Between Black Panther and #BlackMenSmile, Black Power is Leading Today's Trends
Movies and movements—from Black Panther to #BlackMenSmile, many Marvel at the transfer of Black power and how it is directing the trends of today. From zero hashtags to over 20,000, along with a montage of pictures of Black men smiling all over the world, #BlackMenSmile has taken social media by storm and more recently gone viral. In case you somehow missed out on all the buzz, Black Men Smile is a platform that aims to create a space for Black men to celebrate the way they see themselves and do so more often. What started out as a mere hashtag that was created as a response to the unfortunate stories of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and the parading of black bodies in the media, such as the news and other social networks, has grown a platform that includes a lifestyle apparel brand, art and media production, and grassroots community organizing efforts. Black Men Smile is recreating the picture of Black men one smile at a time. In a world where Black men are often vilified, portrayed as aggressive, or objectified because of their strong stature, physique, or athletic abilities, Carlton Mackey and Devan Dmarcus are setting the record straight. All it takes is a few good men to repaint the poorly painted picture that society has offered of Black men. Not only can Black men be kind, sensitive, and vulnerable, but also Black men have something to smile about and celebrate. Last season, The Muse & The Messenger was honored to sit down with co-director of Black Men Smile, Devan Dmarcus to learn more about what started as a project that ultimately morphed into a movement. Check out the interview below:
TN: So, what is BlackMenSmile?
DD: Black Men Smile, it’s a platform that looks to challenge stereotypes surrounding Black males—like the normative narrative. It was created on the heels of the Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown’s situations as a reaction, a response to the parading of black bodies in the media and within society. We [viewers] were seeing a lot of dead bodies and negative images. And, as a black man and as black men, we were impacted by that. We were seeing those stories be condensed into this normative narrative of us being hypersexual, hyper-masculine, and vilified. Somehow, Mike Brown ended up becoming the villain. Somehow, Trayvon Martin was the aggressive Black kid with skittles, and he’s the villain.
TN: Right. Imagine that . . .
DD: Yeah, somehow Terence Crutcher, all these different guys, but particularly those two cases stuck out to us. It made us pay attention to how we [Black men] were being portrayed and seen in media . . .like that normative narrative. Hyper-sexuality was clear because you know you got the sexy Black man and at the time, I was modeling and doing some artistic new stuff and making a little headway with that—so I had fit into that narrative. Then, we were hyper-masculine. We’re athletes. We’re beast. We’re umm these
TN: Super human beings . . .
DD: (nods) Super human (right) or we’re the villain, you know? So that dialogue . . . that story was clearly written and being portrayed in media within our own communities as well as other communities. So, we looked at something as simple as the smile of the Black man. Because during that time, there were a lot of things to be upset about . . . a lot of things to gripe about. So, we wanted to explore what made us smile. So that’s why, we asked the question what makes you smile. And, in doing that, we found a lot of things. But, initially when we launched we asked seven, no, twenty Black men what made them smile. It was a little test—so we asked twenty and out of the twenty, seventeen said, no one had ever asked them that.
DD: Yeah, that’s a high percentage. So, it let us know there was a clear void in communication as it pertains to the Black male, Black males in society, and Black males and Black females. So, we wanted to take the self-care approach and challenge that normative narrative by offering that counter narrative. When we asked a Black male, what makes you smile, we found that there’s millions of things that we express. And, it shows the dynamic nature of Black males and it lends itself to the exploration of his [Black males]. It creates a space and an opportunity for us to humanize ourselves and claim back our bodies . . . claim back our minds . . . and claim our stories.
TN: So, what’s your answer? What makes you smile?
DD: What makes me smile? Aww man! I normally would say my grandmother, she does make me smile. She’s recovering from back surgery right now. I just got back from South Carolina so seeing her fight back for her health that makes me smile. Encounters like this make me smile. Seeing people reach goals, set goals reach em’ set new goals. Seeing people love each other. There are several things that make me smile, it’s just a matter of finding those things and celebrating those things because there’s a lot of stuff for us to give negative energy towards, but we try to take the more positive and constructive approach.
TN: Well joy is an act of resistance, right?
DD: Yeah, yeah.
TN: I recently did a social media post about that. I don’t know where I came across it, but that’s my superpower. Any time something negative comes my way I find something positive in it, because joy is my act of resistance. So, do you take that spirit in this platform? I mean based on how it was birthed.
DD: Do we take the joy approach? Yes, we do highlight that component, although we give you a little insight about the future, hopefully.
TN: Okay. I like getting the inside scoop.
DD: We want to pivot towards more actionable things. What I mean by that is there is emotional work that must happen, mental work, financial work, and there’s physical work that we want to focus on. We’re going to do a series of workshops starting next year . We’re going on a tour.
TN: Because y’all are very connected to Emory, right? I did my research on you (laughter) You’re very connected to the universities and the creator and co-director is also . . . Carlton—I looked him up . . . he’s awesome.
DD: He’s phenomenal!
TN: You two are like a dynamic duo.
DD: Carlton Mackey. I’m about to go see him after this. He’s the director, assistant director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. A lot of his work is rooted in social justice and academia. He takes that approach and I take the . . . I don’t want to say artistic approach because we’re both artist.
