Portrait Of A Black Man

Portrait of a black man

Article published: Jackson Free Press, Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The other day, I stepped into a place that was quite familiar to me. It felt comfortable, forgiving, consoling, almost like home. There was a faint smell of old cologne and cigars in the air, chased by Eckstine’s “Jelly, Jelly” and “Jesus will fix it.” Standing among the portraits of black men in “Backbone: Dean Mitchell’s Images of African-American Men,” my nose started to itch with a sneeze at the memory of freshly cut grass and a smoking riding mower. I tasted too-buttery biscuits that melted in my mouth and greasy sausage I’ve never liked. Then there were the hospital beds, occupied by relatives and loved ones consumed by sickness. Yes, these portraits felt joyously, eerily and sadly recognizable. There among the portraits I saw my brother, uncles, father, lovers and friends. The experience was nothing short of surreal. The exhibit, with about 45 pieces, offers viewers an opportunity to see a side of a– group of people they may not have allowed themselves to see before—the humanity of the black man. The portraits “No Way Out” and “Boundary” introduce their audience to two imprisoned men. One man is in a jail cell, isolated from the world but also absent from it, as if he has withdrawn into himself. The other, emaciated and forlorn, peers out from between two constricting walls. In other portraits, there are young men taking a break from band practice and a stern usher who takes his duties seriously. One can easily imagine familiar figures like “Proud Preacher” or “Gordon” at the football game on Saturday evening or standing in line at the supermarket. A work I found particularly encouraging was “Release Me,” a painting of the artist’s uncle who had cancer. The old, sick man lies on a bed covered with a quilt that is printed with the names of people who have died, along with causes like “AIDS, homeless” and “poverty.” Yet, hidden among these sad truths is the word “peace,” which seems to sooth the rest of the quilt. As with any relationship, I’ve had my ups and downs with the black men in my life. Black men caused some of the most heart-wrenching disappointments I’ve had. But then there are the times when elation seems too small a word to describe the happiness they’ve brought me. To my pleasure, the formally trained, award-winning artist Dean Mitchell used a mixture of watercolors and oils to give spirit and a place in history to this human nature. Sadly, I had a conversation not long ago with someone who told me, “Black people shouldn’t need heroes to make themselves feel human,” and I wondered what else can make you human other than heroic moments punctuated by less-than-glorious ones. Mitchell says about the exhibit in his introduction: “[It] is intended to shine not a new light nor a romantic one, but one of truth. Throughout American history the black male image has been vilified, stereotyped and dehumanized through books and mass media. These (seemingly) average men are the backbone of our nation.” That said, the average men in these portraits are nothing less than everyday heroes in their own right. I will begrudgingly admit that I didn’t set out as soon as I should have to this exhibit. And if you’ve yet to go, you’re as guilty as I am of self-deprivation. Hurry to the Mississippi Museum of Art to “witness the America we should all know,” as Mitchell puts it. The exhibit leaves the museum on Feb. 26. Previous Comments ID 84486 Comment Mitchell says about the exhibit in his introduction: “Throughout American history the black male image has been vilified, stereotyped and dehumanized through books and mass media.” Enjoyed the article, but I feel it is a little one-sided. I think it is only fair to add that some of the stereotyping and dehumanizing has been self-inflicted due to the way some black males and for that matter black females conduct themselves. I feel all history is important, because no matter what your race there is something to learn from what everyone has done. Examples to imitate and mistakes to avoid. Author c a webb Date 2006-02-22T23:59:57-06:00 ID 84487 Comment Good article, Natalie. I will go see this, too. Yes, Natalie, the brothers have unjustifiably hurt lots of sisters; but, if you will date along all racial lines, you will find we’re not along in hurting people. I will pick a black female in a New York minute as a juror (or mate) but I often worry that she will have a flashback about some brother, just like my client, having done her wrong in the past. Author Ray Carter Date 2006-02-23T13:31:29-06:00 ID 84488 Comment First, let me say that I’m tickled that I wrote an article that evoked comments! Secondly, let me say that I typed a whole response and the computer threw it away or something so this time my response probably won’t be quite as passionate. You’re precisely right, Webb, the article was a bit one-sided–my side–and doesn’t pretend to be anything but. Mitchell’s quote was intended as an explanation of his pieces and this exhibit in particular. I earnestly agree with you that some of the dehumanization and stereotypes are perpetuated by some black men. I further agree that this behavior is ignored, tolerated and compounded by some black women. Those who know me will testify that if there’s one soapbox I have, stand atop while screaming at the top of my lungs, it’s the one that comes as a result of distress and sadness, because of the detriment that we seem to too often inflict upon ourselves. Hate is a strong word so I’ll tell you that I have a love/strong dislike relationship with my people. (I’m restraining myself from climbing onto said soapbox now!) Hopefully, one day soon I’ll have an occasion to express some of my thoughts about this. I think it goes without saying that I don’t have all the answers. But I know this one thing for sure. If we’re ever going to come up with solutions to this, among other problems, open, honest dialogue is imperative. Marcus Garvey was quoted once as having said, “Up, you mighty race of people! You can accomplish what you will.” Oh, how I wish that we would take this to heart. Author nacollier Date 2006-02-23T19:40:41-06:00 ID 84489 Comment Sorry to disappoint you, Ray, but if there’s a female who’s experienced a break-up (be she red, yellow, black or white) she’s had flashbacks. And HIS race, national origin and eye color play no part in it. Break-ups = flashbacks! When I referenced disappointment and joy that I’d experienced because of black men, though, the sentiment reached much further than dating relationships. My father was a black man, my brother is a black man and the list goes on. Because of my relationships with them, my interactions with others have been impacted. If this is a good thing or a bad thing, it is what it is. Since we’re talking about dating, though, let me say this. The single most important thing an individual can do in a relationship is to be self-aware. I know this sounds selfish, but the truth as I see it. If you’re self-aware, chances are you’re a lot more likely to acknowledge the emotional baggage that you’re carrying. In which case, it’s easier to escape being the bag lady Erykah Badu sang about and just put the bags down. When this happens, more often than not, the flashbacks will probably become less frequent. Guess I’ll stop talking now… Author nacollier Date 2006-02-23T19:41:15-06:00 ID 84490 Comment Natalie, Let me say for the record that my comment had nothing to do with your writing style, which I thought was great. I just feel that sometime we as black males have to take the responsibility for some of the things we have brought on ourselves. Not all of us are bad. I’m not (hopefully) that bad and there are plenty others. