Black men occupy an interesting place in the popular imagination. Their superhuman sexuality is an integral part of American lore. It’s most prominently on display in the titles of pornographic videos that market the ability of big black men to ravish young, innocent white women. It’s more subtle in the white women who walk past with their eyes firmly locked on my crotch, undoubtedly pondering the question that the bold will occasionally whisper in a dark corner of a house party: “Is it true?” And the misguided among us will certainly whisper “yes” through a sly grin, unaware that entangled with the superhuman lore of the black penis is the dangerous specter of dehumanization. This strange combination of fear and fascination reveals the superhuman-subhuman duality that black men embody.
The very same superhuman virility fuels fear of black men. It’s why white women run from us in the hallways, scream when they see us jogging toward them in the street, tell us we look dangerous, and clutch their purses in elevators if they get on the elevator at all (these are actual anecdotes from me and a friend, some of which occur occasionally, others, regularly). A few decades ago, these fearful reactions would be enough to put us in danger of mob violence, regardless of how benign our presence may have been. Even now, racial hoaxes are an ever-present danger. When white people claim to have been victimized by a fictitious black man, hundreds of innocent black men are endangered as law enforcement officials search out the supposed assailant. While perceptions of hypermasculinity elevate us to the superhuman, they simultaneously reduce us to subhuman status.