A child is looking up at a portrait showcased at the Muskegon Museum of Art: he is quiet and intent; the sea of people around him are not registering. His gaze is focused on this photograph: the face before him is Judge Gregory Pittman, a probate judge for the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Court in Muskegon County.
It is a photo that draws you in: hands clasped, Judge Pittman seems to make direct eye contact with his viewer, an intent look crossing the face of a man who is a leader in the community, someone who hears cases involving domestic relations, neglect, abuse, and more.
Part of the museum’s new exhibition that celebrated its opening last Thursday, “SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male,” it is a portrait that tells this boy, who is also black, that he, too, can be a judge. He, too, can be a leader. That, in the face of racism, in the face of barriers and prejudice and often overwhelming ignorance—in a world that can insistently, aggressively and violently fail its black men and boys—there is success. And role models. There are people who, as they do with Judge Pittman, believe in this boy and respect what he has to say.
“We wanted to try to put images of black men in the community who were doing things considered positive; we wanted to put those in front of the young girls and boys—and in particular, the black boys,” said William Muhammad, the board chairman at the James Jackson Museum of African American History in Muskegon Heights. Muhammad served on the committee that selected the 47 local men to be featured in this new exhibition.
“Hopefully, young black men see things they want to emulate here,” continued Muhammad, whose portrait too is showcased in the museum. “This is a very serious, a very necessary thing.”
“SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male” features the portraits of 47 black men from the greater Muskegon area. Each man was nominated by a committee of community leaders and photographed by artist Jerry Taliaferro. Those photographed for the show portray a wide range of ages, backgrounds, occupations, and interests: they are doctors, lawyers, musicians, teachers, poets, and factory workers. They’re clergy, retired servicemen, athletes, security guards, and coaches. Entrepreneurs and businessmen. Health care workers and engineers. They are husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, co-workers, teammates, friends, and neighbors.
They are, most certainly, people you would want to emulate.
An exploration of race, racism, perception, and bias, this exhibition is simultaneously an empowering celebration of our community’s black leaders and an indictment of how we as a society treat our black men. It is a powerful reminder to face our own biases, as well as combat the racial prejudices and racism we see in our community, and world, at large.
“The exhibit, we think it’s timely; we think it’s time for a conversation,” said Taliaferro, a North Carolina-based artist whose career in photography began while he was serving in the U.S. Army a little more than 30 years ago. “It’s a timely subject, with Ferguson, different incidents between black men and law enforcement. It seems like people are trying to figure out what’s going on. Not that this exhibit has any answers, but it’s a starting point for conversation.”
In citing Ferguson, Taliaferro is referring to Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9, 2014. Following the shooting, protests erupted throughout the country over police violence against people of color. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2017, black Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.
That conversation is big and complex: how do we address racism, in policing and in our communities in general? What does it mean to be a black man in Muskegon? A black man in the United States?
“The truth in this country needs to be discussed and understood; the truth needs to be a part of the fabric of this country,” Muhammad said. “In our coming up out of slavery, we were never given the chance to heal. We still suffer from the legacy of slavery.”
As Dr. Joy DeGruy, an internationally renowned scholar who recently spoke in Muskegon, recently explained, the legacy of slavery in the U.S. includes Jim Crow, the lynchings of black Americans, the “war on drugs” that disproportionately targeted black individuals and people of color, mass incarceration of black Americans and people of color, and wildly unequal education, employment and housing systems.
The racism and prejudice that plays out on a daily basis in our country too results in a barrage of negative mass media portrayals of black men. A 2011 study, “Media Representations & Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys,” reported that these negative portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectancy among black men. It also noted that there is an underrepresentation of black men as experts on media programs and as “reliable and relatable characters with fully developed backgrounds in fiction shows and films.” Instead, black men are often shown in association to drug-related crime, unemployment and poverty, the report says.
The results from these portrayals include “everything from less attention from doctors to harsher sentencing by judges, lower likelihood of being hired for a job or admitted to school, lower odds of getting loans, and a higher likelihood of being shot by police,” according to the same report.
