Shattering historical stereotypes, Black men have revolutionized industries, culture, and social paradigms worldwide. From science to the arts, their contributions echo profoundly. Their resilience redefines legacies, as each achievement continues to shatter barriers and inspire generational shifts.
Throughout history, Black men have often been unfairly perceived as threatening figures, their lives marred by fear-based prejudices and stereotypes. The names of those like Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, and countless victims of lynching in the 19th and 20th centuries resonate as tragic examples. The recent case of Ahmaud Arbery, killed while out for a run, is a stark reminder that the “lynching” of Black men still persists.
In response to these injustices and misconceptions, the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition, “Men of Change: Power, Triumph, Truth,” has emerged as a powerful testament to the true identities of Black men. Hosted at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, this exhibition seeks to dismantle myths and redefine the narrative surrounding Black men. It aims to portray Black men not as threats but as diverse and positive role models who have made remarkable contributions to their communities and the world.
Marquette Folley, content director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, hopes that this exhibition not only affirms Black men but also reshapes the cultural experience for all visitors. The exhibition fosters essential dialogues that challenge stereotypes and misconceptions.
The exhibition features influential figures like Kendrick Lamar, Muhammad Ali, and James Baldwin, who have left indelible marks in music, sports, and literature. These men have made significant contributions that resonate with a broad audience, advocating for freedom and rights, particularly for African Americans. “Men of Change” invites viewers to examine a diverse landscape of Black male identities, demonstrating that there is no single template for excellence.
While this exhibition showcases only a handful of the countless Black men who have shaped the world, it is a story for all Americans, transcending racial boundaries. It encourages society to acknowledge and appreciate the multifaceted identities of Black men, particularly as the United States becomes increasingly diverse.
“We’re reckoning, looking at a broad landscape of what is human, which humans are worth looking at, and noting excellence without stereotyping what that excellence looks like,” says Folley.
In collaboration with Sarah Nelson Jackson and Jonathan Jackson of WeShouldDoItAll, a contemporary design studio in Brooklyn, the exhibition features lightboxes with images, quotes, and writings of Black men and women. These artworks aim to provide a deeper understanding of the Black male personalities featured in the exhibition. Each artist interprets the assignment uniquely, resulting in a rich tapestry of visual representations.
The exhibition includes unconventional portraits, such as an assemblage of locusts, dirt, and a book representing Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson. It also features contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley, known for reimagining the Black image in predominantly white spaces. Wiley himself becomes the subject of a portrait, challenging stereotypes about Black masculinity.
“Men of Change: Power, Triumph, Truth” highlights a wide array of Black men who have played pivotal roles in various sectors, from art and politics to culture and activism. It acknowledges that heroes and changemakers come in many forms, and their contributions are significant. The exhibition marks not an end but a starting point, encouraging visitors to broaden their perspectives and acknowledge the profound impact of Black men throughout history.