By pushing back against centuries-old stereotypes, a historically overlooked community is claiming space it was long denied.
OMAR HOLMON WAS in high school when his mother sat him down for the talk. “I thought we were having the talk about being Black in America,” he recalls. “Oh, no. You already know all that,” she told him. “I’m talking about you being such a big nerd!” In Holmon’s room, in the dresser drawers where his clothes should have been, he kept sequentially ordered issues of Daredevil and Green Lantern comics. He watched “Daria” and “Samurai Jack.” He played Mario Kart. This was in Hackensack, N.J., in the early 2000s. Omar’s mother feared her son might never find a date.
Two decades later, Holmon, now 36 and based in Brooklyn, is happily married and the co-founder, along with William Evans, 41, of the website Black Nerd Problems. Their book of the same title will be published this summer. Both projects excavate the territory of nerd culture — comics, anime, e-sports, tabletop gaming, science fiction, fantasy and more — from a Black perspective that the broader nerd community has historically overlooked or, worse still, outright attacked.
The pair are part of a new generation of Black nerds (or “Blerds,” as it is sometimes styled, a portmanteau of “Black” and “nerds”): critics and creators, scholars and social influencers, artists and activists who are shifting the culture in the years following the election of Barack Obama, America’s first Black and Blerd president, by centering unexpected stories of Black characters. Jordan Peele, a self-proclaimed Blerd, has lately exercised his influence, built by advancing the horror genre in film through “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019), and with his reimagining of the classic sci-fi television series “The Twilight Zone” (2019-20). The director Ava DuVernay is also delving into science fiction and fantasy, adapting both Octavia E. Butler’s novel “Dawn” (1997) and DC Comics’ “New Gods” (1971) for the screen. Marvel Comics has in recent years embraced Black characters — witness the forthcoming Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” starring Anthony Mackie as Falcon — as well as Black creators like the director Ryan Coogler, who is working on a new Wakanda series and a sequel to “Black Panther” (2018), which is scheduled to be released next year. Newly visible in part due to the remarkable commercial success of that franchise, as well as to critically acclaimed television series like HBO’s “Watchmen” (2019) and “Lovecraft Country” (2020), the Blerd moment seems to have only just begun.
But being Black and nerdy hasn’t always been so glamorous. Black comic book fans report suspicious white store owners trailing them in shops. At Comic-Cons, Black cosplayers are sometimes chastised by officious gatekeepers, told that their chosen characters aren’t supposed to be Black. More ominously, Black gamers hear the N-word hurled casually during online sessions and sometimes find themselves targeted for attack when revealed or presumed to be Black. In addition to these outside pressures, many Black fans of fantasy, science fiction and other genres erroneously coded as white spaces face ridicule from Black friends and family members who see what they do as “acting white.”
The tension is this: Black nerds unsettle the myth of a monolithic Blackness. In an American imagination that has historically stereotyped Black people as alternately ignorant and emotional or sexualized and cool, the nerd — smart and cerebral, unsexy and decidedly uncool — creates cognitive dissonance. Not only do Black nerds confound racist stereotypes, they also pierce the protective orthodoxy of Blackness passed down in the United States across generations. Under slavery and Jim Crow, Black people maintaining — or at least projecting — unity proved a necessary protective practice. Strength came in numbers, as did political influence and economic clout. What would happen if we all announced publicly that we were going to start doing our own human thing without regard to the group? Few considered it worth the risk to find out.
But who in 2021 benefits from thinking of Black people as just one thing? Certainly not Black individuals, who, like all individuals, are complex amalgams of shifting affinities, of inherited and chosen identities. And certainly not Black nerds, whose very existence is often rendered invisible because they present an inconvenient complication to a straightforward story of Blackness in America.
