McWhorter on black nerds

Here's John on Barack and black nerds. I obviously disagree. But it's fun to read about the fate of black nerds in TNR. I think some honesty is due in this debate--I've never fit squarely in the black nerd box, which may skew my perspective. It's true, I loved D&D, the Commodore 64, comics and Star Trek TNG. I also loved Galaxy Rangers, G.I. Joe and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. But so did most kids I knew. D&D and my interest in fantasy was the one thing that really marked me as different. None of my friends told me I was acting white for playing D&D, they just thought it was weird. But they thought it was equally weird that my parents didn't have a couch, that my house was basically covered in books, that my Dad ran a business out of his basement.

I never had the whole goth/mohawk/black trench coat thing working. I didn't really hear Led Zeppelin until I was well into my 20s. I loved football and basketball, was about as hobbled as most boys I knew when it came to girls, and  a mediocre MC. Perhaps most importantly, I was terrible at school--I mean really bad. I almost failed the eleventh grade, and I dropped out of college as soon as I saw a viable out. Does all this mean I'm not really a black nerd? Or is it just that the rules are different if you're a black nerd in a black community.

I think different cultures have their rules and mores. I'd say the mores of the black community didn't all come natural to me--I was terrible at basketball, but I had to play because it was the official neighborhood sport. I was an awful dancer, but at a black party there is one person who will be ridiculed more than the guy who can't dance--the guy who doesn't dance at all. That last point is key. The thing I came to love about my community was that they didn't expect you to be a master, but they expected you to try, to fight--sometimes literally. If you saw ten dudes banking your homeboy, you had to help--not because you were Bruce Lee, but because that was your man, and you were expected to take the fall with him. Winning wasn't the point.

This is a rambling, rambling post. The point I'm making is about labels and how they're applied. I say that I was never a natural for the community mores, but I bet that's true--in varying ways--for half of all of us. Kenyatta dances like she comes from West Baltimore (or the West side of Chicago) but she can talk like anyone from the Oak Park of her youth. Me, I sound like where I'm from. I stopped bopping after my 30th--it didn't seem dignified. But I really don't have much else on the essentialism scale. And yet, for whatever reason, I've always been at home in Harlem, or--as Jay would say--on any Martin Luther.