Hollywood, Can't leave the black penis alone...
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
"Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."-James Baldwin
The skit, intended to mock sex tourism, sees the trio encouraging visitors to come to Africa, boasting repeatedly about its "tribesmen" and "massive bamboos," as Black male extras carry women across a beach in the background.
Commentators on social media accused the sketch of propagating stereotypes about the fetishization of Black men, and some said it was ill-timed, given its airing during the EndSARS protests taking place in Nigeria. Watching it with my daughter, It felt inappropriate and offensive- more so taking into account the civil and human rights violations occurring in Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The mock tourism commercial bills Africa as "the number one destination for divorcees of a certain age," and features McKinnon's character repeatedly boasting of the "tall, tall tribesmen" on the continent. The three describe how they were taken in by tribes after their divorces, using suggestive wordplay to encourage other women to move to Africa. Done in poor taste, it was not Adele's fault, she merely was the messenger; the real culprit is Hollywood, who has always had a forbidden "hard on" for the black male penis.
Let me shift gears from Africa to America; as the SNL skit triggered my thoughts on black sexuality/masculinity...
The national fear/mocking 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.
For example, “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 a 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 black child, 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.
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 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.
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 late 1980s and early 1990s might have been the nuttiest time for black male sexuality. It was the 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 Kim Kardashian’s “Selfies” 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 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.
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 former crime drama “Power” was about an unfaithful black crime boss (Omari Hardwick), and a number of seasons in, 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 went into his own show, a so-so Blaxploitation-minded superhero drama that presents Colter as the sexiest man on television (or any streaming service).
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.
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.
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