Revenge of the Blerds

Blerd History Month: Check out the black nerds from the 1800s through the first half of the 20th century.

Carver (National Geographic); Patterson (; Johnson (PBS); Ormes (Post-Gazette)
Carver (National Geographic); Patterson (; Johnson (PBS); Ormes (Post-Gazette)

(The Root) — Welcome back to The Root’s Blerd History Month series. If you’re just joining us, we’re taking a humorous look at the origins of the “blerd” — the black nerd — which has recently become a thing. The Internet has been all abuzz with blerds over the past several months, and we want to see blerds win. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, so we’re doing our part to educate the masses.

Our first installment examined the birth of the blerd, dating it not to Steve Urkel’s first snort but to America’s very beginning, woven into the fabric of Betsy Ross’ iconic flag. As the new nation of America set about its journey of self-discovery, wearing dark clothes and listening to way too much Marilyn Manson, so, too, did blerds busy themselves with finding their place in the young republic. The first blerds latched fast onto reading and writing; the next crop fashioned spears from their pencils and pocket protectors from their pages and asked America the question: “And ain’t I a big fan of rhetoric and the scientific theory?”

From the late 1860s to the early 1900s, blerds across the nation were totally big on education. You know that kid who always reminded the teacher of last night’s homework assignment when said teacher, clearly hung over, was keen to just let the class watch Jumanji for the fifth time? That was the blerd of this time period. It was during this era, too, that George Washington Carver invented the peanut (more or less). You’ve gotta be pretty blerdy to invent an entire type of legume.

It was also during this era that America saw its first black college graduate. In 1862 Mary Jane Patterson was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree at Oberlin College in Ohio. If there’s one things blerds love, it’s school, and after she finished college she dedicated her life to improving the state of education for blacks. She is not very well known in the annals of history, but that’s OK. Real blerds move in silence, like pneumatology.

Patterson paved the way for scores of other blerds, folks like Rebecca Ann Crumpler, who, in 1864, became the first black woman to receive a medical degree; the Rev. Patrick Francis Healy, who broke barriers in 1865 when he earned a Ph.D.; and Evelyn Boyd Granville and Marjorie Lee Browne, the first black women to earn doctorates in mathematics. Ah, math; she is a powerful mistress, no?

We could continue talking about all the blerds who earned degrees, but we’d be here for as long as Methuselah was alive. Instead, let’s change directions and talk about Jack Johnson for a bit. Your eyes do not deceive you — that does say Jack Johnson.

The Jack Johnson. The Galveston Giant. The first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, who fought in the ring from 1878 to 1928 and is best-known for beating people up and dating various and sundry white women. What’s a womanizing jock doing in a discussion of blerds?

Johnson holds two patents: one for improvements made to the common wrench, and another for an anti-theft device for vehicles. It’s common knowledge that holding a patent to anything automatically qualifies you as a nerd (or blerd, where applicable).

Something else that gets you automatic blerd status? Comics. Every black person at Comic-Con should know E. Simms Campbell, whose 1930s illustrations made him the first published black cartoonist, but few do; and even fewer know of Jackie Ormes, whose work was published from the late 1930s to the 1950s in publications such as the Chicago Defender and who is heralded by many as the first black female cartoonist. The next time you’re cosplaying through the streets of Gotham, please remember to sprinkle a little bit of credit to your patron saints.