Coming Out of the Black Nerd Closet: A Meditation
This week, The Black Nerd has been all over the web. A couple of days ago, the actress/writer Issa Rae premiered her seventh episode of The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl. This web series about a nerdy Black girl and her many humorous situations as a result of her nerdiness has become an instant classic.
By popular demand, Rae decided to extend the series by another five episodes. In order to do that, she had to raise $30,000. She started the campaign a while back, and August 11, 2011 was the deadline. She’s got six days to go, and she’s already raised $35,000—and people just keep giving money. That’s how much we Black nerds love us some Awkward Black Girl. (Click here to see all 7 hilarious yet poignant episodes)
A couple of days ago, Rae published a piece on Huffington Post about the notion of being Black. And she mentioned another web series that I’m now immediately hooked on as well, Black Folk Don’t, which explores the notion of stereotypes about Black folks both without and within the African American community. Here’s the first episode, and I’m pretty sure it will blow your mind just like it did mine.
Then today, I received in my email inbox an article by Salamishah Tillet about the 25th anniversary of She’s Gotta Have It, the quintessential (in my opinion) Black nerd movie. I was a student at Clark College in Atlanta when this movie premiered, and I remember driving way out to Buckhead with my then-boyfriend to see it–and feeling as if I had arrived at the most familiar place there was. Nola was me.
No, I wasn’t that open with my sexual freakiness, and I didn’t have three lovers at the same time (something I’ve often regretted, by the way), but her quirkiness, her creativity, and her lack of shame about who she really was—that’s who I wanted to be but didn’t yet have the courage. Tillet’s article focuses on Black women’s sexuality as portrayed by Nola. But to me, the most important part of the film—and for me, what fuels Nola’s sexual liberation—is Nola’s nerdiness.
At the end of the article, Tillet asks the question, “What happened to black bohemia all grown up?”
The answer is, it went into the closet.
I’ve been a nerd, a bohemian, an outsider, a whatever-strange-something-you-want-to-call-it since I was born, probably even in-utero. My father held a BA and MA from Columbia University, and in the early 1950s, he hung out with James Baldwin and Grace Paley in Greenwich Village. And he dated (and presumably had sex with) many, many White women; let’s face it, dating Outside Of The Race at some time or other is one of the (expected) modern requirements for being a Black nerd.
My mother holds a degree in French from Spelman College. I’ve told this story before, that when I was born, my mother said she looked in my face and saw who I would be; she decided to name me after the French literary master Honoré de Balzac and the political writer Franz Fanon.
I was the youngest child of three, and my sisters didn’t like to babysit so my parents took me everywhere they went. To political meetings. To fancy restaurants (where my daddy watered down red wine and let me drink it). To my father’s poetry readings. And to French films with subtitles.
“I can’t understand what they’re saying, Mama,” I would complain.
“It’s all right, Baby. Just read the bottom of the screen and practice your big words,” she said.
Until I was 14, I lived in Durham, NC, a bastion of Black middle- and upper- middle-class success; at the time, it was rumored that there were 25 Black millionaires in that small city. I attended all-Black schools in Durham until sixth grade, and I was ridiculed for the way that I talked—“like a White girl”—for the food I brought for lunch—sandwiches on homemade (by my mother) organic brown bread—and for wanting to talk about the books I read at home. Books without pictures and longer than 50 pages.
Then, I transferred to a predominantly White Catholic elementary school in Chapel Hill, the next town over, where I thought I would be so at home, but not only didn’t the White kids read any of the books I did or engage in any of my nerdy activities, but also, that’s the first place someone called my hair “nappy.”
The next year, I went to a public junior high school in Chapel Hill, again predominantly White– and that’s the first time I was ever called a “nigger.” And there was a special class set aside for the Black girls in 7th grade, and soon enough, I found out this special class was for “sexually promiscuous” girls. The White lady who taught the class told us that Black girls were “faster” than White girls–even though the first time I ever heard about fellatio was from a White girl in gym class– but as far as I knew, all the Black girls in that class were virgins; I know I was. And after I told my mama about the class, she called up the school and gave them a few choice words. I went back to school in Durham that next fall.