SAY THE WORD “NERD” and it conjures Coke-bottle glasses and pocket protectors, the kind worn by the studious and socially awkward white guys (and they are nearly always white and nearly always guys) bullied in 1980s cult classic films: think Robert Carradine’s Lewis Skolnick from “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984) and Crispin Glover’s George McFly from “Back to the Future” (1985). This is Nerd 1.0. The Nerd 1.0 archetype has its variants, perhaps the most prominent being the East Asian nerd (the flip side to the stereotypical martial-arts action hero), portrayed with model-minority bookishness, either sexless or sex-crazed, like Gedde Watanabe’s Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles” (1984). Though Nerd 1.0 might seem easy to dismiss as an all in good fun comic figure, its influence has lingered in the typecasting faced by both East Asian and South Asian actors to this day. But over the decades, the term “nerd” has undergone a dramatic evolution — some would call it a corruption. Once the defiant moniker of the brainy social outcast, nerd is now claimed by anyone with a deep affinity for some area of knowledge. Call it Nerd 2.0. Sneakerheads are nerds now, obsessing over tooling and the vicissitudes of the secondary sales market. So are cannabis connoisseurs, with encyclopedic knowledge of different strains and the legal highs they produce. “Nerd is not an othering anymore; it’s a spectrum,” Holmon says.
The most famous fictional Black nerd, Steve Urkel, portrayed for nine seasons starting in 1989 by the actor Jaleel White on the sitcom “Family Matters,” is decidedly Nerd 1.0. He wears high-water pants with suspenders; his enormous eyeglasses are secured to his head by a strap. Clumsy and irrepressible, his running gag relies on him disrupting the lives of his neighbors, the Winslow family, then uttering his high-pitched, nasal catchphrase, “Did I do that?” Urkel is equal parts exhausting and endearing, which explains how he went from a supporting character to the star of the show. Reprise his role in 2021, however, and you’d likely fill it with a Nerd 2.0: perhaps a young Questlove, the polymathic drummer of the Roots, or a teenage Daveed Diggs, the Grammy and Tony Award-winning actor and recording artist who now has a recurring role as an Urkelian interloper on the family sitcom “Black-ish.”
Better yet, think of Issa Rae, the 36-year-old actress, writer and producer behind the hit HBO series “Insecure,” whose fifth and final season will air later this year. The protagonist, Issa — Rae shares a name with her character — seems like a Blerd avatar: a Stanford graduate working at a nonprofit in her hometown of Los Angeles who is at once awkward, quirky and cool. However, when asked by a journalist from The Atlantic in 2018 if she saw her character as the natural Blerd evolution from Urkel, Rae pushed back. “I never identified my character as nerdy, because the classic cultural nerd — the gamer, the ‘Star Wars’ or sci-fi or ‘Lord of the Rings’ geek — just never interested me,” she said. Instead, she sought to explore the “in-between” of Black characters — the complexity and peculiarity often denied by the polarized perspective on Black people as cool or corny. Rae’s reluctance to accept the Blerd designation for herself or her character doesn’t stop Blerds from embracing her and her show: “I don’t know if she realizes that she made such an impact on Black girls who call themselves nerds,” says Jamie Broadnax, 40, the Virginia Beach-based founder of the online community Black Girl Nerds.
Nerds are the cool kids now, and it’s not because they’ve changed all that much; after all, a big part of being a nerd is a stubborn insistence on the eccentricities of one’s passions and personality. Rather, cool itself has changed. In an increasingly fragmented media landscape, monastic dedication to a narrow interest is no longer stigmatized. Communities build up around affinities, connecting people through social media platforms that foster the rapid exchange of ideas — or, more succinctly put, are conducive to nerding out. Coolness also follows power, and great power now rests in sectors of society, particularly in technology, where nerds have traditionally thrived.
