Much like a bunch of other Spider-Man fans and gamers, I recently bought the new game, Spider-Man: Miles Morales for the PlayStation 5. The game is great so far, and as a huge Miles fan, it’s dope to see him assume the mantle of Spider-Man and play the game through his point of view.
Since the announcement of the game, there has been a very interesting hashtag that has gained a buzz on Twitter, and has even resurged since the release of the game. #LetMilesSayNigga ,is full of people photoshopping comic panels with Miles, recontextualizing the image with Miles doing just what the people want: saying ‘nigga’.
Before we continue, I’m Black, and y’all not gonna do me like y’all did that brotha from GameSpot.
As the hashtag picked up popularity I ended up seeing it on my timeline and I would scroll through, laughing at images of Miles calling Captain America ‘my nigga’, and I ended up thinking how fitting it would be for Miles Morales, a Black NYC teenager, to use the word. As I played the newest game, I began to think about the idea more, and then began thinking,
“Should Miles Morales really use the N-word?”
Why people think Miles should say it
Miles Morales is a Black teenager from New York City. Often, the n-word is used by Black teens, especially those within inner cities, as these places end up being hubs for Black people as well as Black culture. Also, being Black has been made a large part of Miles’s identity in his latest iterations. He wears sneakers with his costumes now (as sneakers are a huge part of urban trendiness, which is greatly influenced by Black people), and in the game, it’s stated that he and his uncle Aaron used to mix beats together. The Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse iteration of the characters had the two writing graffiti together. The Spider-Verse and PS5 iterations of Miles also associate him with hip-hop, whether he’s listening to it or the music existing ambiently in the atmosphere around him.
Because of Miles’s Black and Latino identity and the fact that he lives in NYC, writers have recently tried to make him as “urban as possible” it seems, but is this an issue? Is it tasteful?
Let’s first take a look at other Black characters that exist in similar media.
Lamar — Grand Theft Auto V
Lamar exists, in many senses, as a caricature of a stereotypical Black, Southern Californian, gangsta’. Let’s begin with pointing out that the head writers for Grand Theft Auto V are all white. The dialogue in my opinion, is a bit tasteful, and corny in some spots, but that is largely the Grand Theft Auto brand, at least when it comes to their world and character building. It mimics the areas that the games’ locations represent, but often exaggerates them in a very goofy sense. For those unfamiliar with Lamar and his character, I would recommend checking this out, one of the most infamous and hilarious moments from GTA V.
Killmonger — Black Panther (2018)
Erik Killmonger grew up in the projects in Oakland, California, a city that is about a quarter Black. He lived alone with his father, who was associated with a gang in the area. He was written by Black writers. He fits a model of a Black man with a tough upbringing in Oakland, and he definitely has a chip on his shoulder the whole movie. However, his character doesn’t feel like an over exaggeration of what he is supposed to be; Killmonger doesn’t need to be “overly Black” for you to get that he is a Black character. He also does not say the N-word at all in the film.
Luke Cage — Luke Cage (Netflix — 2016)
Luke Cage’s TV show is set in Harlem, New York City, and the first episode sees him returning home from jail. The show was created and written by a Black person (Cheo Hodari Coker), and the show exists in a Black setting without having to overstep any boundaries to PROVE to you that it is Black. Also, Luke Cage in his show, doesn’t use the n-word, even though many other characters within the series do.
Black Content made for Black People
There is huge importance on media created by Black people and that can be summed up with the simple question of “is it made for us?” I think a crucial part in determining whether or not Miles should say the N-word is first being able to answer that question about whatever Miles Morales content we consume (videogame, comic, movie, TV series, etc.).
