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.
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.