A BRIEF HISTORY of Black nerds dates back to before the Revolutionary War, to Phillis Wheatley, the young Black woman born a slave who was the first person of African descent to publish a collection of English poetry — only to have to prove her authorship, as well as her knowledge of the works of Homer, Ovid and Virgil, to a panel of “the most respectable characters in Boston,” as the 18 white men described themselves in a note “To the Public” that introduces her “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” (1773). The Black nerd also lives in the pages of Charles W. Chesnutt, whose short-story collection “The Conjure Woman” (1899) reads like a late 19th-century iteration of Peele’s “Get Out,” where the resources of the Black imagination overcome the sunken place of white mythmaking and domination. And it lives in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952), whose nameless Black male protagonist is a self-described “thinker-tinker” writing the story of his life from his underground lair fitted with precisely 1,369 light bulbs; even the novel’s title evokes H.G. Wells’s science fiction classic “The Invisible Man” (1897), repurposing invisibility as a metaphor for the erasure of Black identity under the racist white gaze.
Back in the 1980s in Mobile, Ala., two cousins — a boy and a girl — spent hours together conjuring imagined worlds. He loved comic books; the Incredible Hulk series was his favorite because, though the boy could never be white like Bruce Banner, he could perhaps turn green like the Hulk. She loved science fiction; Tanith Lee and C.S. Friedman enchanted her, as did Octavia E. Butler, who was Black like her. Fast forward half their lifetimes and the boy, now a 48-year-old man, the stand-up comic and political commentator W. Kamau Bell, has won three consecutive Emmys for CNN’s “The United Shades of America.” The girl, now a 48-year-old woman, the novelist N.K. Jemisin, has won three consecutive Hugo Awards for the novels in her Broken Earth trilogy. “I get goose bumps thinking about it,” Bell says. “The two of us in my grandmother’s house as kids laying on the floor, her writing and me drawing and ultimately clinging together because we didn’t feel like we fit in.” That sense is common to Black nerds, particularly among those who grew up before there was a name to call themselves. “I was in my 30s before I heard the word ‘Blerd.’ And I thought, ‘That would have been helpful when I was 12,’” Bell says. According to him, it’s about “planting a flag.” Blerd stakes a claim for the free and full exercise of Black individuality within the space of a collective identity.
It’s no coincidence that Black creative voices have asserted themselves so powerfully at a time when Black suffering and death have dominated the news: Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, Derrick Scott and George Floyd all cried out “I can’t breathe” before they were killed at the hands of law enforcement. The phrase became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists. Bell hears within those desperate words a call to action for artists, as well. His cousin’s novels, set on distant planets, peopled by beings whose names sound foreign on the tongue, are more than escapist fantasies. “This sort of individualist art creates more space for Black people to breathe,” Bell says. “It creates more space for us to relax and be ourselves. [Then] we can actually stand up and fight when we need to fight.”
Art and activism have often accompanied each other in Black American life. “Every revolution, every evolution, has some type of aesthetic sister or brother movement,” says the artist John Jennings, 50, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, who has illustrated Damian Duffy’s graphic novel adaptations of Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” (2020) and “Kindred” (2017), and in 2015 drew the cover for a lauded collection, “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements,” in which artist-activists explore how fantasy is also a resource for political change. In the foreword, the book’s co-editors, Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown, issue a call to action: “We believe it is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future.”
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