We at The Geek Embassy want to acknowledge and celebrate Black History Month. Black folks have a significant and bright place in United States history that is often overlooked. However, we’re a geek & nerd culture website, so we focus today on the contribution that black people made to nerd spaces!
Zora Ball & Kimberly Bryant
So when I was 7, my biggest accomplishment was not burning my house down. Unfortunately, amateur programmer Zora Ball makes me look like a chump. Zora is the youngest person to ever develop a mobile game. She also silenced doubters by reprogramming the game on the fly during a student science fair. Zora represents a major step forward for both women AND black people in science, technology, electronics, and mathematics (STEM). She wastes no time and stakes her claim as a harbinger of the tech industry imminent future.
I want to also highlight another black woman in STEM here. Zora’s future career path will be, in part, made possible by the work of Kimberly Bryant. Ms. Bryant foundednon-profit organization Black Girls Code to provide outreach, opportunity, and training to black females breaking into STEM. We’d be remiss to omit Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson’s contributions to black women in STEM. Their history is documented in 2016’s non-fiction work Hidden Figures, which you all should go read immediately. I could go on about them forever, but I have so many other awesome nerds to get to.
Octavia E. Butler
When you talk big names in science-fiction novels, there is a litany of people who come up first. Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, H.G. Wells, & Philip K. Dick all immediately spring to mind. It’s only after you make it past the first 7 or 8 that most of us remember that Octavia E. Butler is an award-winning sci-fi author. Her novel Kindred deals with racism and preaches empathy to those who have suffered unimaginable trauma. Most of Butler’s greatest fiction (like most great sci-fi authors) comes with layers of social commentary. Butler’s works are revolutionary simply because she was one of the, if not THE, most successful black sci-fi authors (not to mention female) in a field dominated by white men.
Let’s also remember that Butler received 4 Nebula Award nominations during her lifetime and won two of them, in addition to receiving two Hugo Award nominations and winning both. Octavia Butler is, in my view, one of the most underrated authors of the sci-fi genre. People of color and women have a place in science-fiction today because Octavia Butler blasted through the glass ceiling.
Leonard Cooper & Colby Burnett
Jeopardy! is pretty much my favorite show of all time, so naturally I want to talk about it in this article. Sure, Jeopardy! is not extraordinarily important to American history, but it’s a cultural icon that makes nerds cool. Leonard Cooper won the 2013 Jeopardy! Teen Tournament in hilarious fashion and while he’s certainly not the first black person to win a Jeopardy! tournament, he’s certainly one of the most memorable. Cooper came back from a $14,000 deficit after day 1 of the 2-day tournament finals. He won the whole thing on the back of a gutsy $18,000 Daily Double wager. He currently plans to attend medical school to be a psychiatrist.
I also want to speak a little bit about a history teacher from Chicago named Colby Burnett. Again, I’m unsure if he’s the first black person to ever win a Jeopardy! tournament, but he does have one record in the history books. Burnett is the first contestant to win both the Jeopardy! Teachers’ Tournament AND the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. What’s more is that he won them both inside of a year. He’s got some serious mental chops.
Lonnie Johnson might not be a household name, but if you grew up in the 90s then I am positive you know his invention: the Super Soaker. Johnson worked for NASA and the United States Air Force as a nuclear engineer. Yes, you read that correctly. The man who invented the Super Soaker is literally a rocket scientist. Did I mention that Johnson later went on to sell designs for bigger, better Nerf dart guns to Hasbro? No? Okay, now you know. Lonnie Johnson is the undisputed king of toys in the 1990s. Super Soakers and Nerf guns continue to sell today and turned one brainiac into a very rich man. Today, Johnson owns his own research company where he develops advanced energy technology.
The fight for “equal pay for equal work” is at an all-time high in recent years, and Erica Baker is one of the names you should know. She’s a whistleblower who put together a spreadsheet of freely-volunteered data about Google employees’ salaries in 2015. This spreadsheet exposed wage inequities across gender and racial lines, and many under-compensated Googlers got themselves raises from Baker’s idea. After assembling the world’s most famous Google spreadsheet, she went on to work with Slack for 2 years as a senior engineer. As of September 2017, Baker is a senior engineering manager for Patreon. And in case she’s not already amazing enough, Baker is part of the board of directors for Girl Develop It, a nonprofit that helps women get into web and software development. I’m pretty sure she turned the nerd level up to 9,000.
Nichelle Nichols needs no introduction. The iconic actress originated the role of Uhura on Star Trek and played her on TV and in film for 25 years. Nichols’ importance to Star Trek, to science-fiction, and to black actresses is immense. Her casting in 1966 came in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. It offered a vision of an inclusive future where humanity evolved beyond racism and prejudice. Detractors say that Uhura was just a glorified secretary who answered the space telephone. However, having a black woman as one of the Kirk’s senior officers spoke volumes for racial and gender representation. Nichols also shared the United States’ first on-screen interracial kiss (with Shatner) in 1969, and drew heaps of strong reactions.
Nichols’ presence on Star Trek was so important to the perception of black people in pop culture that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. personally spoke with Nichols when he discovered that she considered leaving Star Trek to sing on Broadway. Nichols is a symbol and icon to all black actors and actresses who came after her. She paved the way for future Star Trek actors Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Whoopi Goldberg, Avery Brooks, Tim Russ, Zoe Saldana, and Sonequa Martin-Green. However, Nichols’ influence doesn’t stop with Trek. Black people in genre films and TV all benefit from Nichols’ trailblazing. The list is immense, including the likes of Laurence Fishburne, John Boyega, Billy Dee Williams, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Aisha Tyler, and Candice Patton.
To the Readers!
Who are some of your favorite black nerds in pop culture or subculture today?! Did I miss anyone obvious? We’d love to hear from you! Please leave us a comment below, talk to us on Facebook, or tweet @TheGeekEmbassy and @DanteInformal! Until next time, get your geek on!
Dante is the resident comic book savant of The Geek Embassy. He’s been reading comics for as long as he can remember, and now that he’s a librarian he gets to advocate for comics in libraries and get paid for it. He’s also a tabletop gaming fan, especially those that involve cards, with favorites including Sentinels of the Multiverse, Magic: The Gathering, Bang!, Smash Up, Star Realms, and 7 Wonders. Dante is a library professional at Portland Community College in Hillsboro, OR.