The names seem to pile up in the American imagination: Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, and Michael Brown. We know the circumstances of their deaths, but we have never heard their stories directly from them, silenced as they were on the perception that they were dangerous criminals.
In Baltimore City, artist Gracie Xavier has undertaken a community art project, titled Black Men in Focus (BMIF) that documents the stories of Black men, allowing them to tell their own stories and focusing attention on them for a reason other than their extra-judicial killing.
“The whole thing was to go against, not so much police brutality, but the picture of “we’re always going to be a mugshot,” “you’re always going to be in jail,” or “you’re always going to end up dead or shot or having that confrontation with police,” and that’s not all of our stories,” said Xavier. “Where do you hear the voice of the Black men about the other things that they do, that they’re fathers, uncles, and that other things matter to them.”
The project began as part of Xavier’s master’s degree in community art thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and sought Black men willing to share their stories and pass on their accumulated wisdom. The project will culminate with an online survival guide for young Black men based on the life experiences of BMIF participants. “Some people are like, ‘Why do you want to build a survival guide, shouldn’t it be a thrive guide?’” said Xavier. “Because there are kids that are just in survival mode. They need the basic needs, they can’t even get to the part where we’re talking about enrichment and all that stuff, because ‘I need to eat,’ ‘I need to know where I sleep.’”
To help facilitate the interviews, Xavier turned to Dr. LaMarr Shields of the Paul Robeson Academic International School of Excellence (PRAISE). PRAISE is a Saturday college readiness program for boys of color in Baltimore.
Shields helped facilitate a number of Xavier’s photo shoots and interviews, with PRAISE students asking many of the questions. Vincent Ebron asked some of those questions. Being a person of my age, right now, is rough,” said Ebron. “There’s always bullets flying everywhere that don’t have a name – innocent people are always in the wrong place at the wrong time. And people my age are always being disrespected a lot, just because we’re young and people don’t think we know things. Especially with the police, with that situation, they see us as evil.”
Ebron found talking to older Black men about life lessons valuable and has put some of those lessons into practice. “I learned how to not let small things – like racial things, stuff like that – get to me,” Ebron said. “Just keep my head up and laugh at it, and just walk away from it basically.”
About BMIF, Shields said, “Using media as a tool is very very powerful. Using the camera, using the lens, using the social media – I think any type of media can be used in a positive way to shed the light on how we view things. This is an opportunity for us to tell our own story. Quite often throughout history, [for] men of color, other people are telling our stories.”
Xavier continues to conduct interviews at local barber shops and hopes to conduct interviews in her home borough of Brooklyn, New York City, as well as in nearby Philadelphia and Washington D.C. More information on the project, and upcoming interview sessions can be found online at facebook.com/blackmeninfocus and on Twitter under the handle @blackmeninfocus.