The Rise of the Black Nerd

Separated from racial mainstreams, the outsiders make their mark

 August 6, 2002

They're neither co-opted conservatives nor keep-it-real black nationalists. Their politics are questioning, not exclusive. Rejected or misunderstood by blacks, whites, and nearly everyone else, their view of race matters balances the sins of America's past with hope for an internationalist future. And since both Martha Stewart-brand whiteness and ghetto-fabulous negritude are in remission, the culture is now giving mad props to black nerds.

Not for a long time have so many brothers and sisters received so much mainstream attention without trying to be down. Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter received a $4 million book advance from Knopf for The Emperor of Ocean Park. His first novel, a thriller with the black bourgeois world of law degrees and Oak Bluffs vacations as its backdrop, arrived in stores in June. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks nabbed this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama for Topdog/Underdog, currently on Broadway. Colson Whitehead's novel John Henry Days was short-listed for the 2002 Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Poet-performer Carl Hancock Rux received this year's New York Foundation for the Arts prize; his play Talk completed a run at the Public Theater in May. Last week, Simon & Schuster bought Rux's first novel, Asphalt, for a "six figure" advance. Even hip-hop's reigning kings and queens are Southern goofballs who dress funny—Missy and Timbaland, Outkast and the Neptunes, a/k/a N.E.R.D. In addition to the higher-profile success stories, writers such as theologist Thandeka, Boston University economics professor (and supposed former neocon) Glenn C. Loury, performance artist William Pope.L, and novelist Martha Southgate have also found new ways of addressing the tricky nature of modern American racism.

Studying at elite institutions has alienated these Afrodemics from blacks who see higher education as whitewashing. Yet their views still cause mainstream whites to ostracize or misunderstand them. Isolated from both camps, and even each other, they've developed an independent party of race politics with an intellectual bent. All that isolation and scholarship are what classify them as nerds. None of them object to the label. Southgate embraces it: "In high school, I never found my way into the black social circle, but I never felt fully comfortable in white social circles either. I certainly am a nerd!" For Southgate and others, righteous anger usually takes a backseat to curiosity, compassion, and a dash of world-weariness. "People ask me at readings to provide answers to this conundrum," she says. "I don't really have any. I'm just interested in exploring that tension."

Brazenly esoteric, Loury's new book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, excavates racism using the unlikely tools of theoretical economics. He argues that racism has become embedded in our society because racially stigmatized groups are denied access to the informal social networks crucial to success in any field. Also, what he calls "self-confirming stereotypes" help to "create the facts." Black people sometimes believe our own bad press and behave accordingly, even adopting negative stereotypical behavior as a way of throwing it back at society. But when non-blacks see the effect of this "feedback loop," they conclude that blacks are being held back because of something in our nature. This Loury calls "essentialism," and he rejects it as an explanation for inequality. He holds liberal politics responsible for miscomprehending this process. The problem, he says, is that liberal individualism sweeps the issues of social networking and self-confirming stereotypes under the rug. In the process, it has allowed the idea of racism to become separated from specific acts of discrimination, so that it appears "natural and nondissonant."

Loury's assertion that racism has become unmoored from its direct objects is a common thread among today's black intellectuals. So, too, is his ambivalent conclusion, reflecting a global awareness that tends to put this country's obsession with race in greater perspective. "The whole problem of race relations is being transformed under the pressures of a tremendous demographic transition in the last 35 years," he says. "I'm not quite sure what the second generation of Latino and Asian immigrants are going to think about ghettos or failing black businesses or high prison rates," he says. "It's unlikely that their heartstrings are going to be pulled by the playing of 'We Shall Overcome.' "

Thandeka, a Unitarian minister and associate professor of theology and culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, draws conclusions not unlike Loury's, but with a more sensitive, sociological approach. Her recent book, Learning to Be White, examines the process by which Euro-Americans maintain racial boundaries for their children through shame. It may seem counterintuitive for a black woman to spend time explaining the damaging effects of racism on white kids. But the real paradox is that it has always fallen to the victims of discrimination to describe how it works—as if they had created it.

"Would that the problem was really racism in and of itself!" Thandeka exclaims. She starts off Learning to Be White with a series of personal anecdotes from Euro-Americans detailing the first instances in which they felt themselves to be "raced." "Sarah," Thandeka explains, recounting an episode from the book, "brought her black best friend home, and her mother told her not to bring her back. As Sarah pressed for the real reason, she discovered that if she persisted, she risked losing her mother's love. Every time she saw her friend, her appearance reminded Sarah of what she didn't want to know." In many cases, theorizes the author, "the motivation for racist acts is not racism, but a fear of being excluded."

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."

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."


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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