“Nerds hold the keys to the castle,” says Terril “Rell” Fields, the 33-year-old founder of the Raleigh, N.C.-based blerd.com. Growing up, Fields was “almost stereotypically nerdy.” Before he got contact lenses for sports, he wore huge glasses with one lens thicker than the other to correct the vision in his weaker eye. “And I was at the lunch table with the kids playing Magic: The Gathering, which did not help at all,” he says with a laugh. When he launched blerd.com in 2019, after assembling a team of fellow Blerds, it marked a culmination of thousands of hours spent gaming, flipping through comic books and watching anime. “Blerds still love the same types of content [as other nerds],” he says. “A Blerd just sees nerd culture through their Black cultural lens.” They may notice things that other nerds don’t: a Black or brown supporting character in a comic book that might otherwise be forgotten; a political allegory of race and democracy played out in a sci-fi television series.
When it comes to finding distinct points of entry into nerd culture, Blerds are not alone. Disability, long a theme in these realms — whether through Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men or neurodiversity in science fiction — is also a defining facet of the new nerd culture, with fans pushing for accessibility in gaming and greater inclusion at Comic-Cons. Queer and trans nerds are also increasingly visible and, along racial lines, Indiginerds claim space, as do Latina and Asian subsets of the universe. Bao Phi, who grew up a self-described “Vietnamese ghetto refugee nerd” in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, wrote a column in 2010 for the Star Tribune that inspired the website thenerdsofcolor.org, which now brings together a cross-racial coalition.
But for many of the Black nerds coming of age in the past two decades, the term “Blerd” was a lifeline. It cast a protective spell, offering a covert way for Black fans to connect and communicate in spaces that were often hostile to their presence. “Most of us calling ourselves Blerds were simply trying to find each other,” explains Karama Horne, the Brooklyn-based founder of a website called theblerdgurl. Before the advent of Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010, Horne frequented message boards and other virtual spaces where she often witnessed women and people of color being bullied. Once the word “Blerd” gained currency, it was possible to support one another against racist and sexist trolls. Ultimately, the word came to define a movement, one that was hiding all along in plain sight.
A BRIEF HISTORY of Black nerds dates back to before the Revolutionary War, to Phillis Wheatley, the young Black woman born a slave who was the first person of African descent to publish a collection of English poetry — only to have to prove her authorship, as well as her knowledge of the works of Homer, Ovid and Virgil, to a panel of “the most respectable characters in Boston,” as the 18 white men described themselves in a note “To the Public” that introduces her “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” (1773). The Black nerd also lives in the pages of Charles W. Chesnutt, whose short-story collection “The Conjure Woman” (1899) reads like a late 19th-century iteration of Peele’s “Get Out,” where the resources of the Black imagination overcome the sunken place of white mythmaking and domination. And it lives in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952), whose nameless Black male protagonist is a self-described “thinker-tinker” writing the story of his life from his underground lair fitted with precisely 1,369 light bulbs; even the novel’s title evokes H.G. Wells’s science fiction classic “The Invisible Man” (1897), repurposing invisibility as a metaphor for the erasure of Black identity under the racist white gaze.
Back in the 1980s in Mobile, Ala., two cousins — a boy and a girl — spent hours together conjuring imagined worlds. He loved comic books; the Incredible Hulk series was his favorite because, though the boy could never be white like Bruce Banner, he could perhaps turn green like the Hulk. She loved science fiction; Tanith Lee and C.S. Friedman enchanted her, as did Octavia E. Butler, who was Black like her. Fast forward half their lifetimes and the boy, now a 48-year-old man, the stand-up comic and political commentator W. Kamau Bell, has won three consecutive Emmys for CNN’s “The United Shades of America.” The girl, now a 48-year-old woman, the novelist N.K. Jemisin, has won three consecutive Hugo Awards for the novels in her Broken Earth trilogy. “I get goose bumps thinking about it,” Bell says. “The two of us in my grandmother’s house as kids laying on the floor, her writing and me drawing and ultimately clinging together because we didn’t feel like we fit in.” That sense is common to Black nerds, particularly among those who grew up before there was a name to call themselves. “I was in my 30s before I heard the word ‘Blerd.’ And I thought, ‘That would have been helpful when I was 12,’” Bell says. According to him, it’s about “planting a flag.” Blerd stakes a claim for the free and full exercise of Black individuality within the space of a collective identity.
