Our children are at their best when we not only let them follow their own path and create their own destiny, but also tacitly support them.

-Sherronda J. Brown

This essay contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I’ve been thinking a lot about Black children, more so than usual. About how we can best love and support them as adults in their lives. I don’t know if it’s because of the media I’ve been consuming, the conversations I’ve been having, the news I’ve been reading, or something else entirely, but Black children are heavy on my mind.

I am not a parent and intentionally chose not to be, but I have helped and continue to help raise Black children. Throughout all my years, I have carried them, taught them, loved on them, spoiled them. I continue to mentor them, talk with them, create with them, and play with them. Watching Black children at play, watching them take their play very seriously, is one of my most cherished pastimes.

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This past week, when Terry Crews tweeted that children who grow up without both a mother and a father present are “severely malnourished,” his words hit me hard. As someone who has had my fatherless existence thrown in my face, usually by men I used to mistakenly call “friend” citing it in the same kind of cisheteropatriarchal arguments that Crews has recently doubled down on, it took me back to some of the most demoralizing experiences I’ve ever had. Men have framed it as something I should be ashamed of, charged it with being responsible for my “inferior” performance of womanhood, and used it to gaslight me in the moments when I was finally able to illuminate their abusive ways.

There’s a lot to be said about being a fatherless Black girl, but I haven’t figured out how to say it all, not the way it needs to be said anyway. I was emotionally and spiritually “malnourished” in multiple ways growing up, but not because our home lacked a patriarch. Would my life have been better, easier, if my father hadn’t died before I was old enough to remember him? Almost certainly. But it had nothing to do with the gender of my absent parent.

When he died unexpectedly, my father left a hole, a gaping wound. He left gaps, not because he was a man, but because he was a significant fixture in the family, and his loss tore the others apart in ways that directly impacted me as the youngest and the smallest. Those glaring gaps are what left me malnourished, because the people around me had no idea how to fill them in healthy, ethical, sustainable ways.

What I needed was nourishment. I needed tenderness, reassurance, and support in my passions and curiosities. I needed to be seen and heard and valued. I needed emotional support and validation, but how could my family give me any of that when their world no longer made sense without my father in it, and they lacked the mental health treatment they so desperately needed? Grief wrecks you, and it spreads like toxic mold within the walls and beneath the floorboards of a home. You just can’t thrive in a home that’s sick. It was never about the gender of my departed parent.

I also needed someone to just let me be my authentic queer, “boyish” self, rather than forcing cishetero, gendered expectations on my body and existence. When you grow up in the Bible Belt, in a Southern Black Christian family and extended community where everyone is deeply invested in the rigid ideas of gender and sexuality we inherited from white supremacy and colonialism, you just don’t get that support, regardless of how many parents you grow up with. You don’t get to create your own path.

As we left the theater after seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse a second time, I asked my adopted sister what her favorite part was. She said it was the part when Miles Morales’ dad told him, “I see a spark in you. It’s amazing. Whatever you choose to do with it, you’ll be great.” So, now I have to tell her that every day.

She’s spent ten years on this Earth, and she has been nourished in ways I never was. I used to resent that fact, but not anymore. Now I am deeply satisfied with the reality that I get to witness and share these rare moments with her. I’m proud that I get to help raise her. It’s a privilege to pour into her, to nourish her, to cherish her.

My little sister’s favorite part of Into the Spider-Verse comes only moments before my favorite moment. In fact, it’s the catalyst for it. Since being bitten by the radioactive spider that gave him his heightened abilities, Miles hasn’t been able to channel his powers on command, and has therefore been unable to reach his true potential. Miles is finally able to successfully harness these powers and save the day only after his parent, who has spent the entire film pushing Miles towards a path he expressly does not want to go down, actively supports him. Gender is of no consequence. This is why “Miles Rising” is my favorite scene. That’s what I’ve been calling it in my head ever since I read the script.

“Miles walks to the edge of the roof, the wind buffeting… and LEAPS! The camera is UPSIDE DOWN. Miles isn’t falling through frame. He is RISING.”

Miles Rising, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” | Sony Pictures

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The story tells us that our children are at their best when we not only let them follow their own path and create their own destiny, but also tacitly support their passions. When we nourish them. And I believe we need this message more than we need to hear “With great power comes great responsibility” again, which is what we have become accustomed to from previous Spider-Man narratives. Into the Spider-Verse makes it a point to abandon this old lesson in favor of a new, better one. This was the most significant part of the film for me, and I’m so glad this message comes via a Black Spider-Man, a Black child.

I know Terry Crews’ “severely malnourished” comment wasn’t directed solely at Black children, but Black children have been heavy on my mind. I’ve been thinking about how we can best nourish them as adults in their lives. One of the hardest things to do for parents, guardians, teachers, and mentors, it seems, is to just let children be themselves. Adults often forget that children are people, and we were children, too, not long ago. How we treat them matters, more than we realize, and it will impact them for the rest of their lives. It’s all of our responsibility to be better to them by supporting who they are in healthy ways. Gender is of no consequence.