El Negro de WhatsApp outgrew the category of prank to become “the biggest meme produced by social media culture in our country.”
“The Negro of WhatsApp stands for the African immigrant, invader from the south, an external threat to Spanish national integrity.”
Like the Senegalese street vendors that sell heart pins imprinted with all the common Spanish names, El Negro de WhatsApp has become available for any cause. Like the cards aisle at Safeway, better yet, you can customize him yourself. A single Google images search will provide you with a daily ration of his infinite reconfigurations. When the meme first emerged, I belonged to several WhatsApp groups (classmates, football team, etc.), in which I was usually the only non-Spaniard, and always the only person who claimed any Black ancestry.
It began as a Bait and Switch prank; you receive an innocent URL pertaining to something of interest (the bait), then as soon you bite, the link redirects you to El Negro de WhatsApp (the switch). The bait could also be an image, cropped in such a way that he is hidden until you scroll down. In the original prank, he stands before a dirt road in front of several crumbling cinder block structures. His wiry frame supports only three articles of clothing: a plaid bucket hat that shadows his eyes, a blue towel draped over his shoulders and a green fishnet tank top. His left hand is supporting his 18-inch, flaccid, veiny penis. In fact, the penis is not his at all, it was created thanks to photoshop, a quality of the image that is often overlooked. From coffee mug to Christmas cheer, El Negro de WhatsApp outgrew the category of prank before its first birthday to become “the biggest meme produced by social media culture in our country” .
One street vendor’s name was Ousmane. Like so many other Senegalese men, he sent money home to his family, whom he only saw once every several years. As he is the prototypical African immigrant in Spain, it is not a stretch to suggest a representational correspondence between Ousmane and El Negro de WhatsApp, cached in the phones of so many Spaniards. Might we ask; Who is the true butt of the joke, the Spaniard who takes the bait? Or the object of humor, standing before the recipient with a basket full of trinkets and a fake smile? Ousmane’s inventory ranged from lighters and chewing gum to exotic keepsakes such as carved elephants and cowry shell jewelry. He always said “perfecto” when asked “como estás?” It would appear that the Spaniards who pass him by are trafficking a keepsake of their own; the photoshopped African body.
“Who is the true butt of the joke, the Spaniard who takes the bait? Or the object of humor?”
When this image startles the pranked individual, a scramble ensues to exit the page - the circumstances hardly provide time for reflection. Whether or not it’s real is beside the point. As far as Fanon’s prelogical thought is concerned, The Negro of WhatsApp stands for the African immigrant, invader from the south, an external threat to Spanish national integrity. Hordes of young Africans are swimming north, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Mothers hide their daughters, bishops cross themselves, the newspapers cry rape. The province I was living in at the time is glorified as the place where the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula began. This, as well as its being the only region not conquered by the Moors, is a source of great micronationalistic pride for the local Asturians. “Asturias es España, lo demás es tierra conquistada” [Asturias is Spain, the rest is conquered land] goes the saying. They even claim celtic ancestry, along with lighter hair and eyes, than their lazy southern counterparts. It is said that Rey Pelayo, blessed by the Our Lady of Covadonga, started throwing rocks at the Moors in 718 ad. Pelayo remains one of the most common names in Asturias to this day. He might have to start throwing rocks again.
Upon my return to the United States a parallel fantasy was waiting for me, only differing from El Negro in that it was molded to North American representations of Blackness. You may know him as Wood Sitting on a Bed, or Huge Penis Guy. Vice Magazine describes him as “The Man Bigger than the Meme”. The big Black American athlete, three hundred pounds of muscle staring at you, legs open. Dubbed the “hero of the pandemic” by Know-Your-Meme. This time, the bait was often an irresistible yet unbelievable coronavirus update. The man in the image is the late Wardy G. Joubert III, now available on Covid-19 masks and Christmas socks.
The meme, in this case a symbolic instrument of white culture, exists for only a fraction of a second on the viewer’s screen. By its very ephemeral nature it defies contextualization, but white people didn’t start collecting Black nudes today. A chronology was needed to rescue these memes from the retrograde amnesia of cyberspace. How do you anchor something in time if most people only see it for half a second? The first two chapters of David Marriott’s treatise On Black Men offer themselves as an eclectic meditation on the history of Black male genitalia in photography. A macabre genealogy threaded through three seemingly isolated events; the use of kodaks at the lynching scene, the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the souvenirs of Jeffery Dahmer’s homoerotic, cannablist, murderous exploits. Sufficiently eclectic to beckon the meme.
