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Inglewood Ave and 134th Street ~ Hawthorne

As always, there is what you see on the surface, and then there’s what you get when you look a little bit deeper. Indeed, the PSA billboard entitled “On the Down Low,” which can be found in Hawthorne at Inglewood and 134th, deserves careful review. At first glance, it seems like a relatively innocent scene of people enjoying themselves at a park. If you look deeper, however, you see the seething sexual tension underlying this idyllic portrait of family and leisure. The man in the blue T-shirt on the right looks affectionately engaged with his family, and it seems that the man in the background, in his matching white wife-beater and Kangol, is just out for a stroll—you know, just chillin’. But the body language between these two men is more revealing. The Guy in White is striking what an article in August’s Oprah Magazine has taught me is called a “crotch display,” a posture that poses to onlookers the question, “Like what you see?”

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The Guy in Blue arguably is sporting a “crotch display” of his own, his open-legged position possibly suggesting that he is indeed “open” to something in some way or other, perchance because he does, in fact, like what he sees. After all, just where is the Guy in Blue looking? He may be listening to his wife, but he may well be checking out the skinny brother in the Samuel L. Jackson hat out of the corner of his eye! Is this an Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle rewritten for the 21st century? What is the subtext, and just what is it that lies above the subtext?

The point I am trying to illustrate is that there is “on the down low,” and there is “on the down low.” One means to keep things secret. I learned about the other definition of "down low" when read an article called “Double Lives on the Down Low” in the New York Times Magazine a few summers ago. The article’s author explains:

Rejecting a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate, many black men have settled on a new identity, with its own vocabulary and customs and its own name: Down Low. […] Most date or marry women and engage sexually with men they meet only in anonymous settings like bathhouses and parks or through the Internet. Many of these men are young and from the inner city, where they live in a hypermasculine ‘thug’ culture. Other DL men form romantic relationships with men and may even be peripheral participants in mainstream gay culture, all unknown to their colleagues and families. Most DL men identify themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black. To them, as to many blacks, that equates to being inherently masculine.

Our social taboos being what they are, it is only with some difficulty that a medium as public as a roadside billboard can deal with issues like AIDS, promiscuity, infidelity, and alternative lifestyles. These public messages will be written in a way that is invariably subtle, so that certain aspects will go over the heads of children and other innocents, or prove more or less inoffensive to those that would rather stick their heads in the sand and avoid thinking about some of the messier realities of our modern world. What surprised me about this billboard was that most of my friends never noticed it, and even after I pointed it out to them, they really didn’t get it because they didn’t understand what was being referred to as “on the down low.” Then again, maybe that is the point: it could be that the people who I was asking weren’t exactly the target audience.

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