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S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys Project Cuts Through Stereotypes


Brandon Bell lived his life as any typical 13-year-old — days of school and homework, goofing about with neighborhood friends, and sidestepping his parents’ relentless pleas to wear a helmet while showing off his ‘killer moves’ at the skateboard park. Largely carefree, Brandon lost much of his whimsical ways after being violently stopped by a shop owner who believed he was stealing. The 90-pound middle-schooler found himself jostled about and thrown into the manager’s office to await the arrival of police officers.

Once on the scene, police and the shop owner realized that not only had Brandon not stolen anything, but the accusation that he appeared familiar to the store owner was because he had recently spent the night in his home at his grandson’s birthday sleepover.

“Suddenly I wasn’t Brandon who he’d sat across the table from eating eggs and pancakes just weeks before; I was some menacing Black youth out of his imagination,” Brandon told ACUMEN. “I think I lost my smile that day.”

Brandon said he no longer wanted to be kind or friendly to people who he believed only pretended to be civilized towards him, but secretly held fears of and prejudices against him.

Hurt and humiliated, Brandon said he was also incensed by the way all of the adults simply brushed it away as a mistake that he should forget ever happened. “Even my mentor told me to toughen up and not let it get to me as if it were something I simply had to learn to deal with.”

Kay Rufai wants to change how we interact with and perceive youth like Brandon.

The “S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys Project,” a creative arts venture using photography, poetry, film, and podcasts to address the mental health needs of Black boys, also challenges the negative portrayal of this demographic in the media. The project, a research-led public health series of workshops based on eight pillars of happiness, developed as a response to rising levels of serious youth violence and the negative media portrayal of Black boys as perpetrators and victims.

Kay Adekunle Rufai, the photographer, behind the project, cast the photos against his own innovative research on the mental health of Black males. Spanning more than 5 years and crisscrossing the globe, Rufai’s contribution to the discourse on Black male identity formation included charting definitions of manhood, masculinity, power, crime, and happiness in places like the UK, Ethiopia, Germany, and Mexico.

“The majority of the narrative [on criminality] is around the victim and perpetrator which is synonymous to Black boys being inherently criminals and gang members. It’s mainly from an incarceration standpoint - increase policing, increase the jail time, and do all the deterrence. No one was really talking about the ill mental health that violence is one of the symptoms of,” Rufai said. “For me, I wanted to create a counter-narrative, a project that actually centered the public well-being and public health of these young people. Seeing the entire child and giving them authentically that. That’s important!”

Honors and accolades abound – including funding from the Wellcome Trust, Arts Council, British Council, and California Arts Council. Rufai also explores themes such as lack of father figures, love, loss, friendship, and “snitching” with young males.

The praise for Rufai among academics and reformers rivals that of everyday people, who welcome a shift in stereotypes of young Black boys. Among them, Darcus Alves, a Peckham-based butcher. Mesmerized, Alves spent the better part of four hours exploring the exhibition.

“It made me think of myself as a lad being a good kid, but having people assume I was a ‘chav’. The news was full of derogatory depictions of Black boys that made people scared of me, and made them disrespect me. Eventually, I learned to walk around with this scowl on my face that said, ‘I hate you as much as you hate me,’ but it was all an act,” Alves said. “Seeing these young ones smiling, is like looking into their souls. You see them; that’s all I wanted people to do with me.”

Alves said he was taken to tears at one point while watching an interactive portion of the exhibition and listening to a young man talk about how he felt about life.

“Young Black boys are routinely denied the benefit, beauty, and protection afforded children. They are viewed and handled as pathological, and threats to safety and order. They are seen as adults and troubled ones at that,” he said. “This exhibition humanizes all Black boys by challenging us to see them differently. When we see them smile, we see ourselves.”

Rabia Kingster, a London-based hairstylist who specializes in grooming the hair of young Black boys and teens, also found the photos emotional.

“I see my community when I look at these beautiful smiles. As a children’s hairstylist, I interact with these youngsters. I deal with 5-to-19-year olds and when they talk they are sweet and humble and loving and respectful,” Kingster said. “Where are those characteristics shown in media? And when I would tell them to smile more, they would say that when you smile people look at you like something is wrong with you. Seeing their smiles here shows you that they are misunderstood.”

Rufai currently travels with the exhibition and showcased it in January in Los Angeles.


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