Exploring the Double Consciousness of African-American Males

With a nod to W.E.B. Du Bois, the Question Bridge exhibit probes the experience of black men.

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Question Bridge at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City in 2012

Yosra El-Essawy

Aiming to break down stereotypes among and about African-American males, Question Bridge: Black Malesa traveling transmedia project—is now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Its tour around the country has also included stops at the Brooklyn Museum and the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibition will be open at the Corcoran, and at the Corcoran’s Community Gallery THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus) in Southeast D.C., until Feb. 16.

When walking up to the exhibition, you are presented with two iPads that feature beta versions of the Question Bridge app. Users not only can learn more about the project but also can click through questions such as “What are you doing to make your world and your community a better place?” and “How do we break the cycle?” Or simply, “What does it mean to you to be a black male?”

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Question Bridge at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012

Yosra El-Essawy

Various video responses by other black men are then played for the viewer. All of the speakers are African-American males, but oftentimes that is all they have in common. Respondents come from a diverse group separated by age, income, geographic location, career, education level and ideology. This gives viewers the option of browsing through the kinds of questions and answers that they might be personally interested in while still getting to the base of the project’s goal: to show that not all black men are created equal.

Once you step into the exhibition space, you are presented with an entirely new multimedia experience. To begin with, the walls of the gallery are bare except for two quotes on either side of the room, printed in large, black letters:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it form being torn asunder. —W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903

There is something called black in America, and there is something called white in America, and I know them when I see them, but I will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them, because they are not real, even though they have a very real place in my daily way of seeing, a fundamental relationship to my ever-evolving understanding of history and a critical place in my relationship to humanity. —Carl Hancock-Rux, 2003

Several benches have been placed in the middle of the room, and as a viewer sitting there, you are surrounded by five TV screens in a half-circle, each one showing a black male either asking or answering a question.

Unlike with the iPads outside, you are not picking what you hear or clicking around and choosing. This time the topics are chosen for you, and you are the spectator. Different screens flick on and off to show a given male asking a question or discussing a topic, all done in a timed manner that makes viewers feel as though they’re having a bird’s-eye view into this intimate conversation about black males’ culture in America.

Between these two mediums—the iPad app and the video installation—the user is given two very different ways to experience this new kind of art, which is expertly brought to life by the project’s co-creators—Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayete Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair—as well as the nameless black men who participated.

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Question Bridge