Hello. My name is Charles Allen Conyers, Jr…and I am a nerd. Not just any nerd. I am a BLACK nerd.
There was a time when being a nerd was not fun for anyone. Whether you liked comic books, or science fiction, or listening to Jazz records from the 1940s, interests like these were often scoffed at as being “weird",” or “odd.” In my experience, the only thing worse than being a nerd was being Black WHILE being a nerd.
The mid-to-late 1980s for me were not fun on a social level. I grew up in a predominately white suburb in South Jersey. By the time I got to Jr. High, the people that I knew in elementary school were changing. We were all changing, but I noticed that things started to get really clique-y. Some people I knew well started to get popular. Their behavior and their attitudes started to change, and not for the better; they were becoming…well, they were becoming dicks. Assholes. Jerks. By the time I got to high school, it was even worse. If you’ve ever seen that movie “Revenge of the Nerds,” it was basically like the first 20 minutes of that movie. It was shitty.
At first, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I was just going about my life doing whatever. I was going to comic book shows at the Days Inn— before the whole -Con thing. I played and programmed computer games on my Commodore 64. I still loved Star Wars, and was excited when Star Trek: The Next Generation came out in my sophomore year of high school. I listened to Michael Jackson and Madonna just like everyone else, but I was also listening to The Smiths, The Cure, The Pixies, Parliament, any and everything from Motown, as well as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, etc. We had an Encyclopedia Brittanica set that I would spend hours reading and combing through. I used to ride my bike to the local library all the time to get books about magic, ventriloquism, movies and art. I wore Converse All-Stars (Chuck Taylors), wore big, brown, tortoise-shell, 80s style-glasses, I was a goofy-looking kid who girls liked as a friend, but never anything more. I was all of these things…and BLACK.
Being Black in the 1980s came with a set of expectations that I defied without even trying. I couldn’t dribble a basketball for shit (I could shoot a good foul shot, that was about it). I wasn’t 100% into rap. I talked “white,” according to the other Black kids. I was Steven Urkel before he was even a thing…which became a think in 1989, in my senior year of high school; that was “fun.”
People didn’t know what to make of me. White kids thought I was weird because they assumed that I wasn’t very “Black.” Black kids thought I was weird because they thought was I trying to act “white.” I was caught in the middle, and got shit from EVERYONE. These days everyone is concerned about bullying. Well, as a veteran of the “Bully Gauntlet of the 1980s,” there was no condemnation for the behavior. You just dealt with it. “High school isn’t forever,” is what my Dad told me. “You’re not even going to remember these people 10 years from now.” All of those things were correct, but didn’t help. In fact, there was only ONE THING that did help me: I can draw. Not for nuthin’, but I can draw pretty damn well. That was the saving grace for me— suddenly, I was elevated from “nerd” to “artsy.” It’s amazing how attitudes change when all-of-a-sudden people find “value” and “worth” in you.
Flash forward 30 years later. I’m still a nerd. My glasses aren’t as big, my clothes are a little better, I have two kids, a super-hot lady in my life, and…comic books are ALL THE RAGE! There are at least 2 movies being released every year for the last 10 years about the characters I used to read all the time! There was a Black Panther movie released last year— ARE YOU KIDDING?! “Nerd Culture” is mainstream! Not only that…but now there’s even a special word for Black folks who are into this stuff: Blerds. Not only is being a nerd while Black “acceptable,” it’s actually cool. How ‘bout THAT shit? Back in the day, I would have never guessed in a million years that we would live in a world where being yourself was actually…fine! But here we are! I even interviewed science fiction author N.K. Jemisin a couple of weeks ago, and had the chance to chat with her a bit about growing up Black and nerdy: it was one of the most affirming moments of my adult life (Yay!):
Being older also has a way of changing one’s outlook on things, particularly when it comes to the opinions of others. If time travel were possible…well, I would try to stop African slavery 😉, but then I would go back to 15 year-old me and tell myself this:
“Look, I get it. You’re surrounded by self-involved assholes who don’t know you, won’t take the time to know you, and would likely bore you to death IF you got to know THEM. Fuck ‘em. Besides, you’re going to go to your 10-year high school reunion in 2000, and you’re going to see what became of these people…and you’re going to laugh about it. And later that night, your dad is going to tell you how proud he is of you that you decided to go. It all works out. On top of that, this experience is going to build character. It’s going to make you appreciate good friends from shitty people. It’s going to help prepare your kids for a cruel, unforgiving world. And one day…you’re going to blog about this and no one will read it 😜”
It’s a glorious time to be a Blerd! I wouldn’t have it any other way.