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They Came Before Troy Barnes

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They Came Before Troy Barnes

I just learned about “blerds” and I’m over them already. I got an email with a link to an NPR story about this apparently ascendant set of non-athletic, non-jive talking black folks–mostly men, I guess–who are apparently populating television shows and stand-up stages. It took fewer than 4 minutes, the length of Eric Deggans’ piece, for me to find the (alleged) trend worthy of my very first holiday humbug. According to Deggans’ essay, heretofore black nerds were some sort of weird, non-race-based personification of biraciality, in that being a black nerd was to be caught between what white people expected of blacks and black people’s apparent embarrassment that a member of the race wasn’t unequivocally cool. Deggans goes on to credit Kanye West–yeah, Mr. College Dropout–as the beginning of the “blerd” trend, going as far as willfully ignoring the Carlton Banks (nerd and class) swag Kanye borrowed. To further buttress his claim that he is a black nerd, Mr. Deggans botches interpreting West’s lyrics, which I’m going to assume was just a way of Deggans saying he’s so nerdy he can’t decipher the meaning of West’s rhymes without the help of Rap Genius. 

Kanye West, a rap star give to Argyle sweaters and pouring his heart out on wax, became the hottest thing in hip-hop. Now, raps a tough game, but Kanye can build rhymes around living on pancake batter after his jaw got broken in a car crash or drop references to an M. Night Shyamalan comic book movie. How nerdy is that?

Look around now and blerds are everywhere, intellectual, rock and roll loving, politics talking, comic book reading black nerds.

Although Deggans isn’t the first one charged with commenting on the apparent “blerd” trend, it’s a good starting point to think about the implicit assumption these kinds of arguments have about black folks and the effects such claims have on people who might be paying attention. First, “blerds” is just a horrible word. Seriously. It’s a despicably terrible looking and -sounding portmanteau. I don’t know who can manage to say it without making all kinds of face contortions during and after the process. Second, like black hipsters (aka “blipsters”) and Trey Ellis’ post-soul aesthetic before it, the idea of blerds as something new, trendy and thus worthy of comment requires a kind of amnesia, a forgetfulness that goes beyond ignoring cousin Carlton, Dwayne Wayne, Miles Dyson, or any other black nerd who managed to work his way into our collective hearts before this epoch. Rather, it accepts as true the siphoned version of black humanity that dominates popular culture. Qualifying the archetype to the extent that a word has to be invented allows narrows the construction of blackness to remain intact: there’s black people and then there’s, ooh, look! a black nerd! a special kind of black person.
And everyone wants to feel special, unique, new. I know, but the tendency to qualify reiterates a white norm, allowing the opinion that black people are just basketball playing rappers to proliferate as the default model. Black nerds have been around since white nerds. For us to believe any different or to acknowledge a trend requires us to accept a destructively narrow conception of black people and blackness that never existed beyond the idiot box. Donald Glover, I’m happy for your but… getting famous for reflecting my seventh grade yearbook picture isn’t worth a feature story. Just because the masses have just caught on doesn’t mean I have to pretend the image they’re just now seeing is true.
Blerds, hunh? That’s like the innocuous version of Columbus discovering America. And writing features about it is akin to pretending we weren’t aware, either. Blerds? Deserves nothing but a “You ain’t know?” and a Kanye Jordan shrug.