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I vividly remember the first time I saw a black woman in a toothpaste commercial.
There I sat on our shag rug, my goldfish behind me and a poster of The Fonz a few feet away, taped to my bedroom door. I was watching TV and suddenly a beautiful woman in natural shorts filled my screen, her teeth perfect and gleaming. I sat, mesmerized, and watched her glow. When her 30 seconds was up, I ran back to tell my mom, “Mom, there was a black woman on TV!”
All the Gen X kids timed their day around Saturday morning cartoons, Zoom in AND Children are people too. After, we rode our bikes until the street lights came on. For Black Gen X, the jumble of Huffies, Big Wheels and metal skates in someone’s backyard let the kids know it was time to Alberto Grasso, What is going on! OR Good times. Together, we laughed with The Jeffersons and snapped with fingers Soul Train. Beyond that, TV, movies, even our favorite books were as white as Wonder Bread.
I was staying with my cousins in West Philadelphia one summer when Claudine (1974) hit the color console and Timmy – he was the second oldest – carefully adjusted the tint and brightness so we could actually see James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll falling in love.
My Gen Z son is tired of hearing these stories from my childhood from the 70s. His life is much richer than the beautiful Blackness. He doesn’t jump out of a pouffe to signal a warning to the whole family: “Mom! Black people are on TV!
It wasn’t until 2018, his ninth year on this earth, that he saw a larger-than-life black superhero hit the screen. The overwhelming success of Black Panther it helped dismantle Hollywood’s long-standing fallacy that while the world would gladly pay to scroll through seven variations of Batman, no one could make any money off a real Dark Knight.
My son is now 14 and this summer he is seeing himself on screen in multiple expressions of creativity, aspiration and what we call Black Boy Joy. 2018 was a good year, because we also shared a lot of popcorn to watch Miles Morales make his way into the spider cry for the first time. We had to wait five long years to have a summer like this. Finally, after the devastation of COVID, as my son stands strong on the threshold of young adulthood, we get an exultant, fantasy-fueled, superpowered manifestation of the boundlessness of human imagination. We get to escape, just for a few hours, into realms where black people soar and mark and sing under the sea. We finally have fun.
Despite its unsatisfactory ending, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse serves up the cutest animated kids I’ve seen since Miles felt his first bite from a radioactive spider five years ago. The film opens with an all-girl, multi-racial garage band dealing with Gwen Stacy’s (Hailee Steinfeld) malaise and ends with a rock star-powered crew ready to save the world. Meanwhile, I flew through the real New York, the Brooklyn my son grew up in, a city portrayed here with egg-and-cheese authenticity. Through the rooftop party scene, I could practically smell the arroz con pollo, hear the DJ turn down every beat, and actually giggle out loud as Miles’ parents clattered to Gwen calling them names.
My son’s world is as diverse as Miles’s, as was the Brooklyn theater where we saw the film on the big screen. As much as I want my son to see himself reflected in the speculative realm of Marvel-level coolness, I also want his white, Asian, and Latino friends to experience this other verse where black kids save the world with a team that looks just like them. All of them. Together. This other verse looks, smells and sounds just like their amazing home.
Basketball is the official-unofficial sport in Kings County, so my family was looking forward to the game produced by LeBron James Falling stars, a film adaptation of the book James wrote about his childhood crew. They called themselves the Fab Four, then they added another to their winning group of handsome black boys fighting to become manly together. As an African-American mother, I have so much to fear in this world, so I was relieved to experience nearly two hours where black kids are just kids, from riding their bikes when they came out of eighth grade to driving cars in high school.
On their way to a future that keeps them all tied to their favorite team sport, their biggest obstacles have been those erected by LeBron’s growing fame. But the film misses that, which is another welcome relief. Instead, little Dru Royce III stares at their friendships and shifts his gaze from superstardom to shooting stars. Their cohesiveness would make them the best high school team in the country.
Dru, played by Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger things fame, pushes the boys out of their all-black public school and into the white world of the local Catholic school. Race emerges organically, with tension and even anxiety in certain scenes, but these realities don’t dominate the story. Instead, these beautiful black boys come of age together. Placing their joy at the center of the film feels true to my son’s childhood; their on-screen laughter echoes the sounds I hear when neighborhood kids who love the game of basketball flock to our Brooklyn apartment. After a full day out in the fields where they grew up, they crowd around a console, just like Dru, Bron, Sian and Avery. I need my child to see and understand movies like 13 AND When they see usbut I also want him to enjoy the exuberance and familiarity of Falling stars.
I know she has to see movies that examine the worst of our past, because a black girl can’t even be a mermaid without white supremacy surfacing as a dangerous old beast. When the beautiful Halle Bailey emerged from the coral to make her way into the hearts of black girls across the country in the new Mermaid, old white racists have lost their minds. It’s a shame, because they’re missing the boat for the future, where Gen Z is already singing along, just like Gwen Stacy’s girl band.
Thank goodness for social media, as Black parents recorded their daughters’ precious reactions as they sat, wide-eyed, to see that Ariel is a Black girl. These children don’t need to know about the African orishas Yemaya, Yemoja and Olokun to know that they too belong to the speculative realm, where sea creatures are mighty and beautiful and also black.
When I scroll through my feed and witness their delight in seeing a black princess emerge in the Disney trailer playing on their TV, I can’t help but feel a kind of bittersweet pang deep in my bones: all these decades later, nearly a quarter by Into a New Century, they are as shocked as I am at their age by the anomaly of a black woman appearing on screen in certain contexts. The fact that they too are delighted and surprised by the sudden appearance of themselves is the same kind of testimony as she is. Somewhere in the marvel of Black Girl Magic as Ariel and Black Boy Joy as shooting stars, there is a sadness. The 70s were a long time ago; none of these guys could tell you what a jukebox is, much less identify the greasy-haired dude famous for making it magically play. But it’s like nothing has changed as they sit on the hardwood floors, watching smart TVs. There are no foil-wrapped rabbit ears to adjust, no knobs to turn to get the color and contrast just right. And they’re still there, just as we were, our bikes scattered around the yard, cross-legged, peering, unaware of how deep the pain of seeing us on screen is.
May their magic and joy be a balm, a healing, to normalize Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian and Samoan children as well. I want to see us all, each and every one, triumphant and strong and heroic and larger than life in worlds we can only imagine.