Black In Time: A Celebration of TV’s Black Nerds

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by Erin Canty

Promo Photo of Kegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele from Comedy Central's Key & PeeleMore than zombies, guidos, and housewives, Black nerds have climbed their way to the top of the TV trope pyramid. Between Troy (Donald Glover) on Community, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) on Happy Endings, Gus (Dulé Hill) on Psych, the irreverent comic stylings of W. Kamau Bell and half a dozen kids on the Disney channel, my television comedies are filled with funny, talented, dorky, and dweeby African–American characters. CNN confirmed my suspicions and suggested we’re witnessing “the rise of the black nerd.” They quoted Jordan Peele of the hit Comedy Central sketch show, Key & Peele who attributed the boom in Blerds (my ridiculous word choice, not his) to President Obama.

 “Obama was the best thing for black nerds everywhere. Finally we had a role model. Before Obama, we basically had Urkel.”

Not to diminish President Obama’s positive impact on the African – American community, but he probably can’t take all the credit for Blerd-Nation.  No, these young men (and a few ladies) are standing on the shoulders of some of comedy’s best characters. (They also had a little help from the passage of time, a few forward thinking show runners, and a big shift in attitudes, but that’s a story for a different day. And maybe you can give a high-five to Obama for that last one.)

So let’s celebrate this fantastic moment in time by tipping our caps to some of the Black nerds of yesteryear. Here are a few of my favorites from the not-so-distant past.

The ‘70s

Roger ‘Raj’ Thomas – What’s Happening (1976), What’s Happening Now! (1985)

Raj from What's Happening

Ernest Thomas on What’s Happening

What’s Happening is loosely based on the 1975 movie, Cooley High. It centers on three African-American friends growing up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The show’s protagonist, Roger ‘Raj’ Thomas, is tall, lanky, and sports thick-framed glasses. He looks like your typical dweeb but credit the writing and Thomas’ performance for giving the character a bit more dimension. He’s passionate, loyal, and witty. He dreams big and doesn’t hide behind his gifts. Instead he conducts himself with a swagger normally reserved for jocks and “cool kids,” at least in prime time.

But that’s just it; Raj was cool. He was a new kind of cool. Not a spy, action hero, or cop. Just a high school kid with who wanted a typewriter. He was accessible. You wanted to know him. You wanted be his friend. And if you were small, black and the least bit nerdy, there’s a good chance Raj was your hero.

In this episode, Raj starts an underground newspaper. Didja hear that youth of America? If you stopped all the sexting and Fruit-Ninja-ing you’d probably have enough time left over to save print media. And also, get off my lawn!

The ‘80s

Dwayne Wayne – A Different World (1987)

Black nerds are a dime a dozen on A Different World, which is what happens when your show takes place at a fictional historically Black college. The show is aComparing Dwayne Wade and Dwayne Wayne spin-off of The Cosby Show, so the first season we were stuck following Lisa Bonet around Hillman. Luckil,y Bonet got pregnant and left the show. Her departure made room for super genius, Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison).

While the show handled the race, class, and sexism issues The Cosby Show shied away from, there was still ample room for comedy, and Dwayne Wayne brought most of it. Dwayne had all the major components of Black nerd-dom: He was a math whiz, wore not one but two pairs of glasses (at the same time), and though he had bad luck with women early on, he ended up wooing and marrying Whitley, in dramatic, leading-man fashion no less.

As a friend of mine recently said, “Dwayne Wayne had no business with Whitley,” but that’s what made this character so different. He was a goofy, awkward genius, and he didn’t have to be anybody but himself to get the girl. We should all be so lucky.

The ‘90s

Carlton Banks – The Fresh Prince of Bel–Air (1990)

Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Alfonso Ribeiro on Fresh Prince of Bel – Air

I know what you’re thinking: I better have a good reason for not picking Urkel. And I do. Carlton Banks is not your average nerd. He’s a proud Republican, sings a capella, has a passion for finance, loves Tom Jones, and manages the school gift shop. He was often accused of “acting White,” but if the Banks family taught us anything it’s the role class plays in our upbringing, and while Carlton grew up privileged, he still grew up Black. (Remember this “In-your-face-worthy” scene?)

Up until that point, there hadn’t really been a Black character like Carlton on television. While he tended to be the butt of the joke, he wasn’t pathetic. Carlton was a guy worth rooting for. Whether it’s desperately trying to please our parents, or desperately trying to dance, we all have a little Carlton Banks in us.

So…What’s Happening Now?

Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), Dave (Zachary Knighton), and Max (Adam Pally) from ABC's Happy Endings

Damon Wayans Jr. (left) on Happy Endings

So while they may not be the first, the presence of so many Black nerds on TV today does signal a great leap forward. The characters highlighted above were all on shows with a majority or all-Black cast. They had the flexibility and the numbers to show the diversity in the African–American community—nerds, jocks, wealthy, poor, freaks, class clowns, free spirits, shy kids, waitresses, politicians, the whole gamut.

And until recently, shows with a majority cast confined their characters of color (if they had any) to a small, unyielding box. (“You’re a best friend.” “You’re the help.” “You’re sassy and trouble.”)

But right now, we’re in the middle of a noticeable shift. Comedies are getting more characters of color, and even programs that aren’t, are dipping a toe in the water of diverse representations (not so fast 2 Broke Girls).  So characters like Brad on Happy Endings or Gus on Psych become really important. Like Raj or Dwayne, they’re multi-faceted, perfectly imperfect, witty, smart and have quirky interests. Oh, and they’re also Black. Race is no longer the central thing about their characters and they can exist comfortably outside an all-Black cast.

Gus (Dule Hill) on Psych

Dule Hill (left) on Psych

So even if there are only one or two people of color on the show (an issue for a different day), it no longer feels like such blatant tokenism. The burden of having to represent every African–American person ever is lifted and viewers can appreciate these characters for being black Nerds instead of Black nerds. It may seem like a small victory, and perhaps it is, but it’s another step toward increased representation for characters of color.

So call it the dawning of a brand new day, call it a resurgence, call it a renaissance, but since Black nerds never left, don’t call it a comeback.

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12 Responses to “Black In Time: A Celebration of TV’s Black Nerds”

  1. Dave Martin

    You’ve got to include Geordi LaForge on this list. In the 80s, for a black guy to be the Chief Engineer of the USS Enterprise, the flagship of the Federation… huge!

    Reply
  2. Lucas Picador

    Also to add to the growing list: Moss, Richard Ayoade’s character on The IT Crowd. Likely to be more widely recognized as Ayoade’s Hollywood career picks up steam.

    Oh yeah, and another one: Turk on Scrubs.

    Those were two pretty influential shows in the early 2000s with black nerds as central characters.

    Reply
    • Dave Martin

      Donald Faison doesn’t just play a Black Nerd on tv, he’s the real deal. Check out “Black Stormtrooper,” the Lego stop-motion videos that he wrote, animated, directed, and edited.

      Reply
  3. Les Chappell

    My own addition: Toofer from 30 Rock. It’s even in his name: “With him you get a two-for-one; he’s a black guy and a Harvard guy.” And that’s a character you get a lot of mileage out of how irritated he gets the way everyone perceives both attributes of his character.

    Reply

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