Charles Fox, Jr.
Confessions of a Black Nerd
My name is Charles Fox, I'm 32 years old, I'm African-American and I am what many folks would consider to be a nerd. A "Black Nerd," if you will. It wasn't' easy coming to this conclusion. I'm not a huge fan of social labels and I wholeheartedly believe that folks can seamlessly navigate in and out of such peer groups. In fact, I think it's a must in order to assimilate into the melting pot and be our authentic selves.
You see, at home I had a loving family who always allowed me to be me. I could be a shy, quirky, awkward, nerdy kid and no one batted an eye. Among family, I could enjoy all things typically (and incorrectly) associated solely with White people and never once was my "Blackness" challenged or questioned. It wasn't until I ventured out of the confines and security of the family unit that I realized that among my fellow Black folks, certain behaviors might earn me the "Black Nerd" or "acting White" title.
For example, I remember very vividly, doing a project for music class on the great Jimi Hendrix in sixth grade. There I was, a twelve year old with his whole life ahead of him doing a project on arguably the greatest guitarist that ever lived...who, of course was also very Black (afro and all). My idealistic sensibilities thought I might put some of my Black friends onto a genre they hadn't had much exposure to. For the musical selection, I chose the song "Voodoo Child." As soon as the cassette tape of Jimi started jamming, I'll never forget the look one particular classmate gave me. It was a look of vitriolic disdain. She then said: "Why are you trying to be White?" I was floored. Did she realize that Jimi Hendrix was Black? Or that Black people practically invented Rock and Roll (only to have it usurped)?
That was my earliest real exposure to the ridiculous notion that Black people couldn't do/say certain things because it would be deemed too "White" by their peers. Whether it was wearing a New York Rangers 1994 Stanley Cup Championship T-shirt, not liking hot sauce on everything, not knowing how to play spades, skateboarding, or sadly...getting good grades in school. I can think of so many instances in my life in which someone directed ire and/or confusion at me because I didn't fit their mold of what a Black boy/man should be. It even happens now as an adult in public speaking circumstances. Folks heap praise on me because I speak well as if I'm not supposed to. At times, it feels like they're really saying: "You sho can talk good for a Negro." I know, I know...just take the compliment Charles, don't overthink it. I'm pleased to see that this type of thinking has largely eroded among the current generation of youth and that these antiquated methods for assessing "Blackness" have given way to a more holistic approach. An approach that is more tolerant and understanding of the fact that people have a right to be who they are, like what they like, listen to what they listen to, date who they want to date, etc. without feeling like their ethnic and racial authenticity is under review much like Colin Powell's perceived "Whiteness" was under review in Dave Chappelle's brilliant 2004 "Racial Draft" sketch.
I can't help but wonder how certain folks would have turned out as adults had they not been constrained by the constant pressure to fit into a stereotype of what this world perceives and believes them to be. I have an astronomical amount of peers who were far smarter and more interesting than I have ever been, yet they languish in life as adults because of poor choices in their younger years. We all know the cat who is chronically unemployed, still hanging out on the corner, still telling those old high school stories, just trying to find his/her way in life. This person may have trouble getting a job application together or showing up on time to an interview but can do all sorts of things that we allegedly "professional" folks never learned in college, like repair vehicles, cook gourmet level meals, do taxes, and actually make tangible stuff. Are they struggling through life because nobody ever challenged them to do better? Or perhaps was it because while they were too busy trying to integrate into a social construct of perceived "Blackness" (while eschewing what they perceived as "Whiteness") they never quite realized that it was all nonsense and a veiled form of White supremacy (perpetuated by Black folk themselves). I never quite understood the notion that academic success was inherently White. That sentiment never quite resonated with me. Frankly, there were too many brilliant Black people both around me, in the world at large, and in the history books for me to ever let that idea take hold in my mind.
Sadly, I do believe that some Black children (particularly Black Americans) did (and still do) internalize this belief that in order to be respected, one must have no real aspirations and play up to every negative image of Black people that this country has ever cooked up. We see evidence of this in the racial academic achievement gap that persists. Of course, there are environmental, social, and economic factors that tip the scales against far too many of our best and brightest but how many underachieving children of color simply do so because they either don't try or because they've been discouraged by a peer telling them that academic success (along with proper grammar and diction) somehow makes them a "sell-out" (i.e. White). It really is generational trauma and a legacy of being told that we were inferior that leads some of us to believe that excelling in life isn't for us.
There is a fantastic film entitled "Dope" in theaters right now that touches on the phenomenon associated with modern day "Black nerds" growing up in poverty stricken, economically distressed communities striving to achieve yet still having to traverse the perils, pitfalls, and various seedy other folks present in these communities. In it, the main character is a high achieving, brilliant young Black male who has dreams of applying to and gaining acceptance to Harvard University. Without spoiling it too much (really, go see it), it speaks to the times in that the main characters are all young people of color who see a life beyond what society expects of them and beyond what many of those living in their community (who look just like them) expects from them. They are unapologetically nerdy and very much obsessed with 90's hip-hop culture and fashion. Twenty years ago, they would have been dismissed as just Black kids "acting White." In 2015, they represent a cross section of young folks who are inspired by and influenced by so many things from yesteryear. Some aren't even aware of it (high top fades come to mind).
In some ways, I and several of my close friends/siblings, can relate. Like these characters, the constant pressure of wanting to be "down" with the "cool" kids (most of which reached their peak in grade school) but also the obvious truth that my two-parent household having, middle class upbringing behind is not about or of the false image of Black people that the media so incessantly seeks to portray. That dichotomy coupled with the pressure that only folks of color seem to receive in which they frequently must play ambassador and represent their entire ethnicity to the rest of the world is a tough burden to bear from teenage years on into adulthood. Films like "Dope" force us to confront our assumptions about what it means to be young and Black in America. Particularly, at a time in which being perceived as such can be fatal. That's not hyperbole...being a young person of color who dresses a certain way or plays hip-hop music a tad too loudly in America can get you killed.
With relation to "Black Nerds," even those of us who don't even "fit the description" find ourselves confronted with racism, profiling, and aggression. None of us are truly insulated from the ever-present threat that our inherent "Blackness" represents to the world. It is too often all three strikes against us in the court of public opinion. I'd like to think that someday, society at large won't even need to label folks "Black nerds" or even "nerds" at all. Perhaps someday, the quirky, socially awkward, and interesting young Black adolescent won't be at all held back by what others think he/she should be. On the flip side, perhaps the rougher edged, hoodie wearing young Black teen will be judged by the content of their character rather than by how menacing their attire is or how rough their background was. This is the hope of all "Black Nerds." That someday...we can acknowledge the inconvenient truth that Black people, like all people, are not monolithic and we occupy every space from the most run-down tenement to the highest office in the land without sacrificing an ounce of authenticity.
One can only hope, right?
© Copyright 2015, Charles Fox, Jr.
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