On Nina Simone, Spider-Man, And What It Means To Be A Black Cultural Icon

How we whitewash the blackness of our heroes

We have to remember our heroes. They’re important to us. America is all about remembrance — we remember the Alamo, 9/11. The only thing that always falls to the wayside is black culture. As Barack Obama once affirmed, America is black culture. Our culture continues to entertain and empower long after our heroes have passed. No one knew that better than Nina Simone, the woman who told Martin Luther King Jr. she wasn't "nonviolent" and then sang the defiant and joyously black "Mississippi Goddam" with lyrics like, "you don't have to live next to me, just give me my equality," effectively protesting from the stage. Martin's utterance of the word "nonviolent" follows him around wherever he goes, his words evolved into cuddly nursery rhymes used to present a tame image of a black radical who talks about having dreams. We barely remember the man who said, “I’m sorry to have to say to you that the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously.”

Nina did not allow herself to be sterilized for a white audience. The documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? chronicles how her radicalism led to an extraction from American society in the later years of her life. So, it seems odd that in the production of the forthcoming biopic Nina, a choice was made to sterilize the bold blackness of Nina Simone. To understand this, you need to understand nuance. Yes, Zoe Saldana — who has been cast as Nina — is a black woman. She is of African and Latina descent and proud of it, according to an Allure interview from 2013: "It doesn't matter how much backlash I will get for it. I will honor and respect my black community because that's who I am." I honestly believe Zoe understands Nina's soul and wanted to honor her, but the sad fact is that her casting, which requires blackface to darken her skin to Nina's complexion, is a whitewashing of Nina's blackness. At its most innocuous, it's no different from darkening up Natalie Wood to play Maria in West Side Story. At its worst, it's Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

Try as well-intentioned, liberal white people might, we do not live in a post-racial society. In an election year in which Donald Trump does not shy away from KKK endorsements and the honoring of community leaders like the Black Panthers draws ire for Beyoncé, blackness is very much on display in America. The idea that we are a unified people — rather than just black people or white people — is incredibly naive, even if the intentions are pure, such as those from the white creators of Nina, or even the white creator of one of pop culture's latest black heroes: Miles Morales.

Miles is of black and Puerto Rican descent, and his taking up the mantle of Spider-Man within the Marvel comics universe drew as much praise as it did controversy. Ultimately, Miles has been embraced by fans and allowed to persist with his own lead series, simply titled Spider-Man. But in the second issue of the series, released on March 2, fan ire was drawn when Miles spoke up about how he's interpreted in the media (of the Marvel universe, but also the media that reads and reports on comic books in real life).

"I don't want to be the black Spider-Man," Miles says. "I want to be Spider-Man." He goes on to clarify that he's also "half Hispanic," so being the black Spider-Man is a misnomer. This should be an incredibly exciting conversation to witness in a comic book. Who wouldn't want to hear Miles discussing how it feels to be Afro-Latino, the ties he feels to both communities, and what it means to be living in America today, where racism is predominantly about anti-blackness and other races are defined by their proximity to blackness? Of course, we'll never get that conversation, because there is no Afro-Latino writer working on Spider-Man. Instead, we'll get the well-intentioned musings of Brian Michael Bendis, a white man, who wants us to see Miles as Spider-Man and not just the black Spider-Man. The problem with this, however, is that Miles is a person of color and will always be viewed as such. When you say things like "I don't see color," it leads to pedantic conversations in which Marvel pretends it's going to cast a diverse net for someone to play the new Spider-Man and instead casts Tom Holland to play him.

That's an inherent problem with black cultural icons, or rather, with our portrayal of them. Too often, the people making the decisions behind honoring them are white. When our heroes are honored, we're not invited to the table. I respect Ken Burns' documentarian eye, but how much more powerful would the forthcoming PBS documentary on Jackie Robinson's life be as told through the eyes of a black person with all the resources PBS has to offer? I'd say very. Would a conversation about Miles' identity be much more nuanced if a white man weren't writing it? Absolutely. Would Nina have made strides to cast a naturally dark-skinned black women who doesn't need an hour in the make-up trailer before transforming into Nina Simone? The answer is almost certainly yes. Instead, we are left with a road paved with the good intentions of white people, and that road leads to a watering down of black culture to make it more palatable to white audiences. This is why we must remember our heroes and honor every facet of them. No one else will.