“Steven Spielberg.” Huh? That’s the response I normally receive when I answer the question “Who is your childhood hero?” In all honesty, he was...and still is. Seriously, if you’re not familiar with the works of the greatest director of our generation, I will grab us Starbucks, come over to your humble abode and we will stay up and watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, and Jurassic Park, in that order. No sleep until you understand at least 1/3 of the magnitude of Spielberg’s influence. But I digress.
The point is that Mr. Speilberg shaped my childhood which has made me into the nerd I am today, I mean, man I am today. We’ll just stick with nerd for the purposes of this article. I’m an 80’s baby and proud of it. It was a beautiful decade filled with never-ending sitcom cheesiness, way too many big hair bands, and iconic films. I was a rail-thin, socially awkward young Black male with crooked teeth and no charisma. So friends were a little hard to come by. It didn’t matter because I always had Peter Venkman and Marty McFly. Lando and Han were the friends I didn't have, but always wanted in real life.
Movies and videogames were my sanctuary for the longest time, but there were other influences as well. TMNT, Marvel Comics, the “Steven Spielberg Presents” series (Gremlins, The Goonies, Innerspace, etc.), and both Star Wars and Star Trek (Don’t make me choose. There is such a thing as appreciating both, dammit!). Man, I was such a huge Saved by the Bell fan, I foolishly thought when I got to high school that it would be like Bayside. It was more like the school from Dangerous Minds. But I digress.
I love Michael Jordan like everyone else, but I didn’t want to be like Mike. I wanted to be like T'Chala a.k.a. the Black Panther. The original Indiana Jones trilogy is what made me love movies in the first place. I provide a background into my youth to reinforce why nowadays, there’s a growing renaissance of “nerd-isms” in popular culture and why I’m appreciating every minute of it. And surprisingly, black culture. By “nerd-isms,” I’m referring to things weren’t generally deemed cool or in demand. I’m 6’3.” I’m supposed to be slam dunking a basketball (I would turn my ankle if I tried) or catching touchdown passes (again, I would turn my ankle if I tried) according to people when they ask how tall I am. And please don’t mistake this as me generalizing. I’m only speaking from personal experiences. Anything athletic is 9 out of 10 the first answer I get. But now, a lot of what I held dear as a kid is resurfacing now and it’s not as rare to see African Americans embracing those things.
What used to be labelled as only cool for us used to be only athletes, rappers, and suave player-type entertainers, more or less. The definition of “nerd” itself has a very negative connotation. “A stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.” Umm, no. We have so many examples now as to why the term “nerd” should be point of pride, even for people of color. To me, "nerd" means original, intelligent, and unwavering. You have comedians like Key and Peele and Cedric Yarborough and musicians like Pharrell Williams (who headlines one of my favorite groups N.E.R.D.) and Childish Gambino a.k.a. Donald Glover who is well-known for his nerd-ish tendencies.
In the new Fantastic Four film reboot, Michael B. Jordan is playing the Human Torch. Since the 60’s, Johnny Storm is a blond hair Caucasian male whose entire body lights up into flame. Mr. Jordan is black. Granted, there was a ton of backlash at first, but the filmmakers were bold enough to stick with the casting because Mr. Jordan has the characteristics that embody Johnny, regardless of skin tone. Only time will tell if this gamble pays off. Our very own president is an intellectual who loves a lot of the very things I mentioned earlier…and he’s the POTUS!
Minority characters in film, television, music, social media are breaking down the walls of nerd acceptance. Comic-Con and its various incarnations draw massive crowds from all walks of life annually and big budget superhero films typically end up the highest grossers of their respective years, beginning with the 1989 Tim Burton-helmed Batman, all the way to this year’s winner so far, Guardians of the Galaxy. That tells you that the mass appeal of what was considered “dorky” all of those years ago is wide and knows no boundaries.
It’s 2014 and it feels great that I can walk out of my apartment with my prescription glasses on, dressed in a Captain America tee-shirt and jeans, walk down the streets of downtown LA, and see all types of cartoon and comic book tees being worn by all races and genders. And we look at each other knowing we’ve come a long way from how popular culture and society used to be. 20 years ago, I felt alone and out of place. Well, I had Urkel but c’mon, I wasn’t going to claim that mockery! Yet now, I’m more comfortable with who I’ve always been…a Black nerd. And I hate to burst your bubble of hope, dear detractors. We are going nowhere…at least until Batman v. Superman, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars VII, or the next great first person shooter is released. Then we'll be in the theaters. Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait…excuse my giddiness. I digress.