TN: Y’all are like the merging of the left and right brain type situation . . . I noticed that. You are like a yin and yang.
DD: Yeah, so it kind of works. It works, right? That’s how we approach the platform—we complement each other. I empower him and in return he empowers me. Together we strive to empower the community. We want to highlight the joy, but we don’t want to neglect the real situations.
TN: That’s a heavy lift . . . And, so now what?
DD: Like I said these, it’s time for these workshops. We have a goal of photographing 5,000, if not more Black men and creating digital as well as physical copies and giving them those photos so that they can have them at their disposal. It will be some heavy lifting. You can expect workshops, you can expect a fall apparel line we’re about to release. Starting from onesies on up.
TN: Finish this sentence: The mission behind the movement is . . .
DD: The mission behind the movement is to create spaces where Black men can celebrate the way we see ourselves in order to reclaim, reshape, and redefine Black masculinity and Black male identity. As I’m approaching 30 years of age, I’m beginning to see myself differently. The first three years of this project has been kind of an experiment really on myself and on Carlton. There are a couple people who benefited from it, but a lot of that work happened for me. Seeing myself differently. Seeing myself in other Black men. Seeing the need for us to assume our roles in society. First and foremost, within our families, within ourselves within our families and in society. So, my mindset has been shifted over the last three years as I encounter more of this work, do more of this work. Now that I’m in the place of actualizing some of these things, I’m ready to share that with the larger community and do the things that are in my heart and Carlton’s heart that I know that we are supposed to be doing within this platform.
TN: Because this platform was actually (in my mind) a push back to the picture that society has painted of Black men, right? So, do you think that this experience has actually started to change the color?
DD: Change the color of that picture?
TN: You know redefine the lines…you’re and artist.
DD: It has.
TN: You know if you change the color scheme than all of a sudden it changes the entire picture.
DD: It does. I think we’ve been successful in reawakening some folks to themselves. And that right there is very powerful because now they are going to search for those things and look for that goodness within themselves. So, beyond any work that I could do hands on one-on-one, reawakening thousands and thousands of Black men and Black women and Black children that’s the change in the hue.
TN: Because when I thought about it, I’m like okay . . . they are recreating, repainting this picture that society has created, but we’re part of society and I couldn’t help but think maybe we helped paint this picture? So now, we want to go back to the board, erase and start over?
DD: Yeah. Yeah. Draw it over. Draw what it looks like moving forward for us.
TN: So how is that experience? What is that journey? Let me in on that journey. How has that been?
DD: That journey has been cultivating the relationship with Carlton and I. Learning who he is, him learning who I am because we like to group people, right? And, taking time to be sensitive to his life, what he has going on and him doing the same for me. It’s become a true brotherhood because there was a lack of care and consideration that we demonstrated for each other. You know what I’m saying? So, before we could go do any type of real work we had to learn how to be present for what he goes through, what I go through and then give that over to the platform. That’s been the biggest thing for me because I grew up pretty much the only child. I have a little sister who is here and I have siblings back in South Carolina, but beyond that I had a very specific upbringing, he had a very specific upbringing and when we come together if we don’t choose to have an understanding and an eye-to-eye we can’t create anything and move forward. And I think in a lot of situations that’s where we miss the mark because we have this person talking to that person and they’re talking over each other, and there’s no . . .
TN: Totally different languages—because our marinades are different.
DD: Now we get a misunderstanding and that manifests itself in “well fuck that nigga or niggas ain’t shit or kill that nigga or nah I’m gonna manipulate that nigga.”
TN: It almost opens the door. So, as a female I’ve had this, right? Girls grow up knowing that there’s another female we can talk to, there’s another female that can be support for us. Males don’t really grow up with that same experience, right? So, if our mother wasn’t there, our father wasn’t there, our family wasn’t there we always had that group of girls that’s standing behind us, that’s pushing us if we’re upset about something we have that group of girls that we can go to, vent to, who still know who we are in the core of us, but they give us, allow us the moment to have five emotional minutes, right? Men didn’t really grow up like that, right? So, are y’all introducing this?
DD: That’s the space we’ve created. You know? Because it’s like oh! I’m going through something but I gotta go to my homies and put on this façade. As opposed to in our spaces it’s like yo what you got going on?
TN: So, you’re offering a level of vulnerability.
DD: Like I was telling you with the smile. The smile eludes to a world of emotions. With Black men, we’ve been limited, and we limit ourselves in the expression of human emotion. Crying may lead you to a whole other emotion that makes you connect deeper with this person you are experiencing this thing with. So, in the work that we’ve done and myself as a subject, I’ve learned that I can create a vulnerable space and within that vulnerability there’s actually strength.
TN: It almost . . . I feel like it offers opportunities for vulnerability? Smiling . . . imagine that. You know one smile opens the door to so many other things because you get to learn what’s behind the smile. Because women . . . we’ll be smiling and dying inside. Or we’ll be smiling because it hurts, right? But that's what we know to use to counteract things. That whole believe it . . . fake it to you make it because it will get there one day. It’s [smiling] also disarming.
DD: It is disarming.
TN: It is powerful . . . I’mma call it a movement.
DD: You’re right. It is a movement. I’mma call it a movement too.