Brave New World, Comedy, Entertainment, Fandom, Movies

The Rise of the Black Nerd

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Last week I had a piece published on The Guardian’s opinion site about “acting white” and Justin Simien’s debut film Dear White People. In that piece, I didn’t come near to saying what I loved about the film, why I thought it was so clever and the statement the movie makes about the continued reign of black face as a source of entertainment for white folks even here and now in the 21st century. Besides the powerful comment Simien makes at the very end of his film —  almost offhandedly —  about how the corporatization of higher education cannibalizes institutional integrity — the strongest theme for me, which beautifully manifested in the movie’s point of view, posits an antidote for the stereotypes that continue to mire black identity.

The black nerd.

There are countless sites and twitter handles that contain the words “black” and “nerd” — all laying claim to some manifestation of an idiosyncratic, interest-based identity. They include: Black Nerd Power, Black Nerd Problems, Black Nerd Comedy, BlackGirlNerds and the list goes on and on. Specifically, by “interest-based identity” I mean a person’s interests defining them. On the other end of the spectrum, in the context of blackness, exists a degraded sense of a “behavior-based identity” embodied by figures ranging from the “Welfare Queen” to the “gangsta” to the “thug” to of course older stereotypes and motifs like Sambo, Mammy, Jezebel and so forth. Not that there isn’t a black nerd somewhere right now who is reading Tolkien while sipping sizzurp (that’s a Key and Peele skit waiting to happen, btw), but the “behavior-based identity” is characterized by negative things people do whereas the “interest-based identity” can be summed up broadly by a keen absorption of specific areas of the culture.

For example, my dog’s name is Nimoy, yes, after Leonard Nimoy, and I have every intention of naming my son after another beloved canonical figure, though not from the sci-fi universe, let alone a recent century. That’s all to say that this whole black nerd thing is beyond close to my heart; it’s who I am. And I have a feeling it is who the likes of Justin Simien, Shonda Rhimes and President Obama are too, among hordes of others, in our own way…

In his review of Dear White People, A.O. Scott wrote that Simien’s debut plays up the tension between how we all see ourselves — as living, breathing, individual souls and how other people see us: as a caricatures. The “caricatures” Simien employs in his college “satire about being a black face in a white place” represent aspects of the millennial African American experience: the razor-tongued, militant biracial who is torn between being an artist and being a mouthpiece; the square-jawed All-American with daddy issues; the pretty brown-skinned girl who aims to be even prettier armed with a weave and light-colored contacts; and the nerdy, cute, sexual outsider whose disenchantment takes on the shape of an unkempt afro.

Of these characters, the one that the audience most completely understands and sympathizes with is the gay nerd, writer and sci-fi buff, Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams, whose face also appears on the film’s posters and in many of the promotional photos making the rounds. In a dorm full of writers where on paper he should belong, Lionel is the punchline of one homophobic joke after another. Amongst the black kids where you’d think his afro would give him at least a day pass, he just seems awkward. Because Lionel doesn’t belong in this world and neither does the audience, even if some of us have experienced Ivy League posturing, we see how ridiculous and mean these cut-outs impersonating people that Lionel is surrounded by actually are. After all, the audience is not full of cut-outs. We’re actual people, defined by things that we love, not flat identities we give lip service to. Why? Because to be a 3D, likable person is increasingly to define yourself as some type of geek or nerd, period.

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In a recent episode of Black-ish, a sitcom about a black family residing in the largely lily white upper-middle class, the father played by Anthony Anderson is mortified to witness that his son doesn’t acknowledge other black kids, especially other black boys, with a head nod at school. At the end of the episode, however, the father realizes that his son does acknowledge “his peeps” with a gesture. Only his peeps are the other nerdy kids wearing normcore glasses and khakis and the semi-pained expression that they have somewhere else to be. Only that place is not first period class; it’s 5-15 years into the future.

I really like Black-ish and I really like Dear White People because both pieces script subjectivity as the primary way the black experience is, well, experienced. More and more, we’re seeing that experience from the nerd’s point of view. And I’m loving every minute of it because it makes the perpetual outsiders feel like insiders for once, for just being ourselves.  

Black Female Representations, Fandom, Greetings From The Edge, Motherhood, Movies, Pregnancy, Race & Pop Culture

Feeling Prissy

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The Mammy in my bedroom

The one thing I am constantly astonished by is my approaching-Oedipus-level-blindness. Case in point: at the same time I was working on an essay slated to be published next week about how what my grandmother calls “Sambo-black” collided with colorism —  of all places — on my baby shower cake, I was hanging a picture of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy from Gone With The Wind in my bedroom.

Let me explain.

