The Rise of the Black Nerd

Separated from racial mainstreams, the outsiders make their mark

While Loury suspects that class will become as much of an issue as race in the future, Thandeka's research reveals that America's racist attitudes originated with class discrimination. She cites colonial Virginia's "race laws" of the late 1600s as the moment when British classism gave way to American racism. Previously, indentured servants and slaves had mixed freely and identified with the other group's plight. In 1676, former indentured servants began to rebel against the ruling class for their unfair taxation and greed. They burned Jamestown to the ground. Terrified that the slave population would join forces with the indentured servants, the masters put the "race laws" into effect. Among other rules, white servants could legally whip black slaves and were protected from receiving beatings themselves. "A new multiclass 'white race' would emerge from the Virginia laws as one not biologically engineered but socially constructed," concludes Thandeka. "The very definition of the white would now be legally bound to the inferior social status of the black."

It isn't hard to bring this historical data alive in the modern era, Thandeka points out, since the ruling class still treats the lower classes with contempt no matter who they are. "The Enron execs didn't discriminate against their employees racially!" she says.

Distilling the complicated modern landscape of race and class mapped out by thinkers like Loury and Thandeka into works of art is especially daunting for artists of color. In art, the compulsion to get down to the real nitty-gritty often collides with the pressure to uplift the race. Self-expression can get muddled if you become too much of a mouthpiece for a political viewpoint.

Leery of all orthodoxies, the black nerd has had a rough time making art in the last 10 years. Marketing executives and publicists all had some idea of what would sell to whom, and they weren't pushing any black brainiacs. Perhaps this is part of what inspired performance artist William Pope.L, whose work was included in this year's Whitney Biennial, to make a career out of crawling up sidewalks. "I wanted to find a way to talk about personal and social development in the street," he explains. "I was trying to conflate the homeless body and the black male body, and I wanted to find a way to express that these people were not inert."

Through the crawl pieces, Pope.L gained awareness of the connotations of verticality and horizontality. Verticality was associated with rigidity, status, and portraiture, while horizontality and crawling alluded to dirt, landscape, and sexuality. Fascinated by this dichotomy and how it reflects on racial attitudes, Pope.L even describes blackness in America in those terms. "In the 1960s there was a notion that blackness had a monolithic, vertical quality to it, that black people were cohesive and delimited and that was that," he says. "More recently there's an attempt to think of it as a landscape rather than an obelisk."

Many of Pope.L's ideas have converged in a piece called Great White Way, a five-year crawl up Broadway he's undertaking while wearing a Superman costume. This past May, he began by crawling from Wall to Fulton streets. He started his horizontal journeys dressed in business attire, but switched once he realized that "the Superman costume crosses the line into the heroic, into romance and childhood."

While Pope.L fixes his sights on the relationship between class, racial struggles, and verticality, novelist Martha Southgate focuses on upward mobility, and the ways in which race and class have ceased to be synonymous social problems, echoing the ideas of Loury and Thandeka. Centering on an intra-black class conflict, her recent novel The Fall of Rome describes the events leading to a confrontation between two black men of different classes. One, Jerome Washington, is a conservative Latin teacher at a prep school. The other, Rashid Bryson, is an inner-city recruit with a chip on his shoulder and a tragedy in his past. Jerome, clinging to the fallacy that one can make it by merit alone, resents Rashid, who is overwhelmed by the schoolwork and bewildered more by his exposure to the upper-middle class than specifically to whites. Rashid becomes Jerome's track-and-field protégé, but the pressures of his new environment prove too great, and the two head down a collision course strewn with more issues than Ebony magazine.

"The Fall of Rome ended up being in part a way to address the idea that things aren't simply black and white," says 41-year-old Southgate. "In the early '90s there were a number of newspaper pieces about the good old days when we all lived together, almost saying, 'Segregation is good.' I would get impatient with that. They're right about the split among classes, and that a lot of people have been left utterly behind. But I just don't really think Jim Crow was that great!"

Still, in adopting the voice of a conservative black man, Southgate says she "felt discomfort disagreeing with positions that a lot of other people take. When I was writing this book I was very concerned that people would think, 'Oh, she's a female Clarence Thomas type.' But I'm not Jerome. Yet I'm not unsympathetic to him."

« Previous Page
Next Page »