One Friday night a few years ago, a few friends threw a surprise party to mark our recent promotion as a coordinating producer at the network. It was a very cute soiree at Cafeteria on 17th Street, which at the time was fairly popular with models and gym boys. All the more reason to go, right? Later, we walked one avenue over to SBNY. After a few Evians, it was time to pay the water bill. The downstairs bathroom featured open, mosaic-inspired urinals so it was fairly easy to size up the guy standing next to you—if you were so inclined. So let's illustrate the truly Woody Allen moment: yours truly, 6’4, 200 and some change, pumped from the gym, looking quite regulation in our usual uniform at the time: Engineered Levis slung low, black D&G tank top and matching boxers, and a do-rag. (Brooklyn meets Chelsea. Just gay, right?) Despite there being several other free spaces, a short, balding white guy with over-sized glasses and a pocket protector walked up next to us and unzipped. Noticing the looks in his direction—or possibly the eye-rolling from yours truly—he quickly announced in the loudest, nelliest voice this side of Paul Lynde: “I know what you're all thinking. Big black man. Little white guy. BUT I WON'T LET HIM LOOK!"
Everyone laughed at the irony and shrill delivery, because it confirmed what we all were knew: he wanted to size up the big black man standing next to him. That's the premise in Scott Poulson-Bryant's fabulously well-written new treatise that dropped last week: Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America. "We are still at the center of this unspoken question that gets asked all the time," the author writes in his prologue, which is a letter to Emmett Till, the black teenager who lynched in 1950s Mississippi ostensibly for whistling at a white woman. "And often that question centers around sexual behavior."
The pervasive mythology surrounding black men is that we're all hugely endowed; the construct pervades almost every facet of social interactions, from standing in line at the urinal to competition within the workplace. The result is that black men are often handicapped by the stereotype and it's had an enormous influence on how we perceive ourselves and each other.
In case you aren’t familiar with his work, Scott Poulson-Bryant is an author, editor and cultural critic-at-large. A founding editor of Vibe and currently a senior editor at America, he’s comfortable discussing everything from LL Cool J to Lacan, Mapplethorpe to Missy Elliott. His deconstruction of the hung mythology borrows from literature, news, sports, art and porn. It’s a brisk read, peppered with personal anecdotes—“notes from the underground,” if you will—as well as reflections on his own sexual encounters with both sexes. Above all, it's a fun read; the author's tone is more essayist than journalist, so it's possible to see humor, irony and the obvious sexual component to the material.
At the beginning of Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America, a college hook-up with a white, female co-ed presents the template for our reading. SPB is in his second year at Brown and sharing a post-coital moment with Kelly, "passing a cigarette between us like we're in some French New Wave movie," he jokes. They’ve just done the do; Scott is inexperienced, but, by his own admission, performed admirably.
She turns to me, reaches down, and touches my dick. And she smiles. ”That was really good,” she says. And then she says, “I thought you’d be bigger than you are.”
I look down at myself, turn to her and shake my head. “So did I.”
You’ve seen bigger—show me! was our first reaction, or, let's try this one mo' time 'til ya can't walk. (Which, apparently the author actually did later. Yea boy!) But Scott’s brutal honesty is refreshing and reveals the hidden insecurities and cultural baggage that are our programmed responses: black men are supposed to be hung and sexual athletes. Anything less is impermissible. Obviously, not all of us can lay the pipe with stellar perfection and to rave reviews. But we're told from an early age that it's expected, a by-product of the centuries-old construct of the "black man as savage." The notion of white superiority—"built around an ethos of sexual fear and control—resulted in the creation of a myth that managed to degrade black men and yet make them more fascinating."
The taboo of the big black dick is a wonderful launching pad for Scott's deconstruction. He traces the lure of the forbidden fruit through literature, the arts, culture and later, music and sexual politics. The author devotes two chapters to the sexual hysteria around lynching, which segues into a cultural insecurity around the alleged size of our men. "Size—it's a male concern: Who has it, who doesn't have it. Who wants it and who needs it. Who looks and who doesn't (want to) look. Or, to bring it all home: Who's not—or, at least, who's not as much of a man."
