It started with the movies. I used to go with my parents to every damn show possible. Alien? “Isn’t 4 too young, Donald?” my mom would say. “He’s 4! What can he possibly remember from it? He’ll be fine” I imagine he retorted. I was not fine. I ended up being afraid of the dark the rest of my childhood. You just never knew if that pesky xenomorph was hiding in the ceiling ready to punch your face out with its tongue. However, with the fear came wondrous amazement, joy, and imagination. Even at that age I imagined myself the hero. That was 1979. I’d already been indoctrinated by Star Wars and I thought I was like every kid in those days; full of spirit, giggles, imagination, and joy.
Then we moved to Texas from the East Coast and I met my best friend for life, who introduced me to video games! 1983. I had an Atari 2600, then he had a Nintendo, and it escalated from there. Dungeons and Dragons, Doctor Who (we’re talking Tom Baker Doctor Who now), radio serials, Star Trek, GI Joe, Transformers. I was hooked, like every kid. It didn’t hit me that I was any different than any other kid, besides being the only black kid I knew besides my cousins. I began to notice I was the odd kid when I started doing the voices of the characters from the cartoons whose toys I cherished. After all, Optimus Prime can’t sound like Cobra Commander and Darth Vader isn’t as intimidating when he sounds like a spastic nine year old. The kids at school would tease which would cause me to become introverted and only share with those I trusted. “You’re a nerd! You can’t be a nerd! You’re black!”
Well, shit. I’m a black nerd. Those were the worst world ever spoken! Ok, not really, but I was a kid. Words stung, yo. When I was 12, I struggled with my nerd/geek desire to still keep and display my toys, but also struggled with the peer pressure to “grow up” and “be a young man”. It was awkward and it felt wrong, but I put my toys away. “Young black men your age do not play with toys! They play football or basketball or do something cool and athletic.” I heard it, even from my mother. It hurt. Everyone seemed to want me to do it the way you’re supposed to. I wonder if I would have faced such pressure were I the innocent looking white kid like my best friend. Would I have gotten more of a pass? People tease and ridiculed the white geek kids too, but they always had a click or group they could fall into that looked like them, sounded like them, and didn’t get suspicious looks when they went somewhere together as a group.
So I stopped. I played football in middle and high school…until I discovered comic books. Then it was another obsession. I got a job just to pay for them because my exasperated mother was not gonna pay for “One more damned comic book!” (I find out years later that she was a geek growing up too in an even harder time for black nerds. She had her own comic collection. We would watch movies together and nerd out in later years) I spent half my life in the comic shop. I felt at home, but I was usually always the only black guy in there, reading stories about white, homogenous heroes saving the world. I always wondered why there weren’t more. Where were the people who looked like me?
As I got into my twenties and turned my attention to trying to reach for a career in media, I started to really understand that I was an anomaly. The creators and artists who made the fantastic universes I would get lost in wrote and drew what they knew. They were majority white, and even more majority male. I was an exception to the standard geek rule. So that meant I was in an even more exclusive club. I had panache. I was cool by virtue of my rarity, like an Action Comics #1! The rest of these guys were just silver foiled, variant covered 1991 X-Men #1’s! I started to find heroes like Luke Cage, The Falcon, Spawn, Cyborg, Bishop,John Stewart Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter (dammit, he’s no Martian, he’s a Space Brutha) and Deathlok. Men who looked like me (except Deathlok, that bruh got jacked up!) rising up and being the hero of the story; fighting injustice. Being a black hero became so damned cool, they went and made honky Nick Fury into Shaft!!!! I still love that one, especially now that he’s a fan favorite.
Now I’m in my early 40’s I see a subtle shift. I take pride in the fact that Dwayne McDuffie (RIP) is one of the most revered writers and creators ever in comics. These days my extended family and many of my friends still don’t quite get the level to which I nerd out and I don’t bore them to sleep with my obsessions, but they see my happiness and they get that. Though they usually stop listening after I start discussing the scientific reasoning behind Superman’s powers or why Batman is still better (He’s the God Damned Batman!). Now that being geeky is a mainstream, popular thing, I’m pleased. It’s a Golden Age! Now that it is mainstream means that more and more young black men and women will discover the wonders of geekdom and not be faced with being so alone in a crowd, if you get what I mean.
I used to feel like the odd man out, but now I don’t feel so awkward as I attend comic cons. I feel like an attraction, but in the best, most positive way possible. Maybe that’s maturity and learning to accept who I am and not worry all that much with other’s impressions. I feel like I’m the voice there to keep it honest and not let things stay the way they have been. I’ve picked up the mantle and I’m one of the trailblazers now!
I was totally a nerd before it was cool.
Damn, does that make me a hipster? I do have a Chewbacca beanie…..