Photographer Naisha Bailey-Johnson knows just how powerful her medium can be, and when it harms Black men, that power worries her.
As images of George Floyd and his death at the hands of police were widely shared, the Missouri-based business owner noticed that Black men were being dehumanized on her social feeds: Their bodies only inclips of violence; their faces in mugshots; their names in stories about racial injustice.
Where were the representations of Black masculinity as a source of joy? Particularly as nurturing figures, a depiction overshadowed by stereotypes of absent fathers? With that question in mind, the 33-year-old decided to start the “Black Fatherhood Project”: a photo series devoted to humanizing Black men and drawing attention to all the ways Black fathers show love to their children. To emphasize its political element, her services cost $8.46 — the number of seconds Floyd was held in a chokehold before his death.
“I really want people to just view our community in a different way,” she told Today. “I don’t have the answers. Sometimes I sit back and I’m like, what can you do? How can you change this? And I feel like this is different from marching or protesting. I’m protesting the narrative with my artwork.”
What results from her protest are visuals that celebrate Black dads at their silliest, happiest, and most relaxed while bonding with loved ones ― be that through making funny faces with their kids, like high school football coach Michael Gerdine, or spending quality time fishing in the case of Chad Roundtree and his family.
Gerdine finds it frustrating how limited the public understanding of Black dads is, given how different it is from how highly involved the fathers he knows are.
“They portray Black fathers in a bad light. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, I feel like if we continue to see more fathers doing positive things, then the negative stigma will go away,” he told St. Louis Public Radio. “I don’t even associate with a man if he’s a father who didn’t take care of kids. I got a group of friends — about 10 to 12 of us — and all of us are fathers and everybody’s active in their children’s lives.”
Joshua Johnson, one of the project’s early participants, feels similarly.
“We know there are tons of dads who are doing everything they need to do to take care of their kids, they have these amazing relationships,” Johnson told KMOV Channel 4. “We want people to know dads and Black fathers are present in their children’s lives and they are willingly doing these things and enjoying them just as much as moms are.
Bailey Johnson hopes plans to photograph 30 more fathers, a feat she hopes to accomplish with the help of a crowdfunding campaign.
Fathers who live in the area and are interested in participating can fill out a form on her website.
More Black dads worth celebrating
The fight against Black dad stereotypes in media has been taken up by many others, with some fathers making a difference by showing their parenting in action. The hashtags #blackfatherhood, #blackdad, #blackdadsmatter and #strongblackfathers are filled with positive images of Black dads uplifting their kids and themselves.
Accounts like Black Fathers Now document the relatable, often funny experiences dads go through.
Other projects have looked to explore Black fatherhood through education, such as a similarly-named initiative to Bailey-Johnson’s. In the 2013 documentary “Black Fatherhood Project,” Jordan Thierry explores how slavery and racism harmed Black family structures historically, as well as the role of positive role models in Black fatherhood.
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