Take for example The Boondocks:
I think this show is a perfect example of media made for Black people. For starters, it’s made BY Black people. The series creator & lead writer Aaron McGruder is joined by Rodney Barnes, who also produced Everybody Hates Chris around the same time, Yamara Taylor, who went on to write for Black-ish, and Jason Van Veen, who went on to do some writing for Black Dynamite. These are a couple of names that stood out because of the fact that A) they’re Black creators of great content that we love and B) the works they’ve done were made for Black people. The jokes, dialogue, cultural references and characters in The Boondocks exist within a Black cultural ethos and it is a basic level, very relatable or understandable. It ends up feeling Black because, well, that’s what it is. This isn’t to say that non-Black people can’t watch these shows or that they won’t understand the humor, because they can and have. This is more to point out the fact that this media exists within an already existing cultural context, and is extremely popular amongst people that exist in that cultural context or experience. I think in a very similar sense, Black Panther felt similar to that, and I crack that up to the fact that because the creators are Black and have certain experiences (shared culture, traumas, customs, dialogue, aspirations, etc.), it doesn’t need to TRY to be Black.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales on PS5 is NOT that.
To start, the game is created by a PREDOMINANTLY white studio. The writers of the game are all white. Most of the game designers are white, and the ones that aren’t are non-Black people of color. I honestly feel it would be easier to write a caricature character like Lamar; Black caricatures and stereotypes exist in all types of media written by all types of people (they even exist on the news). However, Miles is NOT a Black caricature, he hasn’t been since his inception.
Miles Morales as a Black character
Miles Morales was created by Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli (who have done great work with the character and his comics, which I am a huge fan of). Miles in his stories was never outwardly ‘super Black’. And I DO NOT want this to be misconstrued and seem like Miles’ Blackness is not valid. He is, in all ways, a Black individual, and that’s not at all at question here. What I mean to point out is he is not made to really fit the mold of a NYC Black teen. Sure, he’s from Brooklyn, he experiences some things here and there in his comics that are equivalent to the Black New Yorker’s experience, but his character is not exactly congruent to that.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did a much better job at nailing that Black NYC teen experience with Miles’ character. He wears Jordans (which goes without being said exist as monoliths within Black culture, both as Michael Jordan himself AND his sneakers), he has an afro, he listens to rap music, daps up his friends when he sees them, and he writes graf on the little USPS slaps that he leaves around Brooklyn. Now you may be asking “does doing these things or having such qualities make someone Black?” and that answer is no.
There are tons of Black people that are still very much Black people, and do none of those things. However there is still a great deal of importance to this iteration of Miles, while maybe also some potential issues.
This super ‘urbanization’ of Miles, whereas it is kind of fitting, is tied to a larger issue concerning Black people, especially Black fictional characters, in America. It’s like the “OH, he listens to Chance the Rapper, RAP MUSIC. Get it? It’s because he’s Black. He does graffiti, he’s Black if you didn’t notice.” Hip hop and graffiti both exist as cornerstones of NYC culture (both being created by Black people and POC), these can almost be seen as an exaggeration for Miles. Now I’m not saying I dislike this — I think the Spider-Verse interpretation of Miles is the best and most fun version of him in any media. However, I do think it is interesting and meaningful to think about why he fits the ‘Black teen’ image and where the reasons for that interpretation come from.
Spider-Man Miles Morales (PS5) has Miles listening to hip-hop, occasionally using slang, teasing his enemies with taunts telling them to “catch these hands”, and even some of his mannerisms are in line with that of a Black teenager. However I feel like these things don’t define his character, and more importantly his experience with the world around him as a Black character. 808s and snare drum beats are littered throughout the entire game, from the menus, to the combat sequences, and even when traversing the world. I’m not going to say I’m in love with it, but I don’t hate it either. I feel like it goes back to the “hey look, he’s Black, get it?” vibe, and that’s because the overall vibe of the world doesn’t feel like it fits the hip hop beats all that much. I can’t help but think about a game like Jet Set Radio to compare, where the funky music and beats fit the entire aesthetic of the world: the game’s menus, the character designs, and the gameplay. If we were playing as Peter Parker in this Spider-Man game instead of Miles, NONE of that music would be there, but the game would still look and feel exactly the same, and for those that played Spider-Man PS4, you’d know that was precisely the case.
