The #BlackMenSmile Project

#BlackMenSmile, a project of @50ShadesofBlack, represents yet another reason I know that the Radical Selfie community needs to exist. I’m so honored to use this space to share a timely sentiment about a timeless thing–the human smile.
This personal essay is inspired by Carlton Mackey and Devan D. Dunson’s recent efforts toward the creation of a counter-narrative around the Black man’s image and perception of himself.  Mackey, a professional photographer and filmmaker, and the creator of the BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE™ empowerment campaign, also serves as the Director of the Ethics & the Arts program at Emory University.  Dunson is a published model, actor, musician, and devoted activist. I am grateful to both men for their time.
The essay is below, and the video version is above. If you’d like to use portions or all of this essay for any personal, educational, or professional projects, please contact me directly. Thanks. ~Akilah S. Richards


#BlackMenSmile: Perspectives on the Power of a Genuine Smile
“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is war, love is growing up.” –James Baldwin, Novelist, Playwright, Activist, & Avid Smile-er

Through my lens, Baldwin’s quote speaks not just of love, but of self-love in particular.

For it is an ongoing task to experience and express self-love—that fertile soil, ¬ necessary for any and all love to flourish.

The cultivation of self-love comes, in part, from an understanding and appreciation of one’s self in one’s most basic form.

But this cultivation is challenged throughout the human stages of development in ways that, as we grow, make it increasingly difficult to practice, let alone prioritize self-love and authentic self-expression.

Right from the start, humans are led outside of our own needs and onto a focus of outwardness, for the sake of assimilation and compliance.

As babies, we are coaxed into sleeping patterns that are most convenient for the adults who care for us.

When we start school, we are socialized to be the least combative and the most obedient. We sit still and we learn what we are told we will need to learn.

When we start going to church, we learn to sit and smile in church pews, stand and sing on command, and receive the Good Word that we are told we need to receive.

When we start our first job, whether in grade school or as adults, we add to our list of those whose futures are tied, in some ways, to our efforts.

As we grow in age, we grow outward, away from ourselves, and settle into the space we’ve been groomed and socialized to occupy.

From infancy into adulthood, we as humans are led outward.

Outward and away from the mental work that keeps us attuned to what we need.

Outward and away from the spiritual soil that keeps us aligned with how we want to feel, and what our unique needs are in any moment.

Special Needs becomes an unwanted term, and the symphony, in summary, is this:

Outward focus. Validation seeking.
Praise gathering. Accolade requesting.
Soul-shushing. Acquiescence.

Eventually we become part of the fold, perhaps in varying degrees, but still, we fold.

We smile at the people we see every day, not because we want to smile, but because we are told that it makes other people less uncomfortable.

We smile and breathe deep before we walk into our offices, or get on our sales calls, or start our projects, or greet our whoevers. Not because we want to smile, but perhaps because we need to smile in order to mask our growing dissent.

We daydream about time and space to reconnect with something that seems somehow lost.

Our soul’s peripheral vision keeps catching glimpses of itself, and over time, our innate God-Self grow weary of this silent treatment, and eventually, perhaps, impulsively, we are nudged inward.

And when we take that step inward, we begin the arduous journey back into ourselves, and into a space of reclamation of our souls, our needs, and our smiles.

So many of us as adults end up in emotional spaces that drag us back inward, because it is, for almost all of us, emotionally unsustainable and quietly murderous to live with an outward focus.

Until we address this need for more authenticity in our appreciation of ourselves and in the simplicity of a genuine smile, we suffer.

We enter into abusive relationships with aspects of Self, often in efforts to fill the void of consistent self-care.

But we press on. And as we journey inward, we start a vibration that cannot NOT affect our environments. We start to see ourselves differently, and in doing so, we emit an energy that creates change around us.

Then, on the strength of that energy, and on the memories of our own innate Old Knowings, the most non-compliant and radical among us come of age.

We revolt. We read things. We meet people. We discover dope blogs and start listening out for ourselves in our music.

We converse with our elders and access our ancestors—and if we are really persistent, we remember ourselves.