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing to offset the others. Author c a webb Date 2006-02-23T21:03:09-06:00 ID 84491 Comment Hey, hey, hey…I didn’t think that your comment had anything to do with my writing style. My b-a-d if I gave that impression! Again, I concur with your determination about responsibility. It’s the first step towards rectifying the institutional and systematic repression, oppression and depression one faces, and it’s the first step that the “institution” itself must take as well. The next questions are how do we take responsibility? what does taking responsibility look like? and where do we go from there? Author nacollier Date 2006-02-23T22:58:59-06:00 ID 84492 Comment Natalie, for myself being a black man, I feel a responsibility to be true to myself, not the stereotypes that have been formed about people who may look at me. It could be as simple as taking a stand for your personal taste in dress (i’m not a fond of showing my butt or oversized clothes, but if others like it… hey, that’s them) and grooming. It could also mean being aware of why I do the things I do in “everyday life”. Am I really doing what I want to do or what others who might share my skin color do just to fit it. I guess it was a little different for me going to a prodominently white school and living in a prodominently white community, I never felt I had to “act white” to fit in. People liked me— well, those that did like me (smile)— because I didn’t feel pressured to conform. That’s why I said in the first comment that we add to the negativity by the way we present ourselves. If you are from “the hood” or whatever, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion or be intelligent. I’m in no way saying that you won’t still be discriminated against. I haven’t experienced what I call blatant discrimination, but I know it’s there. If I do what I’m supposed to do as a responsible human being— no matter what color I am— at the end of the day that is what will be remembered. Author c a webb Date 2006-02-24T08:03:39-06:00 ID 84493 Comment Thanks for the lesson that I arguably already knew, Natalie. I don’t mind the flashbacks but hope they don’t happen when I’m begging one of you to give my client life without possibility of parole as opposed to a death sentence. Have some mercy on us. Haven’t many of you already concluded we’re dogs anyway. A dog will be a dog. Perhaps we should be treated like a dog, too. I don’t know. Any further lessons would be appreciated. Author Ray Carter Date 2006-02-24T09:39:44-06:00 ID 84494 Comment Thanks for the heads up. I will try to get out and see it. We do not celebrate the everyday people (especially sisters) often enough. John Dittmer’s “Local People” should be required reading for Mississippians in high school. He talks about the local (every day) heroes. Author FreeClif Date 2006-02-24T18:10:55-06:00 ID 84495 Comment It’s certainly a wonderful idea to not aim to mold one’s self to other’s stereotypes of them. Can you imagine if that was one of our main priorities? “I must be who they think I am.” God…I’m stressed from only thinking about it for those three seconds! It’s of utmost importance that we learn of ourselves and show who we are (at least in part) to those we encounter. (I’ve learned the hard way that everyone doesn’t deserve to be witness to your fully exposed authentic self. Sorry, that’s the therapist in me coming out.) You’ve never experienced blatant discrimination? Wow! I don’t know rather to congratulate you or to try to convince you that you probably have but were too…ummm….gracious to acknowledge it. The last time (about two weeks ago) I had a conversation with someone enumerating just a few of the times I’d been discriminated against, I started crying. My tears caught even me off guard! What’s sad is, the first time I ever encountered prejudice based on race, I was in the third grade; the last time, I was in college. What’s ironic is, despite my constant reminders of the fact that I’m black, I have even up into recent years been told that I “act white” (by black people and white people). What is that? Acting white? Acting black? How do we teach our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, neighbors and mentees that it’s okay to be themselves, whoever that may be? Audre Lorde Taylor says, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I’d be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.” Didn’t really address what you talked about, did it?! Author nacollier Date 2006-02-25T19:12:34-06:00 ID 84496 Comment Of course you already knew that, Ray. Relationship post-traumatic stress disorder is pretty much a certainty! You know, I think it’s beyond unfortunate that this idea that all women think all men are dogs continues to linger. (I know you didn’t say all. I did.) Honestly, I have never heard one woman I know refer to a guy as a dog. It just seems so circa 1992 “Boomerang” soundtrack “Reversal of a Dog.” If I have further lessons, I’d offer them. What’s the specific topic? I love conversational exchanges. Well, except when I feel like being quiet! Author nacollier Date 2006-02-25T19:33:41-06:00 ID 84497 Comment You know the mark of a great article is the dialogue that follows….I must say this has been some interesting dialogue. I went to Mitchell’s showing and I must say I was taken back to a very comforting place in my life. Viewing these portraits of our black men in varying places in life reminded me of my experiences with black men whether they are good or bad. Though some experiences with black men in my life have not been the best I try not to let that forge my view of black men I come across in the future. I definitely don’t think men are “dogs” circa Boomerang, nor do I think my view of them would cloud my judgment as a juror. Your article was very personal and gave us and wonderful insight not only into the art but into you life as well. That’s an extremely brave thing to do, and I am glad you did it. I definitely look forward to reading more from you. Peace and Blessings Author analog girl in a digital world Date 2006-02-27T18:01:05-06:00