As long as I can remember, I have been into comic books. I don’t play video games as much as I used to, I was never into tabletop games and I have a hard time following most Sci-Fi shows. Comic Books are the only constant. They are the things I never grew too old for, tired of discussing or too busy to read. In Longboxing While Black (Part) we discussed how mainstream Nerdom is in the Black Community. You will be hard pressed to find a Black Millennial who didn’t read Batman books or watch DBZ. Many of the memes getting burn on Black Twitter reference shows like Naturo and TMNT.
Considering how normalized stereotypical Nerdom is, why do I cringe when I hear the word? Why is it so difficult to label myself a Nerd? Or accept the title of Blerd? What is the hang up? Walk with me as I explore this. The word ‘Nerd’ isn’t even really pejorative at this point but depending on the context it can make it damn sure feel pejorative. Here’s my history with being a Blerd (it was hard to type that…).
Some History on my Nerd Journey
My interests were a mixed bag. I’m a Hip-Hop head to the core, I would rather watch a Twilight Zone marathon than a Martin Marathon and I’m convinced that The Last Dragon is one of the best films ever made in the 80s. I was in Martial Arts most of my childhood, was marginally OK in football and bad at basketball. Severe asthma and ADHD didn’t really do me any favors in my endeavors in youth sports. I have an encyclopedic recall when it comes to my favorite comic characters, pro-wrestlers and emcees.
I’ve been awkward in public conversations for as long as I can remember. Coming from a home that embraced Black Intellectualism and avoided popular culture, I never knew quite how to dress. I also started school a year early so I am a full year younger that most of the kids I attended classes with. It may seem inconsequential from an adult perspective, but as a kid, a year makes the difference. I was never quite as mature or sophisticated as my classmates, all of these factors made 7th – 10th grade an existential nightmare.
THe TYRANNY of Conformity or I hate steve Urkel
Conforming for the sake of survival is a trait that has been in the black community since slavery. The outliers and freethinkers were the Harriet Tubmans, Fredrick Douglases, Denmark Vessys and Nat Turners. Uniqueness is not celebrated in our community. Our baseline assumptions about what is inherently “Black” and what is “Not Black” has been woven into the fabric of our existence in this country to the point that other races feel comfortable defining and redefining what is considered “Black”. When I say that the word “Nerd” can feel pejorative depending on the context it’s because being a Nerd when I was growing up was decidedly Not Black. Black Nerdom was considered so alien, that it didn’t even exist as a thing. I remember clearly being called a sellout because I enjoyed watching MST3K more than insert Black TV Show/Movie here while being able to quote James Baldwin or Malcolm X.
The best society could do to conceptualize Blerds were Lamar Latrelle from Revenge of the Nerds…..
or Steve Urkel
Lamar got hit with the double whammy of being a Gay stereotype and a Black stereotype but I HATED the character of Steve Urkel. His voice was grating and devoid of all bass, his “intelligence” was destructive, he always seemed out of touch with the more serious racial/social issues discussed on the the show and he created more problems than he ever solved. Furthermore, he became the person every smart Black kid was compared to. As a Blerd, your existence was reduced to the ineffective, pain-in-the-ass comic relief character on the most white-bread “Black” show on TV. The people I know that fit into the Blerd category, do not act or talk like him.
The perceived non-blackness of nerd culture was complicated further by oppressive stereotypes of what Blackness was. This society is constructed in a way which directly and indirectly dictates how Black people how/what they are supposed to act or speak or do. For those keeping score, it’s a byproduct of White Supremacy. Black People aren’t alone in this either, the framework for every ethnic/racial/gender stereotype is rooted firmly in the White Patriarchy’s perception of Otherness. Using the rules of conformity for survival, many groups end up internalizing these destructive stereotypes and the barriers they create.
When I was growing up, Nerd related interests were present in Black Youth Culture. Hip-Hop openly name checked comic books and Sci-Fi. Method Man took the name of Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze and rode a flaming motorcycle in the video for Triumph.
Ghostface Killah took the name Tony Stark and named his first album Iron Man. Wu is not the group of Emcees that reference comics, nearly every rapper worth his/her pen and pad, has referenced a comic book character on wax at some point. It has reached a level of ubiquity that most of the non-nerd world doesn’t notice it.
Every kid I knew played video games and waited the rare Comic Book movie. In hindsight, a lot of my peers consumed the same media, but at the time, it felt like I existed on an island of my own nerdy interests. When I hit tenth grade, I simply stopped giving a shit about fitting in on the surface level and unconsciously pursued my own for of black nerdom by awkwardly mixing the my fascination with the Black Power movement, Hip Hop, Comic Books into a series of personas that I maneuver between until this day.
But what about acceptance??
The acceptance piece is difficult to explain. Like I said, Nerd Culture is mainstreamed and emulated by hipsters worldwide. I have accepted and embrace my interests but organically reject the labeling that comes with those interests. The use of labels effects how individuals are perceived it’s a side effect of living in a society but label are self-limiting and often serve as incubators for poorly realized mental models. Black Nerdom exists at a unique intersection of popular culture. Black People have been the standard bearers or proprietors of everything considered copacetic in pop culture since Reconstruction while Nerd Culture has been at the opposite end of what was considered cool for decades.
Now nerd culture is accepted….superficially… the standard for its coolness is determined by whether you can meet the image of how a Nerd is “supposed” to look, talk or dress, according to popular culture. None of the standard rules apply when it comes to Blerds. In short, according the Patriarchy, high intelligence is a trait all Nerds possess and Black people aren’t allow to be in possession of of high intelligence. I think the biggest issue for me has been that repping nerd culture has been painted as taboo for black people. Enjoying the typical buffet of nerd related interests does not negate my black experience. The two can coexist harmoniously in my world because I realized acceptance isn’t nearly as important the things that give me life.
To be continued…