When you think of a black nerd what comes to mind? Urkel, Carlton from the fresh Prince, or perhaps that one black gay guy; from Revenge of the Nerds?
Perhaps it’s Levar Burton from Reading Rainbow, or Levar Burton from Star Trek, or just Levar Burton? Depending on your age you may say, Pharell, or the guy from Gym class Heroes. But are these truly Black Nerds? The first three are characters portrayed by actors who may or may not themselves be somewhat of a nerd, but they are (or were) highly paid actors. The latter are hip cool or at one time hip and cool performers, who’s to say if their nerdum isn’t just a costume they put on to appeal to a certain market. What makes a Black Nerd? For that we have to stretch back to the genus of Black Nerd-dom, arguably one of the most prominent early innovators of the BN archetype would have to be Fredrick Douglass whose look lives on in Cornel West. Born a slave he taught himself to read and taught other slaves, before escaping to freedom. Being the first Black Nerd he taught that knowledge was the pathway from slavery to freedom, Douglass believed that education was the key for African-Americans to improve their lives. This was before the Civil War mind you when most blacks were still in chains literally! He fought for the integration of schools long before it would ever happen, and when his first wife died he married a white woman. In 1872, he became the first African-American nominated for Vice President of the United States, as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket (which of course no one has ever heard of-but sounds like a pretty awesome idea). At the 1888 Republican National Convention(yes the GOP), Frederick Douglass became the first African-American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party’s roll call vote 100 years before Jesse Jackson.
Alongside Douglass, there was W.E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver. One of Carvers most important roles was in undermining, through his multiple achievements, the widespread stereotype that the black race was intellectually inferior to the white race. George Washington Carver famously discovered over three hundred uses for the peanut and hundreds more for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. Much of Carver’s research was in the promotion of alternatives to cotton. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops both as a source of their own food and as a source of other products to improve their quality of life. Among the things he suggested to poor southern farmers were adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes (as a bio-fuel), ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder and wood stain. He also created or propagated about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. In 1977, Carver was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. I could go on and on about people like Carver such as Otis Boykin who invented the pace maker, Granville Woods the Black Edison, Madame C.J. Walker the first female millionaire in America (the first Oprah), or countless others. But I don’t want to sound like my 9th Grade Black History Month report.
The real question is; what happened? How did we go from Dwayne-Wayne and education as a road to freedom to Soulja Boy Get’em? Who by the way was in college when he released his first nonsensical hit single! What happened that took us from “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”, to the glorification of white man playing a fictional Cuban drug dealer as the symbol of African-American culture. I blame the Urkels and Lamar’s (not me although that is my middle name I spell mine with two r’s) and Carlton’s. Because of the often cartoonish and effeminate way intelligent African-Americans were portrayed on television in the last twenty years, this lead to a backlash in the black community to becoming educated. No one wanted to be seen as some buffoonish cartoon character that was possible homosexual. When I was growing up these stereotypes were frowned upon their perceived intelligence was frowned upon by a large group of young black kids. It wasn’t cool to pay attention in school or care about science, you were laughed at and ridiculed and called a Urkel. That along side of the promotion of some type of wondrous “Thug Life”, which was often perpetrated by well educated black men who exploited the machismo factor of inner city kids for their own financial gain. These are methods which the Chuck D would say are used to keep us down. De-motivational techniques aimed to keep African-Americans at a lower educational level than others.
In the last couple of years we are seeing a reemergence of the black nerd as something positive (in certain circles). Thanks in large part to the election of the first black nerd as President of the United States. Yet we are at a crucial crossroads, because simultaneously we are seeing a vicious assault on the very idea of being black by the extreme right wing of America namely public figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. This is pushing young black kids to rebel in two fashions; a) lashing out negatively and coming off even more ignorant than ever before, b) embracing their nerdiness to the fullest. Thanks impart to the internet and social media outlets sites like BlackNerdsNertwork and Afro-Punk help celebrate the outsider nature of being a black nerd. The disappointing aspect is that it is considered to be out of the norm to be black and educated or well-read. This in itself implies and feeds into the notion that most African-Americans are somehow less intelligent or capable of intellectual pursuits than other races. You don’t see sites dedicated to being an Asian nerd or Hispanic geek! In many ways it serves to divide the community more by saying that you are somehow in a different classification for being a black nerd. It also separates Black Nerds from white nerds, but this is the problem with labels of all kinds. Whether it is within sub categories of underground cultures: like punk versus Goth, or Emo versus hardcore. These lines drawn in imaginary sands are visible and serve only those who seek to keep all people divided and under thumb. It would be more elevating on the day when we would not be identified as a Black Nerds but rather as a people.