It’s no coincidence that Black creative voices have asserted themselves so powerfully at a time when Black suffering and death have dominated the news: Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, Derrick Scott and George Floyd all cried out “I can’t breathe” before they were killed at the hands of law enforcement. The phrase became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists. Bell hears within those desperate words a call to action for artists, as well. His cousin’s novels, set on distant planets, peopled by beings whose names sound foreign on the tongue, are more than escapist fantasies. “This sort of individualist art creates more space for Black people to breathe,” Bell says. “It creates more space for us to relax and be ourselves. [Then] we can actually stand up and fight when we need to fight.”
Art and activism have often accompanied each other in Black American life. “Every revolution, every evolution, has some type of aesthetic sister or brother movement,” says the artist John Jennings, 50, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, who has illustrated Damian Duffy’s graphic novel adaptations of Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” (2020) and “Kindred” (2017), and in 2015 drew the cover for a lauded collection, “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements,” in which artist-activists explore how fantasy is also a resource for political change. In the foreword, the book’s co-editors, Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown, issue a call to action: “We believe it is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future.”
“The idea of a Black future is still a radical notion,” Jennings says. “Think about it: Before ‘Star Trek,’ the only time you would see Black folk or people of color in the future — well, you wouldn’t. … Were we murdered? Were we dropped in the ocean? We don’t even know.” Afrofuturism uses literature and the graphic arts, music and dance, film and television to imagine Black people into a future long denied them. These recuperative acts are about more than entertainment, though they must also be entertaining; they argue that even imagined futures must take stock of the past. In these Afrofuturist stories, the most inconceivable plot points aren’t invented — time-traveling portals and Rorschach masks — but real. Both “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country” revisit the searing trauma of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in which white mobs killed hundreds of Black fellow citizens and burned the thriving Greenwood district in Oklahoma to the ground. In doing so, both series circumvent linear time, opening up new mechanisms for confronting a tortured inheritance. “A lot of times, we are dragging our pain with us into the future,” Jennings says. By depicting this historical atrocity and recasting it within a salvific Black narrative, with Black heroes ready to fight, these stories offer a way, much like the blues, to transcend pain not by evading it but by making it into art.
The New Negro Movement of the 1920s, spearheaded in part by W.E.B. Du Bois, the political philosopher and tactician (and author of a 1920 sci-fi story, “The Comet”), had the Harlem Renaissance. The Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s had the Black Arts Movement. It should come as no surprise that the emergent political insurgency is taking shape at a time when artists are increasingly drawn to speculative fiction and fantasy, horror and weird fiction as a necessary respite from the unrelenting pressure of combating white supremacy, and as a creative resource for addressing present-day challenges. In an era in which the notion of fact itself is unmoored, and space lasers are not the stuff of comic books but of hateful conspiracy theories, sci-fi and fantasy might just provide the necessary distance from our present conflicts to reimagine a shared set of norms and values — not yet here, but in a galaxy far, far away. “There’s nothing wrong with escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with using science fiction and fantasy as self-care,” says Horne of theblerdgurl. “Having moments of happiness and joy in between pain. That’s us. That’s part of our culture.”
MICA BURTON IS a nerd renaissance woman: an e-sports host, cosplay model, anime aficionado and Dungeons & Dragons player. She’s also fluent in Elvish, a constructed language J.R.R. Tolkien introduced in his “Middle-earth” books, which she put on display earlier this year during her appearance on Narrative Telephone, a web series developed during the pandemic by a collective of gamers called Critical Role. Officially launched in 2015 by Matthew Mercer, Critical Role livestreams D&D games via the video platform Twitch; YouTube episodes have garnered over 288 million views.
