'Geek renaissance' extends to 'bleeks'

'Geek renaissance' extends to 'bleeks'

URBANA — An urban fashion trend has taken hold among NBA stars, reminiscent of a certain '90s sitcom nerd.

Call it "Urkel" style. Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are sporting suspenders, cardigans, bow ties, even huge glasses.

And the hottest ticket at movie theaters these days is the "Avengers" series — based on the Marvel comics — led by super-spy Nick Fury (the ever-cool Samuel L. Jackson) and brainiac billionaire "Iron Man" Tony Stark.

It's all part of a "geek renaissance," including in the African-American community, said Keena Griffin, 22, a University of Illinois senior who counts himself among the black geeks, or "bleeks" for short.

The Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center is sponsoring "Black Geek Week" next week to celebrate academic achievement and "geek culture" in the black community — traits that are too often lost amid stereotypes of pop icons and athletic superstars, organizers say.

The theme: Smart is the new cool.

"Being a geek is popular," said Rory James, director of the UI African-American Cultural Center and a scientist by training. "People are letting their geek flag fly."

James said African-American cultural programs at the UI have always had a strong focus on the performing arts, with the Black Chorus and a WBML radio ("Where Black Music Lives"). He and his staff wanted to tap into other areas of interest to 21st-century students, who use computers and technology in their social lives through social media and even DJ'ing.

Given the popularity of the "Batman" series, "Avengers" and the television sitcom "Big Bang Theory" — and with urban fashion drawing on geek culture with preppy sweater vests, colorful ties and skinny jeans — the timing was perfect, he said.

James said academic achievement is sometimes played down in the African-American community, particularly for black males, who are accused of being weak if they're too "into the books."

The election of Barack Obama, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, as the nation's first black president has provided a "counter-narrative" to stories of urban violence or the black-white achievement gap, he said.

"He's cool. It's something not to be ashamed of," James said.

The schedule for Black Geek Week features exhibits of graphic novel art; panel discussions on "Women in Geek Culture" and African-American roles in science fiction; a "geek fair" for young girls to explore science and math-related fields, gaming and other areas; film screenings with black filmmakers; and a daylong "Black and Latino Male Summit."

Events will run from Monday through Saturday at different venues on campus. For a comprehensive schedule, go to: http://blackgeekweek.com.

One goal is to highlight areas of geek culture where African-Americans have succeeded for years but haven't been recognized, Griffin said.

One of the planning committee members was graphic novelist/artist John Jennings, a former UI professor now at the University at Buffalo. An exhibit of Jennings artwork will be on display at the Illini Union all week.

While the focus may be on black culture, the events are open to geeks of any background, Griffin said.

Geek culture encompasses more than technology, comic books or science fiction, he said.

"You can be a geek about anything," Griffin said. "Fantasy football started out as a geek thing."

Griffin, an English major who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, was a fan of Pokemon video games but had to hide it from friends who just wanted to talk about sports.

"If I didn't know who scored how many points from the game the night before, I didn't really have anybody to talk to," he said.

He played three sports in high school — baseball, football and wrestling — but also loves to draw and read Shakespeare. He's still into comic books and carries a copy of "Batman Year 1" in his backpack. He hopes to study educational policy in graduate school and become a school superintendent, focusing on educational reform in minority communities.

James, who received degrees in biology and public health, is a self-proclaimed horror-film geek, a trait he shares with his father. "Revenge of the Nerds" was one of his favorite movies.

"I was in band," he said. "I had a chess set. How many brothers on the South Side of Chicago had a chess set?"

He said society should celebrate students who are engineers and doctors as much as athletes and entertainers.

He thinks the growing availability of smart phones and tablets, even in lower-income areas with free broadband efforts, will help make that happen.

Black Geek Week is co-sponsored by the UI Department of African American Studies, Diversity and Social Justice Education Office, Illini Union, Institute for Computing in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Student Affairs and the Women's Resources Center.