The best gift my Mum gave me was boredom. I spent so much of my childhood bored. Every Sunday she, my brother and sister would nap, and I hated it. You close your eyes for a few hours and wake up groggier than when you first closed your eyes and you’ve wasted precious hours during your weekend.
While they napped I read. I read whatever I could get my hands on. We were pretty poor growing up so I didn’t have access to a lot of different books. Sometimes it was weird Tony Robbins motivational books, sometimes it was Babysitters Club, Goosebumps, crime books my grandmother had sent us after she was done with them or Harry Potter. Eventually in my later teens I developed a taste for Kurt Vonnegut and other science fiction.
My favourite film was Matilda. I loved her because she was nerdy and I loved her black best friend Lavender who was brave and smart.
There’s a scene in the film when Matilda’s teacher Ms Honey goes to Matilda’s house to talk to her parents. She wants to talk about Matilda’s genius, but is met with derision from Matilda’s Mum: “you chose books, I chose looks.” (Although I am clearly proof that you don’t have to choose one or the other). Matilda’s mother’s comments and the film in general made me feel like being smart was something like resistance, and something to be proud of.
Earlier this week my family moved all my stuff out of storage. My brother messaged me and told me he found my old dictionary. Mum bought me a really tiny used dictionary when I was young. I used to highlight words and keep a written collection of cool words that I would try and use in everyday conversation. I was clearly a nerd, but struggled fit in with the other nerdy kids where I was often the only one who was black.
The nerd in the cultural zeitgeist is a skinny white dude with glasses inside his parents basement. These are not the nerds I know now though. To me, the nerd is the black non-binary audio producer in their room taking apart their computer. The nerd is the black artist asking her friends if they want to play dungeons and dragons. The nerd is the black TV presenter posting cosplay selfies on her weekend. The nerd is a black playwright making us all laugh. The nerd is a black phd candidate correcting Stan Grant’s references to poetry on Twitter.
The world needs these nerds. I have no doubt that throughout the thousands of years black people have been here that we have had our fair share of nerds. Nerds who made discoveries about plants. Nerds who watched the stars.
The people who get shit done are the nerds. The people who notice the details. It is nerds who make discoveries. It is nerds who write the classics. The people who quietly obsess over things regardless of how “cool” the subject matter is.
In recent times it has become more socially acceptable to be a nerd. Particular shows and films have popularised the nerd: Scrubs‘ lead character JD, Freaks and Geeks and any character Michael Cera has played. These characters have always been depicted as awkward but ultimately endearing outsiders.
But these awkward white boys are far closer to the centre than the black nerd can access. For the black nerd, there is particular insight into being on the margins.
My other favourite film growing up was The Matrix. I thought Trinity was hot and I loved that there were authoritative figures who were black – Morpheus and The Oracle. I loved that I felt like there was something I could do about the shitty things in the world, that I was on the winning side, that there are ways to wake people up. The domination of the machines and the way in which humans are subjugated felt like a metaphor for assimilation.
This is not unique to The Matrix. Science fiction is whole genre of “what ifs”. It imagines the past, the future and different time constructs; and relies on themes such as invasion, exploration and discovery.
For the Indigenous viewer there is a particular irony in this. Much of science fiction is dominated by white people relying on the narratives of historical past wrongs inflicted by white people on black and brown bodies. In their iteration of these narratives though, white people are the victims of oppression and subsequently the heroes. They are the invaded – but in their version, they defeat their invader.
For Indigenous peoples, we have already seen the end of our worlds. We are living in a post-apocalyptic future where we are forced to look, sound, eat and live like our invaders. This reality, in my mind, is a missed opportunity in storytelling.
But there are exciting developments in black nerdery. The reception of shows like Cleverman and Luke Cage tell us that the world is ready for our stories. Black nerds are carving out their own space across different aspects of nerdery, which is exciting. We need to.
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