There’s a quote by Junot Diaz about representation that has always stuck with me. Using vampires and mirrors as a metaphor, he once said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that the best way to deny someone their humanity is to render them invisible, particularly on a cultural level.
If there’s anything I want for my son, Cristian, it’s to be seen. Not in the distorted, funhouse mirror way that America tends to show Black males, but accurately and with complexity and nuance. He’s only eight, yet already painfully aware of the fine society levies on dark skin. A few years ago, he was bullied for being one of the few Black students in his class and he has even heard disparaging comments about his complexion from adults. Cristian’s father and I have been working diligently to show him the beauty in his Blackness, but I will never forget how those events left him with the desire to be – as he referred to it – “peach.”
That’s why I’m grateful for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Black Panther,” two superhero films released in the last year that broadened depictions of Black identity. At a time when images of Black people being policed for doing innocuous things like barbequing in a park, selling water, or talking to their mother in a hotel lobby dominate mass media, it’s important for Cristian to not only see people who look like him involved in the extraordinary, but also the ordinary: celebrating who they are, having meaningful relationships with family and friends, and overcoming internal and external struggles.
Cristian was just seven months old when Marvel announced that the new hero taking over the mantle from Peter Parker’s Spider-Man would be an Afro-Latinx kid named Miles Morales. I remembered thinking what a blessing it was that my boy would not only grow up seeing someone who looked like him in the Oval Office (Barack Obama was just two years into his first term), but in comics as well.
As the years passed, there was talk of Miles’ story heading to the big screen. Donald Glover and Jaden Smith’s names were thrown around. Even the dude from Everybody Hates Chris wanted in. But nothing came to fruition. Then in December, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” arrived with Shameik Moore at the helm. As we sat in the theater watching a 3D version of the animation, an immersive fever dream of color and spectacle, I was thrilled that Cristian was seeing someone just like him – a bilingual Black boy from New York – saving the day.
On the way home from the theater, Cristian was strangely quiet. There was no mention of the mind-bending special effects or Miles’ vertigo inducing leaps from buildings. Nothing. When we reached our apartment, I asked him what was up. He shrugged.
“You didn’t like the movie, buddy?”
“Yeah,” he responded nonchalantly.
“What’s the matter?”
“It was good,” he offered. “Just…sad.” I knew instantly what he was referring to. In a call back to the origin story of Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, the film features a scene where Miles’ beloved Uncle Aaron is shot and killed in front of him. “It reminded me of Teo,” Cristian added, as tears began to flow.
I wanted Cristian to see himself. I just didn’t expect the story to also reflect the immense grief he had been feeling. Like Miles, Cristian is a kid mourning the loss of a family member who played a large role in his life.
When Cristian’s dad and I divorced several years ago, our parents – immigrants from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic – stepped in to help us as we transitioned into our respective roles as single parents. They have each been instrumental in his rearing. Not one request to babysit, play in the park, or take him to and from school has been met with a no. Cristian and his paternal grandfather, Teo, were especially close. That man loved that boy something fierce. He doted on him, protected him, spoiled him. They were inseparable too. It was not strange to see Teo, a staple in his Harlem neighborhood, around the domino table or in one of the buildings where he worked as a super, with Cristian in tow.
Teo passed away unexpectedly last April, less than 48 hours after they had returned from a family trip to DR. When Cristian’s dad called to tell me the news, it was devastating. I knew it meant that we were not only going to shatter our son’s world, but suddenly throw him into an alternate universe where he would never see his best friend again.
The past year has been difficult, understandably. Cristian is quiet by nature, so it can be difficult to get him to open up. A recent study found that animated children’s films, particularly “The Lion King,” “Bambi,” and “Frozen,” offer opportunities for parents to discuss end-of-life issues with their children. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” became a springboard for us to start conversations and an outlet for Cristian to express what he’s feeling. We often talk about how Teo is watching over him from heaven; that it’s sunny there, like back in DR; that when he’s not hanging with God, he’s playing dominoes with friends and family who have also passed away. It doesn’t stop the hurt, but it provides comfort.
Right after the New Year, Cristian woke up excitedly one morning to say that he had dreamed of his grandfather – the second time this has happened since his passing. Cristian told me that they were on a school trip and that Teo was talking to him and laughing.
“It’s so great that Papa came to visit you,” I said.
“But it’s just a dream,” he countered.
That’s when I reminded him about “Black Panther,” one of his favorite movies. The film is not only an Afrofuturist manifesto on anti-colonialism, nativism, and the need for open borders (ahem!), but at its root, it’s about a son grappling with loss and figuring out how to lead his people in the wake of his father’s death. In several scenes, the lead character T’Challa takes an elixir that gives him special abilities and allows him to visit the “ancestral plane,” a realm where those who have come before us reside after death.
“Maybe that’s where you and Teo meet in your dreams.”
Cristian considers this then turns to me with a smile. “Yeah,” he says, happily.
I, too lost a grandparent when I was a child. The loss is immeasurable and there really is no way to comprehend it at such a young age. Films are in no way a balm – Cristian’s dad and I are actively seeking a grief counselor for him – but they can be important avenues for representation and to teach kids about love and loss. I wanted Cristian to be seen. I’m glad they’ve given me the opportunity to truly see him as well.
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