It’s only fitting to finish my 1001 Black Men Online Sketchbook with the most inspiring and influential man in my life, Alphonzo Mance, Sr., my dad.
A native of South Carolina, my dad moved me and my mom to Long Island, New York, where he worked as a chemistry teacher until joining the staff of the National Education Association. (We were living on Long Island when my brother was born, in the early 1970s.) My dad would eventually go on to serve as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Association. He was the first African American to hold that post.
As a kid growing up on Long Island, my parents’ pleasure for exploring the bookstores and museums of Manhattan launched my competing obsessions with research and writing and art. All three of those have combined in the project I’m completing today, this collection of 1001 portraits of African American men.
Born in South Carolina, my dad was educated at Bethune-Cookman University, Tuskegee Institute, and Hofstra University. One of eight children, he built his career in education, first as a high school chemistry teacher and, eventually, as an executive for the nation’s largest teacher’s union. Education–whether primary, secondary, post-secondary, or post-grad–is our family business; and my dad was not only born to two teachers (at least one of whom was himself the child of a teacher), but he married a teacher, as well.
Today, both of my parents remain adventurous, politically and culturally engaged, and excited and curious about our rapidly changing world. For all their charm and reserve, my parents aren’t afraid to geek out about things they love–like Broadway plays and musicals, singing, book shopping, and international travel. Each of their visits to the SF Bay Area is a wonderfully nerdy Black love fest, with me my parents and my brother making references and jokes that betray our shared passion for information gathering and our respect for each other’s obsessions.
For anyone who has seen the four of us together–me, my parents and my brother–it should come as no surprise that I’ve spent the last 6.5 years exploring a single line of creative inquiry. The only real surprise is that I decided to stop at only 1001.
After 999 drawings, created and posted over the last 6½ years, I’ve finally reached the last two portraits in my 1001 Black Men Online Sketchbook.
You may have noticed that most of my drawings depict Black men in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve lived in Oakland, California since 1999, and the portraits in this series depict the people I encounter in my day-to-day life.
For my last two drawings, though, I’ve looked outside the Bay Area to include two of my favorite Black men, the first an old friend and new colleague, and the second a beloved family member. I will begin a new portrait-based series later this month, and in that series, I will include several of the local African American men who I was not able to include in the 1001 Black Men series; but because that next project focuses solely on Bay Area residents, I will be able to include neither of these last two figures, because each lives far outside our SF Bay region.
Drawing #1000 is a portrait of Scott Poulson-Bryant. If you’ve ever picked up an issue of Vibe Magazine or watched the late 1990s VH1 series Four on the Floor, then you’ll probably recognize him. He spent years as a journalist, and was widely known for his insightful and nuanced work on hip-hop music and its personalities. Today, Scott is an Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University, where he teaches courses in African American literature and cultural studies.
I first met Scott during our early undergraduate years at Brown University, where we shared an interest in writing and pop culture as well as a love of hip-hop dance parties. In the years since that time, we’ve crossed paths on both coasts, as we’ve each made our way through careers in that interesting and generative space where African American culture, arts, and literature meet.
The story of Scott’s journey from Brown University undergrad to hip-hop journalist (and one of the founders of Vibe Magazine) to Harvard PhD student to Fordham Professor is as unexpected as it is inspiring; and it’s a story he tells best. Check out this recent interview on the Fordham English website: Faculty Highlights–Scott Poulson-Bryant.
The man in this drawing was was one of a handful of other Black people I saw at the Fourth of July fireworks display I attended last year in Benbow, Humboldt County, California. There are very few people in Benbow (population 321), but the fireworks display was incredible! Each burst of color and fire and light was more impressive than the one before, and the display went on for much longer than I’d anticipated. Even so, the pyrotechnics team left the crowd begging for more.
If you’ve ever been in East Oakland during the Fourth of July holiday, you may get the impression that young brothas are the most patriotic people in these United States–that is, if the purchase and use of
illegal unsanctioned fireworks is any indication of committed to God and country. Back in 2007, I briefly rented a house at the edge of East Oakland. The house had a terrace on the back; and on the Fourth of July, I could stand on that terrace and see all the unsanctioned fireworks being set off on the surrounding streets. I have to give these young brothers their due; there is no doubt in my mind that the display I could see from my terrace was bigger and more lavish than the official fireworks displays in certain small towns, but certainly not bigger that the no-holds-barred awesome display I saw in Benbow.