Transforming the African American Male Narrative

Jon Keeling

If the world never pictures you as successful, how do you possibly grasp the idea of success or even begin to pursue it? Likewise, if you are not honored, how can you live a life of honor? Two exhibits currently displayed at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) – “MEN OF CHANGE: POWER. TRIUMPH. TRUTH.” and “King Me” – examine men of color and the integral, life-transforming issue of self-perception.

“Men of Change,” which made its national debut at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in mid-August, highlights the stories of more than two dozen revolutionary men – including Mohammed Ali, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coats, W.E. B Dubois and Kendrick Lamar – whose personal and professional life journeys have altered the history and culture. The men’s achievements are woven within the legacy and traditions of the African American journey; achievements of excellence reached in spite of social barriers.

It is through a variety of mediums – from literary and historic quotes and poetry to original works of art, dramatic photographs and a dynamic space that encourages self-reflection – that “MEN OF CHANGE: POWER. TRIUMPH. TRUTH.” combines the historical with the contemporary to illuminate the importance of these African American men, inviting Freedom Center visitors to consider predominant narratives as they engage in authentic stories of history, politics, art, culture and activism. Overall, the exhibition serves as metaphor for every significant African-American man who is rendered invisible by a society that does not recognize them for who they are, Freedom Center officials note.

“King Me,” a collection of about 50 photographs of men of color of various ages wearing crowns, thereby highlighting the amazing power of image to transform self- and public-perception, was created by Cincinnatian and self-taught photographer Nina Wells.  Wells, who hails from Madisonville and is known in social media and the artist community as NinaMDot, used lenticular printing for some of the portraits, a technology that employs special lenses to produce printed images projecting the illusion of depth or the ability to change or move as the image is viewed from different angles or vantage points.

Wells put out a couple of casting calls, and she photographed dozens of African American boys and men, each wearing a crown, at downtown barbershops throughout the summer. The message behind her project? “What you see is what you become.”

It’s been said that a picture paints a thousand words, and Wells hopes that her royal photographs paint men of color in a new, empowered light, as well as enabling those who view the exhibition to see men of color as the value to humankind they are.

Both “MEN OF CHANGE” and “King Me” are meaningful ways of changing the stereotypical narrative surrounding African American men and opening new, positive conversations about freedom across the Cincinnati community, says National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Deputy Director Jacqueline Dace.

“That’s crucial because those conversations keep with our mission of expressing freedom,” Dace notes.

Competition Deepens Community Connection

The “Men of Change” exhibition was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), with financial support of the Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services. Taking its philanthropic mission a step further, Ford recently launched its national leadership series, the “Men of Courage Barbershop Challenge” competition in Cincinnati.  Although it’s two barbershops – Precision Blendz in Mount Healthy and  Razor One in Silverton – that are competing for a $10,000 grant, the entire community is destined to benefit from this community-based contest. The barbershops are required to host six events in 90 days challenging the stereotypes of African American men. The challenge includes a Property Brothers-like makeover for the two barbershops’ storefronts. According to organizers, Razor One plans to offer financial literacy workshops, and Precision Blendz hopes to sponsor a community outreach program for those in need of a bit of direction moving forward in their lives.

The winner will be announced in December.

“MEN OF CHANGE: POWER. TRIUMPH. TRUTH.” will run through Dec. 1 in the Freedom Center’s third-floor Skirball Gallery. Admission is $10 with general admission, and $5 for members.  “King Me” is displayed just outside the gallery’s entrance

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 E. Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information on upcoming exhibits and related programs, visit