Listen Here – Countdown to History
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Harlem residents in front of shop listening to the radio, 1930s.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1930 – 1939. Link: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/75ece515-a29e-388d-e040-e00a180601f1
“This was the work I truly loved. The meetings … with people who seemed to step out of the pages of black history. The singing, the eloquence, the determination and hope in their faces, the spirit. People who carried so much vulnerability in their eyes, who knew exactly what they were risking by being there, but being there anyway, steadfast.” Stokely Carmichael, from his memoir, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. [Page 462]
… In general, the goal of a Proof of Concept is to test whether or not an idea is viable. It does not focus on the marketability or production cost of a product or service, but it mainly tries to answer the question, “Is the idea achievable? …”
From the beginning, in 1993, when I first asked myself, ‘What IS a happy Black man,’ and in 2010, when I started the Black Man of Happiness Project, I trusted that a dimensional exploration of Black male joy – in cultural work and community engagement programs – would contribute to an inspirational ecology and help generate healthy impacts and outcomes.
Although as a rule, I trust the ineffable as primary fuel for my work, I knew how important it would be to ‘prove’ the value of this life-affirming theme, given how the very concept of a happy Black man felt foreign, unexplored, and invisible in the larger public sphere.
In 2020, I discovered the 1965 photo of Stokely Carmichael sitting in communion with Mr. Jack Crawford of Lowndes County, Alabama. I knew I’d found the proof I needed to keep myself motivated, to keep myself crafting the language to describe my quest, and to keep repping my innervisions that happiness is an indispensable, yet underutilized, tool for personal and social development.
Photo by Douglas R. Gilbert © 1965
* Front Porch: Stokely Carmichael (l) with Jack Crawford during SNCC voter registration campaign in Lowndes County Alabama. Douglas R. Gilbert, photographer, LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-L9-60-8812] Helen Cate, Research Librarian; Funded in part by The Pollination Project; #SeedTheChange; design by @Julie Ray Creative
Also when I read that quote in Mr. Carmichael’s memoir, I was uplifted into a knowing that my respect for each brother’s individuality was the right celebratory ‘grass roots’ orientation for this quest.
And this month, I’m showcasing that individuality in a new, limited edition, ‘PROOF OF CONCEPT’ publication called See You: EMANATING A SENSE OF JOY. The publication is INTRODUCED by the Carmichael-Crawford photo, taken in 1965 by Douglas R. Gilbert for LOOK magazine. The publication is anchored by a gallery of historical photos of Black men and boys that I curated from a pool of more than 100 photos excavated by lead Research Librarian Helen Cate, who coined the brilliant tagline ‘emanating a sense of joy’ for the See You: Faces of the Black Man of Happiness Campaign. Ms. Cate unearthed photos from collections at the Library of Congress, U.S. Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and universities, among other sources.
The publication fulfills terms of my ‘Impact Grant’ from The Pollination Project, and also features exhilarating photos taken by ‘Living Masters,’ including cultural pioneers Chester Higgins and Roy Lewis. Other photographers – African American, Asian American, Chicano, and European American – contributed photos capturing Black male joy. These men and women live blocks away from me in LA and as far from me as London. They are seasoned and emerging. Their photos capture individuals and groups, fathers with their children, dudes smiling, and dudes in meditation. They capture tender moments, exhilarating moments, and the publication concludes with a special section of photos of my own father.
I’ve grounded the ‘PROOF OF CONCEPT’ publication on historical photos, even though pain has branded the primary contours of African American history. I plunge into that paradox guided by the ecstatic insight that these historic Legacy photos – Faces of the Black Man of Happiness – are prisms that splice the view of Black life beyond pain, suffering, and reaction to racism.
To illustrate the power of joy and happiness in human rights work, it was critical to start the publication with Douglas R. Gilbert’s dynamic 1965 photo. That photo was circulated on social media after former President Clinton glibly dissed Carmichael at John Lewis’ funeral. Original research for the ‘PROOF OF CONCEPT’ publication confirmed that the photo was held in the Library of Congress and identified Mr. Crawford. Our ‘genealogy’ research of Mr. Gilbert’s stunning photo reflects the rigorous passion behind the See You campaign and the glorious photos in the publication, including three Legacy photos taken in the 19th Century.
The ultimate See You campaign strategy is to publish a ‘fine art’ book of Legacy, contemporary, and crowd-sourced photos, complemented by my poetry and essays, along with writing by other scholars and creative writers. BTW the See You campaign’s title was inspired by the refrain in my poem, “Praise Song for the Anonymous Brothers,” first published in the 1996 anthology, Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence, edited by Rohan Preston and David Wideman.
One final joyful FYI: the publication was printed by Black Classic Press (BCP), founded in 1978 by W. Paul Coates, perhaps best known these days as the father of Ta-Nehisi Coates. BCP’s publication list is foundational for so much restorative reading in Africana studies. I’ve known Paul Coates since my formative days in Baltimore, where my kids were born, and where their first school was founded by our late Sistren Kay Stancil.
This new collaboration with BCP and Paul Coates culminates years of courtesy, encouragement, and creative evolution. In 1993, BCP published my first book of poetry, Hand Me My Griot Clothes: The Autobiography of Junior Baby, narrative poems ‘told’ by my irascible alter ego, Junior Baby. Griot Clothes earned PEN Oakland’s Josephine Miles Award.
How sweet the circle! A press founded on the importance of Black Classics has printed a contemporary publication anchored by Legacy photos! Oh yes! What goes around comes around!
NOTE: The 2021 Proof of Concept publication is NOT for sale, b/c we’re using it to definitively demonstrate how ‘achievable’ it is to publish a fine art book featuring photos of Black men and boys ‘Emanating a Sense of Joy.’ But you can help us achieve that goal! I’ll tell you how, if you contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And as always, you can make a tax deductible donation to support our work at: https://pentacle.formstack.com/forms/unique_donation_form [select Peter J. Harris from the dropdown menu beneath ‘Which Unique Artist Are You Supporting?’]
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… Black men are human beings. From Thomas Jefferson’s time till now, we do seem to forget that self-evident truth in our grandest ruminations…. I’m just a human being, as deserving of the unique, sometimes inscrutable, fruits of my own pursuit, as I am to the profound legacy of the historical forefathers….” www.blackmanofhappiness.com/shop