Junior High and High School disabused me of the notion that White People Land was a place where happiness resided for Black nerds, and by the time I entered graduate school, I learned to take each White person I met on an individual basis. But sometimes, no matter how sweet my White friends were, I just got so tired of the surprise on their faces when I mentioned that I had read—not just heard—about Tolstoy. Or that both of my parents had graduate degrees. Or that I grew up in an actual house with flowers in the yard and not in the projects. I got tired of being told I was “exceptional,” because I knew Black folks just like me.
My experience of surprising White folks has continued my whole life. When I strike up a conversation at the grocery store or the mall, and I tell them I’m a tenured college professor I always get “the look.” A couple of times, I’ve even had White ladies–strangers– say to me, “Oh, I’m so proud of you!”
The White surprise is one thing, but the near-hostility from non-nerdy Black folks has been the most painful. I can take the “you think you’re so cute” accusations, because I know I look sort of different, and in a politically incorrect context, the word might be “exotic.” I’m brown with the African-Mestizo features of both my maternal and paternal lines, and I have so-called “good hair,” inherited from my mother’s mother.
But the accusations that I think I’m better than other Black people, those really hurt, and they have followed me throughout my interactions with my folk. So, I have tried to be Black in stereotypically recognizable ways. I let my accent move into the southern drawl of my mother’s folks, and I learned how to be fluent in Black vernacular. I finally got some rhythm and learned how to dance; thanks to yoga, I can still drop it like it’s hot, as inappropriate for a tenured college professor as that may be.
Sidebar: Even in the writer’s community, there are “official” ways of writing “Black,” ways that alert the reader that he or she is about to enter Black People Land. Thomas Sayers Ellis has a beautiful yet ironic poem about this in his extraordinary first book, The Maverick Room.
And I’ve seen some of these writers’ “ways to be Black.” You write poems about history. (I do that.) You write poems about jazz or blues (I do that.) You write poems in the vernacular. (I do that.) But Black people most certainly do not write poems about nature (I do that, too.) Nature writing is a Negro No-No, which is why Camille T. Dungy’s groundbreaking anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Writing is so extraordinary as well.
And I tried to make myself smaller in various ways to appease non-nerd Black folk. I cut my “good hair” down to the scalp. I stopped talking about the books I read. I dated brothers from the ’hood who always seemed to turn on me and blame me for the material lacks of their childhood; if one of those brothers broke fool in a physical way, I never would call the police on them because I didn’t want to be one of “those” uppity Sisters who didn’t understand a Black man’s pain.
It didn’t matter what I did; the charges of “uppity” and “classist” have followed me for over thirty years. But I know now that American people of all races have a hard time acknowledging the complicated ways that blackness exists. And they don’t recognize that nerdy Black people don’t always want to be White, either. We all don’t yearn to jump inside Marsha or Greg Brady’s skin.
Some of us don’t put whiteness up on a pedestal, even if we choose to marry or date or love White folks. Some of us work in predominantly White environments not because we worship White people but because we need to pay bills. Some of us love both “high” and “low” Black culture–even the stankest, most embarrassing parts of that culture. We love our history, even the painful parts. And we don’t believe that in order to be intellectually profound that we can’t eat fried fish on Fridays.
With the hush puppies, ok?
As a writer, I spend most of my time alone, and for the most part, I like it that way. But until this week, I didn’t want to admit that I’ve hungered for a nerdy community made up of folks from the African Diaspora; I love my non-Black friends, but there’s nothing like the cultural shorthand of people who “get” you, who might (or might not) have relatives named Pookie or RayRay, and who recognize the notion of Double Consciousness, and not just by reading about it in The Souls of Black Folk.
But I never thought I would discover a Black nerd community. I knew there were individuals who felt like I did, but I didn’t know we all were lonely and isolated, faking the funk, as it were. This week, I saw that we’ve been pretending. I found my community, and not a moment too soon. It was getting crowded up in that closet, with all my argyle sweaters and whatnot.
Now, I’m out in the open and unabashed. And me and my Black nerdy crew are rolling deep.