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These Photos Show the Power and Dignity of Black Men

The Campaign for Black Male Achievement and famed photographer Ruddy Roye have collaborated on 'Black Male Re-Imagined,' a stunning new narrative photo project that highlights black community leaders.

When it was time to choose a pediatrician for his then two-year-old son, Brooklyn-based photographer Ruddy Roye was determined to find one who shared his black and Jamaican roots. He scoured catalogs and listings, but when he tracked the right one down, the doctor was mystified. He couldn't quite grasp why Roye, who travels the world shooting for major magazines and newspapers, would spend so much time searching for a doctor with his own background. But as the photographer told me, "There was no other way to explain to this educated man why I chose him other than what happened the first day my son was inoculated."

As the black and Jamaican doctor tried to keep Roye's child's attention away from the needle that day, he asked the boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. Mosijah, Roye's son who is now 11 years old, looked up at the pediatrician and replied softly, "You." 

For Roye, this moment was a powerful affirmation of his belief that seeing people who look like you do positive things can have a profound impact on how you see yourself. "The visual allows boys to see that it's attainable, that it's not as farfetched as a guidance counselor saying, 'You know, you could be a doctor'" he said.

This sensibility serves as the bedrock of Black Male Re-Imagined, a narrative photo project backed by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and shot by Ruddy Roye. The organization, which was launched in 2008 and has helped invest tens of millions of dollars into initiatives for black men and boys, tasked Roye with traveling to cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Chicago to photograph and share the perspectives of everyday people who are uplifting the lives of black men. Along the way, he took portraits of leaders like Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, high school principal Yetunde Reeves, and contemporary artist Knowledge Bennett. 

"When I first came to this country, I met all of these stereotypes: That black men were never fathers, we were never teachers or educators," Roye said. "By showing these images, I inspire other other black men to say, 'I can be that person' or 'I can be in those positions.'"

The Campaign for Black Male Achievement helped lay the groundwork for President Barack Obama's popular My Brother's Keeper initiative and is involved in organizing the annual MLK Now event, which is taking place Monday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like those well-known efforts, Black Male Re-Imagined furthers the group's mission of "narrative change," which Rashid Shabazz, the Vice President of Communications of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, defined to me as creating "more accurate, elevated depictions of black men and boys."

Although the project's idea of the "Re-Imagined" is flexible, Shabazz made it clear to me that the goal was not to push tired respectability politics. In addition to showing black boys the men that they could be, this project also seeks to show America who black men really are.

"The idea really was to be provocative. A lot of times we don't have to reimagine black males—we just need to put a light on the diversity, that black males are not a monolith," he said.

This mission seems especially important today. Although it's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday dedicated to an activist who epitomized the strength and grace of black men—and we've just seen a black man serve for eight years in the highest office in the land—the triumphs of these leaders and others like them have not been sufficient to negate the pernicious negative perceptions many Americans hold about men of color.  

At a time when black college enrollment surges and the absent black father myth has been debunked, it's disheartening to see that old stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayal of blacks males still color the way many individuals see the world. Even our next president, Donald Trump, perpetuates mangled concepts about black people—that we all "live in hell," violent communities filled with "gangs roaming the streets."

Ruddy's work depicts a more nuanced black America, one with beauty and hope and power in spite of the pain of enduring in a country plagued with institutional racism. As Shabazz noted to me, regardless of their surroundings, Ruddy manages to capture his black subjects with "a sense of dignity" that they are usually denied. "He's telling these amazing stories through images. That's why we chose him. That's why we want to engage with him. He captures us in a way that shows not our brokenness, but our wholeness."

"If we come together, we can strengthen the platform that we stand on. I think these images do that." —Ruddy Roye

Of course, this is nothing new for Roye, who's used the same approach since his first major photo project in 2000. In that early work, he documented the squatters along an abandoned train line in Jamaica. And to get the story and really engage with the people, he walked 121 miles from Montego Bay to Kingston.

After moving to the US in 2001, Roye found himself a bit disillusioned with photojournalism because of the stories he was asked to cover by white editors—and his dwindling professional prospects.

