Monday, August 29, 2011

Black Nerds & African American Literature

This semester, I'm teaching an African American literature course entitled "Black Nerds Unite," which focuses on representations of "black nerd" figures in literature and in a field other fields.

Although discussions of bookish and sometimes socially awkward African American figures have been popular for some time now, the basis for my course was, in part, a short essay by scholar Trudier Harris entitled "Black Nerds" from her book Summer Snow: Reflections from a Black Daughter of the South (2003). 

I first encountered Harris's essay while I was a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University. The essay initially appeared in the April 11, 2003, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education and was published under the title "Mind Work: How a Ph.D. Affects Black Women." I enjoyed reading and discussing the piece back then, but it became even more important when I started teaching at SIUE.

A year or so after I arrived here, I introduced a few students to the essay. Although the first students I shared it with were getting access to it online, I informed them that the essay was entitled "Black Nerds," from the version that's in the book. That title -- "Black Nerds" -- has stuck with folks over the years as we've read and discussed it.

At one point in the essay, Harris writes that
Folks could respect you, for example, for earning a doctoral degree and could exclaim loudly to neighbors about your success; they just had little practical use for you and many times didn't know what to do with you. To become thus educated is to become a nerd, and black nerds are strange creatures indeed.
Over the years, Harris's essay has become essential recommended reading for folks in our programs.

Since interest was so high, I began to think about other works of literature that related. Roland Fryer has an essay "Acting White" that offers more context for a concept related to black nerds. Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man feature  black nerds, and Charles Johnson's novel Middle Passage and his short story "Exchange Value" have nerd-like protagonists. There are, in fact, black and nerdy characters throughout African American literature. 

We also see black nerd-figures in popular culture with Steve Urkel from the television show Family Matters and Carlton Banks for from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starring Will Smith. It's interesting that so many of the most well-known black nerds are men. The larger proportion of black women in college as opposed to black men would suggest, don't you think, that we'd have far more representations of black women nerds, right? For some reason, that's not the case.

Fortunately, Harris spends some time in her essay really working through the specifics of being a black woman nerd, a subject position that presents interesting challenges in church settings and with dating, to name a couple of points she makes.

Over the years, the black women in my courses have had the strongest and most vocal affirmative responses to Harris's essay. They are convinced that Harris was writing for and with them in mind when she wrote "Black Nerds." They have sentences and entire paragraphs underlined when they come to class; they are always prepared to offer an elaboration on segments from the essay; and they provide "amen corner" soundtracks when someone reads particular passages out-loud.

For many of the young sisters who take my classes, Trudier Harris's "Black Nerds" is more canonical or certainly more cherished than Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison's Beloved. That's not a knock on the sisters by the way. Actually, I think it's more a testament of the power of Harris's essay, and at the same time, it's a statement about the absence of more narratives about black women interested in "mind work."

Toward the end of her essay, Harris writes that "I would venture to say that perhaps all of us would like black communities throughout the country to expand a bit more in their receptivity to who we are and what we do." She closes "Are we loved? Yes. Needed? Absolutely. Accepted? Always as intimate strangers."

Thinking about black nerds and what Harris refers to as intimate strangers will be a key focus for my group this semester.  

No comments: