Updated: Jan 20, 2019
“‘Out of these superheroes’—Mike holds a bunch of comics in both hands the way magicians hold up cards when they ask someone to pick one—‘whose power you want?’”
That question in Tight has journeyed with me since I web-slung in Spider-Man Underoos as a boy.
Middle school students for almost twenty years visit me at lunch to ask me that.
Recently, I gave a keynote address about superhero worship in Tight. I began with, “Raise your hand if you’re into superheroes.” Nearly every adult raised their hands. Then, during the Q & A session, I was asked, “whose superpower would you want?”
This question reveals our common yearning. No matter where we’re from, most wouldn’t mind a superpower. I could’ve used one growing up where Tight is set.
In 1988, Life magazine called the housing projects where I grew up “the crack capital of America and one of the ten worst neighborhoods in the U.S.” The neighborhood in Queens where the rapper 50 Cent grew up was like mine and he raps in “Hate It or Love It”: “Different day, same ****, ain’t nothing good in the hood / I’d run away . . . and never come back if I could.”
As a kid, I would escape into comics and began wondering: “Whose superpower would I want?”
But in my escape, I also walked into a trap. As my community and family spun more into chaos, the deeper I dove into the rabbit hole of superhero worship.
The Roots rapper and Jimmy Fallon bandleader Black Thought raps on “My Shot” on The Hamilton Mixtape, “Even role models tell us we’re born to be felons.” In Spike Lee’s and Jordan Peele’s BlacKkKlansman, the character Kwame Ture says he worshipped Tarzan then realized in rooting for him to beat Blacks, he rooted against himself.
Some heroes swag out villainy like Darth Vader, Killmonger, and Mike in Tight. A lot of us wouldn’t mind being them. Mostly, we like the hero.
Coming of age, I realized many of my superhero role models beat up criminals with faces like mine. Black Thought was right: My role models told me I was a felon. Like Kwame Ture in BlacKkKlansman, I sometimes rooted against myself. Many superhero narratives also stereotyped manliness and encouraged toxic masculinity.
Much hasn’t changed under the sun that powers Clark Kent into Superman, but my mind has.
I now teach in the same community where I’m from. My students are diverse and look up to me. Spider-Man and I know: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I don’t want to stereotype kids and families as felons.
I also look up to my students. They’re multidimensional and heroic in many ways.
“Whose superpower would you want?”
It’s the easiest thing to recycle outdated stereotypical hero narratives. I want a different power. As a teacher and author, I want to do what Netflix’s Luke Cage and the blockbuster film Black Panther do—show heroes who don’t make most of us feel like a zero. That’s why I chose to spotlight Luke Cage and Black Panther in Tight, and a tween like my students with a complexity of character and issues. Bryan comes of age wanting a superpower yet lives in real-word Brooklyn.
Jacqueline Woodson, the National Book Award winner of Brown Girl Dreaming, says of Tight, “I was riveted by Bryan’s journey to breaking down stereotypes and becoming his own kind of superhero. This in and of itself is not only Bryan’s superpower but Maldonado’s as well. Loved this book!”
To hear that I may have a superpower is a dream come true. Who knows? Maybe my students and readers of all ages will read Tight and pick my power as their own too.
- Author Torrey Maldonado