“The big Black American athlete, three hundred pounds of muscle staring at you, legs open.”
Marriott links these events by suggesting that “looking is a form of incorporation, of taking something inside”, and draws from Otto Fenichel’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the ocular system; “‘the eye’ Fenichel writes, ‘is conceived as an organ that robs and bites’”. I intend to stretch this reading to include El Negro and Wood, symbols which are too crudely phallic to refrain from dabbling in the itineraries of classic psychoanalysis. Having agreed to humor this aspect of Marriott’s work, my intention is not so much to directly entertain psychoanalysis as to engage with said interpretation as a guiding metaphor, or ancestry test of sorts, in order to contextualize these memes. My reluctance to rely or dwell on the shock value of On Black Men’s content should also be admitted. In any case I hope the blood splatter will speckle the ahistorical and humorous scaffolds of the meme, as you will see it is not I who has worked the initial connection between art and assault, but Marriott himself.
Insofar as El Negro and Wood, prior to the incisions of Adobe Photoshop, were photographs, and as such, faithful to certain constricts of the real, it is only fitting to touch ground with the first turn-of-the-century mass-produced roll-film camera. In this regard, the ubiquity of Kodaks at the lynching scene attests to the predilection of the camera for the ravaged Black body. ”The photograph is there to be gazed at, and fingered, over and over again: Look at me, I was there” infers Marriott, who italicizes the lynching scene as a site of castration; “White men, and women, demand a keepsake, a memento mori: toes, fingers, or - most highly prized - a black penis”. The tradition of collecting these keepsakes, mutilated and transformed, has weathered the test of time. Lest we forget that El Negro de WhatsApp is the handiwork of a skilled digital surgeon. But why collect these keepsakes at all? Marriott meditates on the function that looking upon the Black body in such a way has for the white psyche as he likens the camera lens to a prosthetic organ - a peculiar means of self-fashioning by embedding oneself in the flesh.
“The ubiquity of Kodaks at the lynching scene attests to the predilection of the camera for the ravaged Black body.”
Now we turn from the gala of the lynching scene to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the year is 1989. You stand before Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, a photograph of “a man, clad in leather, urinating into the mouth of another man” disrupts your field of vision. Next you are confronted with images of a “trussed-up, lacerated scrotum and penis”. Finally, you come across Mapplethorpe’s Black male nudes. “Sullen and heavy like the trunk of an elephant” muses a critic, as he describes Man in Polyester Suit; a photograph of a man’s waist, the Black penis “hanging, ‘veiny and pulpy’” from the pant zipper. “So exotically weird” ...” inhuman, like some parasite species that has managed to graft itself on to the human form... The penis looks like an elephant's trunk, not really human at all, certainly not civilized.” writes a different observer. These descriptions share an uncanny resemblance with those of El Negro de WhatsApp, whose fictitious genitalia were also dubbed elephantine - “un pene elefantiásico”- by El Confidencial. The Museum goer (and prank recipient) suddenly finds that repulsion and attraction are not mutually exclusive. “How do you start to tell the difference between the two?” asks Marriott of the spectator struggling to separate disgust from desire.
This interplay is reminiscent of the pranked Spaniards and (white) Americans attempting to reconcile their homophobic values with a deep curiosity and intrigue in the Black body. How do we account for heterosexual men in two deeply homophobic cultures obsessing over artificially enlarged male genitalia? El Negro and Wood, two of the most circulated visual tropes today, happen to be stimuli few would admit to wanting to see. Does the recipient exit the page? Or does he inspect the goods? For Marriott, gazing intensely at an object implies an element of castration; “to incorporate, to eat, through the eyes; to want to look, and look again, in the name of appreciating and destroying, loving and hating.” are all part of the same process. Exploiting this analogy to its fullest permits an interpretation of the photograph as the site at which this process of devouring and spitting out is recorded. The question that I intend to revisit is: what does this particular interpretation connote for software with the capacity to imperceptibly edit an image? But for now, what of Mapplethorpe “as a (white) man who cuts up bodies in the name of art”? And of these photoshop specialists (presumably white) who cut up Black bodies in the name of humor? In this regard, On Black Men calls forth the violent history of the Black body and film; “‘the camera cuts away’” writes Marriott,” ‘like a knife, allowing the spectator to inspect the goods’”. The reader cannot help but be reminded of the lynching spectator, to whom the camera offers itself as a means to cut something away and save it for later.
