>Male #7: Young'un, Young'un. Hooo. I'm still tryin' to figure that out myself. Um, it's,
it's tough. It's really tough. I just for me, I really don't know when that's gonna
happen. Right now I'm just trying to take these strides in what society thinks a man
is, you know. Going to school and getting a job, and being able to stand on my two feet.
It's gonna be a difficult road. But It's probably gonna be well worth it.
>>Hank: So, we have all of this content. We have actually more than 1500, we have almost
2000 now, question answer exchanges. And so we worked with Ryan Alexiev, who's here also
today to kind of start to, he also designed our iPad app. And we have a beta form of a
mobile app that we did with InnoVent. But the main thing that we're really hoping to
get to as engagement energies are these posters that we can distribute and a lot of people
using QR codes and
>>Chris: NFC tags.
>>Hank: NFC tags to actually respond to questions from their mobile devices. But also to log
onto our website which we hope someday soon will be user generated. Where you can kind
of look at questions, upload your own answers to questions and then have these different
ways of searching questions and answers through this integrated identity map. As well as a
map based on what kind of values people are kind of representing. Through locations, and
things like that. And then lastly just using the slide of one of Bayete Ross Smith, one
of our collaborator's work. To show kind of how our hopefully we, our ultimate goal of
the Question Bridge will lead to showing that within each individual is a much more complex
and diverse human being that no one could be deduced to a simple demographic stereotype
or notion.
>>Chris: one of the ways that we symbolize that is by emphasizing that the title of this
project is Question Bridge, colon, Black Males. The colon is really important. There really
is no reason why this methodology couldn't be applied to any demographic. And that's
one of our aspirations.
>>Hank: Especially when it's not even race or gender specific. Question Bridge Google.
>>Chris: So thank you.
>>Hank: Thank you all.
>>Stacy: Feel free to ask questions with the mic.
>>Audience Member #1: So I, your project is a fascinating amalgam of psychology and sociology
and politics and art and I guess my question is about the artistic and the maybe political
part. Or anthropological part. I don't know. But as the people doing the selection curation
of this material, and deciding how to present it and which parts of it to present to the
people who interact with it or, and become a part of the project, in that way or to the
people who maybe go to the Oakland Museum and view the installation. Obviously you bring
some biases very openly to your selection process and you've articulated some of them.
Like there's value in the diversity of this demographic. And I'm sure you probably have
a very conscious awareness of the role that your biases play in the selection of this
stuff. And which parts are you gonna emphasize, which are the interesting parts. I'm interested
in your comments about how do you decide which are the right biases to apply in choosing
the material? And which ones are the ones that you might try to suppress?
>> Chris Johnson: Well, I think the essence of that goes back to the fact that as I said
at the beginning of this, this is a project that even though it does share methodologies
and values that anthropology, sociology, psychology does, journalism, for example. All of those
are pursuits of truth, but because it's a work of art, what drives all those decisions
are, first of all, the initial experience that we feel like we wanna convey. I mean,
that's primary. And because the initial experience of this is our experience as black men, our
understanding of how complex we are as individuals. Our experience of the fact that because we
are marginalized, I use the notion of us being opaque. That the mission of this as artists
is to have visibility. For those black men. And so what we wanna do is listen very carefully
to the stories that emerge. And then sense where there's an implied narrative arc, like
where the meaning lies by the juxtaposition and sequencing of these questions. And you
can see that in the sequences. So you make those decisions intuitively. Hoping you're
creating an experience that becomes an exchange between us as artists and you as viewers.
And then you use formal strategies, of course the framing. And I talked a little bit about
the way the installation is designed. You know try to be inclusive. Those are all things
that are driven by our sensibilities as artists. And then we hope that experience is transformative
for the viewers.
>>Hank: Well, I agree with him to a degree. I think one of the things he didn't mention
'cause he's being diplomatic is, we argue. [chuckles] Because it's a collaboration and
it's a collaboration and the making of a five channel, three hour project, you have, we
have like six or seven voices involved. And not all of them are African American males.
And we each have different subjects. Different people who, like this is, I love this person
or I love that person. And I think part of the reason that its' also, it becomes more
complex is because no one single vision is defining this conversation. We're very sensitive
to that aspect. The only reason its' even three hours is because we didn't have time
to make it six hours. Because we have over 85 hours of like really great content. And
I think, you know, if Chris were left to his own devices. If I was left, I'd make it one
thing, and that's, I think this project, one of the things that it really tries to challenge
is this idea of an authoritative narrative voice. That within especially social sciences
says, I have an expert from the outside that's gonna come in and apply these generic kind
of format to finding out information about a certain group.
Whereas our project is really organic. you know, Chris will walk up to somebody on the
street. Or Bayete will call somebody in another place. Or Kamal will say, oh I happen to know.
Everybody happens to know some black man somewhere. So the diversity is implied in the way that
we find people. And then we show them questions and when we first, Chris asked them to pose
a question and they would give a question and the bias was in me, Chris, and Bayete's
selection of question we showed them based off the question they asked.
>>Chris: But let me just give a further answer. What emerged as Hank said, was in a sense,
a synthesis of two key things. One of them had to do with healing. And so you heard me
talk about how the project was for me a chance to try to create a connection between these
different segments of the African American community. Who for historical reasons were
separated and needed each other. So that one has a sense of empowerment and freedom to
move through opportunities and the greater world. Others have a strong sense of community,
belonging to each other. And so, wanting to heal that. So healing became one theme. And
that could have been the driving force behind the whole project. But another one emerged
that was really important. And that is representation. The opportunity of black men through this
format to speak and define themselves. Without an author telling them what to say, and how
to say it. And so those dynamics played out even within a particular sequence. And that's
what gives it such depth and richness, I think.
>>Male audience member #1: Thank you.
>>Male audience member #2: I just have a quick question. Do you guys ever film reactions?
When they hear like 15 different answers, like how their opinions might have changed
after that.
>>Hank: you wanna take that?
>>Chris: Well, sure. As you can imagine part of the process entails filming the person
while they're listening to the question. Sometimes that's really important. And the way that
would work, this is something Hank and I did sort of telepathically. He would give me a
cue that this question is gonna prompt a response. And I would be really careful to capture that.
And then you could see how we used some of that footage. The headers. In and out of a
question. As a way to create a dynamic of exchange in the installation. And so we definitely
captured as much of that as possible. But one technical thing, working in digital video,
you become very mindful of disc space. So we sometimes would see things running out
and so we more, conservative about what we captured. But yeah, that was part of it. That
was part of it.
>>Hank: But also one of the factors of Chris's original question for this project. I wish
we had the time to do, was to take certain, and Chris especially has ambition, a mission,
to go back and find the man who asked the peaceful question. And show him the range
of answers we got to that question. And I think the, basically a rebuttal. That that
was part, you did.
>>Chris: Closing the loop.
>>Hank: Closing the loop. And the original Question Bridge project that we haven't really
had a chance because we have to track down these 160 men. But we will.
>>Female audience member: On that note, thank you very much for coming to Google today.
[jazz music plays]