Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality
Jens Mortensen for The New York Times. Photo illustration by Delcan & Company.
These are banner times for penises onscreen. In the last 18 months or so, I’ve seen casually naked men on “The Affair” and on “Girls,” plus casually naked robots on “Westworld.” Penises have appeared on “Game of Thrones” (where one was once violently disappeared) and been simulated by a killer drill on “American Horror Story: Hotel.” They were in movies like “Get Hard” and “Unfinished Business”; one was there-ish on John Cena in “Trainwreck”; they showed up in stunt form on a meek Adam Scott in “The Overnight” and through the boxer briefs of a smugly sunny Chris Hemsworth in “Vacation.”
Ralph Fiennes spent some of this spring’s “A Bigger Splash” having a glorious time wearing nothing. And then there was “Weiner,” a hit documentary about the scandal started by the disseminated bulge in a politician’s underwear. Once upon a time, just seeing a man’s rear on television might cause a scandal; now you don’t have to go too far out of your way to encounter his front. Our cultural standards have relaxed just enough to show a man in full.
And why not? Women have long been asked to take off their clothes, out of both artistic necessity and rank gratuitousness. Isn’t it men’s turn? Even when the nudity veers into homophobia (and boy, can it), there is an “at last” quality to all of this bareness: It’s so matter-of-fact, so casual. (We’re not, to be clear, talking about erections; there’s still a line between a flaccid, out-of-focus penis attached to what’s probably a stunt double on “The Affair” and, say, a European troublemaker like Gaspar Noé filming aroused, ejaculating ones.) We’ve gotten more gender-neutral, more feminist, more comfortable with our various bodies, 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. 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!”
I know the fantasy exists. It renders black men desired on one hand and feared on the other.
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?
So from the time of slavery to the civil rights era, with intermarriage illegal, black men faced every possible violence, including castration and far worse, as both punishment and prevention against even presumed sexual insult. An exchange as common as eye contact, as simple as salutation, could be construed as an assault. Black men were bludgeoned and lynched for so little as speaking to white women. In 1955, while visiting Mississippi from Chicago, Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured and shot for supposedly whistling at a white woman. As a boy, I was told that story the way you warn a child about traffic lights, seatbelts and talking to strangers. Till’s age ensured that you never missed the point: He was 14.
Claude Neal was 23 — a farmhand in Jackson County, Fla., who in 1934 was accused of raping and killing his white boss’s 20-year-old daughter, Lola Cannady. He was moved from jail to jail so white lynch mobs wouldn’t find him before the trial. But eventually they tracked him down in Alabama, holding the jailer at gunpoint and absconding with Neal. The news of his capture attracted a bloodthirsty crowd of as many as 3,000. Lest a riot ensue and someone get hurt — someone besides Neal — he was lynched by a group of six, who then dragged him behind a car to the Cannadys’ farm, where Lola’s family members took turns slashing and shooting his corpse. Onlookers stabbed at it, spit on it, ran their cars over it. His body was then driven back to town and strung up in an oak so that the full mob could have its way. People skinned him. His fingers were cut off and, eventually, jarred. He was set on fire.
In 2011, Ben Montgomery re-reported Neal’s murder for The Tampa Bay Times. His article contains a passage in which one of those first six assailants recalls what happened that day: “Well, I guess we was pretty liquored up, and I ain’t like that no more, but we cut off his balls and made him eat them and say they was good.
Then we cut off his pecker and made him eat it and say it was good.” The nadir might have been castration, but the bottom was reached well before Claude Neal was turned into a string of just-married cans, before his humanness was mistaken for a knife block, a sheet of shooting-range paper, kindling. Maybe he did take that poor girl’s life, but we’ll never know: He never went near a courtroom. There’s no unremembering that his own life ended as a chew toy for hellhounds.
The warning in these stories is obvious: Be careful near white people. The warning between the lines isn’t hard to spot, either: Be careful because your sexuality, to them, is hazardous.
It’s funny how often we’re forced to remember that. This year, the second season of Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” a juicy scripted drama set behind the scenes of a “Bachelor”-like reality show, introduced a black bachelor in order to toy with America’s dubious assumptions about the sexual prowess of black men. (The real show turned out to be as self-incriminating as the fictional one.) In September, Lena Dunham made an irritating paradox of those assumptions when she took public umbrage after the football player Odell Beckham Jr. paid her insufficient attention at this year’s Met Gala, a perceived slight that seemingly devalued her worth as a white woman. It was a 21st-century offense that seems as if it could have been taken in the 19th.
