Kehinde Wiley’s official presidential portrait of Barack Obama and one of the posters for Marvel’s mega blockbuster, Black Panther, both present us with representations of powerful black men. However, the semiotics of these two images couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. In the Black Panther poster, the V shape of the Black Panther’s legs draws the viewer’s attention in toward the Black Panther’s crotch and dares us to stare at his cock and confront his black masculinity in all its glory. The defiant look on the Black Panther’s face says, “I’m a proud black man. Deal with it, motherfucker.” Whereas in Obama’s portrait, Obama is literally covering his groin and hiding his masculinity from further scrutiny. What’s more, his slouched shoulders and hunched posture signals there is nothing to fear with him. He ain’t no uppity nigger. All in all, a perfect metaphor for his presidency. Obama was constantly constrained by politics. He couldn’t appear too black or too proud, or the country would revolt. Surely, it’s no coincidence our first black president was half black, half white. A safer choice, and still it provoked so much overt racism it led to the scourge that is Donald J. Trump.
So there you have it. In one picture, a black man is proudly displaying his masculinity for all to see, and another is shielding it from view. It’s a sad commentary on American culture that the only acceptable place for a black man to be proud of his innate maleness is in the distanting realm of a fantasy comic book character. And before you say, “But sports!” remember the white backlash and hateful vitriol directed against the NFL players who so heroically asserted their basic humanity by kneeling during the national anthem to protest the slaying of black men nationwide at the hands of the police.
Finally, can you imagine the outrage if Obama had bragged about his cock size during a nationally televised presidential debate? No wonder the man posed with his hands blocking his down belows. Respect.