KQED Arts - A Black History Month Recap Through the Eyes of ‘#BlackInAmerica2017’

By Chloe Veltman, KQED Public Media

“I mostly hang out with people who’re into Reiki, have left-wing anarchist tendencies, and are hypocrites because they love art and design, work in advertising, and enjoy eating at fancy restaurants, just like me.”

So says musician and artist Bryan Collins in response to the question “What identity  —  racial or otherwise  —  do you feel closest to?” in his #BlackInAmerica2017 profile on Medium.

The series of short, insightful interviews with a wide array of creatives, each accompanied by a characterful hand-painted portrait, provides a vibrant cross-section of what it means to be black in the United States today.

The project is the work of Bay Area visual artist George McCalman and writer Ebony Haight. The authors conceived it as a follow up to their #IllustratedBlackHistory series of last year, which explored the lives of lesser-known black pioneers.

With this new series, McCalman and Haight published 28 interviews and accompanying illustrations, one for each day of Black History Month in February.

Now that the series is complete, we asked McCalman about the project, which can be viewed in its entirety here.

Why did you choose to embark on this project?

We had a series of conversations about how we viewed Black history, and in the course of discussing it realized we both had an outsiders’ view of our understanding of what “being black” meant. Instead of looking to the past, which is the default this month, we felt that looking to the present and future felt more appropriate.

How did you go about recruiting subjects for this series?

Organically. We started with our network, looking for people whom we were personally curious about. Some people recommended subjects outside of our network and we went from there. We wanted people of different backgrounds and ages, and not just American-born. We did an equal split of men and women.

How has the series been received so far and what are your goals for it?

It’s been a slow build. We’ve posted daily, so it’s evolved as naturally as the project has rolled out. The most interesting notes have come from other black people, who said that it was gratifying hearing others being as conflicted and celebratory as they feel about this topic.

How has the arrival of President Trump in the White house impacted this project?

I hate to credit that event, but it has had an impact. I think the black community, if I can be so bold, wasn’t surprised by Trump’s arrival because it revealed an ugly underbelly of America to the rest of the country that we’ve long known. That being said, it’s a moment in time where we feel ready to answer these kinds of questions by and for ourselves, without outside stimulation or interference.

What is the main message you hope your audience will take away from reading these profiles and looking at these portraits about what it means to be black in America in 2017?

Ebony and I talked about this being an exploration of identity, race and individuality. We were curious if other members of the black community had the same questions and were interested in facing themselves to give honest answers. We live in a self-aware time, with technology giving previously marginalized people a voice. So we’re speaking up.

Now that February and Black History Month are over and the 28 daily profiles are complete, what’s next?

I see this series being an ongoing project. Twenty-eight days doesn’t even begin to tell the story of this incredibly resilient community.