"I began to feel as disenfranchised as the people I saw in my Brooklyn neighborhood," he said. "In the past, it was so hard for me to walk up to them and say, 'I'd like to photograph you.' But I found it easier if we talked about the fact that we weren't working together. 'I'm not working. You're not working. I'm a father. You're a father...'"

And so he began photographing people in and around his community in ways that expressed compassion and understanding for their mutual struggle as blacks in America. Instead of going to traditional media companies with this work, Roye published these powerful photos on social media. "Instagram gave me the vehicle to do it," he said. "There were no editors at the gate telling me that this story was not important."

Today, Roye's vision has earned him more than 250,000 instagram followers and he was just named Time's "Instagram Photographer of 2016." Although his work has appeared practically everywhere, from the New York Times to Vogue, he told me that this Black Male Re-Imagined project with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement is what really satisfies his soul.

One of the most impactful experiences he had shooting this project was in Milwaukee, where he photographed Mike McGee, an older gentleman who had been a member of the Black Panther Party.  

"As we sat down, he was very belligerent about talking about where we were going to be in the future as a race," Roye recalled. "He believed that without a physical revolution, we would never achieve anything. It was important for me to understand that during his time, that was his belief. And where we are now, I have my own beliefs. And as I look to my sons, they approach race in a different way than even I do. We're three generations of black men, coming from three different spaces. My goal is to photograph in a way that will link us together."

Capturing that sense of unity is crucial to Roye's mission in these photographs, because it is something he hopes will have a tangible impact on those fighting institutional racism across the nation.

"One of my responsibilities was to go out and photograph what we are all doing because we really don't know," he told me. "Remember, the fist is not just a symbol of power and strength, it has a story of connectivity. What's going on in Oakland, Atlanta, Birmingham, Baltimore, in Ferguson—if we come together, we can strengthen the platform that we stand on. I think these images do that."

Below is an exclusive selection of photos from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement's Black Male Re-Imagined project by Ruddy Roye. Each photo features a caption by Roye about the subject's point of view on the representation of black men today and the legacy of Barack Obama. You can learn more about the Campaign for Black Male Achievement on their website and you can see Ruddy Roye latest photos on his Instagram

 Tracy Martin in Washington, DC

I photographed Tracey Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, after his "Father to Son" talk at the Kennedy Center. His social justice organization, the Trayvon Martin Foundation, supports families who have lost their loved ones to gun violence. His response to what "Black Male Re-Imagined" means to him was, "I envision the black male being in a position of power, being entrepreneurial, being more than just iconic sports figures, being innovators. There's a perception that we're in a dark place as African-American men. It's not that we need to change the things that we are doing, America needs to change the things that they're doing to us. We have to shift that paradigm, and it's important to show young black men love and respect."

I've never met a person who carried so much of the struggle of African-American people. Mike McGee, Sr. was quiet for most of the time we met. He sat at an event in Milwaukee celebrating the lives of former basketball stars from his neighborhood basketball club, of which he was a coach and community leader. When I asked him about how the narrative around black men in America has evolved since Obama's presidency, he said, "Nothing has changed. I feel completely disenfranchised since his eight years. I would have at least apologized for slavery. It would have been a token gesture and he didn't even do that. I'm disappointed in our black elected officials in general. They have let the black people down. I was ahead of my time. Until the black men are ready to fight, not protest, actually fight, nothing will change for us. Begging will not get you anything. I don't think anything has changed. It's a flash in the pan."

Gaulien "Gee" Smith has owned Gee's Clippers for 21 years. It is the first African-American barber shop in the country to charter a Boy Scouts troop and is a staple in the Milwaukee community. He told me, "In 20 more years, I hope that people remember me as a brother who truly cared about his community. A brother who showed selflessness and went beyond the call of duty to bring change to his community. That I brought awareness to the incarceration rate, filled the void of missing fathers, and encouraged inner city kids to vote." Smith does believe that Obama's presidency changed the black male experience. He said, "It gave our kids hope and allowed them to see that the sky is the limit."

