Make us your home page

The Feed

What you're talking about today

The rise of the black nerd: How my people are taking over pop culture



blacknerd-kanye3.jpgMy name is Eric Deggans, and I am a black nerd.

We're a little different than the white guys you've seen in Revenge of the Nerds movies and the Big Bang Theory. Once we were caught between expectations from white folks that we should be cooler than we were and disappointment from black folks that we liked Star Wars and computers rather than (or alongside) hip hop and sports.

But these days, the worm has turned and black nerds rule pop culture -- the ultimate story of triumph over the bewilderment of two cultures.

I can't remember when I first had this thought. Perhaps it was watching Kanye West, a pipsqueak music fanatic raised in suburban Chicago who first burst on the scene wearing argyle sweaters and Polo shirts while turning knobs in the recording studio behind cooler names like Jay-Z. Now he's in every gossip and fashion magazine with Kim Kardashian, the hottest star in reality TV, on his arm.

Or maybe it was seeing comedy nerd Jay Pharoah — a guy whose huge stable of impressions betrays long hours practicing in front of a mirror instead of living a life — take a featured role on Saturday Night Live imitating the president.

blacknerd-harrisperry.jpgMSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry is the first full-time professor to also serve as a cable news anchor, leading her self-titled show on weekends and teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans. She's so wonky and academic, her nickname and hashtag for the show is #Nerdland.

Cable TV currently features two huge showcases for comedy nerds; with former Mad TV cast members Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Comedy Central's sketch comedy show Key and Peele, while San Francisco-based comic W. Kamau Bell leads his own bracing showcase for political humor on FX's Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.

blacknerd-totallybiasedbell.jpegAnd there is the ultimate example of black nerdism: our first black president.

It's a heady time for us black nerds: When even streetwise comic D.L. Hughley is putting on thick, black hornrim glasses and talking politics, while knockout beauties Aisha Tyler and Rosario Dawson are forever letting their nerd flags fly as gamer and science fiction fans, you know we've turned a pop culture corner.

How did we get from a time when Steve Urkel was the butt of every joke to the moment when glasses-wearing nerds like Kamau Bell were making them?

"I've just been being me for my entire life," said Bell, whose late night politics and comedy show is godfathered by Chris Rock. Even he didn't notice the black nerd trend until he was included in a Facebook group, against his will, called "Blerds" (a contraction of "black nerds").

"I was like, really? Is that what I'm doing?" he said, laughing. "Anything that promotes alternative black thought in America is a wonderful thing and people are often better able to understand something when there's a cute name for it. So, okay, I accept that." 

blacknerd-andre-meadows-podcastimage_275659.gifStill, comic Andre Meadows -- who has turned his status as a black nerd into a branded YouTube channel, Facebook page, website and more -- said the black nerd is on the verge of becoming into own anti-stereotype.

For white folks, its the cool black best friend found in TV shows such as Happy Endings and Ben and Kate; for black folks its the suave Afrocentric guy who can quote Malcolm X, the Roots and Jill Scott.

Meadows speaks from experience; he recalled being attacked once when one of his videos surfaced on a site where other black commenters saw his as the wrong kind of black nerd. "They were mad because I was the goofy, dorky black nerd, whereas the black nerd that most people are thinking of now is Afrocentric, sophisticated, suave and cool," he said. "The kind of guy who can sleep with a white woman and people won't get mad."

Still, both Bell and Meadows agreed on one thing: Our current president helped spread the notion that there was another way to be cool in pop culture.

"(President Obama) certainly was a nerd; you can't be a black guy at Harvard and not be a nerd," said Bell, laughing. "But he's also so clearly at home in himself and comfortable, he expands what it is to be cool in America. When he's getting his picture taken with Beyoncé and Jay-Z and they look as excited as he is, it sort of expands the definition of what it is to be cool." 

Here's a quick video sample below of black nerds through history...


[Last modified: Monday, October 22, 2012 7:14am]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours