People of color haven’t always felt at home in nerd culture, but a new wave of diversity and representation could be changing that.
Aaron McGahee is the founder of A Nerd Like Me, an online group meant to connect people through a shared platform and social activities. He said few fictional characters who were black men come to mind from his youth: Zack from “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and Kwame from “Captain Planet.”
“As a nerd in the black community, you’re not better off,” he said. “You get pushed out to the fringe elements of society, just like if you were in any other demographic.”
That motivated McGahee to start his group.
But nerd culture is getting more mainstream, and black characters are proving profitable. Black Panther” was the third highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S., and shows with majority-black casts like “Luke Cage” and “Black Lightning” found success among audiences.
“There is a wave right now for representation,” McGahee said. “I think a lot of people get it now.”
McGahee said the internet and social media likely contributed to the swell of representation. His group’s growth could be a testament to that.
A Nerd Like Me grew from 500 members on Facebook last year to almost 5,000 today. It now partners with local organizations, offers merchandise and plans events nearly every week.
McGahee started the group to focus on his passions, but he said promoting diversity is also a good business decision. Black and diverse communities have wanted representation in nerd culture for a long time, and they will spend money to see that.
‘I’m so glad you guys have black characters’
Leia Huddleston and her son Adam step toward me, moving past a poster of black female warriors from Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie. A necklace fashioned like one worn by the Black Panther shines from around Leia’s neck. Adam bears a faded “Green Lantern” shirt and carries action figures he created from pipe cleaners — renditions of popular anime characters turned into black men. We’re at the 2019 Lexington Comic & Toy Con, and the Huddlestons are here to sell posters, action figures and art.
The Huddleston family started merchandising about 10 years ago after Leia’s husband sold his art at a show in Chicago. Now the entire family is involved, with each contributing their own creations for sale.
Nerd culture used to be reserved for certain cliques, Leia said, but social media and the internet changed that. Now she says families want their kids to see diversity in it.
“We get that all the time, where families are like, ‘Oh I’m so glad you guys have black characters,’” she said. “They get them for their kids.”
Her son Adam said he would like to see more representation in anime and superhero roles, which could empower youth who identify with the characters.
In a nearby exhibit hall, Shawn Pryor is trying to expand representation his own way. Pryor is the creator and co-writer of the graphic novel “Cash & Carrie.” He also wrote the book “Kentucky Kaiju,” and wrote and co-created the comic book series “Force.”
Pryor has been making comics for more than a decade, and he said the comic book community is still majority-white. There has been progress towards changing that, but he said roadblocks have held many people back.
“For a lot of black folks, a lot of people of color, it was difficult for them to get in,” Pryor said. “The comic book industry itself is still massively white. In some ways it’s trying to get better, but still there’s that ‘good ‘ol boy’ network that they can’t let go of.”
He said many black youth are excited to see a person of color in a creative position like his, and he takes that opportunity to tell them how to get into the industry and offering connections to get there.
Such conversations can have a big effect. A similar talk with a black comic artist is what motivated Pryor to start in the industry.
“It also continues to be very inspiring for me because, let’s give something back to the youth and show them, ‘Yo, we can do this, too.’”
A Nerd Like Me’s Aaron McGahee is doing that through his work. He feels pride in making diverse representation normal, and tells others it is important to continue pushing for that.
“It’s important to remove those divisions because if we don’t we stifle our growth and we waste so much time,” McGahee said.
“If you’re a human and I’m a human, the divisions we have are created by us.”