Eliding the black penis

A remarkable long piece in the New York Times Magazine Culture issue on October 30th, by film critic and general cultural critic Wesley Morris, “The Last Taboo: Why American pop culture just can’t deal with black male sexuality”, on the elision (or, alternatively, mythologization) of black male sexuality. In a supremely ironic development, the text of Morris’s piece has itself been elided from the public record (no doubt by massive incompetence rather than malevolence): links on the NYT site (and, as far as I can tell, on all sites that refer to “The Last Taboo”) take you not to this article but to another, racially and sexually irrelevant, Morris piece, “Uncommon Ground: Our New Urban Oases”, on elevated railways turned into pedestrian parks, which is identified as being from the NYT Magazine’s Culture issue (puzzlingly dated October 27th), but it’s not in that issue.

I’ll start by showing you scans of the title pages of “The Last Taboo”, just to show you that I’m not making this up, and then go on to quoting at some length from Morris’s text, which I have spent a very long time typing in by hand.



The piece is illustrated by two photos of balloon genitalia, one white, one black:



(These came from a Google search, not from my scanning. Of course, when I clicked on “Visit Page”, I got taken to the “Uncommon Ground” piece.)

Now from Morris, with quotations interspersed with content notes::

These are banner times for penises onscreen.

[catalogue of examples]

We’ve gotten more gender-neutral, more feminist, more used to seeing dudes in gym locker rooms, better at Instagram and Snapchat and Tumblr – and so, too, have we gotten more O.K. with penises.

Some penises, anyway.

A vast majority of these penises are funny, casual, unserious. Their unceremonious appearance – as naturalism, comedy, symbolism, provocation – is new, and maybe progressive. But that progress is exclusive, because these penises almost always belong to white men. … A black penis, even the idea of one, is still too bound up in how America sees – or refuses to see – itself.

… This is what’s been playing out in our culture all along: a curiosity about black sexuality, tempered by both guilt over its demonization and a conscious wish to see it degraded. It’s as old as America, and as old as our history.

[some history, from “The Birth of a Nation” through the rape of black slaves to lynching]

The nation’s subconscious was forged in a violent mess of fear, fantasy and the forbidden that still affects the most trivial things. A century after Griffith, you’re free to go to a theater and watch Chris Hemsworth throw his legs open and parade his fictional endowment, while sparing a thought for what it would mean if the black star who goes by the Rock were to do the same.

[on the Blaxploitation era and Quentin Tarantino’s take on the genre, followed by personal recollection]

… Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.

One night, when I was 24 and living in San Francisco, I met a handsome white guy visiting from Germany. We stood near a window in a crowded bar and talked about an art show he’d just seen. Eventually I brought him to my apartment, where, after removing some of his clothes, he eagerly started to undo my pants. But then he stood there for a moment and gave my crotch a long, perplexed look, like Geraldo Rivera did when, after months of buildup, he opened up what turned out to be Al Capone’s empty vault. He replaced his clothes and, before exiting, explained himself: That’s not what I expected.”

I knew what he meant. He was expecting a “Guinness Book of World Records” penis. He wasn’t the only one – just the last to do it with such efficiently rendered disappointment. That hurt, but I remember being amused that, for him, all our attraction came down to was what someone had told him my dick should look like. I remember standing there, half-dressed in my living room, and actually saying out loud, “Why does he know that?”

But everybody knows. Anytime a par of pants is prematurely rezipped or the line goes dead in a sex app’s chat window, I always know: He was expecting a banana, a cucumber, an eggplant, something that belongs to either a farm animal or NASA. He was expecting the mythical Big Black Dick (which, online, people just call “B.B.D.”), That presumption is something you tend to prepare for with interracial sex – that your dick could either render the rest of you disposable or put your humanity on a pedestal, out of reach. That it could make you a Mapplethorpe.

[extended discussion of the complexities of Mapplethorpe, including Glenn Ligon’s critique of him]

There is no paradigmatic white penis. To each man his own. But there is a paradigmatic black one, and how do you stunt-cast for that?

[section on presentation of black male sexuality in the 1980s and 1990s, including Larry Blackmon in the video for Cameo’s 1986 hit “Candy”, with his red codpiece — you can watch the video here  — and later images]

There’s a magnificent new movie called “Moonlight” that knows how hard [it is to get from grinding to loving].

[touching story of Morris, at 9 or 10, admiring an older boy’s penis and getting labeled “faggot” for it]

The only penises I’d ever seen at that point were as black as David’s. But I noticed his. He was 12 or 13 and more developed. Admiring it got me cast out of our little Eden – but only because that’s how boys are. We didn’t know about sexual myths or racial threats, about the taboos that we would discover are our particular birthright. I didn’t anyway. Not yet. I just saw a penis. And it was beautiful.

A wonderful amalgam of perceptive cultural criticism (in plain language) and (touching) personal experience. The piece comes across as judicious dismay overlaid on bedrock anger, not a tone easily achieved.

Bonus track, playing for Morris Carroll:

Hunter’s Longing
Veers into Verse

He was hunting a snipe,
But the
Snipe was a penis, you
See – still he
Pines for it –

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