A little while back I dropped a link to a series of essays published a few years ago in the Social Text Journal’s Afrofuturism issue. The essays were (and as far as I can tell, still are) free to view, even without access to credentials from an institute of higher education.
I’ve finally gotten a chance to read a few of the essays. One in particular stood out to me: Ron Eglash’s Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian-American Hipsters, a 2002 examination of nerdiness and nerd culture and how that identification is influenced by race and gender. Eglash’s paper is interesting because it presents a historical examination of nerdiness and creates a definitive framework in which to examine how blackness and otherness fits into the nerd paradigm–and also how blackness and otherness, by their natures and the natures assigned to them, don’t quite fit int the paradigm at all. I’m gonna use this post to highlight some of the salient bits from Eglash’s paper and tie together his particular examinations of black nerdiness, black cool, and his positing Afrofuturism as a new sort of safe space for the black nerd.
We all know the markers of nerd identity…well, at least, we know those that TV and Film tastemakers insist upon bludgeoning us atop the head with pretty consistently with each new television and film cycle. Nerds are socially awkward, dedicated to obscure or fringe interests, are physically unattractive, and possessed of higher than normal intellectual capacity. Eglash finds that these markers, especially dedication to interests both scientific and obscure, go all the way back to the Middle Ages. In an era characterized by enlightenment of thought and action, both people of science and members of the clergy dedicated themselves to higher order thinking and scientific prowess. This dedication (obviously) led to these people becoming pasty, woman-forsaking, science-loving weirdos who probably were the main recipients of Middle Ages style swirlies from the knights and men-at-arms that served as analogues to Jocks and cool kids (the battle rages on!).
Continuing on up to the rise of the 20th century, our humble species advanced in science at breakneck speed. Nerdiness never waned, and interest in technology and technological advances manifested as a nerd-identifier. Boys (and I’m sure some girls) in the early 20’s geeked out on tinkering with radios. Eglash uses a quote from Samuel Delany to emphasize this particular phenomenon:
“The period from the twenties through the sixties that supplies most of those SF images was a time when there was always a bright sixteen- or seventeen-year old around who could fix your broken radio. . . . He’d been building his own crystal radios and winding his own coils since he was nine. . . . And, yes, he was about eighty-five percent white.” (51).
But as we neared the 21st century, nerdiness became more niche. Nerdiness was placed directly outside of the normative view of masculinity. Nerds, who were possessed of a more “esoteric” technological knowledge, didn’t truck in the conquering technologies (DYNAMITE! TRACTORS! M-1 RIFLES! ‘MERICA!) that were hallmarks of real manliness. Thus male nerds (and again, here I assume female nerds as well) were viewed as sexually diminished social outcasts–basically MOLE PEOPLE (I mean, Eglash didn’t say that last one verbatim, but it’s heavily implied).
The fun begins in comparing nerdiness to blackness when you look at classical definitions of blackness that were held by those awesome scientific and evolutionary racists (Meiners and Cuvier, to name a couple), Really Smart White Men who took Blumenbach’s work and used it to undergird their own racist scientific beliefs. Let’s look at some of those, since I’m pretty sure I haven’t made you angry in this post yet:
The Negro race … is marked by black complexion, crisped or woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose. The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism.
Here’s some Meiners:
The more intelligent and noble people are by nature, the more adaptable, sensitive, delicate, and soft is their body; on the other hand, the less they possess the capacity and disposition towards virtue, the more they lack adaptability; and not only that, but the less sensitive are their bodies, the more can they tolerate extreme pain or the rapid alteration of heat and cold; when they are exposed to illnesses, the more rapid their recovery from wounds that would be fatal for more sensitive peoples, and the more they can partake of the worst and most indigestible foods … without noticeable ill effects
And finally, Voltaire:
It is a serious question among them whether the Africans are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence. A time will doubtless come when these animals will know how to cultivate the land well, beautify their houses and gardens, and know the paths of the stars: one needs time for everything.
I bring these up for a reason. Blumenbach’s research was eventually used to categorize humanity on a sort of ladder. Europeans were on top of the ladder, Asians in the middle, and Blacks were at the bottom, being possessed of the least amount of humanity. Eglash gives a name to these postmodern racial beliefs where it concerns blacks: Primitivism. (He also calls the racial attitudes concerning Asians Orientalism.) Primitivism’s position was one of “making a group of people too concrete and thus ‘closer to nature’—not really a culture at all but rather beings of uncontrolled emotion and direct bodily sensation, rooted in the soil of sensuality.” This thought is the basis of the hypersexual, anti-intellectual view of Africans and people of the diaspora.
So we have this framework, this definition of nerdiness as hyper-intellectual, de-sexed, non-masculine, anti-social, meek and mild, and this definition completely flies in the face of the popular view of blackness (and PLEASE don’t anyone come in the comments saying that this isn’t still a widely held view). It’s a wonder that any black person was ever able to become a nerd of any sort! But Eglash contests this very idea using differing examples of black nerdiness. He calls them exemplars. I consider his examples to be Exemplars of Black Cool.