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 a black star who goes by the Rock were to do the same. By the end of the 1960s, some black people were wondering that about Sidney Poitier: How much longer would a 40-year-old man have to stay a movie virgin? How many more times could he be made a mannequin of palatable innocuousness? In 1967, after black neighborhoods across the country burned in race riots, Poitier slapped the face of a haughty racist at the emotional apex of “In the Heat of the Night,” when he was just about the biggest star in Hollywood and at the peak of his talent. By the end of the year, though, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he was back to his serene, tolerable self, playing the only kind of Negro a liberal white family could imagine as worthy of its young daughter: Johns Hopkins- and Yale-educated, excruciatingly well-mannered, neutered.
In his cultural history of the penis, “A Mind of Its Own,” David M. Friedman includes part of a letter that a Pennsylvania lieutenant named William Feltman wrote in 1781 after a dinner on a Virginia plantation, during which he was served by teenage boys whose penises were visible beneath their clothes. The plantation’s owners seemed to assume the casualness now reserved for all those white movie and TV penises, but Feltman was agog: “I am surprized this does not hurt the feelings of the fair Sex to see those young boys of Fourteen and Fifteen years old to Attend them, [their] whole nakedness Expos’d, and I can Assure you It would Surprize a person to see those damn black boys how well they are hung.” Abolitionists and others loosely sympathetic to black people were equally enthralled, writing stories that made heroes of slaves with names like Selico, Itanoko and Zami — men who were excellent lovers and, also, immodestly well-hung.
Reading about yourself in this way — reduced — is disorienting. I don’t feel that way, like a savage, a Selico, a walking schlong. I know the fantasy exists. It renders black men desired on one hand and feared on the other. But that’s a script for somebody else’s movie, one that Blaxploitation films began to flip not long after Poitier showed up for dinner and, arguably, because he did.
The ingenuity of the Blaxploitation era, with all its flamboyant, do-it-yourself carnality, was its belief in black women and men and its conflation of danger and desire. The movies — self-consciously, hyperkinetically black — were at full strength from the very end of the 1960s through the first half of the 1970s, and more or less kicked off with a literal bang: Melvin Van Peebles directing himself doing the nasty in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” If the movies are ridiculous, they’re ridiculous in the way bell-bottoms, platforms and hair the circumference of a disco ball can now seem like camp.
But back then, that was simply the way things were: baad. You went to “Slaves,” “Super Fly,” “Dolemite” and “Blacula” because you wanted to see yourself, but also because these movies were the political repossession of toxic myths. “Shaft” named a detective while winking at his anatomy. Black men were swinging their dicks for black audiences. The films wanted not just to master the myth but also to throw it headfirst out the window.
“The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino’s Reconstruction western from last winter, is another of his Blaxploitation remixes. This one gathers a group of barely acquainted people — all positioned on negligibly opposite sides of morality, history and the law — and traps them, Agatha Christie-style, in a shack during a blizzard. A lot of them get to spinning yarns, but only one of those stories earns a flashback: the one told by Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a cavalryman turned bounty hunter. At just about the movie’s halfway point, he tells a grizzled Confederate general named Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) a tale about the general’s dead son. Warren says he happened upon the younger Smithers and, recognizing him, staged an act of racial retribution, which the flashback shows us. The son crawls naked through snow toward Warren’s midsection and puts his head in front of the major’s genitals. Then the score goes horror-film crazy and cuts back to Jackson, who gives the narration all the Zeusian jive that you pay Jackson to summon. With the old Confederate officer shuddering in disbelief, Warren boasts that this shivering white boy sucked his “warm. Black. Dingus!”
In the world of this film, Tarantino is playing with the truth. He’s playing with math (I at least found more than eight hateful people).
But most important, he’s playing with fire. His movie runs along the third rail of race in America: that black dingus. Who knows if Warren made this story up. Courtesy of Tarantino, he knows that nothing turns a white man red faster than a black penis. The story’s probable falseness only makes it more devastating, because falseness is what the story messes with: the fear of black male sexuality; how it’s chasing your white wives, mothers and daughters; that the black penis can be a vengeful weapon. Opening up the threat to sons laughs at the ludicrousness of it all. That dingus is coming for everybody.
This flamboyance is partly how Tarantino’s films have come to understand black people — as mighty movie types rather than as human beings. “The Hateful Eight” made its defiant appearance during the centennial of “The Birth of a Nation,” and the movies share the same post-Civil War era. Watching Jackson stand over that bobbing white head, you feel the inversion of Griffith’s template.
Tarantino orchestrated lurid, white-on-black sexual violations for “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained,” so you notice the inversion of his own template, too. This time it’s black power dominating white that’s presented both as a kind of rape and a mode of justice.
