Any good story has to be a trilogy apparently. Let’s end on a high note and discuss the rise and influence of the “black nerd”.
I actually started writing this piece the day Jordan Peele won his Oscar in 2018. I started crying and literally whispered: “the Nerds Shall Inherit the Earth” because, the way I saw it, his nerdiness had gotten him the statue just as much as his skill had. And to me it was a triumph for the Black Nerd.
In assigning characteristically nerdy traits: scholarship, diligence, excitement, intensity and in some cases, mastery, to whiteness, irretrievable damage has been done to the black nerd. Because we are not all (I repeat not) Steve Urkle. Being told that the things I loved were ‘white’, that I couldn’t simultaneously love my language and Shakespeare, that blackness was a specific set of traits and stepping outside of those boxes somehow invalidated my black Identity was damaging. I hid what I could (unsuccessfully) and didn’t watch Star Wars until my final year of varsity (sixth year for the folks at home), never walked into a comic book store until I was 22, because I was afraid I couldn’t afford to like another traditional geeky franchise (having proven I was clearly at a high risk). Being a nerd shaped me as acutely as trying not to be one has. So here comes this guy, in the Arts no less, a student of comedy and classic horror, for proof, look no further than his 2016 critically acclaimed cult hit Get Out: a movie clearly rooted in the rich loam of Jordan Peeles horror nerd imagination.
Speaking of Jordan, let’s do a quick deep dive into another game changer: Comedy, Drama’s disrespected sibling. In fact, as genres go, it’s on the lower rungs in terms of respect but has the power to make us laugh,cry and introspect (and launch superstars). How do I know? I can get my grandmother to watch Big Mommas House with little to no persuasion. Is your granny gonna watch The Revenanet or Wolf of Wall Street? Does she care about Leo’s Oscar? Put some respek on Comedy.
Listening to vintage Dave Chappelle and Eddie Murphy (the Raw era) and Chris Rock put me on Richard Pryor (your favourite comedians favourite comedian). Watching Everybody Hates Chris had me to revisiting Martin. Watching Amy Poehler kill it on Parks and Recreation sent me down a rabbit hole that started as a review of SNL alumnus, the institution of SNL itself (the white man monopoly that is Late Night), the science of comedy in general and the influence that sketch comedy has had on the current landscape of comedy. See: Chicago’s Second City, MADtv and the Chapelle show. Which brings us to Jordan Peele.
I loved the Key&Peele show for several reasons: it was hilarious, self deprecating, socially aware, surprisingly nuanced in its approach, well written and acted. It made me realise that comedy is a serious business and an example of what happens when an artform is taken seriously. I enjoyed reading the critical reviews almost as much as I enjoyed the show itself. They’re clearly influenced by, continuously reference and pay homage to the comedy greats that came before them. Dave Chappelle’s grumbles about them “redoing his show” and not giving him credit irritated me to no end. Comedy isn’t a vacuum, take the compliment and your Richard Pryor influences and go. The point is to make something your own.
I adored Get Out and you know it was good because it gave me homework. And just to be clear, I do not like horror. At all. I find no joy in being freaked out and asking myself who dreamed up the creatures (in this case the “creatures” in question live among us making it 10000 times scarier). However, I have seen enough horror classics to recognise a Stan when I see one, mainly because I was in hostel and had little autonomy over my Saturday night entertainment (don’t look at me like that, Supernatural totally doesn’t count). After Get Out I found myself revisiting Rosemary’s Baby, watching documentaries on Alfred Hitchcock and allowing myself to appreciate the genre. Jordan Peele did that. He used the genre he loves and everything he’d learned as a vehicle to tell a story as only he could. The nuance, the social commentary, the homages and fundamentals. The Originality.
Lin Manuel Miranda, notable theatre nerd and genius, wrote a groundbreaking play that literally references a bibliography of hip hop classics, influenced the language around diversity (its not jn common to hear that a piece of art has “pulled a Hamilton” when roles that are traditionally white in origin are recast with more colour) and sneaking its way into language (a Shakespearean feat I will cover at length in another post). His theatre nerd background is as much to blame as his undeniable genius (I’ll dive into this in a future post).
Editors note : no I have not yet watched Us, I’m both scared and excited and fully expect watch it through my fingers.
Ava Duvarney is a student of African American studies. You see it in everything she does and we are lucky that we get to see her tell these stories with her intimate and intentional eye. I’ll never forget her talking about how late she got “started” and how operating in obscurity for so long allowed to take risks and come into her own in a way that would have otherwise been impossible had she been beholden to a viewership. Please see: 13th. Only a nerd with a gift could make a Martin Luther King centric movie without the rights to his speeches and seamlessly write new ones into existence. And this is in no small part due to the visionary nerdiness of Spike Lee that inspired a generation of black filmmakers to find a unique way to tell their stories.
Other notable Black nerds: every hip hop artist of significance studied the greats. Almost every black intellectual you’ve ever met takes periodic deep dives into subjects of little interest to the average humans, Beyonce studied Janet (& Michael) Jackson and the motown legends (while learning to run and sing in high heels I suppose) km her pursuit of world domination. Tupac and Nicki are art school alumns. Issa Rae walked in comedy so she could run the culture, Childish Gambino ran with the literal concept and the new school of hip hop has embraced it. Its no coincidence that Marvel Studios first Oscar wins were delivered to them by two black women who used their formidable culture-defining visionary talents (see: Lemonade, Creed) to bring Ryan Coogler’s vision to life.
I say all of this to highlight two things:
1. Black Nerds are neither obscure nor rare. My theory is that some are more successful at hiding it but the fact that there is such a response to it means that we are more numerous than we appear. We are on the rise because the environment is now ripe for change thanks to the tireless work of the shameless nerds that came before. Were making space, holding doors open and shaking tables.
2. The fact that the game changers were once the traditionally nerdy kids: awkward theatre kids singing show tunes, the kid who’s noses was buried in a books, datmydreabers lost in their imaginations, headphones locked in, cameras attached to hand is no coincidence, they are the nerds that stepped into their light: “it is our light not our darkness that most frightens us… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same” now those humans have a seat at the table.
We are evolving as a culture because of Black Nerds and if you’re hiding your light right now: don’t hide it under a bushel. The nerds shall inherit the earth.
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