All of which is to say: exhibitions like the one at the Muskegon Museum of Art are vital to challenging racist stereotypes faced by black Americans, both by presenting empowering portraits of black leaders and challenging potential biases among viewers.
Taliaferro noted the exhibition is set up in a way that the viewer first sees portraits of the men without any names or information about them attached. Afterwards, they see another set of portraits of the same men, but this time with their names and information about their careers, hobbies and more.
“I hope that gives us all pause, to think about your perceptions when you see somebody or meet somebody,” Taliaferro said. “It’s human nature to see somebody different from you and have some reservations, but I hope we can say, ‘This is my initial perception, but it would change if I knew this person.”
For Dr. Dale Nesbary, the president of Muskegon Community College and one of the men in the exhibition, this attempt to address bias is crucial.
“If an African-American is in an environment, he or she isn’t always seen as a competent human being,” said Nesbary, who also served on the committee that nominated the men in the exhibition.
“When my wife and I are meeting someone who hasn’t met us before, people will come up to us and talk to my wife, who is white, and think she’s Dr. Nesbary,” he continued.
Nesbary emphasized that, “I’m not the only African-American college president to whom that happens: you walk into an office with an appointment as the president of a college, and people still wonder why you’re there.”
Zachary Johnson, a 19-year-old Muskegon resident who’s a violinist and is majoring in biological laboratory sciences at Davenport University, said he was honored to have his portrait be a part of such an esteemed group of men.
“These are everyday people you walk around seeing: you don’t know what they’re like until you get to know them,” Johnson said. “So, get to know them.”
“SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male” will be shown at the Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W. Webster Ave. in downtown Muskegon) through March 10, 2019. Related programming, all of which will take place at the museum, includes:
Book Discussion: “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
When: Thursday, Jan. 17, 5:30pm – 6:30pm
What: The Muskegon Museum of Art will host a guided book discussion about Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, “Invisible Man,” exploring text in context with the “SONS” exhibition. Books are available to check out at local libraries. Hackley Public Library, Fruitport Area Library, and the Muskegon Area District Library’s Norton Shores and Muskegon Heights branches will also host book discussions on varying evenings. This event is free and open to the public.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Free Community Day
When: Monday, Jan. 21, 10am – 8pm
What: The Muskegon Museum of Art opens its doors to welcome the community on this day in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visitors can enjoy the galleries, films in the auditorium, crafts in the classroom, and guided tours. The MMA will host a panel discussion on community and regional issues in the evening. Admission and all activities are free. The day’s events include:
- Tours led by MMA docents, 10am-1pm; tours led by Muskegon High School AP art students, 1-3pm
- Films and crafts, 10am-3pm.
- Panel discussion, 6:30-8pm. Filmmaker Jon Covington, who recently debuted his documentary, “Black Man,” at the Frauenthal, will moderate a panel discussion with experts on community and regional issues. Panelists include: James Jackson Museum of African American History Board Chairman William Muhammad; Andrew Sims, of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council; and Alfredo Hernandez, of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in Lansing.
Open Mic Night hosted by Kaizen Kabir
When: Thursday, Feb. 28, 5:30pm – 7:30 pm
What: Local poet Kaizen Kabir (also known as: Kumasi Mack) of WriAck Radio will host a spoken word open mic night with a deejay and invited artists in the MMA’s auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.
Comedy Night with Hen Sapp
When: Thursday, March 7, 5:30 – 7:30 pm
What: Hen Sapp has been dubbed “the doctor of comedy” for the healing properties of clean humor. This comedy program by is suitable for families. The event is free and open to the public.
Free Brown Bag Film Series
Free lunchtime films will be shown on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Auditorium doors open at noon. Films start at 12:15 pm. Most films run an hour or less.
- Thursday, Dec. 27, “Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance”
- Thursday, Jan. 10, “National Archives: Five African American Artists, 1971”
- Thursday, Jan. 24, “Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace”
- Thursday, Feb. 14, “Black Man” by Jon Covington