Men of Change explores our past through the history of Black men in our nation and the artistry of contemporaries today. It showcases the revolutionary and iconic – some famous and some less well-known. Stunning photography and inspirational quotes are paired with bold contemporary art.
Twenty-seven men are spotlighted as Men of Change, but an additional 60 are reflected through images and quotes. Even more are represented by name within the exhibition, as the creators at the Smithsonian say, “to exemplify that no man is an island – all have found inspiration from their community and those who have come before them.”
Planning for the traveling exhibition started within the Smithsonian in 2016, following the success of a national exhibition tour, Freedom’s Sisters, which paid homage to the African American women who shaped civil rights in America. Since 2019, it has awed audiences in seven cities across the U.S. and is scheduled to move to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute after its stint in Charlotte.
According to the Smithsonian, artists were paired with one of the “Men of Change” in the exhibit and invited to create an original work of art that would accentuate each of the men’s individual legacies while examining broader themes of masculinity, Black identity, community tradition and more.
Here’s a quick overview of the queer men featured in the exhibition.
Paul Robeson was a bass-baritone concert artist, actor, professional football player and political activist. Robeson gained celebrity by starring in several films and Broadway productions and his voice has been characterized as one of the best of his generation. His social activism made him a target of the McCarthy-era witch hunts and he fought for justice and equality until his death in 1976. In addition to marriages and affairs with a number of women, Robeson was reported to have had an affair with American composer Marc Blitzstein, who was murdered because he was gay in 1964.
James Baldwin is one of the most acclaimed writers in American history whose work included essays, novels, plays and poetry. His unshakable writing on the politics of race continues to be important reading today and he never shied away from his sexual identity. From an early age, Baldwin had relationships with other men and wrote openly about them. Baldwin died in France in 1987 at the age of 63.
Bayard Rustin was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. to bring about the boycott of Montgomery’s segregated buses in 1956. Rustin was openly gay and refused to hide who he was while he continued to fight on the front lines of the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington in 1963. Rustin died in 1987. He was 75.
Alvin Ailey was a dancer, director, choreographer and activist who famously combined personal experiences of growing up in Texas and American Black culture with modern dance and ballet. He founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater based in New York City in 1958. He died from an AIDS-related illness in 1989 at the age of 58. His dance company continues to perform with its most recent season having three world premieres and the company includes dance training, education, community programs and an extension program in Atlanta.
Kehinde Wiley, a portrait painter, is most widely known for his painting of President Barack Obama from 2017. With this painting, Wiley became the first openly gay artist to paint a U.S. president’s official portrait. According to Gay Times, the New York artist has built a career on featuring Black men and women using a classical European style and has been commissioned by celebrities including Michael Jackson, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and Ice T.
Other LGBTQ people are included in the exhibition, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, one of the few women whose quote (below) is used to exemplify the importance of the story of African American identity in America.
“Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be … Write about our people: tell their story. You have something glorious to draw on, begging for attention.” Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, 1969.
“Men of Change boldly tells the narrative of our nation through the stories of revolutionary, iconic African American Men,” according to the Smithsonian. “The exhibition examines how each, in their own way and from a variety of disciplines, used inspiration from those before them to take charge of their own identity and not be held back by stereotypes and societal barriers of their times.”
In both locations, the exhibition also spotlights local “Men of Change.” At the Levine Museum gallery, guests are invited to answer “Who are Charlotte’s Men of Change?” by adding names using post-it notes to a wall at the end of the exhibition and both locations honor local Black leaders for their work as businessmen, teachers, political and justice activists, coaches and visionaries. Original works of art commissioned by local creatives accompany each of the featured men, “providing new layers of interpretation and symbolism for considering the powerful legacies.”
What to know if you’re going
The exhibition is split between two locations in uptown Charlotte, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture at 551 S. Tryon Street and the (newer) Levine Museum of the New South gallery space a block away at Three Wells Fargo Center. You can start at either location, but I would suggest starting at Levine for the best narrative journey through exhibit themes.
The exhibit includes seven themes: catalysts, myth-breakers and community at Levine Museum and storytellers, fathering and imagining at The Gantt. Both museums display elements of the loving theme.
Admission is free at both locations.
According to websites, hours vary so check ganttcenter.org and museumofthenewsouth.org for the most up-to-date times. Both museums are closed on Mondays.