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Is black male sexuality the last taboo?


For New York Times Magazine, Wesley Morris writes about black male sexuality, specifically the black penis and its representation in Hollywood as largely predatory. Morris notes that while showing white male genitalia is increasingly common in TV shows and movies, it’s often contextualized as a joke, whereas black male genitalia is generally related to criminality. This idea, he writes, can be easily traced back to American white suprematism and the idea that women should be kept safe from black men, who were characterized as rapists. Read Morris’s article in partial below, or in full here.

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. As commonplace as it has recently become to see black men on television and at the heart of films, and as normal as it’s becoming to see male nudity in general, it has been a lot more difficult to see those two changes expressed in the same body. A black penis, even the idea of one, is still too disturbingly bound up in how America sees — or refuses to see — itself. I enjoyed HBO’s summer crime thriller, “The Night Of,” but it offered some odd food for thought: The most lovingly photographed black penis I’ve ever seen on TV belonged to a corpse in the show’s morgue. Meanwhile, the series’s most sexual black character was a rapist inmate.

The black penis is imagined more than it’s seen, which isn’t surprising. This newly relaxed standard for showing penises feels like a triumph of juvenile phallocentrism — it’s dudes peeking over a urinal divider and, as often as not, giggling at what they see. Not all of that peeking is harmless; some of those dudes are scared of what they’ve seen. And knowing that — knowing even a whiff of the American history of white men’s perception of the black penis — leaves you vulnerable to attack, even when all you think you’re doing is going to see, I don’t know, “Ted 2.”

Officially, there are no penises in “Ted 2,” the comedy written by, directed by and starring Seth MacFarlane that was a hit last summer. And yet they’re everywhere — scary black ones. Mark Wahlberg plays a New England knucklehead named John, who swears that you can’t use the internet without running into one. When a mishap at a fertility clinic leaves him covered in semen, a staff member tells him not to worry; it’s just the sperm of men with sickle-cell anemia, a disease that, in the United States, overwhelmingly afflicts African-Americans. John’s best friend, Ted — a nasty animated teddy bear — gets a huge kick out of this: “You hear that? You’re covered in rejected black-guy sperm,” it says. “You look like a Kardashian!”

The sperm bank is the pair’s Plan B. Plan A entails Wahlberg and the bear breaking into Tom Brady’s house and stealing some of his spunk as he sleeps. When they lift the sheets, staring at his crotch, they’re bathed in the golden light of video-game treasure. In another movie, this might be a clever conceit. Here it feels like paranoid propaganda, a deluxe version of what entertainment and politics have been doing for more than 200 years: inventing new ways to assert black inferiority. Now a teddy bear has a greater claim to humanity than the black people it mocks.

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 movies.

The national terror of black sexuality is a central pillar of the American blockbuster. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” envisioned a post-Civil War country run by feckless white abolitionists, nearly ruined by haughty blacks and then saved by the Ku Klux Klan — a mob whose energies are largely focused on rescuing a white woman from a half-black, half-white lieutenant governor’s attempt to force her into marriage. That’s just the plot; Griffith’s genius was at its most flagrant in the feverish surrounding details. The country isn’t even done being rebuilt in “The Birth of a Nation,” and here comes the K.K.K., already determined to make America great again. The movie crackles with sensationalist moral profanity. Many of the black characters, for starters, are played by white actors, all having a grand time making randy savages out of their roles.

This was American cinema’s first feature-length masterpiece. A full century later, it has lost none of its hypnotic toxicity. Even now, to see this movie is to consider cheering for the Klan, to surmise that every black man is a lusty darkie unworthy of elected office, his libido, his life. Its biases are explicit and electric. Griffith established a permanent template with this movie, not just for filmed action but for American popular and political culture — a fantasia of white supremacy, black inhumanity and the tremendous racial anger that’s still with us today.

Look at Gov. Paul LePage of Maine, who, speaking at a town-hall meeting in January, blamed invading dealers for the state’s drug problem — men with such cartoonishly “black” street names as “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty.” They come north for business, he said, and “half the time, they impregnate a young, white girl.”

LePage might have been channeling Griffith — or cockamamie pseudoscience like “The Negro as a Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilization,” a 1903 article in which the Baltimore doctor William Lee Howard argued that integration was impossible, not simply because black people were savages but because they were savages who hungered to rape white women. “When education will reduce the large size of the Negro’s penis,” he surmised, “as well as bring about the sensitiveness of the terminal fibers which exist in the Caucasian, then will it also be able to prevent the African’s birthright to sexual madness and excess.”

Finding the source of this fear isn’t difficult. You can read the history of the black penis in this country as a matter of eminent domain: If a slave master owned you, he also owned your body. Slaves were livestock, and their duties included propagating the labor pool. Sex wasn’t pleasure; it was work. Pleasure remained the prerogative of white owners and overseers, who put their penises where they pleased among the bodies they owned. Sex, for them, was power expressed through rape. And one side effect of that power was paranoia: Wouldn’t black revenge include rape? Won’t they want to do this to our women?

*Image: Jens Mortensen for The New York Times. Photo illustration by Delcan & Company.