I won’t call BlerDCon 2017 a family reunion. Growing up, when fellow Black friends spoke with fondness of their family reunions I was always baffled; as a child (unaware at the time of my class and lightskinned privilege) I chalked up the inevitable struggle to connect with my cousins as due to my nerdy nature and I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience. Instead I will borrow from one of the most famous Black nerds of our generation, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and call it damn near the Mecca of Black nerdom, although “I am not so sure that the force of my Mecca— The Mecca —can be translated into [non-Black] tongue.”
It’s no wonder that several participants were confused about this being the con’s first year. For one, while I was hesitant about the Crystal City location (not exactly the most happening of places in the DMV), I was pleasantly surprised by the several beautiful floors blocked out in the Hyatt including a gaming room packed with consoles and arcade games, several panel rooms, a vending area took up a good two large rooms (leaving plenty of space for different body types), and even a top floor in conjunction with the restaurant for a Maid Cafe. As a particularly introverted Black nerd I was also appreciative that the schedule was so in depth and yet I didn’t feel like I had to stay up every night for the concerts and dances or risk missing all the action the way I’ve felt at other cons.
[quote_right]”…I was also appreciative that the schedule was so in depth and yet I didn’t feel like I had to stay up every night for the concerts and dances or risk missing all the action…”[/quote_right]Speaking of, I would be remiss if I did not praise the panels, arguably one of the most exceptional executions in terms of breadth of subject matter I’ve seen at a convention. I will be the first to admit that this was the first con I’ve ever been truly excited to attend panels for outside of a specific guest or nostalgia, and more than once I had to choose between rooms because there were so many good subjects! My first panel on Friday was “Anime vs Hip Hop: A Concert Panel with Tribute to Nujabes and Other Warrior Producers and MCs” with locally-based legends DJ AAROCK and rapper Substantial. Both had an impressive catalogue of many of the places Hip-Hop and anime had crossed over (from original sampling the Attack on Titans theme to of course, the loving homage to Hip-Hop culture in Samurai Champloo) and an intimate look at pivotal performers as human beings. As Black people, and especially as artists, I think it’s so rare that we are allowed the space to casually cut up in front of an audience and in the same breath talk about the tolls that an early and sudden death like Nujabes’ take on our psyche and relationship to viewing our own legacy. Similarly, my next panel “The Future of Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Fiction” with William Jones (founder of the Afrofuturism Network), author K Ceres Wright, actor Chad Eric Smith, comic creator Jaycen Wise, and author LH Moore felt like equal parts the ideal college lecture and sitting around the kitchen table listening to the “grown folks” breaking down concepts you didn’t even know you needed to know. When I tell you my fingers were flying with the livetweets trying to catch all the gems (some of which you can find here)! I don’t want to go to another writing conference ever again if it can’t make me reevaluate my whole life the way this one quote does:
"Your very existence, walking, living, breathing in 2017 is science fiction to our ancestors."
— Lauren Bullock (@LBullockPoetry) June 30, 2017
Phew! The type of Gospel you need a church fan for.
For the rest of the weekend’s panels I expanded on my own personal intersections. On Saturday I checked out “Asian American Nerddom and the Quest for Cool” (with Jo Fu, Joe Wang, Kim Nguyen, and Jamie Noguchi), “Rick And Morty: The Adventures of Bryan Newton,” and “In the Trenches: How to Educate the Well-Intended on Social Justice and Diversity” (with Pros and Cons Cosplay, Brichibi Cosplay, Oona Sura, and Everybody Loves Tony Ray). “Asian American Nerddom” was especially important to me as they not only discussed ways that Asian Americans have helped each other in pop culture, such as Lucy Liu advocating on behalf Cung Le in Man With the Iron Fists, but ways that people within the Asian diaspora can be good allies to Black people and aid in the Black Lives Matter movement. Bryan Newton was a joy to listen to and I was shocked to hear later during the community feedback that in twelve years in the industry he had never felt appreciated for his talents to this extent (also, yes, the rumors are true: he literally stood in line to give feedback like everyone else and reportedly kept refusing special guest treatment. Goals). As for the “In The Trenches” panel, you can read in depth about both it and the cosplay culture from Monica Hunasikatii, but needless to say any room that allows people of color to vent together about very real needs and grievances should be mandatory at every convention.
Sunday I had just enough time to sit in on the “LGBT Responsibility in Comics and Pop Culture” By LGBT HQ (Matthew Levine, Jay Justice, Danny Lantern, and Nico J Vasilo), but even beyond the panel LGBT HQ’s presence was palpably felt throughout the convention. They reinforced the safety that many of us lack even within our own communities of color. I was notably dazzled by how inclusive of different orientations this group is; for instance, when I asked how they felt about Greg Rucka specifically calling Wonder Woman “queer” as a general term, I received a lot of positive response and acknowledgement of the fluidity of identity, something I sometimes find lacking at cons where something like yaoi fetishism can be so ingrained.
[quote_left]”I was notably dazzled by how inclusive of different orientations this group [lgbt hq] is…”[/quote_left]One thing I made sure to do before leaving was to attend the community feedback Q&A panel because, while like many attendees I am incredibly grateful for this experience, there were a few places that could be improved upon. One thing I think is important to consider for next year is ways that non-Black-centered cons cannot (and perhaps should not) “translate” to this space. For instance, is there a way to make this con inclusive without white and white passing cosplayers carrying around weapons? Even though I know that the props have been checked at the front, there was more than one occasion where a fair-skinned cosplayer with a gun would startle me from illusion of safety BlerDCon provides and immediately sending me back into every day fight-or-flight mode, even if only for a split second, and some attendees urged staff to “beef up security” for this reason. Others voiced pushing back against cissexism and suggested that pronouns be available on registration to avoid misgendering at the check in table and the cosplay contest.
Still, much like Coates’ original “the Mecca” (Howard University), I’m amazed at how much talent and Black brilliance is located right in the DC area. With year one under their belts, I look forward to seeing how the amazing staff continue to forge the legacy of a “con of love” that BlerDCon has set out to be.
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Brandon W Mckay
My name is Brandon Mckay and I am currently doing some academic research on black nerd culture and the effect of black nerd teachers. I wanted to say that I love this article and am actually focusing my academic research on the black nerd as a role model. I would love to speak with you on your experience at blerd con and your ideas on how a black nerd is defined!