What started as 30 cosplayers dressed in their costumes in 2015 is now an annual event for African Americans attending DragonCon each year.
Channing Scott Sherman saw a need for a small demographic of convention attendees going against the status quo of Black stereotypes to come together for an unofficial DragonCon group photo.
Last month, over 400 Black Geeks gathered at the steps behind the Hilton Hotel to continue this tradition and celebrate their individuality.
Black Nerds, POC Nerds, Blerds, Cosplayers of Color, or Black Geeks are what Sherman and others from the African Diaspora call themselves within the cosplay fanverse.
Through the years, society has defined a “nerd” as a socially awkward white male who enjoys comic books, action figures, and playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” and was portrayed as that in TV and films.
It was in the early 80s when Black actors were cast to play one in “Revenge of the Nerds,” which opened the door for other pop culture legends such as Dwayne Wayne in “A Different World,” Carlton Banks in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” and Steve Urkle in “Family Matters.”
“A Blerd is really no different than a hardcore football fan,” Sherman said. “They’re going to dress up and paint their faces before they go to a game.”
When growing up, Sherman said that he wanted to spend his time playing G.I. Joe and reading comic books rather than playing sports.
When he worked at a newspaper in Augusta in 2007, he saw pictures from the annual DragonCon parade posted on the Associated Press feed. His fascination with the event motivated him to attend his first DragonCon the following year. Through the years, Sherman sought to find others who looked like him. So when he did, he would make sure to take their picture.
By 2010, his interest in picture-taking became an obsession, so he would chase people down throughout the hotel lobbies and down the street.
He came up with the idea that all Black Geeks should take a group photo in 2015. Around 30 people showed up at Harvey Ivy Park, across from the Hyatt Regency, to mark an annual event during DragonCon.
He also created the Black Geeks of DragonCon Facebook page to keep everyone connected and invite others to join their tribe.
This year, Black Geeks made up for less than a percent of the over 70,000 attendees who flooded the streets of Downtown Atlanta, making them a minority in one of the Blackest cities in the country.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘thank you and your friends for doing this,’” Sherman said. “Even if they didn’t know that there were this many Black Geeks or had felt marginalized, they were ignored by photographers at other conventions, and this was a place where they didn’t have to worry about that.”
People spend months creating their costumes for DragonCon, and Black Geeks have been known for wearing impressive designs that wow everyone around them.
“DragonCon has some of the best Black cosplay you’ll see,” said Greg Burnham, an independent comic book writer who featured his work at the con’s Artist Alley this year. He and his business partner Marcus travel to other conventions every weekend promoting their new projects and editions like his latest book series, “The Search for Sadiqah.”
When he would enter the convention space, he would feel uncomfortable being one of the few Black content creators there. Now, with more African Americans embracing their geeky side, he says that others, including himself, are more comfortable with their “Blackness” at these events.
“No one is looking over their shoulder wondering what people think of them, and that’s one of the things that was an early mission for us to make it to where this is commonplace,” Burnham said.
“The Search for Sadiqah,” on sale now at Challenges Comics and Games inside Northlake Mall, features a 13-year-old girl fleeing the Black Wall Street Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla., and heads on a quest to find a mythical place and the many encounters she endures.
Seeing cosplayers dress up as characters from “Sadiqah” or his other comic, “Tuskegee Heirs,” is surreal for Burnham, which reminds him of how he would dress up as Luke Skywalker with a makeshift lightsaber as his prop.
“I was talking to this little girl for like five minutes before I realized she’s cosplaying one of my characters,” Burnham said. “When kids do it, it knocks me out!”
He’s also happy that Black Geeks, like Candace Bazemore, are now comfortable roaming the convention floors as their unapologetically Black self.
Bazemore, the Director of Digital Strategy at Morehouse College, who describes herself as “the coolest geek you’ll ever meet,” loved dressing up in costumes during Halloween, so the love for cosplaying came easy to her when she became an adult.
She was introduced to it in 2007 when a friend told her about a DragonCon event where people tried to break the Guinness Book of World record for the most people in the same room wearing Star Trek costumes.
Volunteering at the con every year, Bazemore has seen the diversity of the organization and the visitors grow firsthand.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of efforts made by DragonCon to be more inclusive,” Bazemore said. “One of their primary things is to be kind, love all people and be nice to everybody is one of the things that is a part of the DragonCon philosophy.”
This year, Sherman was invited to a panel discussion on the diversity of DragonCon with other Black Geeks pictured in the first photo in 2015 and talked about how the TV nerds of the 90s influenced him.
“Dwayne Wayne was a personal hero of mine because I was a huge nerd, especially at the show’s start,” he said. “He had a — lack of a better term — gotten cooler throughout the show, but he was still smart and educated and passionate about nerdy things and got the girl!”
Black Geeks show that African Americans are not a monolith and are multifaceted in many ways, enhancing the culture to be what it is today.
“We shouldn’t just be relegated to things that seemed stereotypical, like going to a basketball game. If I want to be a Black Nerd and geek out at a con dressed as a member of a Hogwarts house — team Gryffindor, by the way — I should be able to do that,” Bazemore said.
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