I cant remember the first time I realized black nerds had taken over a huge corner of pop culture.
Perhaps it was watching Kanye West, a pipsqueak music fanatic raised in suburban Chicago, who burst on the scene wearing argyle sweaters and Polo shirts. Now hes in gossip and fashion magazines with Kim Kardashian on his arm.
Or maybe it was seeing comedy nerd Jay Pharoah, a guy whose huge stable of impressions must have come from long hours practicing in front of a mirror instead of living a life, take a featured role on Saturday Night Live imitating the president.
MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry is the first full-time professor to also serve as a cable news anchor, leading her self-titled show on weekends and teaching at Tulane University. Shes so wonky, her nickname and hashtag for the show is #Nerdland.
Cable TV features two huge showcases for comedy nerds; with former Mad TV cast members Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Comedy Centrals sketch comedy show Key and Peele, while San Francisco comic W. Kamau Bell leads his own bracing showcase for political humor on FXs Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.
And there is the ultimate example of black nerdism: our president.
How did we get from a time when Steve Urkel was the butt of every joke to the moment when horn-rimmed glasses-wearing nerds like Kamau Bell were making them?
Ive just been being me for my entire life, said Bell, whose late-night politics and comedy show is godfathered by Chris Rock. Even he didnt notice the black nerd trend until he was included in a Facebook group, against his will, called Blerds (a contraction of black nerds).
Anything that promotes alternative black thought in America is a wonderful thing, he said, and people are often better able to understand something when theres a cute name for it. So, OK, I accept that.
At this point, you might be thinking Im so tuned into the ascension of the black nerd because I am one. And you wouldnt be wrong.
Still, it is remarkable to see how, even as mainstream culture has fallen in love with the nerd, black folks have found their own permutation in Community co-star Donald Glover, Roots bandleader and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon musical director Questlove, and a host of other stereotype-breaking figures.
I think the black nerd, for whatever reason, was once seen as a weakness, and now its not seen as weak anymore, said Andre Meadows, a standup comic, actor and commentator. Hes translated his love for Smurfs, comics books and science fiction into a comedy brand as the Black Nerd. Brain power and intelligence is more accepted, and it shows a different side of African-Americans.
Meadows has turned his nerdy obsessions into a YouTube channel, Twitter feed, Facebook platforms and more. But he fears the black nerd may become a stereotype, the guy featured as the black best friend on network TV shows such as The New Girl, Ben and Kate and Happy Endings.
He recalled a moment when one of his videos surfaced on a website and commenters attacked him for being the kind of black nerd we dont want to be associated with, he said. They were mad because I was the goofy, dorky black nerd, whereas the black nerd that most people are thinking of now is Afrocentric, sophisticated, suave and cool.
Bell worries the rise of the black nerd may be a short-lived trend.
I just hope its not just a fad, just about the glasses, he said, noting how even NBA stars now wear thick, hornrimmed glasses to their postgame news conferences to look more serious. Now people say we have more black people talking politics on TV. Well, its happening for me. But every time you think a window is opening up, sometimes it doesnt swing open as far as you expect.