Friday, November 4, 2016

Last Taboo: Wesley Morris on why pop culture
can’t get its head around black male sexuality


NEW YORK Times staff writer Wesley Morris weighed in on Oct. 27 in the New York Times Magazine, with “Last Taboo,” a playful, courageous, provocative piece of writing that goes all in on the subject that Dare Not Speak Its Name: black male sexuality.

In an essay that deftly sprints around the eras of D.W. Griffith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Quentin Tarantino and “Empire,” Morris lays bare this angry national preoccupation, explaining why, despite other pretenders to the title, this may truly be our culture's last taboo.

It’s been a week since the piece was published, but considering its subject matter, we shouldn’t be surprised that it still inspires upraised eyebrows and furious commentary. Whether they know it or not, he readers who’ve been speaking out — or lashing out — are reacting as much to history as to the author of the piece. Which makes sense; regardless of how long this blistering essay’s been out there, the shelf life of the subject matter is a long way from expiration.

At its root, American society’s perverse fascination with and fear of black male sexuality stems from an inability to reconcile the received wisdom of the male as the seat of power in social and professional relationships, and male genitalia as the dominant force of sexual relationships, with the fact that black male genitals also exist. It’s a double bind of our national pathology: Black men must be relatively powerless because, well, they’re black men. But they can’t be powerless because, well, they’ve got penises. Morris investigates the source of a dilemma rooted deeply in our popular culture.

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Some excerpts:

“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. ...

‘“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. ...

“Black male sexuality is of interest [to] 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? ...

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THE under-representation 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. ...

“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.

“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 nothing inherently wrong with black men’s sexuality — only the ways it has been distorted, demonized and denied. ...”

Read the rest at The New York Times

Image credits: 'Last Taboo' cover: © 2016 The New York Times.

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