‘Black Lightning’ gives hope to nerdy Black kids like me
In my journey of self-discovery and self-esteem, I had to contend with notions of what my Blackness should look like.
by Antoinette Gregg
This essay contains minor spoilers for Black Lightning.
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to check out Black Lightning last Tuesday night. I’ve been watching other CW shows like Arrow and The Flash, and I wondering what this leading Black man would have in store for us. It turned out that I was not at all ready for the rollercoaster ride that the pilot episode sent me on.
It begins with Nina Simone’s voice. Her rendition of “Strange Fruit” overlays a newscaster reporting on 125 gang-related shootings in the city of Freeland. Jefferson Pierce appears, portrayed by Cress Williams (Living Single). He awaits impatiently at a police station to pick up his daughter, Anissa. She has been arrested for protesting in a Ferguson style demonstrated with blazing fires and smashed car windows.
Pierce, Anissa, and his younger teenage daughter, Jennifer, get into their car and drive away from the station into the rainy night. In true Black father fashion, Pierce scolds Anissa, telling her that she should not have been in the streets. He quotes Dr. King to her, saying, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Without missing a beat, Anissa fires back with a quote from Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Three minutes. Less than three minutes into the show and I am already squealing over it and the familiar African American experiences being portrayed.
Suddenly, Pierce is pulled over for what is apparently the third time this month. He, of course, had done nothing wrong, but the officers approached him with a little old lady to ask if Pierce was “the guy.” A liquor store had just been robbed and they were out looking for the suspect. It wasn’t Pierce. He was dismissed and told to have a good night. The street light short circuits as his eyes flash with a luminescence. Only then do we see the title of the show come across the screen: Black Lightning.
I cried. As I sat and watched the pilot episode of Black Lightning, I cried. It was about more than the characters’ experiences and the story they found themselves in. I just kept thinking, finally. Finally, a fantastical Black show comes along on primetime television that uses everyday realities of being Black in America intertwined with superhero storylines. I’ve been waiting. We’ve been waiting. The Black nerds of yesteryear and now have been waiting.
Until now there have been no stand-alone Black superheroes to grace the television screen. Marvel’s Luke Cage is exclusively on the Netflix platform and is a part of a larger family of superheroes across various shows based on various comics. There have also been superhero stories with Black folks in supporting roles and some over the top crime-fighters (much like The Meteor Man) but they have mostly served as caricatures of Blackness.
Heroes like Batman and Superman have both had several different iterations of TV shows that helped to usher them into superhero iconography, along with comics and films. But what of Black superheroes like them? Have they been unworthy of primetime slots, or any slot at all? I believe that Black Lightning is proof that American television has waited far too long to finally put a Black superhero on our TVs.
A few years ago, there were headlines in major publications declaring that the “rise of the Black nerd” was upon us. How quaint. Much like the confusion I got when Justin Timberlake decided that he was bringing “SexyBack,” I wondered where all of us had gone and who got to determine that we were gone and now making a resurgence. By my reckoning, we have always been here.
Since I was very young I have been called a nerd. My love of all things Harry Potter, Star Trek, Doctor Who and other such sci-fi and fantasy-like entertainment was well-known and mostly rejected by everyone around me. I had one understanding cousin, Kevin, with whom I was able to stand in long lines for new Harry Potter books and race through reading them so we could talk about the newest adventures in the wizarding world.
I got eye-rolls from my mother and other family members who couldn’t stand when Kevin and I gushing over witchcraft. In school, I was awarded for being one of the highest Accelerated Readers in the state, but I was still teased, pushed, and taunted for excelling in this way. I’d open my mouth to speak and immediately some Black family member would ask, “Why are you talking white?” This being even more egregious in my neck of the woods because I’m not just a Black American, I’m Geechee to boot. Bypassing my patois and AAVE to speak “white” just compounded the harsh treatment I received.
To be well-versed in and appreciate fantastical things seemed to always call my Blackness into question and set me apart from the Black folks around me who didn’t cosign to my interests and hobbies. This made me a part of an isolated club of Black kids who poured into each other because many Black folk would not allow us to fully express ourselves.
I kept these friends throughout high school, and to this day we have an unspoken bond, though we may not speak as often as we used to. We helped to push and pull each other through the preteen and teenage upheaval as we were surrounded by both Black and white students who refused to see us as fully Black. If it wasn’t for the Black nerds that I called my friends, who made me feel at home with myself, I’m sure I would have succumbed to any number of fates.
In my journey of self-discovery and self-esteem, I had to contend with notions of what my Blackness should look like, and I know for sure that it does not have to be a stereotypical Blackness in order to be valid and accepted.
Now, I see celebrity Blerds like Issa Rae getting so much recognition for their creativity and talent. I remember her writing “Black Folks Don’t Like to Be Told They’re Not Black” for the Huffington Post, in which she talked about her own experiences with being teased for the kind of nerdy child that she was. To see her flourish now with her personality intact is amazing. It helped me to understand that sticking to who I am, with all the interests that I have, is one of the greatest things that I can do. It has helped me to fully appreciate and understand the myriad of ways my people wear their Blackness.
It makes me proud to sit in front of my TV on Tuesday nights and finally have a television show with out-of-this-world awesomeness that has Black American experience at the center.
For Jefferson Pierce, his fight is very much about his daughters. For me, it’s about my nephews and little cousins. I want to give them and help them find their own fantastic dreams for what they can accomplish for their future. I am hopeful that Black folks will continue to fight for more of the kind of representation that Black Lightning gives us, and I’m hopeful that even more nerdy Black kids like me will find their liberation through the kind of Black nerd representation that I never did.