We design lives that rely on our individuality and our own special needs.
We begin to reclaim what it means to genuinely smile.

We do it for ourselves. We do it because it is natural. And some of us do it, not just to reclaim ourselves, but to reclaim entire communities.

And some of us do it to stand in our right to claim our stories and our culture, and to convey a reality that is often silenced by dominant and damaging narratives.

Carlton Mackey and Devan Dunson are leading a movement that can help repair a particularly damaging narrative—that of the Black man’s character.

BMS image here, followed by: #blackmensmile – changing the way we see ourselves.

This work is about creating a counter-narrative. [Much like my intention with] the 50 Shades of Black campaign, this takes an asset-based approach to looking at things that affect our community.

The things that plague our community are discussed, visible, and known, and have become the dominant narrative about what it means to be black, what it means to be in a certain income bracket, what it means to have locs,[etc.].

If you want to find the dominant narrative for each area—Google it. Those narratives shape the way we see ourselves and how other people understand us. So Black Men Smile is about inserting that counter narrative.

Smiling is so normal to us as Black men in family, love, and social circles, so it’s our norm, but it’s just not what’s shared [in media] the most.

That movement began, for each of them, as an individual journey inward, and through self-exploration and the prioritization of authentic self-expression, they began to evolve as men.

And of course, when we begin to shift, the world around us must shift as well. That shift today is the engine inside Carlton and Devan’s movement of a space where Black men the world over are reclaiming, or simply expressing perhaps, the truth that Black men, like all humans, smile.

In a dominant culture that depicts Black men as angry, unambitious, and irrationally aggressive, the simple imagery of a Black man donning his smile, speaks less to aesthetics, and far more to revolution.

And not in the sense of trying to affect change—which it no doubt will do. But more so in the sense that it will remind Black men that their smiles are relevant, real, and require no validation from anyone outside of themselves.

I had the privilege of sitting with Carlton and Devan recently via phone. I was then and remain now, thoroughly inspired by the Black Men Smile movement. So much so that I chose to include a series of their quotes and the images they’ve shared, in efforts to keep their voices and their vision as true to them as any writer looking to share and no encroach, can convey.

Quotes from our talk.Self-expression leads to new life experience. I’m actually seeing me in you. And that broadens us both. I’m changing the universe and everything I come into contact with, because I feel transformed. If I can see you differently, and then get you to see that, the world changes. Carlton Mackey

When we do it for ourselves, it can transform the way we’re seen and understood. When you see something differently, you engage with it differently. Carlton Mackey

We’re asking men the question, ‘What makes you smile?’ So many of the brothers said they’d never been asked that question. [That shows that] there’s a level of intimacy among Black men that just isn’t addressed in our society. Carlton Mackey

I experience people who look at me a certain way because of how I look. I’ve got strong features, which one white male told me was intimidating to him. He told me that he was intimidated by me. So, for me to have a platform where I can show my smile and disarm people with my smile is something I needed as a person. It’s sad that we live in a world where we’re bombarded with negative messages and images all day. And it’s also why it’s important for me to show what I know to be true. Devan D. Dunson

We are deliberate about how we’re trying to activate and stimulate through the movement, so we don’t just want their pictures, we want to know and share what makes them smile. – Carlton Mackey

As Black men, we are curators and developers of society, and so I smile because I know that I get to walk down the street as see another man, and I can look him in the eye, smile and say hello. Devan D. Dunson

Our smile is a microcosm of what we can do. We know what the government and TV will give us. But it takes a very conscious effort to rebuild our own image. We can go into our communities and be the leaders that we are. I’m not talking about the grand scale stuff, just one-on-one mutual respect. When we start with each other, we enhance our own being, and in doing so, we raise society. Devan D. Dunson

It shouldn’t surprise you if you saw a saggin’ brother on blackmensmile because we are all human beings, and in our humanity we are so much more complex. Even the things that make us targets, don’t take away our humanity. We still want the world to see you as a beautiful, worthy, valuable, salient, human being who smiles and is still finding life. Carlton Mackey