The 22nd of 28 interviews with a variety of artists, writers and friends to learn more about individual perspectives on being black + original illustrations by George McCalman

BRYAN COLLINS (musician + artist)

One of the best things about being black is knowing that our culture and style has permeated and influenced so many aspects of contemporary American culture that it’s undeniable. Despite all of the challenges and struggles, we still shine, others fall in line.

What identity — racial or otherwise — do you feel closest to?

I mostly hang out with people who’re into Reiki, have left-wing anarchist tendencies, and are hypocrites because they love art and design, work in advertising, and enjoy eating at fancy restaurants, just like me.

Can you tell if people see you as black before they see you?

This question makes me think about stereotypes... Personally, I guess I don’t have any qualities that would call me out as “black” before you see me. If we were talking on the phone or emailing, you’d have no idea what color I am. Thanks to my generic slave name and lack of accent, nobody knows what color I am until we meet. So I’ve had a few, “I didn’t think you were black!” conversations, after meeting people in person, which blows my mind.

And it has shown up in job interviews. I’ve had receptionist look at me surprised or questioning what I was in the office for. Black men are like rare Pokemon in the marketing / advertising world.

Tell us about the first time you understood what it was to be black.

My father was in the military, and when I was five years old my family had moved from Puerto Rico to an army base in San Antonio, Texas. Typically army children go to a school on the military base, but for some reason I went to a public school. On the first day, I walked up to a small group of children during recess and asked if I could play. There was a moment of silence, then a girl from the group looked at me and said, “I can’t play with you because you’re black.” Then she turned away and went back to her game.

I was shocked because my first thought was that I wasn’t BLACK. I was more like… brown. Then I understood that to her black was “different,” and my “different” was so bad she wasn’t allowed near it. I remember that to this day. It’s still one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.

Has being black made your life better?

I don’t know about “better,” but it’s made the experience of living more interesting.

There’s a pride in struggle. There’s a knowing that within black folks lies a resilience, perseverance, and creativity that’s astonishing and inspiring. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that the predominant American culture has been influenced by blacks to such a degree that people don’t even see it anymore.

What’s something most people don’t realize about being black?

Deep down, all black people know we’ve influenced America in ways that the majority doesn’t even see or understand. You can blame or thank us for Elvis.

One of the best things about being black is knowing that our culture and style has permeated and influenced so many aspects of contemporary American culture that it’s undeniable. Despite all of the challenges and struggles, we still shine, others fall in line…

What’s on your mind when you’re not thinking about race?

Maybe I’m thinking about our dualistic nature as humans… Our human operating system is in this perpetual tug-of-war with itself. On one hand, we have a tendency to divide, categorize and label our surroundings. On the other hand, there’s a yearning to merge with others, a desire to be a part of something bigger.

Or, I might be thinking about human rights on the whole… The world can be dark and sad sometimes, and it’s hard not to think about that. Equality and justice for all would be really nice, right?

If I’m not thinking about all that heavy shit, I’m probably thinking about synthesizers, art, traveling and food, my family, managing the stress of politics… And I’m constantly working to continue with being active and having fun.

Some say blacks gave birth to cool, agree?

I would have to agree, especially when you account for all the theories that modern humans evolved in Africa. We originated much of what this culture eats up. Straight out of Africa was a prequel to Straight outta Compton. Take an african dance class, then watch the Shake it off Video.

The word “cool” goes back to 9th century Germany or some shit, but in our modern context it’s from 1940’s jazz. So yeah, we birthed cool.

How would life be different if you just didn’t have to think about race much?

The mild panic attacks I have every time I see a cop would stop. Every time I see a police officer, I take an inventory of all the bad things I’ve ever done, which is not much, and feel like they know about it.

In all seriousness, this question kind of breaks my heart to answer. Race and insecurities around it can be a mental and emotional shackle. I sometimes second-guess myself or question someone’s perception of me, my intentions or capabilities, based solely on my race. Sometimes, this holds me back. So, I imagine that there’d be a sense of freedom and deeper levels of self-love if I didn’t have to think about race at all.

Black: lowercase or uppercase b?

I get to this question, and almost want to go back and change every occurrence of “black” to all caps, bold and italic.

This might be symbolic of my general point of view on being BLACK. It’s just a fact to me. It’s common and natural. It’s what I am, love it or not. So it’s like breathing. I’m going to be doing this black thing as long as I’m alive. I do realize though — if I’m asked about it — I get bold and want to lean into it. Breath it in deep, and be thankful for it. Like fresh air. It’s taken a lifetime to get to this place with my identity, to not be afraid to be black and bold.

Okay, now tell us what you think about Beyonce

I think she’s beyond great, but Solange’s “Seat at the Table” is on a whole other level and speaks to me more right now.


About George: Instagram & things / About Ebony: Instagram & things