Much of our daily interactions are around size. The head honchos at work? "Big swinging dicks." If someone dresses you down, they're "busting your balls." The ultimate: "hitting below the belt." Our culture is obsessed with size—skyscrapers, SUVs, mansions, 10 gigabyte memory and 5000 song capacity. The small fry doesn't stand much chance, and even the straight boys want to see how they measure up. Among SPB's many interviews are a pro-football player who says that even he pulls out the stick. "When you look at another guy, it's like setting a barometer for your own manhood. Size matters to guys. And if you got a big dick nobody can tell you anything. You. Are. The. man. And you probably end up getting looked at more than you do the looking."
Certainly we can identify with those emotions, and freely admit to having exploited the stereotype. One of the few advantages attributed to black men is the sexual mystique, so shouldn't we have fun with the that? Scott devotes equal time to that objectification—how black men use it to their advantage, or feel that it could be a handicap. It's a slippery slope; most women might say that they don't like being judged on appearances, but come on, if the catcalls were to abruptly end and men were to stop looking, wouldn't they feel ... a little less powerful? The author interviews a number of black men who both own up to the mystique and want to move past the objectification.
Hung forces us to re-evaluate our own concepts of sexuality, security, behavior, structure and attraction. Admittedly, we're probably personal casualties in the ongoing cultural war to apply what SPB calls a "super-masculine" veneer to dress, behavior, and taste. In one of the latter chapters in the book, Scott discusses at length the intersection between super-masculine aesthetics, fashion, music and black gay culture. There is a revealing section on "Homo Thuggism", including an interview with a "dl" rapper whom he only calls Darren, who stresses the importance of hyper-masculine behavior, fashion and social codification.
Being a Homo Thug means you can suck dick and yet still be perceived as powerful. When you're wearing Timberlands as you're dicking a dude, you're fucking in context. Culturally, I suspect, it feels right. Even if you believe that everyone else thinks it's wrong.
Wow. Timbs and sex is kinda hot. But back on message ...
The author and yours truly share some similarities. Both of us attended exclusive, predominately white schools, he at Brown, we at U Chicago. Both segued into media—he to magazines, we stumbled into television—and both have often found ourselves as the lone black face in largely white gatherings. Scott calls this "the Color Line" and his book details many first- and -third-person anecdotes that intersect race, sex and power from this point of view. To that end, Hung is probably more a primer for the sexually curious than the already-initiated. You know what they say, once you go black ...
But just as we have many similarities, there are differences. Scott's book is peppered with these fabulous stories from the Color Line about black dick size, and we could never really see ourselves having espresso and nonchalant discussions regarding the big black dick with members of the opposite sex and/or opposite color. Maybe we're just not that hip. Maybe it's an Ivy-thing. Or maybe, we just give the vibe that such a conversation is unnecessary. But Scott's dispassion works clearly in the context of an observer. At times, he's able to distance himself from the materials, and his wry, clinical observations are brutal indictments of our own neuroses. His writing is precise, at times staccato, other times clearly non-plussed. Poulson-Bryant reminds one of the brilliant Joan Didion; indeed, at the beginning of the chapter where we discuss hip-hop and homo thuggism, Scott quotes Didion's opening words to The White Album: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We find narratives to explain what we see and how see it."
At approximately 200 pages, Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America is a fresh, easy read. It begins with slavery and ends with the "dl". The prose is precise and engaging; the history is compelling; we couldn't muster SPB's dispassion, but if for no other reason, buy the book for the anecdotes. They. Are. Fabulous. One woman refers to a black man's size as "big as a baby's arm." In another, a size queen kicks a brotha out of bed for exaggerating his size. "That's about a seven and a half, not a true eight."
One thing that Scott and yours truly agree upon—as a black man, you never really can move beyond the construct of size and sexual prowess. "The color is the size," he quotes James Baldwin as saying."The size is its color."HUNG: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men In America (Amazon) Scott Poulson-Bryant (Official Website) Thursday appearance with Karamo at GMAD in NYC SPB in New York's Intelligencer (Rod 2.0)