Burton, 26 and based in Los Angeles, is not a Blerd, she tells me, but a nerd who happens to be Black. “I’m not trying to assimilate, necessarily, but I’m trying to exist in space without purposefully stating that I’m different,” she explains. This resistance to the Blerd moniker is suggestive of a generational divide, even among those at opposite ends of the millennial band. “I meet a lot of people who are in their 20s and younger who don’t like the term,” Horne says. “They say, ‘I don’t understand why we have to call ourselves something different. Why can’t you just be a nerd?’ I laugh because I’m like, ‘I’m so happy that you feel that there are so many of us that we don’t have to say it anymore.’” Blerd or nerd, the challenge is the same: to be at home in the worlds of one’s choosing. “My entire purpose of my career is to be the representation I didn’t have as a kid,” Burton says.
When Burton was a kid, her nerd tendencies were fostered by a supportive family. By elementary school, she and her father were playing video games together, sharing a passion for fantasy and fighting games. “We played Halo together and I kicked his ass,” she says. “It’s how fathers and daughters work.” Mica Burton’s father is LeVar Burton, who as Kunta Kinte on “Roots” (1977), Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in the late ’80s and early ’90s and the host of PBS’s long-running children’s series “Reading Rainbow” is something like the patron saint of Black nerds. Early on, though, Mica set out on her own path. “She’s always been a ‘Star Wars’ fan over ‘Star Trek,’” says LeVar, 64 and also based in Los Angeles. That stubborn streak has served her well as she’s pushed to clear a path for nerds like herself — a self-identified cis female Black bisexual — in spaces that sometimes don’t know what to do with her or, worse still, are actively hostile to her presence. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to bring it up to people: ‘Hey, if I’m gonna be on your livestream, do you have moderation that blocks the N-word? Because that’s gonna happen,’” she says.
Her father knows the challenge of fitting his Blackness in to places where it isn’t always welcome. Even on “Reading Rainbow,” which he began hosting in 1983 when he was the age his daughter is now, he had to fight to retain the markers of his identity: his earring, his changing hairstyles, the things that defined his young Black manhood. “It’s a part of who I am,” he told the producers at the time. “If you want me to do this show, then you’ve gotta take all of me.” They conceded.
These dogged acts of representation, of taking his effortless Black cool to places where it might be least expected, are part of what makes LeVar an enduring presence in American culture. Today, his podcast, “LeVar Burton Reads,” lends his voice to both pioneering and emerging authors of Black sci-fi and fantasy, from Samuel R. Delany and Nalo Hopkinson to Nnedi Okorafor and Suyi Davies Okungbowa. “It was really my love of science fiction that put me squarely in the category [of Black nerd], even at a young age,” LeVar says. “For a young Black kid growing up in Sacramento in the late ’60s, it was preferable to imagine other worlds and other ways of existing that did not involve racial prejudice.” Like any other sci-fi fan, he was drawn to exciting stories of far-flung galaxies; he was also driven by the urgent promise of a future where he might someday be free within himself.
Watching Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” in the 1960s, LeVar discovered a world more civil and sane than the one he witnessed one station down the dial, where news reports showed footage of Black people assaulted with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. In Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, he and other Black viewers could see themselves as part of a future that seemed far from promised in the present. Uhura represented the first phase of advancement in Black nerd culture: representation. That representation is particularly profound for Black women. “Uhura is my spirit character: a Black woman at the back of a room full of white guys who has to listen and translate everything,” Horne says. “Nobody thinks about what Uhura does. She spoke every language in the universe. That’s Black women!”
Black women continue to act as translators today, helping to bring Blerd culture into the mainstream. You can see this in politics. Stacey Abrams is an avowed Trekkie, and the Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is described by her friend Aisha Francis, the scholar and activist, as the consummate Blerd. You can see it in music. Lizzo, who plays the flute, was a proud band nerd in high school and used that outsider energy to define her distinctive, chart-topping style. And Janelle Monáe once joined Chester French on a 2009 song called “Nerd Girl,” on which she sings, “I’m your nerd girl / Reading comics in the dark / My favorite station’s NPR.” Now she’s the inspiration for Jemisin’s heroine Sojourner “Jo” Mullein in the “Far Sector” (2019-present) comic book series, which reimagines the universe of DC’s Green Lantern.
