This past year, American Book Award author Peter J. Harris, founder of the Black Man of Happiness Project, was awarded a TPP grant for his See You: Faces of the Black Man of Happiness publication and public awareness campaign/exhibition curated in Los Angeles.

TPP recently sat down with Harris to ask him about the inspiration behind his project and its impact.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the See You Campaign?

Peter J. Harris

Peter J. Harris

A: I wanted to wade through history’s ugliness to find photos of men emanating their inner happiness or ‘emanating a sense of joy,’ in the words of my colleague and Research Librarian Helen Cate. I wanted to publicly present these ‘Legacy’ photos in digital frames specially designed by my long-time creative colleague Julie Ray Creative. I wanted each photo to honor illuminated moments, and pay homage to the men, who now are all ancestors. I wanted to inspire viewers to see the humanity and vitality of the men. I wanted viewers to join me on my exploration of African American life and history from a refreshing, life-affirming new angle: through the lens of happiness of the men whose survival, let alone joy, has never been a national priority. In the campaign photos, I wanted viewers to see their own images reflected in a historical wellspring of faces. I wanted campaign viewers to savor each face, to search each face, to smile back at each face, to feel the humanity ‘emanating’ from history, and to dive deeply into the pool of photos. I wanted campaign viewers to literally see another public face of Black men.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your research to find these memorable images?

A: My research began in the 1990s. My instincts as a cultural worker told me that I could find a critical mass of Legacy photos of joyful Black men. However, my sporadic – and frankly ineffective – investigations had me searching databases at universities, libraries, and government agencies, as well as asking friends for referrals to scholars. Some 10 years ago, I was referred to a professional at the National Archives, who couldn’t quite conceive what I was asking. “You know,” he said in a phone conversation, “Black history hasn’t been very happy.”

In October 2017, I got lucky. I found myself at the Altadena Central Library, requesting help from Melissa Aldama, Adult Services Reference Clerk II. Excited by my query, Ms. Aldama assigned Helen Cate, Library Clerk I, to conduct research on my behalf. Ms. Cate began her research by sitting with me and absorbing the specs I outlined: please search for historical photos in which Black men could be ‘read’ as exhibiting joy, or happiness, or contentment, or dignity. I didn’t want photos of entertainers or athletes. I wanted images of Everyday People. After our meeting, Ms. Cate initiated her research by writing to librarians at, among other collections, the Library of Congress, universities, and public libraries. Almost casually, she wrote that she was searching for assistance identifying photos of Black men “emanating a sense of joy.” Honestly, this elegant turn of phrase distilled what was actually motivating me, and became a poetic, yet rigorous, framing device!

Q: What did you learn from creating the campaign?

A: In these magnificent images, I learned to see individuality across time! These men and boys teach me to pursue and embrace my own unique reasons for living, to cultivate, to work for, and to celebrate my current and future mental and spiritual health – as a way to contribute to overall community health. I learned how thrilling it is to actually unearth these images of joyful and dignified men. I learned how these powerful touchstones from the past compel and inspire me to value every breath I take in the present! These See You images are part of a growing collection of visceral reminders that my instincts were right, and that if I continue to trust my intuition, I’ll be rewarded with hundreds of photos proving that, at our best, my ‘big brothers’ always, always, always retained their inner life and stoked their inner light. No doubt, we’ve waded through hundreds of images of pain, and tragedy, and difficulty, and death, and ugliness. Yet, by not turning away we have been drawn inexorably to the magnificence ‘emanating’ from history.

Q: What do you hope people will learn from experiencing the campaign?

A: I hope that each photo will inspire folks to claim and emanate their own happiness; to meditate on how they can contribute to the joy of loves ones; to embrace happiness as a counter spell against personal and social down-pressures; and, more practically, to LIKE, SHARE, and COMMENT in the spirit of contributing to a living, breathing Oral History of Happiness. We live in an accelerated contemporary era, too often fueled by fear. Honestly, I have been bowled over, had my breath absolutely stolen, witnessing viral videos capturing Black men’s faces contorted in pain or stilled by death. With the See You campaign, I hope people will be witnesses for a humane vision. I hope they will claim their power to celebrate humanity, the humanity of their own loved ones, and use that celebration as fuel to work in their own ways to create a more perfect union, a more just society, a more beautiful society. This campaign captures peak experiences through the faces of anonymous Black men. I want the campaign to inspire people to cultivate their own peak experiences and contribute to peak experiences in their personal and social relationships.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

A: I wanted to feature Legacy photos as a life-affirming way to trace the DNA of joy for Black men and boys during a social climate that too often places those men and boys in the crosshairs of danger and death. I hope the See You campaign boldly contributes to a re-charged emotional ecology and social atmosphere that are infused with beautiful art reflecting ongoing, dignified, and intimate resistance of Black males to their dehumanization. The campaign provides evidence that ‘emanating a sense of joy’ is a healthy part of what I call ‘whole living,’ even in the midst of contemporary social challenges and a documented history of pain. I’m confident that the campaign photos reveal the incredible strength and dignity and humanity necessary to become and remain a Black Man of Happiness.

In addition to Ms. Melissa Aldama and Ms. Helen Cate, Harris wishes to thank Yago Cura, Bilingual Outreach Librarian at the West LA Regional Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). A few months before Harris met Ms. Aldama and Ms. Cate, Mr. Cura unearthed a few photos from the LAPL Photo Database, “LA Neighborhoods” collection; those photos are not part of the See You campaign, but they remain a part of the larger pool of Legacy images. “I feel grateful that I found talented teammates who could help me culminate more than 20 years of imagination, concentration, gestation, exploration, and flashes of insight that I trusted to keep me on this journey.”

See You ...emanating a sense of joy

Three Men [Pyramid of Dignity & Joy] — Two men with canes seated in foreground with another man standing behind them.

Peter J. Harris

Peter J. Harris is the winner of the 2017-18 City of LA Fellowship, the 2015 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and the 2015 American Book Award. In addition to his poetry, personal essays, and plays, he has written Bless the Ashes and The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right.’ Mr. Harris has managed organizations using art to educate at-risk youth and fostered ethical collaborations via dance, music and cultural tourism.

Read More of Seeds, Our Blog

Become Part of the Pollination Project Family

Become part of a unique movement to find and support grassroots leaders who share a common vision for a more just and compassionate world.

Donate

Do you have a project working to address the inequities in the world?
Apply for a $1,000 seed grant and let us help you succeed.

Apply Here