Atlanta creator, entrepreneur on Target collaboration and celebrating Black joy as a catalyst for change

Atlanta-based Black Men Smile creator, Carlton Mackey, holds a pair of freshly opened gray joggers in the new “Black Joy is Revolutionary” collection. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The Ke’nekt Cooperative is a mutual aid workspace in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood.

On March 14, hours before Ke’nekt hosted an event with the ACLU of Georgia, Carlton Mackey entered the workspace with a box in hand. He was there to deliver items from his clothing brand’s new collection.

His brand, Black Men Smile, is a small Atlanta-based lifestyle clothing line committed to promoting positive depictions of Black men and amplifying the celebration of Black joy. 

Mackey, an artist, community advocate and Candler School of Theology alum said, “The key to a successful business endeavor is solving a problem.”

Target recently featured the clothing brand in its 2024 Black History Month collection, which remained on shelves until mid-March, expanding its reach to 1,900 Target stores nationwide and online at Black Men Smile was one of four Black-owned brands to be chosen this year.

The Target collection unveiled nine new items, showcasing a fresh color option for its popular hoodies and joggers, children’s clothing and a new Black Men Smile logo bucket hat.

Left, founder of The Ke’nekt Cooperative Kiyomi Williams and right, Carlton Mackey unbox items from the “Black Joy is Revolutionary” collection. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“The Black Men Smile signature collection, ‘Black Joy is Revolutionary,’ is a celebration of the unapologetic dance to the rhythm of your own heart, the quiet strength that rises from the depths of Black joy.”

Black Joy is Revolutionary Collection
Mackey is assistant director of community dialogue and engagement at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and previously worked at Emory University as an associate director for its Ethics in the Arts program. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The idea for Black Men Smile started back in August 2014, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Mackey says he became concerned with the lack of positive and empowering images of Black men on the internet.

“In the social media landscape in 2014, I would argue that the most shared images among and about Black people were hashtags of the names of people who were killed by police,” he told WABE. “There was probably no more popular hashtag than hashtags associated with oppression.”

Mackey continued, “I felt this was a problem. I needed to see and feel beautiful. Strong. I needed it for my mental health, as an act of resistance, as an act of disruption, to take up space and to offer a different view of myself.”

A pair of “Black Joy is Revolutionary” joggers. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

He says that’s why he started using the hashtag #BlackMenSmile, which eventually grew into one of several brand and empowerment initiatives he’s led.

“We created a space of this kind to bear witness to a different truth about who we are,” Mackey said.

Next month, Mackey’s brand is joining The Kennedy Center Block Party in Washington, D.C., which Education Artist-in-Residence and author of “Brown Girl Dreaming,” Jacqueline Woodson, will host. Mackey says that Black Men Smile will be a featured vendor for the event, and he will lead a team of five 8 to 12-year-old photographers in capturing Black joy throughout the event.