'#Blackmendream': Showcasing A Different Side Of Black Manhood
Nine men sit turned away from the camera; their faces are never shown. Many are shirtless or naked. They answer questions like: When did you become a black man? Do you cry? How were you raised to deal with your emotions?
This short film, called #Blackmendream, is the latest piece by Philadelphia-based multidisciplinary artist Shikeith Cathey. His work centers around the social, cultural and political misconceptions about black men in America, and the new film explores the emotional experience of black men, born out of those misconceptions.
The men seem both vulnerable and powerful as they thoughtfully respond to these basic, but piercing, questions. To the viewer, there's a feeling that you're eavesdropping on a therapy session.
"That's the response that I would get after wrapping the interview," Shikeith, who goes by his first name, tells NPR's Arun Rath. "The participants, the men, they would say, 'I haven't been able to express like this in so long and it feels like a weight was lifted off of my shoulder.' "
He says most of the interview subjects were strangers, but it wasn't hard to get them to participate.
"Honestly, I just asked — and that was the point. These questions, as simple as they are ... they aren't discussed. I couldn't remember a time when someone asked me, 'How do you feel?' " he says.
"I think it's just assumed that I'm angry as a black man. It's assumed that I don't possess these feelings that are part of my humanity."
Shikeith does all of his work in black and white and says the aesthetic composition of this piece — the nudity, the fact that we never see the faces of the subjects — is all symbolic.
"I wanted to expose what it was like to be dressed in assumptions, before even opening your mouth to say hello."
He adds, "My work is a reflection of that internal battle all black men have to face when you're not necessarily seeing things in black and white, but rather in gray."
This project has gained a lot of attention, as it adds to conversations about race and police use of deadly force. But Shikeith says the timing is mere coincidence.
"I don't look at what's happening now as situational," he says. "It's not trendy; it's not something that just began. It's something that has been ongoing in this country for a very long time."
I don't look at what's happening now as situational. It's not trendy; it's not something that just began. It's something that has been ongoing in this country for a very long time.
The inspiration for #Blackmendream actually came two years ago, Shikeith says: "I posted a status on Facebook that said, 'What do black men run from?' "
He was expecting answers that revolved around misconceptions of black manhood. But instead, he got a lot of negative stereotypes — mostly from African-American men and women.
"They were writing, 'Black men run from the police, black men run from love, black men run from child support.' "
Disappointed, he set out to create a project that would change that conversation and showcase an emotional side of black masculinity.
He got a residency at Bunker Projects in Pittsburgh, supported by a grant from The Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh program — a partnership of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments. Going forward, he hopes the film and the hashtag will add to a more complex discourse around black manhood.
"We can be different. We can be ourselves. We can respect individuality within our own community. And as we project that, I think the community at large will understand more what it exactly is to be a black man. Overall there'll be a healing."
Watch the film here.
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