With my baby due practically any week now, nesting, thankfully, has finally started to take flight in my household. Last weekend, when we managed to clear all of our belongings out of the nursery I sorted through a box from my old workspace that was a mix of art supplies and papers. That’s where I recovered the picture of Mammy and without thinking put it up in our bedroom.

For longer than I can remember I have been a Gone With The Wind fan. Though my feelings about the story have evolved considerably since I first fell under the movie’s spell watching it on TNT in all of its technicolor glory in the late 1980s, to reading the novel in 7th grade bedridden for almost two months with pneumonia, it remains one of my favorite movies and besides The Wizard of Oz (another film treasure of 1939) the most instructive narrative for storytellers I have ever encountered. Since I always understood GWTW to be about some of American history’s worst villains — Confederates — and the fact that some of the smartest people I have known who have also happened to be African American women shared in this love of GWTW with me, I have understood my attraction to the narrative and its iconography as stemming from my interest in history, race, storytelling and pop culture. Not to mention I also understand the idea of Mammy, the loving, fat, selfless caretaker of white children to be a white supremacist invention.

Still, it took me going to see the amazing Nick Cave show Made By Whites For Whites at the Jack Shainman Gallery just before it closed this weekend for me to be able to see the forest as well as the trees in my very own consciousness.

Nick Cave, The Jack Shainman Gallery
Nick Cave, The Jack Shainman Gallery

In his artist statement for the show, Cave says that when he began collecting racist memorabilia he noted that all of the objects, from jockeys to spittoons, implied “some sort of service.” Acknowledging that these objects through their mass-distribution were meant to support and naturalize black people as less than human, Cave aimed for his work “to rehabilitate the problematic, loaded object and find a place of relevance and empowerment through reuse.” Undoubtedly, his show is beautiful. And beauty can certainly be empowering. But so is the acknowledgement of a black genius wherever we find them, in whatever guise.

The reason I put a picture of Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy up in my bedroom is because in the perverse world of Confederate hardship that GWTW memorializes, Mammy speaks truth to power, telling Scarlett that she’s like a spider; she also tells Scarlett that her and Rhett are mules in horses’ harnesses. In other words, the white people are the insects, the animals, not Mammy. Of course Mammy’s foil is Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy who famously didn’t know “nothin’ ‘bout birthin no babies.” Nonetheless, Mammy is not the ideal servant. More subversively, in McDaniel’s portrayal, she is the ideal mother because her love is unconditional despite her open acknowledgment of Scarlet’s enormous faults.

Irrespective of how much I’ve read or how many classes I’ve been to or how many labor videos I’ve seen the closer my own due date comes, the more like Prissy I feel.

That’s just the truth.

Though Nick Cave and Mammy are nowhere to be found in the essay that I drafted this week, the idea that I wasn’t immediately hip to the confluence of race, images, history and mothering as floating in the ether of my home and my mind serves as another reminder that very soon the mental fog of pregnancy will be replaced with the sleep deprivation of motherhood.

Black Female Representations, Coupledom, Entertainment, Fandom, Marriage, Review

On The Run Review: I Almost Ran Away

A card-carrying member of the Beyhive, I didn’t have to be baited by divorce rumors and then pregnancy rumors to turn on HBO last night to watch Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On The Run tour. Though when Jay was on stage alone I could have used a pair of defibrulator paddles to make sure I didn’t float away into unconsciousness, I managed to survive the television event that more than anything else bored me. Not to mention it also annoyed me with its use of “This is not real life” and “This is real life” tags to accompany some of the video footage. That the couple felt they needed disclaimers to distinguish their fictitious selves most consistently characterized by their gun toting alter egos “Bonnie and Clyde” from who they really are – unimaginably wealthy people who like hanging out on yachts – speaks to how the persistence of the Illuminati narrative may have gotten under their skin.

The upshot of On The Run: Jay kept interrupting Bey’s show.

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That aside, the times I was genuinely glued to the screen were not when Bey changed the axis of the planet by shaking her ass, even in her bizarre stocking thong thingy; it was when she put on her scorned woman persona and took the audience to church. The two best examples of this were her performances of “Resentment” and the Solange-penned, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” But even swaddled in my blanket of Bey rapture, which the presence of Jay-Z considerably dampened, the church element reminded me some of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. And frankly, how much more evocatively Madonna mixed the profane with the sacred. I doubt that was the Queen’s intention; I’m just sayin’.

Below are two clips of Bey performing the songs that were my favorites of the On The Run setlist followed up by classic Madonna.

My Parents, Personal Narrative, Stuff Published Elsewhere

My Father’s Incarceration And The War on Drugs in The Guardian

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I am over the moon about contributing to The Guardian, especially to have a headline piece in the opinion section that’s an Editor’s Pick on a Monday morning!! Here’s the link.