Tarantino revises the social parameters of the Hollywood western so that racism and misogyny are its villains. Most of that revision, though, still hangs from a black penis.
Even if you’re Tarantino and learned from Blaxploitation, why propagate these myths — what the Depression-era journalist W.J. Cash, late explicator of the Confederate psyche, once called the “Southern rape complex”? Why continue to frame black power as a genital threat? For white artists concerned with black life, the myth matters, and it should: It’s a white invention. But attempts to dispel that myth tend to reinforce it, sometimes because the myth-busters’ love for black men seems indistinguishable from what’s supposedly despicable about them. Hence those cartoon hero-slaves, Selico, Itanoko and Zami. It can be a peculiar thing being black in this country. Even the people who claim to love you are capable of these little accidents of hate — the social equivalent of finding hair in your food.
This is it, isn’t it? 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 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 pair 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.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Black Book”: 97 black-and-white photographs taken between 1977 and 1986, before and during the AIDS crisis. In the photos, black men sit and stand and contort themselves for portraits, from entirely nude to fully clothed. There are looks of defiance, happiness and rapture; in a few, there’s no “look” at all, just a man in profile, say, his eyes closed, his skin emitting something lunar. There are photos of backs. There’s one of two feet, where the light makes the striations in the toes seem like a glacial landmass. There’s a bare rear that looks like ripe fruit, another that evokes a Rorschach blot and one more, taking up the entire lower half of the frame, that looks like a hippopotamus.
Some of the photos are meant to be erotic, and all are meant to seem worthy of being looked at. They’re born of the same curiosity and fascination as the black characters in Tarantino’s movies. Sometimes what’s in the frame can seem hard to work out, almost intentionally miscomposed; in some early pictures I’m not sure Mapplethorpe always knew the difference. In many, though, he obviously did.
With “Man in Polyester Suit,” he nailed it. Taken in 1980, the photo is still the star of the “Black Book” group. A gentleman stands in a matching blazer, vest and trousers, filling the frame from midchest to just above the knee. The image has the basic cheesiness of a department-store catalog photo — a headless person, not quite facing the camera, arms at his side, his brown hands open. His zipper is open, too, and out of it hangs his penis. It’s veiny, uncut, positioned almost equidistant between the hands and bigger than both. Its droop brings it close to Dalí’s melting clocks. My favorite detail is the bit of white shirt coming through the zipper. It makes the penis look as if it were getting out of bed. An everyday object — the male power suit — gets a scandalous comic assist.
“Man in Polyester Suit” is one of the great jokes on American racism, one misconstrued as pornography and therefore as exploitation. Is that America’s problem or Mapplethorpe’s? (Or, for that matter, Tarantino’s?) Are these guys doing social politics or fetishization? The difference between fetishization and romance is that only romance really cares what its object wants. Mapplethorpe and Tarantino both have complicated relationships with that difference.
To spend time with Mapplethorpe’s work now is to find in it a kind of distorted love — what that German guy came all the way to America to discover. Mapplethorpe found most bodies beautiful and otherworldly, but especially black ones. He lit dark skin so it looked like wet paint and arranged subjects until they became furniture or evoked slave auctions. That naïve, dehumanizing wonder complicates what, at the time, was the radical, defiant feat of inscribing black men — black gay men — into portraiture. It strikes a peculiarly foundational American note: This was another white man looking at black men, with effrontery but also with want. You can locate a sense of ownership, of possession, in many of the images. Two of Mapplethorpe’s last relationships were with black men. Any eroticism in the photos might have come from the possibility that, sexually, he himself was possessed.
These pictures made Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, one of the country’s most notorious men. Among his most hostile adversaries was the race-baiting Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who called Mapplethorpe’s work “sickening obscenity.” Whatever we mean when we talk about the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s culminates with this — Mapplethorpe’s pictures of black men, S.&M. scenarios and fisting, and the 1990 retrospective at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center that led to an obscenity trial. In its defiance and its awkward ideology, that fellatio shot in “The Hateful Eight” is the opposite of a Mapplethorpe: Tarantino luxuriates in its anti-eroticism.
The artist Glenn Ligon waged his own museum-ready critique in “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), in which he dismantled Mapplethorpe’s collection and captioned each image with quotes from scholars, from Mapplethorpe’s subjects, from people he interviewed in bars. You could find James Baldwin, but you also had some lady named Rita Burke, who worried that these pictures would give you AIDS. Ligon, whose own sly, emotional work investigates the psychological contours of black ontology, doesn’t condemn his source material; he opens it out, argues with it. In the end, what he asserts is that a black penis is mysterious only to those who don’t have one. He’s right: Black male sexuality is of interest in American popular culture only when the people experiencing it are white.
