Re-entry should have come with a manual.
In 2005, coming home after three years in England, America felt like a very different place to me. I returned to Baltimore to find the entire city mourning the loss of someone I’d never heard of: Stringer Bell. Who was he, I wondered? A race horse? A politician? And how had he come to mean so much to people? It took days for me to figure it out.
Even the light was different. In London, big, billowy clouds were never far away, but when the sun finally shone, it was soft and calm—polite, much like the British. Here the sun seems determined to undress you. It took a while for me to readjust.
I began my adult life after college as a foreigner among foreigners in an international residence hall in London, one of the most diverse cities in the world. We played croquet, hiked around Scotland, and practiced very bad British accents. Free from the burden of familiarity, I could grow uninhibited into the person I’d always wanted to be. So a few months after my return, as I lay on the couch catching up on American television, it shocked me to realize that more often than not, when a black man appeared onscreen, he carried either a gun or some sort of ball. America hadn’t changed much, I realized, but I had.
I eventually got over my shell shock, but when a small team of artists and community organizers set out to challenge those stereotypes, I was all ears. The year-long experiment they conducted was called the Black Male Identity Project (BMI). BMI’s formal grant-funded phase ended in January, and I was at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum as more than 800 people celebrated just how greatly they’d exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Housed within the community arts nonprofit organization Art on Purpose, major funding for BMI came from the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement, an effort to address “black men and boys’ exclusion from economic, social, educational, and political life in the United States.” The goal was to use the arts as a catalyst for a conversation about the positive and often overlooked aspects of being black and male. I was a volunteer member of the advisory group, occasionally helping the organizers think about messaging and moderating two events.
Early on, I was supportive but skeptical. Apparently, grassroots collaboration requires talking—a lot of it—and as one meeting led to another I was afraid this might devolve into the most expensive finger-painting exercise in history. I’m glad I was wrong.
Within months, BMI seemed to be sparking conversations everywhere. U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) helped launch the project at the historic Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania Avenue, the first social club for African-Americans on the East Coast. WJZ-TV news anchor Vic Carter participated in a discussion on black male identity and mass media moderated by radio host Marc Steiner at the Baltimore Museum of Art. But it was the sheer number of participants, not their name recognition, that was phenomenal. Thousands of people, among them artists, faith leaders, academics, and entrepreneurs, came out for forums, performances, exhibitions, and art workshops at dozens of locations. Everyone had something to say. There was a barbershop conversation series and Baltimore City Public Schools consulted with project organizers about developing a BMI-inspired curriculum.
“It’s about what’s right with us, not what’s wrong with us,” artist and project co-director Sam Holmes says. “Everybody uses our stuff and we don’t get paid for it . . . but [BMI] puts a value on black culture I haven’t seen before.”
“It exceeded our expectations, to say the least,” reports Rashid Shabazz, a program officer with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. In his estimation, the way BMI was able to leverage $175,000 in funding was “phenomenal” and the Campaign now uses the project’s results as a standard for “what we see as success with work with black men and boys.”
No one knew this would be so big, but now that the grant has ended, Holmes thinks “the onus is on everyone” who participated to continue the momentum. BMI is giving away copies of “More than 28 Days,” a DVD with a 20-minute project documentary, images, and excerpts from forums now through Feb. 28. Requests can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Baltimore has a lot to be proud of. In the eyes of at least one national foundation, it’s home to an experiment that has become a model for community engagement. Five years ago, alone in my basement, there were moments when I thought I might be the only one who felt almost physically assaulted by my own reflection, that thing staring back from the TV screen that was supposed to look like me. But because of what happened here over the past year, I’ll always be happy about how wrong I was.