I saw Reverend Sikou walk off the stage to the chants of "more" at a festival of music, art and social justice, dubbed "Many Rivers to Cross." The two-day music festival was held at the 8,000-acre Bouckaert Horse Farm in Fairburn, Georgia. His set was spellbinding and seemed to hold his audience in a trance. "Part of the way black music in general is a savior to the wounds of racism, is that it creates a space whereby we can be free but for a few minutes. Blues music in particular does it with a bit of style and style is a form of resistance."

Knowledge Bennett is a contemporary artist who believes that being a black artist with a pop art viewpoint gives him a unique perspective. "Often times, 'black art' from a traditional sense appears to miss the mark when attracting the attention of black men and boys who haven't necessarily been introduced to the world of fine art," he said. "My work serves as a perfect introduction because I'm presenting elements of pop culture, things that these individuals have an immediate connection with."

I could not take my eyes off of Storyboard P. as the Brooklyn dancer practiced his moves before going on stage. His tight, intricate, syncopated movements seemed to connect his eyelashes to his toe nail and his body rippled like the Caribbean Sea. "I move because the whole world is movement. There is no such thing called stop. The way I feel is movement. It allows males to navigate their male qualities and connect with their female qualities. It allows black boys to express themselves and it gives them balance. I believe my art allows aggression to have more articulation. It shows confidence—your posture alone tells you about yourself."

Yetunde Reeves is the principal at Ballou, a predominantly African American high school in Washington, DC, where she's working to change the narrative about black youth. The area is known for its high crime rate, homelessness, and issues with addiction. "I think the narrative around some black men has evolved since the election of Obama, but I'm not sure how many students relate to his story. Seeing a black man achieve an accomplishment is certainly important. I just don't know if my students have felt personally impacted by his administration. The narrative for me is about the possibility and the resiliency I see in my students." 

Ray Nitti spends a lot of time composing art that will reach his audience of black men and boys in Milwaukee. "We are using the music to give black boys an alternative form of expressing their emotions instead of lashing out in anger. It is their therapy. We connect them with opportunities and various platforms that will allow them to strengthen their talents and hopefully find some form of value that might transform into some form of employment or payment. I think the narrative is being deliberately perpetuated. Yes, it has evolved. There was always a focus but now I think there has been a concerted effort to attack not just the black man, but also his community. In the next 20 years, I envision that we will be organized. Since slavery, we have never truly been organized or had control of our culture. We need to be a people who see about our business and culture."

Bradley Thurman is 67 and the proprietor of Milwaukee's Coffee Makes You Black, which provides a spot in the community where people feel comfortable to network and communicate. "I think society has regressed to Jim Crow. [Obama came in eight years ago, but we still] haven't gained any ground. In a way, we have lost ground. When I graduated from high school, there was riots in the streets. I'm 67 years old, and there are still riots in the streets. The institutions are still preventing us from [owning the system]. So I am not surprised to see the young people rebel.

Andrew Joseph Jr. lost his son Andrew Joseph lll on February 7, 2014. The 14-year-old was killed crossing Interstate 4 after the Sheriff Department ejected him from the Florida State fair. "In Tampa, I think when Obama was elected, we had certain expectations. We were proud. We celebrated. But he told us in the beginning that he didn't want to be a black president, he wanted to be a president. We have been waiting through both terms. We have not seen that change we thought we were getting—a president who would stand up for us. We got fringe benefits, museums, and street names. We have not gotten that real change. We are demanding change now. The black men are being executed in our homes."

I met up with Rashid Shabazz on Bedford Street to photograph him for this project. He was with his five-year-old daughter Zahara. Rashid has dedicated his life to fighting injustice, a struggle he hopes is not lost on his daughter when she comes of age. Activism is in his blood: Shabazz's father was a captain in the Nation of Islam, an organization that transformed the lives of many black men to be more self-determining and to stand up for the rights of their people. "I grew up in a home unapologetic about black excellence, black achievement and the black contributions to the world. I saw my father use his weekends going to minister to brothers who were locked up and knowing that he was doing that to help them. But I am sure in my subconscious there was a sense that I knew there was some injustice in that, given my lessons in the Nation. I made early connections that black women and men faced injustices that needed to end and still do need to end."

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