The gift of authentic conversation

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“What does it mean to be Black?” When considering that nebulous question, Jackie McGriff, founder and director of Our Voices Project, wanted to approach it in a unique way.

Instead of searching for a definitive answer, McGriff’s project, “Being Black in America,” places the audience as an invisible observer to a frank and intimate conversation among Black Rochesterians.

“I just started to think about how many films or short videos where they’re asking a similar question, but they’re sitting facing the camera and talking directly to the audience,” McGriff says. “It’s never a conversation that’s happening between Black folks.

“So, when we started thinking about that format, I wanted it to be like a fly on the wall,” she continues. “You’re getting the gift of being a witness to a conversation amongst other Black people about what Blackness means to them.” 

The project preserved that authenticity even further by being held in a Black woman-owned studio and was shot by two Black women. However, with that authenticity, the Our Voices Project team thinks it can continue to spark other conversations as well.

Tiffany Porter is featured in Being Black in America.

The documentary will be screened on Feb. 21 at the Pittsford Community Library. A Q&A session with participants from the film will follow the screening and is a part of a desire for continued conversation.

McGriff says that “Blackness” is discussed among the Black community, but often media portrayals of this are flattened or simplified. The conversation in “Being Black in America” instead demonstrates that the concept of identity is complex and multifaceted.

“The other thing we were able to focus on too, within the pool of storytellers, was the intersectionality within the community. Because, like Jackie says, no one is a monolith,” says Courtney Shouse, outreach facilitator with Our Voices Project.

The seven participants’ backgrounds range from the worlds of business and the arts to activism and politics. The producers were impressed and relieved that the featured voices were all active and thoughtful during filming.

Although Gabrielle Brannigan, a social studies teacher and coach in Monroe County, served somewhat as a facilitator, there was no list of questions or specific topics they wanted to discuss. Instead, the central question of “What does being Black in America mean to you?” served as a launching point for a deep and authentic conversation.

“When we ended it, they were all surprised by how short it seemed. I think that happens when you’re deeply invested in what you’re talking about,” says McGriff.

Participants also expressed a desire for conversations to continue being filmed, perhaps as a series. It’s a concept that intrigues McGriff and Shouse, whose previous work with the production company all touches on the question of identity in some way.

For example, the project, “This is My Grandmother,” centers American indigenous voices through intergenerational relationships, while “Identity” is a filmed conversation between high school students on how they are impacted individually and societally. Those projects have been featured at Pittsford Community Library and St. John Fisher University events, respectively.

“We’re always trying to squash misconceptions. I do it all the time in my personal life,” Shouse says, listing a number of examples related to the transatlantic slave trade and indigenous artifacts. “That’s what we do as a company too. We’re very conscious of what we get behind to make sure we’re genuine through and through.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

6 thoughts on “The gift of authentic conversation

  1. Perhaps the most salient point is that no group of people, whatever criterion is used to establish the “group” is monolithic. However, the ancient tribal and fight-or-flight instincts compel us to use superficial indicators. I’d be fascinated if the producers would start by asking each participant before they joined the group, how they identify themselves.

    • “…the ancient tribal and fight-or-flight instincts???” You’re NOT suggesting that this is based on science — are you???

      • Yes I am. Social groups tend to view “outsiders” or unfamiliar individuals or groups with suspicion. Look at the indigenous people in the Amazon, New Guinea, or even “space operas” where the plots always revolve around fearing an alien species. Our outsiders. As much as contemporary humans like to think of ourselves as developed and sophisticated, our primitive hind-brain still responds to the unknown with fear or aggression. I’m loath to bring this up, but the conflict in Israel between the Palestineans and the Israelis is based on centuries of fear and mistrust of the other. Even though genetically both groups are more similar than different.

      • One thing — it’s not the only thing — but one thing for sure that pokes HUGE holes in your unscientific theory is the fact that when low-down, dirty, rotten, thieving, kidnapping rapist European “outsiders [came to this land, the indigenous people’s so-called] “primitive hind-brains [initially, did NOT cause them to] respond to the unknown with fear [and certainly NOT] aggression.” In fact, the exact opposite is true, e.g., they responded with kindness and acceptance, even to the point of helping to save some of the outsiders’ lives. So, it’s back to the drawing board for you.

    • You are correct about the “flight or fight” instinct kicking in when two groups collide.
      Unfortunately, some tend to dismiss that reaction because they believe that it’s not valid unless it happens EVERY time cultural groups of strangers meet. Or that “flight” has to be exclusively defined as the act of running away. The reality is that there are many forms of “flight”. For example, the classic case of the Aztecs who regarded the Conquistadors as gods, resulting in “flight” in the form of fear, awe and worship.

  2. Once the film becomes available, I look forward to viewing it. However, if it is to be truly “authentic” — relative to “backgrounds” — it must necessarily reach far beyond Black folks who simply “range from the worlds of business and the arts to activism and politics.” For example, the idea and reality of “activism and politics” is HUGE. Thus, it becomes important to ask questions like — “active” where, in which kind of “politics” (specifically), and for how long? And of course the same types of question applies to “the arts,” e.g., which arts (specifically). And, of all the possible variables relative to perspectives — NONE are more important than the following:

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