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? When people are turning down sex with a perfectly good black penis to look for a perfectly better one, how do you determine what an authentic-seeming black penis even is? What does the Kevin Hart of black dicks look like? What about the Denzel? And how would a white casting director know?
Jens Mortensen for The New York Times. Photo illustration by Delcan & Company.
There’s a more pernicious problem at work here, too. The underrepresentation of the black penis bespeaks a larger discomfort with depicting black male sexuality with the same range of seriousness, cheek and romance that’s afforded white sexuality. The history of American popular culture is an immersion in, if not loving white people, then knowing that white people can love. There’s been no comparably robust black equivalent. But there is a recent history of black people daring to create one.
So much is going on in the video for Cameo’s 1986 hit “Candy” that it makes you dizzy. The song is the happiest sort of funk number — hard-edged and insinuating yet bright. (They sing “candy” so that it rhymes with “today.”) In the video, which Zbigniew Rybczynski directed, the surfaces of a cityscape are composited and layered so that figures — musicians, models — keep leaping in and out of them. At some point the women are made to seem as if they’re floating upward, like fizz in a Champagne flute.
The clothes are by Jean Paul Gaultier, who really has a gift for boldly dressing black people. But the most dizzying thing of all is the red codpiece Cameo’s frontman, Larry Blackmon, wears over his black tights. It looks like a piece of hard candy.
The same codpiece appears in the video for Cameo’s biggest hit, “Word Up,” and in “You Make Me Work.” Blackmon’s boiled-egg eyes and caterpillar mustache give him an out-of-left-field look, even for an R.&B. artist near the start of the video era, and in Gaultier’s comically erotic costumes — form-fitting everything, breastplates, cutout chain mail tops, big polka-dotted hats — he looks like a trainer at a cartoon sex gym. In the opening shot for “Back and Forth,” the codpiece zooms toward the screen, then acts as a pendulum that, in swinging, wipes one scene into the next. The band was contemporaneous with Mapplethorpe, but it controls its own organ. And it’s not as though Blackmon had to do a lot of gesticulating or gyrating. The piece spoke for itself. It never said anything all that dirty, but it let Blackmon mess with presumptions and curiosities about his penis. (And about his orientation — that sex gym seemed pretty gay.)
You didn’t have to see an actual penis to know when one was speaking to you. Around the time that Cameo was hitting its peak, so was Bo Jackson. He declared himself bi-athletic, playing football for the Raiders and baseball for the Royals. Nike made him the star of a classic campaign — “Bo Knows” — whose crowning image was a black-and-white Richard Noble photograph of Jackson holding a bat behind his head, wearing white baseball pants and football pads over his bare chest. Your eye almost doesn’t know where to look. His arms? His stomach? His perfectly symmetrical face?
There’s no real threat in that picture. His hands don’t hold the bat; his shoulders do. The pads cover his chest in a way that, as a teenager, I found modest. But in the original photo you can see the tops of his thighs — twin sequoias — and the substantial bulge between them. With Larry Blackmon, I figured I was supposed to look at his crotch and probably laugh. Jackson’s was paralyzing — in a way that would have further appalled Lieutenant Feltman at that plantation dinner. But I was amazed. Jackson’s cockiness was comprehensive. He wasn’t coming after anybody. We were supposed to come to him.
The slight lean of the legs alone had a gravitational pull. I mean, what else was that ad selling? There weren’t even any sneakers in it! Just that man, his black body, its power, his crotch. Just sex. It wasn’t an accidental picture, either. Bo knew. Apparently so did Nike, because many reproductions of that image covered up his crotch with ad copy or started at his midsection.
The late 1980s and early 1990s might have been the nuttiest time for black male sexuality. It was a height of the culture wars and of identity politics, which pitted creative people against moralists and artists against one another. Black men were often the crux. On one hand, they were the antagonists of news reports and America’s nightmares: rapists, muggers, criminals, gangstas, kids liable to “wild out,” sometimes guilty, a lot of times not. On the other hand, hip-hop, African-American comedy and sports were moving them to the center of the culture, making stars of rappers, stand-up comedians and athletes, men like L.L. Cool J, Eddie Murphy and Michael Jordan. Prince was the 1980s’ greatest erotic adventurer. Madonna made a coffee-table scrapbook called “Sex” that featured the priapic rapper Big Daddy Kane in a three-way with her and Naomi Campbell. It was the Kim Kardashian’s “Selfish” of its day, except much further out there.
