The Rise of the Black Nerd

Separated From Racial Mainstreams, the Outsiders Make Their Mark

Pope.L and Southgate describe modern racial debates in terms of physical stance and political leanings, but Carl Hancock Rux lets his play Talk embody the arguments themselves. Mimicking a panel discussion about fictional African American novelist Archer Aymes, the piece wittily reveals how supposedly intellectual battles mask personal bias. As a group of middle-aged white professors and Afrodemics nitpick about publishing world minutiae from 30 years ago, who is arguing over what and why becomes more important than arriving at anything approaching consensual truth. Yet Aymes remains a Negro enigma. This is exactly Rux's point.

Part of the inspiration for Talk came to Rux while sitting on a panel about Gordon Parks's photographs of flowers. In the Q&A portion of the discussion, an older black man asked if Parks had stopped making black art. For Rux this raised several questions: What is black art? Does it need black content? If so, is photographing flowers off-limits? "I wanted to know, was he making black art when he was photographing Ingrid Bergman?" says Rux. A panel at the Black Arts Festival also fired up his muse. "Amiri Baraka accused everyone of being unprepared and ignorant. He called Playthell Benjamin a yes-nigger. Kevin Powell ran off the stage crying. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life."

Raised in foster homes in the Bronx, the 32-year-old Rux tried to reject his inner-city roots after being accepted to Columbia. "I didn't want to be black in the way that my environment dictated. I figured out how to blend in and hang out on the Upper West Side. I wore khakis. Everything about how I started to look was drastically different." He got mugged three times in his South Bronx neighborhood during his freshman year. "They punched me unconscious. I had this big black eye the first few months of school. I was called an Oreo at that time by kids on my block. But I wanted it. I wanted to say that I wasn't just from that culture even if I lived there. When I would go back to a 'black aesthetic' it was just another extreme performance." Like the rest of these new black nerds, he rejects the notion that race must be "worn as a garment," and seems to agree with them that black America's fragmentation along class lines need not dilute the aims of racial justice. "Black culture makes itself up as it goes along, but is comprised of things that are outside itself. Blackness doesn't have to be performed," he says. "It has to be investigated."

Novelist Martha Southgate embraces the label: "I certainly am a nerd."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Novelist Martha Southgate embraces the label: "I certainly am a nerd."


BLACK NERDS THROUGH HISTORY

AKHNATON Egyptian pharaoh/eccentric mama's boy; brought avant-garde art and monotheism to Egypt in 1300s B.C. Moved capital to middle of desert. Legacy suppressed, name denounced for years afterward.

BANKOURI Prince who renounced throne of Songhai to become scholar at Timbuktu during heyday in 14th century.

SALLY HEMINGS Jefferson slave and baby-mama; favored coalition-building in early 1800s as diplomatic means to freedom. Became neocon after decision to return to America and slavery rather than stay in Paris.

ERNEST EVERETT JUST Early-20th-century American biophysicist. Pioneer in fertilization and cell development. Remained obscure because he didn't invent peanut butter. Appears on 1995 Black Heritage stamp.

BAYARD RUSTIN Nonviolent activist who organized 1963 March on Washington. Condemned as "known homosexual" by Strom Thurmond before the march, to little effect.

ADRIENNE KENNEDY Award-winning playwright rejected by Black Arts Movement for creating multiracial plots and surreal, symbolist images. With Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard, changed the face of theater.

ERNEST THOMAS A/K/A RAJ (from What's Happening!!) From 1976 to '79, led motley clique of very uncool African Americans. Tutored college basketball player, lied about age in order to date model.

RITA DOVE U.S. poet laureate 1993-95. Won 1987 Pulitzer Prize for collection Thomas and Beulah. Avoided popularity by eschewing dialect.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. West Virginia-born public intellectual. After testifying in favor of 2 Live Crew, created prestigious African American Studies department at Harvard during 1990s. Traveled around Africa for six-hour PBS special while wearing khaki shorts, polo shirt, and glasses. —J.H.

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