This again goes back to the distinction between Black stories and characters being made by Black folk vs non-Black folk. It seems almost as if they’re trying too hard to make Miles Black? And it’s not exactly because he listens to hip-hop or says sarcastic quips that have slang in them, but it can sometimes feel out of place. They’re the right puzzle pieces, but they’re put in the wrong spots, or oriented the wrong way. Miles could NEVER say the N-word as long as he’s being written by non-Black writers and creators. It’s a similar experience hearing a non-Black person say ‘nigga’, or seeing a non-Black person with dreads; you can have your opinions of whether or not you think it’s right or wrong, but it almost always seems out of place. For Insomniac Games’ Miles to say ‘nigga’, his whole character as it stands would have to be adjusted in some way, and it might end up becoming caricature-y.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that most Miles media isn’t made for Black people. Yes, Black people may thoroughly enjoy it, and it can even be marketed to get Black people to be into it and spend their money on it, but it doesn’t end up being something that can be as relatable or understandable to the Black experience content-wise. When things are made for Black people, I think they connect to the Black experience and Black culture. That encapsulates all the trauma, cultural customs, trials and triumphs, verbiage, and history of the Black American (and in many cases, Black global) experience. The Boondocks does that. Luke Cage does that. Black Panther in many ways does that. Miles’ character in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in some ways does that as well. The N-word is tied to that experience both historically and culturally, whether we like it or not.
I think the reason many Black comic book and video game enthusiasts want Miles to say “nigga” is because they want him to be connected to that experience in that way, the way they are. Tons of Black teenagers in the five boroughs say “nigga”, and it wouldn’t be out of the blue for Miles to do so either. But as aforementioned, that’s not happening when white writers are writing Miles Morales’ character.
The word “nigga” exists almost as an antithesis to whiteness in a sense. Derived from the original “nigger”, which was used to demean and denigrate Black persons (as well as other persons of color), has been taken and re-appropriated to have a completely different contextual meaning, a reclamation many like to call it. White creators want to make Miles Black yes, but not that Black, or that kind of Black (because in the minds of many non-Black people, that’s a different kind of Black person). They don’t want Miles associated with Black people that say “nigga”, although lots of young Black youth use the word.
The word “nigga” also doesn’t fit the superhero narrative or persona that has been forged by decades of whiteness in comics. “Nigga” is associated with thugs and gangstas in media (which is why characters like Lamar from GTA V can be destructive to the image of Black people), which is a prominent stereotype of Black people, even though ALL KINDS of Black people use the word.
The video game’s audience is everyone who’s a Spider-Man fan, and also people who are into gaming and comic book media, both being white-male dominated spaces. I don’t think that non-Black people should feel at all empowered to say “nigga” with the possible excuse that “oh, but Miles Morales says it in the game though”. Myself and other Black people can relate to the occasional awkward feeling of hearing non-Black friends and strangers say the word. The game and image of Miles Morales, namely Spider-Man, is too prominent for him to just be saying “nigga”, and I think that is largely in part the fault of pop-culture and non-Black people’s love and obsession with the word. It’ll be encouraging the use of the word amongst non-Black people, even if it isn’t doing so directly, and that’s dangerous.
For Miles to say the N-word, it’d have to be done in media made for Black people. Black writers, artists, producers, directors, all of it. The thing about the word “nigga” is that outside of the right context, the word is way too abrasive, and it’s kind of cringe. Miles has the means to say it, but his context is never right, because the world and way in which he’s usually written and depicted never fits right for it. The media has to be able to capture and emanate that Black experience, and the only way that is really ever done correctly is when Black creators are at the helm of said media.
Generally, media made for Black people will be so unapologetically Black, that some non-Black people wouldn’t even bother engaging with it. This often happens because they don’t get it; the plot, the humor, the writing, it all eludes them and goes over their heads. Some people even dislike when this happens, and they tag it as “racist” or “not-inclusive”…
Anyways, this is the only context that I think would be acceptable for Miles to say “nigga”, something where the main folks engaging with it are Black folks, as would be consciously or unconsciously intended by the creator(s).
Until that happens, I think I’ll be totally fine with Miles not using the word at all. There are so many other, super important and unique things about the Black experience and Blackness in general that AREN’T the word “nigga”, and I feel like those can definitely be worked into Miles’ character. There also exist tons of Black fictional characters are Black and exist fully within that Blackness without uttering the word “nigga” at all.
Look at Killmonger, he was a project nigga from Oakland, and he didn’t say “nigga” once in Black Panther.
And neither does Miles Morales need to. But don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a panel in a comic or two where he lets one slip.