From Publishers Weekly
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In the world of pop culture writer Scott Poulson-Bryant, these two have a lot to discuss. For starters, "peter," a white nickname for the penis, might confess that he feels inferior to his black counterpart, with its legendary prowess. And "johnson," the classic moniker of choice for the African American member, may admit to coveting a bit more of the historic institutional, economic and political power that usually accompanies Mr. Peter. Fortunately, Poulson-Bryant stops short of imagining a conversation between the two.
In "Hung," his examination of the mythology of black male sexuality, Poulson-Bryant skirts the edge of voyeurism but also fails to answer "the unspoken question that gets asked all the time." Namely, why has the one-dimensional perception of the American black man persisted? Why is the black man so often thought of as a well-endowed, sexual beast who is also an intellectual midget?
The hoary stereotype of the black man as a simple-minded, virile sexual predator has stalked the pages of everything from The Clansman, the basis for the movie "The Birth of a Nation," to Richard Wright's Native Son to Toni Morrison's Sula. But such historic literary examples are in short supply (as it were) in Hung. Poulson-Bryant doesn't mention John Cleland's Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, but that 18th-century novel caused a sensation when it was published in America in 1966, in no small part because of the passages describing Fanny's encounter in pre-Revolutionary New England with a young black man called "Good-natured Dick." In Cleland's fevered treatment, the randy heroine muses, upon first getting a look at the black man's equipment: "Nature . . . had done so much for him in those parts, that she perhaps held herself acquitted in doing so little for his head."
In fairness, perhaps there is no clear-cut answer to the myth's staying power -- beyond the obvious, which Poulson-Bryant succinctly identifies early on: "Essentially, [the penis] is a signifier -- of power, of prominence, of strength. So many men like to think that our primary attention to . . . size is about impressing women . . . about succeeding as a man in the reflective mirror of a woman's or a partner's eyes. But it isn't. It's a measuring stick of self-worth, of capabilities and fallibilities, of winning and losing." As Poulson-Bryant sees it, some whites have had a pathological need to view black men as animalistic sexual aggressors, while black men themselves have come to accept and even to some degree welcome this image as their one true source of power. But despite a keen eye for the hypocrisies, contradictions and flat-out exaggerations that frame most discussions of this touchy subject, Poulson-Bryant manages to fall short in the evidence department. He makes only glancing reference to Alfred Kinsey's famous studies of sexual behavior and no mention of the academic studies at major universities since the mid-20th century.
On the other hand, this does not purport to be a scholarly work, though the author does too often resort to annoying lit-crit jargon. Rather, it is a breezy swirl through one young black man's personal experience at the intersection of race, sexuality and public perceptions of both. Poulson-Bryant is an amiable, self-effacing host who unflinchingly admits to being modestly endowed and to the self-consciousness this has caused him as a black man. "I should be hung like a horse," he writes. "I should be the cock of the locker-room walk, singing and swinging and getting merry like every day is, for hung brothers, Christmas. But I'm not."
Once he's dispensed with the nitty-gritty of his own business, he leads us through the social landscape of those whose identities and even livelihoods (in the case of the porn star Lexington Steele) are bound up in the image of the Big, Black Stud. We begin and end with a letter from Poulson-Bryant to Emmett Till, the black teenager killed during the 1950s in Jim Crow Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. And we meet several of the author's male and female friends, who expound in colorful language on the "Big Phallacy." Poulson-Bryant, a former Vibe editor, shows a genuine appreciation for the complexity of his subject in all its facets, including its absurdities. One might quibble with some of his oversights -- such as recent technological advancements, including silicon implants, that now make it possible for just about anyone to be well-endowed -- but "Hung" at least gets the subject out in the open.
Reviewed by Amy Alexander
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.