The Politics of Penis Size

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HungHung: A Meditation on the Measure
of Black Men in America

by Scott Poulson-Bryant
Doubleday. 224 pages
(illustrated), $22.95

 

“HANGATURE” is a new word that you’ll learn from Scott Poulson-Bryant’s second book, Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America. It’s one of those words you know only a gay man could have coined. (Actually Poulson-Bryant admits to having learned it from a friend, “a self-described ‘dick connoisseur.’”) The author defines it as “the amount of ability a dick had to hang.” In other words, it’s all about the size. For men, playing “[t]he penis-size game” transforms the penis into “a measuring stick of self-worth, of capabilities and fallibilities, of winning and losing.”

Put in that context, the penis symbolizes masculine power in all its manifestations—social, political, economic, physical, and of course sexual. And since men for the most part have dominated the world, they get to conquer lands and peoples, build empires, construct the biggest and tallest skyscrapers (the ultimate phallic symbols), and make the rules. Those men who don’t measure up are considered weak and get trampled upon and marginalized.

Even in the 21st century, things haven’t changed all that much when it comes to the penis’s symbolic power in the minds of men. And the black penis in particular: throughout Poulson-Bryant’s travels and life experiences, he’s noticed that “a black man’s dick is something the whole world finds interesting.” Using historical and cultural examples as well as personal anecdotes (his nickname at Brown University was “Scott Pulsing-Giant” because he wrote a homoerotic tell-all article for a campus magazine about himself and others called “The Big Phallacy” that dealt with penis size), he examines the preconceptions and myths about the “big dick-ness” of black males.

He traces the roots of these myths to the colonial days of the United States when the enslaved black man was “considered a cultural savage, a religious heathen, and a social inferior.” The inferiority of the black male was of course constructed as a way to justify the slave system, while the notion that the black man had a “desire to conquer pristine Southern white womanhood” was concocted to ease the guilty consciences of white slave masters who routinely forced themselves on their female slaves. In their minds, the black man, out of revenge, would do the same thing to white women if given half a chance. So the myth of “big dick-ness” was invented to control the sexuality of the black male by casting him as a “sexual terrorist” or a sexual Svengali, and by putting him in league with Satan himself. (It was the “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday would later sing about—hanging from a Southern tree.)

Poulson-Bryant, an openly gay pop-culture journalist who’s written for The Village Voice, Essence, and The New York Times, and is the senior editor of America magazine, discusses the black penis from a variety of vantage points, including the film and porn industries and the hypermasculine hip-hop culture. Many of his chapters have titles that include a double entendre, such as “How’s It Hanging in Hollywood?,” “The Long and the Short of It,” and “That’s the Way the Balls Bounce.”

Hung is a treatise not only on the black penis and black male sexual prowess and self-image, but also on how black men in America measure up when it comes to political, economic, and cultural power in a white-dominated society. Clearly, there are elements of both fear and envy in this comparison. The big black dick is an invention of white men, writes Poulson-Bryant. “How awful it must be to have invented the big black dick, then to have to spend so much time ensuring that it doesn’t overshadow one’s own sense of self-worth, that it doesn’t somehow destroy your own stature.” Although there are black men who proudly embrace the stereotype and unconsciously aid in their own oppression, there are others, like Poulson-Bryant’s friend Simon, a successful Wall Street professional, who sees his ten-inch penis as a burden. “As hung as he is, he feels un-hung when it becomes the center of his definition as a man.”

Gay men, like their straight counterparts, have been influenced by the myth of the big black dick. Unfortunately, there aren’t all that many stories about gay men included here, despite the presence of the “homothug” in hip-hop culture, defined as “the gay or bisexual black dude who has no problem reconciling his homo-ness with his hip-hop-ness.” Another disappointment is the chapter on the porn industry, “Pass the Remote,” which includes no discussion of its gay and bisexual branches, where the myth of the big black dick also reigns supreme.

Despite these shortcomings, Hung, a small book about a very complex subject, succeeds in covering its topic as well as offering insightful commentary on the arduous journey over the “hills and valleys” of the American cultural and psychological landscape that black men have had to negotiate for the last 400 years. All of this is done in an entertaining, humorous, and forthright manner.

Charles Michael Smith is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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