Behind the Big Black Penis 

In which Shawn Taylor explains the philosophy behind his provocative new book.

The title came first. But you knew that already, didn't you?

Author Shawn Taylor was working out at 24 Hour Fitness when the idea popped out and hit him on the head. "This older dude came up," he explained. "This dude must have been like, sixty, and he had these tight-ass pants that made this big impression. Old dude, you know — looked like Raj from What's Happening!! but like, seventy years older. And he had these tight biker shorts on. I'm like, 'I'm writing a book. I have no idea what it's gonna be about, but I have my title." For two years, the book festered inside him.

Actually, said Taylor, anger was the real impetus for what ultimately became Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity. He was mad. Mad at wiggas; mad at BET and MTV; mad that he grew up in poverty; mad at his father for disappearing; mad at the proliferation of "the N-word" and terms like "bling-bling" — especially when they gained currency in suburban communities; mad at CNN's Black in America (which, he said, imposed a kind of false unifying narrative that was supposed to stand in for the African-American experience); mad at movies like The Best Man (which, he said, made it seem as though adultery had to be the main theme in all black relationships); mad that men "can't just hug, we have to pound the shit out of each other's backs"; mad about Michael Bolton's wholesale appropriation of the Isley Brothers ("unforgivable"); mad about black Lothario stereotypes; mad at all the hype over Lil' Wayne ("I'm like, 'Are you serious?'") mad that the amount of books he'd found that could appropriately be classified "men's studies" could probably fit on a small shelf and that they were out-of-date and written either by old white men or, ironically, women. Pretty soon, Big Black Penis was more than just a provocative title; it was a move to bring authenticity into the discourse around black male sexuality.

Now 35, Taylor always stood a little outside of the role society cultivated for him. He's a second-generation Jamaican and Puerto Rican kid who grew up in a housing project in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He was secretly into Dungeons & Dragons, J.R.R. Tolkien, Star Trek, and comic books — basically any form of old-school nerdery he could get his hands on. He listened to punk music, wore thrift-store clothes, hung out with the chess crowd at school and the thugs at home, and knew how to give anyone a good ass-whooping. At age eighteen he was shot in the stomach by a kid who lived across the street, lost his vital signs for about two minutes, and deemed it a formative experience. In college he learned how to get with girls but not stick with them. In his twenties he got heavy into spoken word, moved out to the Bay Area and hooked up with fellow poet-types in Oakland's Black Dot Collective. He won poetry slams and staged solo monologues such as "Slower Than a Speeding Bullet," which describes, in sordid detail, the experience of being shot — it eventually became a chapter in Big Black Penis. He even launched the blog AfroGeeks (which still exists, though Taylor no longer supplies its content), aimed at an audience of fellow nerds, Trekkies, fanboys, and pop-culture buffs who had to oscillate between two worlds.

Big Black Penis started out as a title with shock value and a cultural theory slant. But it ended up being more of an autobiography. Taylor describes in humorous, self-deprecating detail the many agonies of his childhood: forming the "Sperm Donors Club" with other children of absentee fathers; having to stand in the free lunch line wearing a discount T-shirt with a Shaun Cassidy decal on the front; learning to fight so his project friends wouldn't call him a sissy knucklehead; losing his virginity in college (roughly ninety seconds from entry to climax); maintaining a "hetero barrier" when shaking hands with his boys. The tone gets a little self-pitying at points, particularly when Taylor talks about his deadbeat dad and his unresolved relationship with his mother. But those solipsistic moments help establish who Shawn is as a character, and might even endear him to readers.

Those issues aside, it's an engaging read. Taylor writes exactly the way he talks — asides, slang, funky metaphors, and all. He offers forthright explanations for things that seem unethical in real life, but jibe with the particular moral compass of Big Black Penis (i.e., how homophobia exists as a kind of buffer zone for homoerotic images of black males, or how college-aged dudes have a lot of indiscriminate sex as a preemptive strike against getting dumped). He even apologizes, both in the book and in person, for coming off as "an arrogant prick" — which seems more than a little facetious, given the book's title.

After writing the first edition of Big Black Penis in 2007, Taylor hustled the unexpurgated version to anyone who would possibly be interested. He read passages on BART, hawked it outside of poetry slams, spent Friday nights slinging books in front of Mingles and Geoffrey's Inner Circle. Taylor is a huge fan of the hand-to-hand thing — his most recent project is a free downloadable e-book called The Love Punk Manifesto — and says he wouldn't have done it any other way. He wanted to keep all the royalties from Big Black Penis, and said that anyway, the material demanded that approach. He did eventually cut a deal with Chicago-based Independent Publishers Group after winning the 2006 DIY Book Festival in Los Angeles. As a result, Taylor got international distribution, but also decided to heavily revise his book (a decision he made voluntarily, he said), in order to clean up the grammar and excise the more ponderous digressions.

Both editions — the raw, rugged Big Black Penis and the more considered, slightly less angry Big Black Penis — have elicited strong reactions from readers. Old friends call from New York to say "Dude, you got a book? I didn't know you wrote books!" Or, in reaction to the title, "Man, that's hella ballsy! I can't believe you said that shit, man!" (Taylor said he still hasn't heard from the book's actual characters, whose identities remain undisguised in both editions of the book.) Mothers call to say the book helped them understand their sons a lot better. Teenagers e-mail to thank him for offering insight into what they're going through. Taylor said that when he used to hawk the book outside Mingles, he'd single out women who were stomping out the club, angry at whatever man had done them wrong. "I'd be like, 'Look, you wanna know why that dude's mad at you? Read my book. Five bucks. I guarantee you, I'll tell you what's wrong with men right now, what we go through.'" He said they'd glance at the cover and look incredulous — as in, "Oh, hell no, did he really do this?"

Taylor currently works with at-risk youth, and says his future publishing career remains uncertain. He does, however, know that he wants to write at least one more book. He's not sure exactly how it will go, at this point, but he already has a title: Why Your Relationships Suck.

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