Move Over Urkel, There Are New 'Blerds' Around

Commentator Eric Deggans argues that the black nerds are ascendant. It used to be that Steve Urkel was their sole standard-bearer, but now there are black nerd standup comics, rappers and even news anchors. Deggans is TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, and author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Turn on a cable news show, late night TV comedy or a contemporary sitcom and you might just stumble upon a character type that's on the rise, the black nerd. TV critic, Eric Deggans says geeks of color bewilder two different cultures.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: My name is Eric and I'm a blerd. Now, honestly, I used to be embarrassed to admit I was a black nerd, because not so long ago, the world only knew one kind.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "FAMILY MATTERS")

JALEEL WHITE: (As Steve Urkel) Steve Urkel at your service.

DEGGANS: Nobody wants to grow up to be a guy who wears his pants too high, and back in the day, the super nerd known as Steve Urkel was mostly a walking punchline.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "FAMILY MATTERS")

WHITE: (As Steve Urkel) Oh, lady.

DEGGANS: For years, we black nerds felt caught between white folks' expectations that we'd be cooler and black folks' disappointment that we're clearly not. But then, something wonderful happened that turned the image of the black nerd sideways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROUGH THE WIRE")

KANYE WEST: (Rapping) (Unintelligible) somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp.

DEGGANS: Kanye West, a rap star give to Argyle sweaters and pouring his heart out on wax, became the hottest thing in hip-hop. Now, raps a tough game, but Kanye can build rhymes around living on pancake batter after his jaw got broken in a car crash or drop references to an M. Night Shyamalan comic book movie. How nerdy is that?

Look around now and blerds are everywhere, intellectual, rock and roll loving, politics talking, comic book reading black nerds.

DONALD GLOVER: You know, Spiderman movie doesn't have to be white. Maybe he could be black or Hispanic or something like that...

DEGGANS: Donald Glover, star of NBC's "Community" set the Internet on fire when fans suggested he could be the next movie Spiderman.

GLOVER: And that's when the world went crazy. And half that world was like, Donald for Spiderman. We're only going to watch the next "Spiderman" if Donald Glover's playing Peter Parker and the other half was like, he's black, kill him.

DEGGANS: We even have a pundit who calls her show "Nerd Land," MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, a full time professor at Tulane University.

(SOUNDBITE TV SHOW, "NERD LAND")

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I have a history lesson up my sleeve and it involves quoting old legal documents. Welcome to Nerd Land, people.

DEGGANS: There's so many blerds, I even have a favorite. FX late night host W. Kamau Bell. Bell hides a sharp wit with a playful spirit, highlighting the ridiculousness of how clueless Americans lump some people together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOTALLY BIASED WITH W. KAMAU BELL")

W. KAMAU BELL: This is a Sikh, an Arab leader. This is a Sikh. Sheikh, Sikh, sheikh Sikh. This is a Muslim. A Muslim can be a sheikh, but not a Sikh. All right. You with me, you with me? This is Nile Rodgers from the band Chic.

DEGGANS: Now, before some of you start with angry letters and emails, I get it. Hip black intellectuals have been around from before the days of Malcolm X and James Baldwin. My own patron saint of blerds is Levar Burton's engineer, Geordi La Forge on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He was chasing warp core breaches before Urkel slapped on his first pair of rainbow-colored suspenders.

And if you don't get that reference, just consult your nearest nerd. Still, when I was growing up, my love of "Star Wars" and astronomy books lead to way to many accusations of acting white. Now, it's a relief to finally reach a time when I don't have to choose between my love for both my peoples, geeks and black folks.

MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans, he's a TV and media critic for The Tampa Bay Times and the author of "Race-Baiter: How The Media Wields Dangerous Words To Divide A Nation." This is NPR News.

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