Black Men Smile Celebrates Joy and Shapes Positive Identities

    Carlton Mackey knows that Black men have plenty to rightly feel angry about. Still, he is concerned about how that emotion is the one most typically portrayed in the media, presenting a distorted image. His response: a guerilla movement celebrating the transformative power of Black joy.

    Over the past ten years, Mackey’s Black Men Smile project has captured thousands of cheerful images intended to “encourage us to see ourselves in a positive light.” That message has also been promoted through an inspirational apparel line sporting proclamations like “Black Joy is Revolutionary” and “My Black Husband/Wife Makes Me Smile.”

    I wanted to remind people of us being more than a hashtag.


    The brand describes its clothing as “more than fabric; it’s a canvas for self-love, a declaration of resilience stitched into every thread… and worn by people who believe fully that their best is yet to come.” Black joy “is not an escape from reality; rather,” one social media posting insists, “it is an act of resistance within it. Our joy is a radical assertion of our worth, our dignity, and our inherent right to exist fully as vibrant, multifaceted beings.”

    The Black Men Smile campaign has been slowly gaining traction. Recently, the brand partnered with Atlanta’s ZuCot Gallery—home to the most extensive collection of African American art in the Southeast—for The Gift, an exclusive line for its exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

    The Black Men Smile message is due to get broadcast on a much broader scale soon through a partnership with a major retail chain that will carry the clothing line.

    For Mackey, that higher visibility is the reward for sticking with a vision sparked by the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

    Positive focus

    Saddened by the young man’s death and disturbed by all the negative media coverage that followed, Mackey found himself slumping into depression. “I needed to be reminded, and I wanted to remind people of us as being more than a hashtag,” he says. A search for the hashtag #Blackmensmile yielded zero results, and he decided to change that.

    “It became a mission to create a space that could be a rest, that could be a refuge, and that could encourage us to see ourselves in a positive light and to dare to position ourselves and look at our- selves from an asset-based perspective and not from a perspective of our death and dying.”

    Black Men Smile’s signature question to guys—“What makes you smile?”—prompted a revealing answer. “The most common response that we got was, ‘No one’s ever asked me that,’” Mackey recalls. “It helped brothers tap into their feelings and who they were as a holistic approach and not simply what they were able to perform and what they were able to do or what their job function was.”

    As well as promoting a more positive image of Black men, Black Men Smile has encouraged guys to open up about mental health concerns—an issue widely recognized to have been too long ignored or downplayed. Mackey has heard from men who have told how his project has made them want to “show up and be present.”

    Mackey has experienced a similar thing himself: “It’s helped me tap into my emotional state, and it’s really helped foster a relationship where I see other Black men in an endearing way.” It has also impacted him as a father, he says: “It causes me to want to even be closer to my son and to model to him the full expansive expression of who I am, so that he knows that he has permission to be angry, happy, he can pursue his endeavors, he can love—[it just] doesn’t just have to be in the limited ways that Black men and Black masculinity are portrayed in the media.”

    Mackey enjoys the reaction he gets to his Black Men Smile-wear. “I can tell when they’re reading my shirt because I see their face change,” he says. “They could be in deep thought, they could be preoccupied, but I see their countenance change, and it’s either surprise or they light up.”

    In addition to promoting a positive image of Black men, Mackey’s initiative has also literally brought a smile to someone’s face. Among the service projects it has taken part in was partnering with a dentist to give a makeover to a man who grew up without being able to afford dental care and was self-conscious about his poor teeth. “It changed my life completely,” he said. “Now I can’t stop smiling. Sometimes I smile when I’m not supposed to!”

    Family influence
    Black Men Smile is only one way in which Mackey wants to encourage and inspire people. As the assistant director for education, community dialogue and engagement at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, he helps create interactive programs that explore social issues. He also co-directs the arts and social justice fellows program at Emory University, where he earned a Master of Divinity and later lectured in the Department of Film and Media. He also founded and directed the Ethics & the Arts pro- gram at the university’s Center for Ethics.

    Mackey traces his positivity and desire to make a difference back to childhood. Losing his mother to cancer when he was just five, he went to live with his father, who enlisted his mom’s help in raising Mackey. There wasn’t a lot of money, but the family was “rich in love and affection and support,” he says.

    “My grandmother ensured that I would stay on a straight and narrow path, which I did not like at the time,” Mackey recalls. “But she always saw that there was much in me that she would do everything that she could to bring it out of me.” Now he is older and can see what that investment produced, “I am committed to living in a way that honors [it].”

    Mackey still has a letter he received from his father when he was in college—the first in his family to continue education after high school, he graduated from Tuskegee University with an electrical engineering degree.

    “He just wrote on a piece of paper, ‘God is always calling your name,’” Mackey says. “I just want to say yes. I want to answer. Being present to that voice has made a way and it has pro- vided me so many opportunities to meet people and to have an impact on people. I feel like I am a valuable human being because I can see the reflection of myself in other people, and other people seem to say that they see something in me. And I just give thanks to my parents and to my humble beginnings for instilling that in a way where that can be said.”

    In His Father’s Footsteps

    One of the people Carlton Mackey is most pleased to have been able to impact through his Black Men Smile campaign is his 13-year-old son, Isaiah, who helps his father with the project. A sports lover who wants to go into business one day, Isaiah has his own apparel brand, YATBY (You Are The Best You). It’s intended “to empower other people to focus on being the best of themselves and not trying to compare themselves to other people,” Isaiah says.


    From an interview with Louis Carr

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