“How do we account for heterosexual men in two deeply homophobic cultures obsessing over artificially enlarged male genitalia?”
From this point on, whatever stood between figurative devouring of human flesh and actual cannibalism is thoroughly shaken, as the (white) serial killer, rapist, cannibal, and photographer Jeffery Dahmer is incorporated into our genealogy, an addition that Marriot admits, may appear to be outrageous. When a cache of Polaroids hidden in a drawer depicting “bodies naked and abed, ripped open and dismembered”, “images of scattered remains -- lungs, intestines, penises, livers and hearts” was discovered by the Milwaukie Police Department of Wisconsin, it took the officers at hand several moments to conclude that the images were, in fact, real. Dahmer’s surgical expertise in both photography and human anatomy, which he acquired in the military, lent a deeply unsettling, meticulous quality to his ineffably revolting obsession with the Black body. Marriott notes how his “bizarre ‘enshrinement and desecration’ also marks the aura of photographic memorabilia at lynching scenes” and, in considering the photographed bodies as “sliced open to the cruel yet determined gaze of a man”, he pushes us to consider how the perpetrator’s hands were no more guilty than his eyes. “But was the best way of killing them to take their pictures; or the best way of picturing them to see them dead?”.
The chronicle of events developed by Marriott is somewhat at odds with Sadiya Hartman’s inclination to “illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle”. While these distinct emphases are not incompatible, it would nonetheless appear that targeting an everyday artifact of internet culture aligns itself with a quotidian-oriented approach. In light of this concession it would be Marriott’s inclusion of Robert Mapplethorpe’s art that warrants any cross examination (or jumps) from his genealogy to our objects of concern. On this subject I should add that my account of On Black Men cannot possibly have done justice to Marriott’s synthesis of art, lynch mobs and serial killers. The point not to be missed here is that in all the events in which we have centered the Black man, the same organ is under siege, in much the same way.
The Well-Endowed Man and El Negro de WhatsApp images were first posted by the accounts misterflyy and aquastorm427, respectively. Assuming that the individuals behind these accounts are also the creators and editors of the original image, what can we say, for example, of aquastorm427 as they sat before the unedited original photo, freshly imported into Adobe Photoshop, mouse in hand, ready to cut and slice? Or of misterflyy, gazing, full of ideas at the original image with Photoshop’s surgical tool kit, prepared to sever and disfigure? As I asked before, where do these cyberspace anonymities laboring under the guise of humor, stand in comparison to Mapplethorpe as a man who slices bodies to produce art? If the camera is analogous to the eye, insofar as it “robs and bites and cuts into people” and the photograph to a relic on which this process is inscribed, then anatomically to which organs do we link Photoshop? Perhaps the mouth and hands that disembowel, transform and redetermine? The creation of these memes requires that the original image be castrated, the penis traced and staked out, then removed from the body and set aside in order to be enlarged and manipulated. The Black groin, in an act that reaches back centuries, is digitally castrated and helplessly returned, oversexed and rapacious, to the public eye, as fact.
“The creation of these memes requires that the original image be castrated.”
It should be repeated that after the original bait and switch pranks began to circulate massively, the images have been subject to even more modifications and edits. In other words, the inflated Black penis, has since been extirpated from the already edited meme and inserted into an innumerable, and ever growing, amount of spin-off memes, similar pranks and merchandise. In this sense, the oversexed phallus of the captive body, now doubly castrated, has undergone a continuous process of distillation and abstraction. Fanon’s critique of Michel Cournot could equally have been meant for El Negro de WhatsApp. ”No longer do we see the black man; we see the penis: the black man has been occulted” he wrote. Recalling how the bucket hat eclipses El Negro’s face, we see the Black man occulted once more.