On Black Cool
“Allah taught me mathematics.” – Malcolm X
I think it can be universally agreed upon that nerdiness currently occupies an awkward space in popular thought and discourse. Gone are the times where nerds are socially awkward outcasts–or rather, gone is the time when that particular classification is a bad thing. In fact, the new nerdiness is marked more by people writing surly manifestos about how angry they are that pretty much everyone’s a nerd now. Their frustration is sort of understandable. Being a nerd used to be kind of like an exclusive club, with all these fun activities and awesome in-jokes. But now, everyone wants to be (and importantly, can be) a part of the club. The authors of those articles think that it’s just not fair that people get to be in their club without having put in the time being ostracized and ridiculed for their interests, indeed, for the very fact that they exist–for their very personhood.
To get back on topic, one of the longstanding social characterizations of blackness is of how cool blackness is, and how cool black people are. And it’s true. What’s that? No, I’m definitely not biased!
Eglash puts forth a few examples of black nerds and the how these people are examples of the broadening of a longstanding narrow definition of nerdiness. However, when I read his examples I was struck at how these individuals at once empasized both the hallmarks of nerdiness and the stylistic verve of black cultural cool.
The first exemplar of black nerdiness/Black Cool that Eglash presents is Malcolm X. Eglash cites Malcolm X’s insistent intellectualism through determined self education, his horn-rimmed glasses (indeed, his “personal style as a whole”) and his struggle to come to terms with a black identity that seemed more burden than benefit as biggest contributors to his nerd identity. Malcolm X professd an affinity for learning, a talent at debate, and an uncanny skill at unraveling the secrets of numbers. In fact, it is this last quality that cements Malcolm X’s nerdiness for Eglash. “By invoking the abstract rationality of math,” he says, “Malcolm stood in shocking contrast to primitivist expectations of white America.”
Even his adopted name was a testament to this contrast. He took the surname “X” because “X stands for the unknown, as in mathematics.”
But in X we see a dedication that comes out of his wrangling with his blackness, and a stylistic and activistic reach that touched, and continues to touch, the lives and minds of black people of all stripes, both nerds, and non-nerds. This reach, this voice, his insistence on integrity and combating injustice by any means necessary is a manifestation of Black Cool.
Another exemplar that Eglash gives us is one who is probably the most easily identifiable black nerd of this, or any other era: Steve Urkel. Urkel himself practically embodies the uncool nature of the nerd. Still, even with all of the hallmarks of nerdiness, Urkel has an appeal that is derived “from a combination of popular American fascinations: on the one hand, opposing the myth of biological determinism, on the other, continuing the myth of Horatio Alger, who in this case must pull himself up not the financial ladder but the social status rungs of youth subculture.”
Urkel’s space is fairly unique. He’s a genius, a technological wizard that even wrangles out a mechanical way to shed his “uncool” persona–he literally goes into the machine a nerd and comes out a casanova (and in some cases, as an even more hypermasculine ideal.) He positively embodies the nerd in its fullest extent, but holds on to black cultural identifiers. Eglash compares his uber-nerdiness to the black characters on various iterations of Star Trek, pointing out that very few of the blacks and black aliens featured therein are allowed to achieve peak nerdiness. (Freakin’ Worf, man.) Urkel’s nerdiness is such that it becomes his cool, he uses it to completely cast off all the stigma of his nerdiness before realizing that he’s better off just being his nerdy self.
Samuel L. Jackson is also cast as an exemplar. His entry into film was characterized by roles as drug dealers and drug addicts (obligatory Gator Dance reference), but as he found more freedom to exist in different roles, he gravitated toward science fiction. I’m sure that many can recall a role that Jackson’s played in a Sci-Fi film: Mace Windu (a jedi), Ray Arnold in Jurassic Park (a hacker), Dr. Harry Adams in Sphere (a mathematical prodigy), and more. In each of these roles, his nerdiness is faithful–in Sphere he even causes the ship to run aground because he can’t stop reading Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In that role he gives us the exact sort of social blissful detachment that we’ve come to expect from nerds of all stripes. And his real life nerdiness can’t be understated–Mace Windu’s role originally called for a white actor, but Jackson convinced Lucas that he was fit for the role, even expressing a measure of control in the character’s death–Jackson didn’t want Windu to go out “like some punk“.
In all of these exemplars we see one thing: they are transmitters of a larger black culture and black cultural signifiers. Each one of the examples is famous for being black, and being black alongside being something else–in this case, a nerd. Black Cool’s true power is that of reach and influence–when we look at music or fashion popularized by African Americans, we see a global pattern–the reach of the African American is oft copied, appropriated, and fetishized. One only has to look at the recent Harlem Shake and Twerking debacles to see the truth in this. But even in embracing Black Cool, we have to wonder whether it has a place in the existing nerd paradigm.
