When I identify myself as a blerd, people often ask me what the term means, as in this exchange I had with a Twitter follower:
When I explain to inquirers a blerd is a Black nerd, their response is usually this: “Why not just call yourself a nerd?”
That question — in different iterations — has been asked of those from the African diaspora for generations:
- Why is there a Miss Black America?
- Why are there historically Black colleges?
- Why are there newspapers and magazines for Blacks only?
- Why are there Black fraternities?
- Why are there Black award shows?
… and so on and so on.
The answer remains the same — Black people have always had to create spaces for ourselves where we are made visible, can commune, and celebrate our accomplishments.
History has taught us that waiting for white, mainstream society to recognize and include us is a fool’s errand. For the most recent example, see the all-white 2016 Oscar nominations.
In regards to nerd and geek culture, depictions in mainstream media are overwhelmingly that of cisgender, heterosexual, white people. Black people, as well as other minority and marginalized groups, are essentially erased from the landscape.
One of the most successful network sitcoms is The Big Bang Theory (2007- ). A main premise of the series is its celebration of nerds. However, all the main cast members are white, with the exception of one (token) Indian actor.
The same goes for the TBS gameshow King of the Nerds (2013- ), hosted by resident 1980s nerd Curtis Armstrong, also known as the character Booger from Revenge of the Nerds (1984).
In addition, see AMC’s reality series Comic Book Men (2013- ), helmed by filmmaker/nerd Kevin Smith.
Indeed, in much of mainstream media, it’s still ridiculously rare to see real-life or fictional representations of Black comic book readers, Black STEM members, Black sci-fi and fantasy fans, Black gamers, Black anime lovers, or Black cosplayers.
I can think of at least two exceptions to this rule: Comedy Central’s hit sketch series Key and Peele (2012–15), and Donald Glover’s character in NBC’s sitcom Community (2009–15). Glover, a stand-up comedian, has even admitted in his Comedy Central special, “I’m a black nerd and that was illegal until 2003.”
Representation does matter.
Look Closer, Blerds Are Out There
While perhaps not featured in Oscar-nominated Hollywood films, in a hit network TV series, or even in moderately successful basic cable shows, famous blerds — who make significant contributions to every discipline and endeavor imaginable — do exist.
Here are just a few:
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a celebrated astrophysicist whose work has helped to popularize science in pop culture. Check out his TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014- ) on the National Geographic Channel.
Aisha Tyler is a character actress, talk-show host, and entrepreneur. She was also the first Black woman to appear as a recurring guest star on NBC’s (again, all-white series) Friends (1994–2004). Aisha is an avid gamer, loves science-fiction, and hosts her popular Girl On Guy podcast, in which she interviews celebrity guests.
Dr. Mae C. Jemison is an accomplished doctor and the first Black woman astronaut to go into space. Dr. Jemison cites her love of Star Trek as her inspiration for joining NASA. She even appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94).
Baratunde Thurston is a renowned comedian, public speaker, and author. Previously at The Onion, he’s now a supervising producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and his book How To Be Black was a NY Times bestseller.
Writer Elon James White founded and edits This Week in Blackness and the Black Comedy Experiment. He has also appeared in the VH1 series Black to the Future and hosts a weekly podcast called We Nerd Hard.
United States President Barack Obama has proudly admitted he reads and collects comic books. Science fiction is another interest of President Obama. He also is the first Commander-In-Chief to maintain an extremely active presence on social media.
Some would also add to this list: writer and late-night host (and magician!) Larry Wilmore, web-series creator Issa Rae, actor Alphonso McAuley, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Yo Gabba Gabba! actor Lance Robertson.
Make no mistake, blerd communities — like other Black spaces — are not about exclusion. These spaces exist to provide the visibility, community, representation, and recognition Black people historically fail to receive in the mainstream.
Who are some of your favorite blerds? Blerds assemble!
Hi, I’m Rod T. Faulkner. I’m a HUGE sci-fi fan and write a lot about it. I also wrote 200 Best Online Sci-Fi Short Films — a compilation of terrific science fiction and genre short films available for viewing online.