“The object status of Blackness means that it can be placed and displaced with limitless frequency and across untold territories”. Wood and El Negro are radio waves, bouncing off satellites just to make you squirm. I believe this has something to do with what Afropessimists have coined the fungibility of the Black; while being “substitutively dead”, it is also “passionately enabling”. This helps to explain how the caricatured Black penis, now understood as “property of enjoyment”, can be used to feel so many things; be it in its capacity to enable the avant-garde spectator of Mapplethorpe’s photography to be artistically pushed out of their comfort zone, to permitting Jeffery Dahmer to feel “oddly and humanly loved and alive.”, or to shock a friend with a text. In this line of thought, Matamoros-Fernández comments on how the “black male body in this meme is often transformed to humorously convey different emotions in everyday conversations on WhatsApp. White people can photoshop “El Negro de WhatsApp” with a shrunken penis and share the meme to express that the weather is cold, or commodify the same black body as an exaggerated reaction to the latest breaking news”. Accordingly, the “limitless frequency” and “untold territories” that Wilderson writes of are even more relevant when we factor in the nature of cyberspace and the intensity with which these images are being modified and circulated. By anyone with a computer, they can be edited, cut, captioned and projected through space at light speed, eternally cached in the vast repository of the internet. “Liberated from time and space, belonging nowhere and to no one, simply there for the taking”.
“The oversexed phallus of the captive body, now doubly castrated, has undergone a continuous process of distillation and abstraction.”
To suggest that the operations, or mental behavior, that discern honesty from everything else occur at more than one level of consciousness bespeaks no allegiance to psychoanalysis. Photography presents itself as “preeminently a world of fact, not of dispute about facts or of conclusions to be drawn from them”. The medium appears not to have been meddled with, an attribute that editing software subverts. Assuming that a select few will consciously recognize these images as edits, it would be unwise to allege this recognition to all levels of consciousness. Afterall, how does fictitious photography fit into our previous representational schemata? The skilled Photoshop technician harnesses the polarized distinction between fictitious fabrication and photographic evidence. I find it timely to add that these two memes were not confirmed as edits until their metadata was run through Fotoforensics and their originals tracked down. In other words, there are no remnants of the operation that betray Wood or El Negro’s claim to the darkroom of evidence. Such software has the potential to be a smuggling route for dreams to enter the social imaginary as fact, a means to hide the creative process. This sleight of hand universally disguises fantasies with unparalleled sophistication. After centuries of refining the act of disfiguring the Black man’s groin, European and American culture can sew him back together without leaving a trace of deadly fetishistic investment and compulsive fascination in, and with, the rhythm of Black physiology that lurks beneath the innocent facade of meticulously rearranged pixels. This helps to illuminate the violent element inherent to distorted representations in other mediums. When Black masculinity is hypersexualized by the orator, the writer, or the painter, the Black body still passes through the meat processor of cultural fantasy as these attributes are grafted onto the captive body. Here however, in the case of photoshop, this step is far more tangible as it is easily observed on the screen.
The consequences for Black men of a rendezvous with a phobic image of themselves has as of yet been largely ignored, a question that sits as the primary concern of the introduction to On Black Men. Here Marriott engages at length with Baldwin and Fanon to remind us of how the Black man at grasp with these pranks is “both victim and spectator- spectator as victim” and signals the perils of surrendering to the screen. If we pay heed to Fanon’s depiction of the Black psyche as “violently intruded upon and displaced by racial hatred and phobia” when considering the pranked Black individual, the situation of violent intrusion garners an additional layer. His guard is down, intrusion is then both literal (on the screen), and psychic. The reasons for which I have delayed addressing the dangers of the screen for Black people, as forewarned by Baldwin, is that said critique is primarily concerned with cinema, suffice to say a public viewing space. It is worth pointing out that while cyberspace offers a platform unprecedented in its capacity to harbor and disperse material of any kind, most Black people have no means of accessing, never mind negotiating, the content of non-Black chat rooms, or (WhatsApp) group chats. Insofar as I have considered the ubiquitous utility of these memes a manifestation of fungibility, Frank Wilderson III comments on how “There is nothing real Black people can do to either check or direct this process”. This could be aptly used to reflect on the safe-from-scrutiny quality of non-Black virtual spaces. This would make el Negro and Wood slightly more akin to an inside joke than a publicly displayed stereotype of white culture, a distinction that in no way intends to disregard the experiences of the many Black people who have been (and will be) ambushed by the switch.