You can see Black women nerds’ influence most especially on television. Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the podcasting duo behind “2 Dope Queens,” dedicated an episode of their 2018 HBO live performances to the topic of Blerds. “What are you nerdy about?” Williams asks one of their guests, the actress Uzo Aduba, who responds with a rhapsodic reverie on Ms. Pac-Man and Mortal Kombat. With “Lovecraft Country,” the showrunner Misha Green created a Blerd extravaganza, drawing on a predominantly Black cast to imagine a fantasy world still in touch with our own. These Black women creators represent the next phase in the evolution of Black nerd culture, advancing past representation alone to creative ownership. “It’s got to be more than putting a face on the screen, it’s got to be authority,” says Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds. “Black people being in positions of power.”
This inflection point, of Black people in power both in front of and behind the camera, arrived just three years ago. “When it comes to Blerd culture, you have before ‘Black Panther’ and after ‘Black Panther,’” Jennings, the illustrator, says. The power of the film was partly symbolic — the fact of seeing a Black superhero was inspiring for a generation of Black viewers who previously had to imaginatively project themselves onto white protagonists or subsist on secondary characters. Less visible but perhaps more consequential, the film was the vision and product of a largely Black team of creators, led by Coogler. “If there wasn’t a ‘Black Panther,’ we would not have had a ‘Watchmen’; if there wasn’t a ‘Watchmen,’ they would have never given a Black woman millions of dollars to create the HBO show that was ‘Lovecraft Country,’” Horne explains. These successful works of public art and entertainment are matters of personal consequence for nerds — and Black nerds in particular — who suddenly find their passions vindicated. As Horne puts it, “I wasn’t considered mainstream until 2018.”
The triumph of “Black Panther” helps explain the ascendancy of Black nerds today. The film created an opportunity for undercover Blerds to test out their nerdish tendencies in public. Mica Burton witnessed “the feeling of safety among Black people to say, ‘I read comic books. I watch anime. I like Marvel films,’” she says. If your friends were cool with you doing the Wakanda salute, then maybe you could slip in that you still collect Pokémon cards. After 2018, she adds, “we saw a huge uprising of a lot more accounts of Black people on Twitter saying, ‘I like these things!’ and then other people going, ‘I do, too!’ And that’s how communities are formed.”
THE FUTURE OF Black nerds is the future of the retro: a return to the timeworn techniques of storytelling. In a graphic novel or a video game, a Netflix series or a role-playing campaign, you can take things for granted — like racial and ethnic diversity, like equality along the spectra of gender and sexual orientation — that the world beyond is somehow still deliberating. These nerdish things offer freedom for self-fashioning that has historically been denied to Black Americans by a racist imaginary that insisted on projecting Black people in ways that served white supremacist fantasy and power. Black nerd culture rejects the grotesque menagerie of racist stereotypes, as well as the compensatory images of Black cool, by insisting on the full and sometimes messy exercise of human agency. It gives license to be Black and awkward, Black and brainy, Black and free.
For Black Americans, exercising the freedom to imagine has always been a radical act, even a dangerous one. “Black Panther” and “Insecure” and “Lovecraft Country” prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Black stories can have wide appeal among all audiences — and specifically among white audiences. This is not only a commercial matter but a creative one: Black audiences have long had to project themselves into white stories. Whiteness was the default, and Black stories were thought to be compelling only to Black people themselves, or to white audiences seeking a voyeuristic glimpse into an unknown territory. What’s happening now is something different: the ordinary, everyday capacity of assuming that the particulars of Black lives can — and must — be understood as universal, too.
At the end of “Invisible Man,” Ellison’s nameless protagonist asks a bold question: “And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” In 1952, a young Black author giving voice to a young Black protagonist claiming that he might speak for you — whomever you may be — was indeed a wild fantasy. Nearly 70 years later, Black nerds, Blerds and dreamers everywhere are doing the same: daring to speak for a culture that needs their voices now more than ever.