SPIDER-MAN BEEN BLACK / by Micheaux Mission

MUSINGSspiderman.jpg

Like all good and true Black nerds (or, “blerds,” if you will.  I don’t really “blerd” myself because I’m a traditionalist that respects the Oxford comma, two spaces after a period and, yes, actual words as opposed to some unnecessary amalgamation of two terms. But do you.), I am beyond the moon excited about the success of Spider Man: Beyond The Spiderverse.  Besides the fact that it’s a smart, kinetic, joyous, snap-crackle-pop celebration of everything that makes superheroes wonderful, …Spiderverse is also the culmination of the ascendancy of Miles Morales, the Black Spider-man.  As an aforementioned Black nerd (yes, yes, or “blerd”), and, one of a certain age, I am truly enjoying pop culture’s embrace of the concept of the Black Spider-man.  Of course, according to my mom, Spider-man has always been Black.

Some background:  I don’t think my parents were extraordinarily political.  Neither of them participated in any formal Civil Rights Movement activism.  There was a copy of Roots in the house and I remember my Dad buying The Color Purplewhen it was a thing but that’s it for extensive Black literature.  Well, my aunt was in the Nation of Islam so a copy of Eat To Live gathered dust on top of the refrigerator.  My siblings and I did get a lot of, “don’t embarrass us/act like you come from something” as we ventured out into our integrated environment. But that’s it.  I think our family was like most Black families vis-à-vis what we’d call, “wokeness.”; real regular.

            There was one detail that does stick out, however. My mother did not play with the images her kids were exposed to.  All the art in our house had black people in them.  Our books had to feature Black characters or, at the very least, anthropomorphic animals (lot of Beatrix Potter and Frog & Toad in my house.)  My sister had all Black baby dolls, and me and my brother were only supposed to play with Black/nonwhite action figures.

            If you know anything about nerdom, you can figure out how this was a problem.  Remember folks; we’re talking late seventies here.  There was no Black Panther or John Stewart or Cyborg action figures to choose from. Nope.  If you were a kid and wanted a superhero action figure, you had to play with a Mego one and, except for Falcon, “The BLACK superhero,” your choices were the standard Batman, Robin, Superman, etc.  And my mother was not happy about it.  In her defense, I ended up owning a fair number of them but, again, it was like pulling teeth to get my mother to relent.  Now, Hulk, I could do because, well, green.  Funny enough, I could slip the Human Torch through too because the flames covered up his face.  

MUSINGSspiderman2.jpg

            But my absolute favorite superhero figure was Spider-Man.  Outside of Batman and Superman, Spider-Man is the most iconic figure in the American mythology of superheroes.  The really fascinating aspect of the figure and, what’s relevant to our conversation, is that Spider-Man’s face is covered.  That means he could be anyone under that mask.  And, yes, as far as I was concerned-and my mom too!-that means Spider-Man could be Black.  So, that meant, when one of my Spider-man figures, uh, mysteriously came up broken, my Mom didn’t fight too hard to grab me a replacement one.  In the Williams household, Spider-Man was always Black.

            This actually makes sense for a few reasons. Now, we can get high falutin’, if you want to, and examine the historical, cultural and entomological antecedents of the character.  Everyone agrees that Spider-Man is a trickster character; he’s strong, yes, but his greatest attribute is his wit.  He uses humor to disarm and confuse his opponents.  Now, historically, there are trickster characters all over the world; Reynard the Fox from European folklore, Anansi the Spider from African traditions, hell, pre-United States, on this continent, coyote tricksters appear throughout Indigenous stories.  Again, the imagery is not unique.  But, when we talk about tricksters in the American tradition, we talk about B’rer Rabbit. And ol’ B’rer Rabbit is one hundred percent African American.  There are plenty of parallels between B’rer Rabbit-not to mention his more famous sanitized version, Bugs Bunny-and Spider-Man and, if you focus on them, boom, Spidey is Black.  So, yeah, you can go that route if you wanted to.

            Honestly, I don’t think you have to do all that to. If you really want to make the case that Spider-Man should be Black all you have to do is describe his life.    Spider-Man is perpetually trying to make ends meet as he juggles school and work. Spider-Man has a sick relative that depends on him.  Spider-Man is maligned and lied on by the press. (Seriously, how are the Daily Bugle’s choices for him, “threat or menace?”?  What kind of Fox News nonsense is THAT?)  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but, uh, the police are always harassing and shooting at him.  Spider-Man is a character whose life is informed by unspeakable tragedy but, regardless, he rises above it all to do what needs to be done with wit and style and, most importantly, he looks damn good as he does it.  And, if that ain’t Black, I don’t know what is.  There’s a quote I always go back to from writer Thulani Davis; “Always Negroes doing fabulous, unheard of things and always with style, even if the minks and gloves were borrowed.” Spider-Man is b-boys and Black Twitter and Black Boy Joy and Black Lives Matter all rolled up in a package that everyone admires but, because of the unspeakable tragedy and huge responsibility he carries, no one wants to actually become.  To paraphrase another great writer, Paul Mooney, everyone wants to be a Spider-Man but don’t nobody want to be a Spider-Man.

            So, yes, I have been a fan of Miles Morales since day one. And I’m super happy with the success of the character as well as Spider-Man: Enter The Spiderverse.  I’m also ecstatic for all the little brown children who see themselves in such an iconic character as we move into more inclusive and multicultural fandoms. But my mom?  She always knew the score.  Spider-Man been Black.


— Vincent Williams @MicheauxMission