Blackness and black people are largely considered as a possessing at least a type of coolness. But even with natural coolness, black and blackness are not completely welcome in many nerd or geek structures–if the structures themselves are not outright hostile, they are dismissive and oftentimes omit nonwhite concerns and experiences. Racially antagonistic attitudes in these communities can sometimes alienate those who consider themselves black nerds from nerd culture at large. Black nerds also face intraracial hassles, because although “the figure of the black nerd contradicts the normative opposition between African American identity and technology, it does so only by affirming the uncool attributes of technological expertise.” We often see this manifested in the lamentations of many “African American students and teachers whose interest and identification with science and technology lead to accusations that they are ‘acting white.'”
Underlying this effect is the assumption that black cool is compulsory and, ultimately, manifests with a sort of sameness. This is patently untrue. Black Cool functions independently of its social construction, and varies as much and as frequently as black people themselves do. Black Cool is as much defined by scholar identity and love of intellectual pursuits as is it by hip-hop, fashion, and “keeping it real”. The solution to this seeming dichotomy of black nerdiness and black cool, Eglash argues, is “to challenge the ways in which nerd identity itself is constituted” instead of challenging the aspects of blackness and black nerdiness that don’t fit so snugly into normative constructions of nerdiness.
When you consider the dichotomy that is existing as a black nerd, It seems that there aren’t a lot of safe spaces for the unfortunate souls that identify as such. BUT WAIT! Enter: Afrofuturism.
“Most people go blind in blackness. I have a fire in my eyes. I have that whole collapsing sun in my head, my visual tectum shorted wide open, jumping, leaping, sparking. It’s as though the light lashed the rods and cones of my retina to constant stimulation, balled up a rainbow and stuffed each socket full.” – Nova (1968)
Eglash posits Afrofuturism as the safe space for black nerds. Instead of placing the blame for not fitting into the nerd identity box on inherent blackness, or black nerd identity, Eglash argues that Afrofuturism and Afrofuturist spaces “[challenge] both the implicit whiteness of nerds and the explicit technological absence of both realist and romantic black essentialisms.” The use of the catchall “black nerd”, he argues, is problematic. It thins out blackness as a qualifier for nerdiness, instead “…[leaning] on the crutch of universalism…[assuming] that nerd identity is only racially aligned by a kind of shallow, arbitrary association and is otherwise universally available.”
And any black nerd that’s existed in a mainstream nerd space knows that this is often not the case. Blackness is viewed as either a hindrance to nerdiness or serves as a way to invalidate the nerdiness of an individual. At the very least, it is a constant source of contention between the individual black nerd and nerd culture at large. A cursory examination of Reddit, a place that is, for me at least, where I indulge some of my more nerdy interests, shows how hostile nerd spaces can be for blacks, other people of color, and women. Even innocuous questions are met with white nerd rage and vitriol. And Black Cool is definitely not welcome in these spaces–at least, not when it doesn’t serve to underscore and validate whiteness.
In contrast, Afrofuturism is a space for nerds that embraces all aspects of blackness–and has a healthy appreciation of black history, culture, and struggle. In Afrofuturist spaces, the pursuit and love of blackness and Black Cool is possible, and encouraged:
Afrofuturists blur the distinctions between the alien mothership and Mother Africa, the middle passage of the black Atlantic and the musical passages of the black electronic, the mojo hand and the mouse.
That’s not to say that Afrofuturism doesn’t have limitations. Eglash expressed concerns that Afrofuturism wasn’t street level enough–it was designed and shaped by academics, and thus, could be inaccessible to some non-academically inclined nerds. He also attacked the distinct focus on arts and literature, which contributed to the lack of emphasis on technological mastery displayed in the early stages of Afrofuturist thought and construction. While I am certain that there are more blacks moving into technologically focused industries and emphasis on the same in contemporary black pursuits, I’m not so certain of these innovations’ connections to Afrofuturism (this is your time to shine, commenters. Teach me something.).
Still, Afrofuturism serves as a ideological wrecking ball to the staled and played out construction of whites-only nerd identity, and allows practitioners and followers to douse themselves in blackness, Black Cool, and black nerd stuff while building a healthy dose of pride about their own blackness and nerd identity. And even though Afrofuturism has only really recently started to explode with the rise of the nontraditional medium of information sharing, there can be no doubt that its development has served as a home base and grounding agent for black nerds that might find themselves becoming tired of the narrowness that the “nerd” label drops on them. Afrofuturism grants them the ability to explore the fullness of their human expression and interest without being weighed down by arbritrary labels, assumptions, and racial micro/macroaggressions. Identifying as an Afrofuturist allows the black nerd to furiously challenge the idea of whites-only links to fantastic worlds and dimensions of the past, present, and future.