On Valentine's Day, my husband and I went to see the Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art. Hendricks' work—life-size paintings of ordinary blacks from across the diaspora—is shockingly realistic, with incredible detail in clothing, posture and emotional expression. Surrounded by more than 50 of his huge paintings, I felt at home, among familiar faces.
Later, there was a dialogue about black men and body image that was inspired by Hendricks' work, or more specifically, by one image—"Brilliantly Endowed," a self-portrait of the artist wearing nothing but a fedora, wristband, tube socks and sneakers. Having stepped outside the exhibit hall, I missed the beginning of the discussion. When I returned, I found a group of mostly white faces sitting and standing in front of Hendricks' exposed penis and a flipchart with two lists.
On the left, headed "Black Males Today," were the words flashy, basketball, crime, unemployed, hip hop, hypermasculine, power, drugs, style, homophobia, rap, danger, soul, un(der)educated, ghetto, really nice guys. On the right, titled "Black Males in His Art," were the words confident, cool, defiant, in control, thoughtful, in your face, meditative, well-dressed, muscular, serene, comfortable, relaxed, challenging, attitude, angry, deep, successful, suave, sexy.
As more African-American couples arrived, a murmur began to rise from the back of the crowd. We were all wondering what question had led to that left side. Finally, one of us addressed the group: "It's disturbing to walk in here and to feel so good about being surrounded by paintings of people who look like me, and then to come over here and see how the artist's work is being received. I suspect that it tells us less about the artist than it does about the audience."
A middle-aged white woman spoke up cheerily, ostensibly to reassure: "The left side wasn't actually in response to his work." As if that made it better.
At the end, I asked a facilitator, a young Asian woman, what question had prompted the list. She responded brightly, "We didn't have anything on the paper other than the two headings. We just asked people to say what came to mind when they thought of black males today. Then for the other side, we told them to say what comes to mind when they thought of black males in his art."
Ironic. At a time when a black man is the first person of color to have a viable chance of becoming a presidential nominee, whites spontaneously report the negative stereotypes of African-American men.
Across from "Brilliantly Endowed" was "Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins)," a painting of one of Hendricks' black female college students. Slumped on a sofa, hand raised to her head, the sister has a look of resigned frustration suggesting she'd just been around a group of white folks having a discussion like this one.