America loved famous black men and feared the rest of them. Then someone murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the prime suspect was her black ex-husband, O.J. After that, the pride certain white people took in letting someone like O.J. be one of them must have seemed like a cruel, postlapsarian joke. Two recent major projects about Simpson, a drama and a documentary, made the whole tragedy seem inevitable, essential to our natures and the races’ relationship to each other, all bound up in the original sin of slavery and the racism it manufactured. No one can ever quite agree on who’s the sinner and who has been sinned against, whether it’s 1994 or right now.
But at least now it’s easier to find more of the kind of sexual black imagery that was so freighted a few decades ago. The internet contains bottomless warrens of black men starring in their own pornos. There are pictorials of old celebrities and viral images of current celebrities’ wardrobe mishaps. The pride in some of these websites counteracts the fetishizing that sends some people hunting for “B.B.D.” and the self-reducing that leads other people to offer it up. Mainstream American culture is still ambivalent about what to do with black men’s sexuality, but you can find unequivocal comfort on shows like “House of Cards,” “Broad City” and “Jessica Jones,” in which white women are convincingly, inoffensively attracted to black men who aren’t the shows’ stars but are permitted to be sexual.
But needing to be permitted is part of the problem.
We have a strong, ever-proliferating sense of how white people see the sexuality of black men, but we are estranged from how black men see themselves. Post-Blaxploitation, that connection was primarily confined to the art world. The queer film essays of Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien, from the late 1980s and early 1990s, remain different but intellectually conjoined odysseys of the male gaze, aimed at himself — two black mirrors. Otherwise, there was virtually no television and very few movies that were seriously interested in normal black desire, straight or otherwise. That’s changing. The Starz crime drama “Power” is about an unfaithful black crime boss (Omari Hardwick), and a few months ago, it made room for a casual cameo by the rapper 50 Cent’s penis. And that bartender who slept with Jessica Jones happens to be Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who now has his own show, a so-so Blaxploitation-minded superhero drama that presents Colter as the sexiest man on television (or any streaming service). The record-industry soap opera “Empire” doesn’t even seem to know there ever was a white gaze; it’s the least self-consciously black show I’ve ever seen. The only people the power family at the show’s core won’t sleep with are one another, but we’re only two and a half seasons in.
Give them time.
There is still something missing from our picture of black male sexuality, though, regardless of who’s looking: romance. We know black men can grind, but rarely do we see them love — as though we’d have to upend too many stereotypes, shed too much pathology, making it impossible to get there.
There’s a magnificent new movie called “Moonlight” that knows how hard that is. It’s the story of a young Miami man named Chiron (it’s pronounced “Shy-RONE”), who is portrayed, over about 20 years, by three different actors. His mother’s a junkie. A drug dealer becomes a father figure. Chiron flees bullies who suspect — as he does himself — that he might be gay. (“What’s a faggot?” he has to ask, at one point.) Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the movie and fights it past the clichés in Chiron’s biography, which are clichés only in the movies. For one thing, “Moonlight” is surpassingly gorgeous.
The depth-of-field camera work and luscious soundtrack give the movie atmosphere. You can feel the humidity. You can also feel the hormones roiling this kid, who is desperate to connect them to someone, then desperate to bury them. But he can’t. And that’s because — and this is important to say because it’s so rare — Jenkins knows Chiron is a human being. Not because he’s a sex machine.
It’s as if Jenkins has seen the punks and thugs and clowns who’ve popped up in so many movies, as if he knows about the fetishes and the gazing, about imperfect allies like Mapplethorpe and Tarantino, about all the gawking that’s done at black men and their penises without ever truly seeing. It’s as if he knows all of this and is determined to strip it all away. There’s nothing inherently wrong with black men’s sexuality — only the ways it has been distorted, demonized and denied. Blackmon had his codpiece for protection.
Jenkins is certain that Chiron needs something even stronger: affection.
When I was 9 or 10, I spent the summer at a camp at my school. One day, after swimming, I was showering, zoned out but dialed in. I snapped out of it when I heard two older boys talking. “Yo, he’s looking at your dick!” “What going on, man? What are you doing?” They were talking to me. One of them was lean, very fit, a shade darker than I am and, incredibly enough, named David. His eyes were small but bright. And I had been looking at his penis.
I didn’t know what to say, so I told the truth. “Yours is so much handsomer than mine!” They almost fell over laughing. The wonder with which I said it probably was funny. “You a faggot!” David said. I stayed a “faggot” for the rest of my school life.
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.
Wesley Morris is a critic at large for The New York Times and a staff writer for the magazine.