“If I wanted to live in Wakanda, would my skin need to be darker?” my son asked. He was 9.
His question shook me to my core. This wasn’t one of those moments when I could respond with simplicity or nonsense. I knew that this question came from something deep inside him, something he’d been contemplating. I knew that my response would likely be words he’d reflect on for the rest of his life.
My boy is the intellectual type. As soon as he was able to speak, he liked to exchange bits of knowledge. He’s 12 now, and talking about the distance of Earth from the sun and the temperature of absolute zero is how he shows affection.
Now that he’s older, we bond through film. He’s become very aware of the medium as a powerful tool for communicating ideas and imparting knowledge. It’s that awareness that draws him to films like “Black Panther” — we’ve spent countless hours analyzing the symbolism and meanings of every scene.
“Why does Killmonger break the ceremonial spear in half?” he once asked. To answer him, I had to dig deep into 19th-century Zulu history. “Perhaps it’s a nod to Shaka,” I told him, referencing the Zulu monarch who armed his men with shorter spears that required close-combat battle.
Such exchanges let me know what he’s thinking about and help keep us close. So when I heard talk that there would be a “Black Panther” sequel, I assumed my son would be as happy as I was.
“Wouldn’t it be legit if we lived in Wakanda?” I asked, hoping to kindle his enthusiasm.
That’s when he asked whether he’d be Black enough to live in the fictional city.
I felt his pain.
As a youth, I had such a fascination with black-and-white films. I preferred them to color pictures. I found my first loves, deep friendships, and nemeses among characters in old movies. In a moment of frustration over my constant monopolizing of the one TV in my childhood home, my father told me that had I met some of the stars of the films I most loved during their heyday, they probably wouldn’t have liked me.
I knew what he meant. He was referring to the difference between my skin and theirs. I was devastated. The thought that Audrey Hepburn might disdain my presence because I was Black carried me to sleep in tears. I eventually stopped watching those films for years.
I know folks may raise their brows at my father for saying such a thing to a boy who just loved classic cinema, but could any of them say he didn’t have a point? As an African American kid growing up, I was already learning the harsh lessons his words implied.
My son is biracial — African American and Japanese. I needed to respond to him carefully, and I couldn’t lie reassuringly to him when I knew he already got asked questions like “What are you?” because of his hard-to-place racial features.
The conversation about race in America is so powerful and complex that it’s almost impossible to explain to a child. The only unarguable fact is that we haven’t solved the issues. Added to this complexity is the fact that my son’s experience and mine aren’t the same. My skin is darker than his. My worldview and opinions were forged in the specifics of my experience as a Black boy and man in America. But whatever wisdom or insight or bias I have gathered from my past feels insufficient to help my son navigate his present.
I had spent years ensuring that my son was steeped in the history of the Black experience, but throughout it all, I’d notice him searching behind his own eyes for himself.
I don’t want to watch my son wrestle with something as elusive as a well-defined identity.
So I have learned to incorporate Japanese cultural tales and history into our research hobbies. I’m prepared to have a more expansive conversation with him about meaning, symbolism, and how cultures interact and connect. Because that’s what my son’s identity is now — something more expansive and interconnected than my Black experience and my black-and-white perception.
What isn’t news to the biracial community is a revelation to me. Something else my father used to say is: “The only way to achieve true peace is to be willing to put your life in the hands of your neighbor.” In essence, it means peace comes from surrender. Not in weakness but in transformation. That’s the aspect of stories that resonates with me.
In order to look out for the well-being of my son, I’ve surrendered to his reality by not imposing mine. Through that process, I have become better equipped to help him explore his world and find himself.
Khalid Abdulqaadir is a Navy veteran and independent filmmaker. Follow him on Instagram @KhalidAbdulqaa1.