Spider-Man and the Black Experience: Nobody Knows Who You Are
Spider-Man was always one of my favorite heroes, so I have to admit, at first it took me a while to “get” Miles Morales. All of a sudden the comic book writers had just rewritten the origin story and wedged a brown kid in there?
I wasn’t sure the Miles character would rise to the level of real representation. Was this just another “What If ...?”-style hypothetical? He existed in a different “universe” or dimension from Peter Parker and the rest of the mainstream heroes. What would that mean?
Well, 2021 marks 10 years since the Miles Morales character first appeared in a comic, and he now feels essential. My 12-year-old biracial son has never been aware of a time when a Spider-Man didn’t look like him underneath the mask; he loves playing the character in the most recent video game. And when I was looking for a way to show the complexity of modern Black identity in The Black Experience in America: The Course, I turned to Miles.
Miles Morales in Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” 2018.
Lesson 6 in The Course is called Secret Identities, and it closes out Cycle 1, Double Consciousness. Double Consciousness is a reference to the idea put forth by W.E.B. Du Bois that being Black in America means living a divided existence, because the world sees you as neither fully African nor fully American. The lessons also deal with ideas like code switching and internalized racism.
My own experience with double consciousness is part of what made me a comic book fan; I could relate to the stories of people who believe they have something to offer the world but are misunderstood (Spider-Man), feared (X-Men), and therefore driven to try to change society (Batman). After I designed Lesson 4, Masks, I kept thinking about our metaphorical masks, and the literal masks that superheroes often wear.
As I tried to bring all of those ideas together in a way that offers the hope of wholeness, my mind went to Miles Morales. Here’s a kid with a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother; in the 2018 movie we see him switch between English and Spanish at home. He has just moved from a neighborhood school with kids who look like him to a specialized school where he thinks he doesn’t fit in; we hear him code switch as he speaks differently to the two sets of peers. He’s struggling with multiple identities — and that’s before he becomes Spider-Man.
For Miles, the adventure and challenge isn’t just beating the bad guys; it’s embracing all of who his identities and becoming a whole person, even if he sometimes still has to wear a mask. It’s a journey that’s both essential to the Black experience, and entirely universal.
Remember, you can take portions of The Course online. You are among the first to know about it, and I appreciate your early support. You can buy a lesson bundle, and send others the link:
Also, it’s now easy to purchase a lesson as a gift:
New: Buy a $5 lesson in The Course for someone else! Fully-paid access to an interactive lesson will go to the email address of your choice. This is a great option for introducing kids to the lessons.