Being a Black autistic kid felt like there were thousands of eyes watching me.
There were the eyes of my allegedly well-meaning mother, afraid to let me out of her sight. There were the eyes of other people’s parents, making sure I didn’t get too close to their kids. There were the eyes of people at church, monitoring my every move for a correctable error. Then school eyes. Then the watchful eye of the law.
It was a level of hyper-visibility that, like all hyper-visibility, never empathized with the person upon whom its gaze focused. They were watching out for me, surveilling me, not invested in my care. If they were, they may have seen that I was vulnerable, victimized, and dangerously naïve.
I’m grown now; I don’t often have cause to think about my Black autistic childhood. It’s rarely represented, so I don’t run into art, music, or culture that leads me to recall its isolation and general weirdness. That’s part of why I found Boots Riley’s I’m a Virgo so profound.
Like many autistics, I cringe when someone asserts autism isn’t a disability but a special ability. Such phrasing seems to view all autistics through the lens of the savant. Either we’re preternaturally gifted in a way that makes us useful to allistics or we’re completely disposable.
Cootie, I’m a Virgo‘s main character, is a thirteen-foot-tall Black teen. He’s spent his youth locked in his house at his adopted parents’ behest. This is in part because he, like many autistics, is hypervisible. Police will treat him as a threat to public safety if he roams around his Oakland neighborhood. His neighbors will stare. He would be the center of attention, whether that interest is friendly or hostile.
Yet his parent’s concerns, however understandable, limit his ability to be young. They deny him even the most basic information about the world beyond his door. They fill his mind with half-truths and whole lies about who they are and his relationship to the world.
While shut away, he rehearses future conversations with lines from Love Island-style reality TV. Filling his days is a challenge. He reads “The Hero,” a comic about a cop-type superhero based on a real living legend.
But Cootie’s invitation into the world comes from a burger commercial. He follows the trail the commercial starts, making friends along the way. At the run-down burger joint, he finally meets someone like himself. Unlike Cootie, Fiona is canonically autistic. Her body/mind moves at lightning speed, so she has to slow herself to move through the world.
Cootie’s a giant. Anyone who passes him understands what’s going on. There’s nothing he can do to hide it. When some youth his age see him, they spread word of the sighting, naming him “The Thwamp Monster.” It’s a reputation that precedes him in any room.
Fiona’s autism and other abilities are something she goes out of her way to mask. Through flashbacks, we learn that her parents spent her childhood distressed by her behavior. They sought, and found, diagnosis. Yet Fiona felt she was a burden; she worked to change the behavior most natural to her.
It’s rare that any autistic characters get a love story that names autism, but doesn’t tokenize it. For Black autistics, it’s wholly absent in popular culture.I’m A Virgo allows Black autistics to be more than those two things at once. It allows its Black autistic characters to be neither superhuman nor tragic.
Not only do Fiona and Cootie find companionship within their relationship, they find their youth. Both were isolated from their family and community due to their differences. Both felt they had to change or hide to please the people around them.
Through their relationship, they come to see how mundane, awkward, and even annoying they are. Being with another exceptional person removes the need to hide. This is sometimes taken to extremes. Cootie’s giant body and 19-year-old boy manners mean that his hygiene is terrible. This is unacceptable to Fiona, who remarks that Cootie’s sulfurous gas may be his “real superpower.”
It’s already clear that Cootie’s black-and-white thinking is a source of trouble for him. The Hero (from his favorite comic book of the same name) is a cop. He also becomes Cootie’s nemesis. It’s hard for Cootie to uncouple the fictional Hero from the cop who wants him in jail. He’s naïve and sheltered. He has trouble understanding that people aren’t only one thing.
Fiona tries to make him aware of the stakes. (She’s far less sheltered than Cootie.) But Cootie is still over-invested in the character that kept him company in his isolation.
It’s unclear if this couple will make it long-term, but I’m a Virgo reminded me of how important representation can be. All Black youth are robbed of compassionate representation. Anything that humanizes them without flattening is well welcome.
I’m a Virgo allows its Black autistics to be somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. That means screw ups, mishaps, and misunderstandings abound. That’s what it means to be nineteen.
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson (he/him) is a poet from Piscataway, New Jersey. He is the author of SLINGSHOT, winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. WATCHNIGHT, his forthcoming book of poetry, considers ancestry as history in the context of the Great Black Migration of the 20th century, familial estrangement, and queer family. He is a 2023 National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow.