Cyclops, Wolverine, Captain America, Spider-Man, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker—these were my childhood heroes. Whenever I wanted to play make-believe around the house, I dressed like them. More, I wanted desperately to be them, not least because they were the only images of masculinity I saw routinely after my father left the house. Then, one Halloween in elementary school, I stopped feeling comfortable pretending to be them.
When I had hair (it is long gone now), I once grew it out in an attempt to have a curl like the one that fell to the front of Superman’s head. It was dress-up day for Halloween at my mostly white elementary school, so I spent a month coming up with excuses about why I could not have my hair cut so I could attempt the Superman look. To my chagrin, I discovered that my hair was different than Kal-El’s. His laid flat and curled down his forehead while mine grew into an afro and frizzled when I tried to pull the front down. As a result, I decided that Superman was someone I could not embody. His body was too different from mine, so I chose to go with my next favorite character that year: Indiana Jones. I got a hat, wore a rugged jacket and boots like the character, and even wrapped a braided belt as a whip around a belt loop on my jeans. Walking into class, I was greeted with approval by my classmates until I sat down. The student behind me, a white boy given to taunting me during lunch, leaned forward and told me I almost looked like the character—the only problem was that I was not white. To use his words, I looked like “India-nigger Jones.” My white classmates laughed at his joke. I did not.
I am now a scholar of race, and I understand how damaging all of that was for me. Imagining myself as a white person alienated me from my body. I did not see myself in the culture I consumed, and unless I wanted to dress up like Martin Luther King Jr. or George Washington Carver, I had few other choices of costumes for Halloween. The next year, I skipped dress-up day altogether. I refused to participate because I would never be white.
When my sons began to dress up for Halloween, they chose the characters I loved when I was their age: Superman, Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, and people from the Star Wars universe like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Seeing them pretend to be people who did not look like them concerned me. I distinctly remember my eldest and namesake crying at the age of 7 because he did not have blue eyes or blond hair like so many of his friends and favorite characters. I saw then that I had to be more deliberate about introducing him and his brother to superheroes and movie protagonists that looked like them.
For years I had to seek out culture that featured characters who came from a background similar to my sons. It took work and intentionality to make that happen. It was challenging to find black characters that had their own TV shows or comic books. Even more difficult was finding a black character that appealed to (and was age-appropriate for) young boys. Things have gotten better since I first started seeking out these images for my sons, but 2018 will be remembered as a year that changed the game for black kids on Halloween.
This year black boys got to see themselves in Black Panther’s T’Challa and Erik Killmonger, the underappreciated Falcon comic written by Rodney Barnes, and Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian (the best part of Solo: A Star Wars Story). In less than two months, Miles Morales’ Spider-Man will hit the big screen. Not to mention the fact that this is the first Halloween since Justice League gave us the DC Extended Universe’s first black superhero in Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. This All Hallows’ Eve, black boys will get to dress like all of them.
Black girls have some fierce new costume options especially suited to them, too. Gone are the days of struggling to come up with much more than Doc McStuffins. From Wakanda alone, they now have Letitia Wright’s scene-stealing Shuri and the world-saving Dora Milaje. From Ava DuVernay’s take on A Wrinkle in Time, they also got Storm Reid’s relatable, 14-year-old savior of the universe Meg Murry, and Oprah’s divine Mrs. Which, complete with bedazzled eyebrows. In November, Marvel will publish Ironheart, the story of Riri Williams, a little black girl from Chicago who has a suit similar to Iron Man’s, written by poet, scholar, Chicago native, and all-around renaissance woman Eve Ewing. And though Solo could have treated her better, it also gave us the Star Wars movies’ first major black female character in Thandie Newton’s Val.
Let my family tell it, I’m already a Halloween fanatic, but I’m particularly excited this year. I cannot wait to see the little black boys and girls dressed as characters that look like them. It may seem trivial, but it would be the fulfillment of this black nerd’s lifelong dream.