“When Black masculinity is hypersexualized by the orator, the writer, or the painter, the Black body still passes through the meat processor of cultural fantasy.”
Yet another question laid down by Fanon is nabbingly relevant; “Is the Negro’s [sexual superiority] real? Everyone knows that it is not. But that is not what matters. The prelogical thought of the phobic has decided that such is the case”. The capacity of editing software to refurbish rumor as fact renders Fanon’s argument somewhat dated, as he does not factor in (nor could he have) the malleability of the digital. His reflections on representations of Black men describe a time when the imago was reproduced through folklore, oral tradition, literature and cinema. Today the genital power of the Black man, “out of reach of morals and taboos”, is perjured by distorted pixels, sustained by photographic documentation, no longer relegated to the plane of prelogical phobia.
While these pranks do point to the imperative of implementing regulatory, internal, digital platform policies, it would be nothing other than disrespectful to thinkers such as Fanon and Wilderson to suggest that the sexual demonization of Black men could be curtailed through a gesture as abstract as coded policy. Nonetheless, understanding how these representations are molded to the limitations and possibilities imposed by technology aids in paying heed to the “tremendous capacity for reconfiguration in the service of continued dominance” of anti-Blackness. The bulk of the literature made use of here to examine these images operates within the premise that the libidinal economy of non-Black life and the biological vilification of the Black man are inextricable. Acknowledging an endorsement of the demise, however fabled it may be, of American and European culture as we know it is the only scenario that permits a meaningful condemnation of these particular representations, while still faithfully engaging with the aforementioned authors.
 AS, Por fin sabemos de dónde surgió el “Negro del Whatsapp.” (May 15th, 2019), https://as.com/epik/2019/05/15/portada/1557912221_652932.html, (accessed August 20, 2020).
 Zaragoza, A. (2020b, June 9). The Untold Story of Wood, the Well-Endowed Man From Those Coronavirus Texts. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/wxeywy/the-untold-story-of-wood-the-well-endowed-man-from-those-coronavirus-texts,
 Know Your Meme, Bait and Switch Videos / Pictures. (August 17th, 2020), https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/bait-and-switch-videos-pictures, (accessed August 20, 2020).
 David Marriott, On Black Men, 1st ed., Vol. 1, (Columbia University Press, 2000b), 25.
 Ibid, 27
 Ibid, 9
 Ibid, 9
 Ibid, 23
 Ibid, 23
 Ibid, 25
 Ibid, 25
 Ibid, 25
 Antonio Villarreal, La auténtica historia del “negro de WhatsApp.” (El Confidencial, December 31st, 2019) https://www.elconfidencial.com/tecnologia/2019-05-10/meme-negro-whatsapp-historia-nsfw-123_1991262/#:%7E:text=En%20Italia%20circula%20el%20bulo,de%20WhatsApp’%20es%20John%20Umweto
 Marriott, On Black Men, 27
 Ibid, 27
 Ibid, 24
 Ibid, 28
 Ibid, 35
 Ibid, 36
 Ibid, 36
 Sadiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Race and American Culture), 1st ed., (Oxford University Press, 1997), 4
 Marriott, On Black Men, 27
 Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Revised ed., Vol. 1. (Grove Press, 1952), 147.
 Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, 1st ed., (Duke University Press Books, 2010), 235.
 Ibid, 234
 Ibid, 89
 Marriott, On Black Men, 39
 Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, ’El Negro de WhatsApp’ meme, digital blackface, and racism on social media. First Monday, 25(12), 2020 https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i12.10420 (accessed August, 8th, 2020).
 Wilderson III, Red, White & Black, 235.
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, (Penguin Group, 1985), 73.
 Marriott, On Black Men, 4.
 Ibid, 10
 Wilderson III, Red, White & Black, 235.
 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks,137.
 Ibid., 154
 Jared Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes, 1st ed., (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 133.
This article previously appeared in Hampton Think.
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