Just a few years ago, there was no such thing as a black girl or woman, who was also a nerd. There was “no such thing,” in the same way that there were no black actors deserving of Oscar nominations, and in the same way that there are no black women who like comic books, or suffer from depression. There were no black girl nerds in the same way that there were no black women who had an impact on the great American story of N.W.A., and in the same way that there have been no black women filmmakers worthy of an Oscar.
In February 2012, Jamie Broadnax Googled “black girl nerds,” and there were, literally, no results. According to our modern-day authority on all things, black girl nerds didn’t exist, and so Broadnax decided to make them: Let there be black girl nerds. Of course, most of us know the black girl nerds were already there to begin with, in the same way that there were black actors deserving of Oscar nominations in 2015, and in the same way that there black women whose stories should have been told in Straight Outta Compton. But erasure has been a tool consistently and effectively used against black girls and women, which is why we consider those people working actively against those systems of erasure to be heroes. As the BGN community continues to grow, we salute Jamie Broadnax, one of the most important makers of 2016.
What’s fascinating about the writer and social media maven, who has a Masters Degree in Film and Marketing, is that she had no idea that what she was making would have such an incredible impact. She admits that she had “no long-term vision” of building a huge online community or social media movement, when she first started Black Girl Nerds.
“The vision was: ‘black girl nerds’ is not on Google. Let me create a blog with that term.”
There’s a wonderful scene from The Great Debaters, where Denzel Washington’s character tells his black students that if they don’t like the way American English is constructed so as to often denigrate blacks, they might try writing their own dictionaries. Broadnax did precisely this, with one term and one space that has grown to encompass so much more than she expected.
”[It] went from being a blog about me and my personal musings, to a website filled with tons of content and several different perspectives—a lifestyle magazine of sorts,” Broadnax says. “I never expected that it would grow to be this. I never thought I’d be podcasting, ever. I never thought I’d be doing public speaking, or making TV appearances.”
When asked if the site has exceeded all of her expectations, she responds with a firm, “Hells yeah.”
Like many others who’ve become fans of Broadnax’s work and the community she’s built, I didn’t go out seeking a space for black girls who identify as nerds, or who are active participants in geek culture. I was on Twitter, most likely on a night when Scandal or Sleepy Hollow was airing, discovered one of her many signature hashtags (even the directors and showrunners of these huge series use them), and couldn’t resist joining in the conversation. From that point on, I was always checking in on BGN to see what the conversation was about for that day. Broadnax amazed me because it seemed like, no matter when I logged on, she was already on Twitter, leading a dialogue about an upcoming premiere, a recent TV episode, a comic book with a compelling black character, and just about any and everything else that Black Twitter was taking on that day. And Broadnax has had the pleasure of watching these very real and organic conversations unfold on her platform, and then trickle down to the TV shows she and her followers are discussing. Tai Gooden has written about the great impact of the Blerd community on TV, but the message bears repeating: Broadnax and the blerds have incredibly prominent voices that reach beyond Black Twitter and into the TV writing rooms, production teams and casting agencies.
“Black Twitter is a force—we are a huge, influential, changing, evolving force of nature,” Broadnax declares. “The fact that live-tweeting is having an impact, and not only changing the way we watch television, but changing the narrative of what we’re seeing on television, [is proof that] TV is trying to be more appealing to people of color.”
One of my favorite examples of the force of Black Girl Nerds and the space that Broadnax has created for them, is last year’s take-down of Matt Damon, after he told black filmmaker Effie Brown that diversity behind the camera is irrelevant. Broadnax created the hilarious hashtag #Damonsplaining and, before long, Black Twitter had the story trending. In another world, and in another time, Damon’s comments might have been swept under the rug, or written off as a minor guffaw. Instead, his name got co-opted, and then dragged through the Twitterverse, because, once again, Broadnax took it upon herself to call attention to the attempted erasure of a group of people—in this case, the women of color and women directors represented by Effie Brown. For Broadnax, it’s important to acknowledge the direct relationship between conversations about the inclusion of black perspectives everywhere, and social media.
“TV executives are taking note and saying, ‘We need to pay attention to what online communities are saying.’ I don’t know why the film industry isn’t doing this,” Broadnax says. “The film industry is like Facebook, and TV is like Twitter. Twitter is very progressive and ahead of the curve.”
One need only look at the recent SAG Award winners, to see the vast difference. Broadnax’s personal favorite black, female TV character is Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating. After accepting her SAG, Davis said, “We have become a society of trending topics. Diversity is not a trending topic.” In a way, she echoed Ava DuVernay’s recent statements about the problem with the word and how it has somehow come to further marginalize the people it was originally meant to defend. It is now, arguably, an emotionless concept that doesn’t speak to the real issue, which for Broadnax, is that there simply aren’t enough black characters—especially black women characters—who have the nuance we see in white characters all of the time. It’s for this reason that we celebrate those few who are breaking the mold.
“Annalise Keating is crushing stereotypes, in some way, every single episode, and we can attribute that to [How to Get Away with Murder creator] Pete Nowalk and [producer] Shonda Rhimes,” she says. “I really love Abbie Mills from Sleepy Hollow, which is an amazing show. She is very much a character that we need to see more of, because she also crushes stereotypes; she’s a nuanced, fully-fleshed out, three-dimensional character who’s not just reduced to a trope. It is so important for black women to see themselves in so many different frameworks.”
And this is, again, where her work comes in. Broadnax puts in some very long hours, every day, to keep the well-oiled machine that is the BGN site moving. Perhaps the biggest shock of the interview comes when she tells me that she actually has a full-time job, outside of running the site and all its components.
“I have a regular 9-5 job, because I have bills to pay,” she explains. “BGN is not lucrative enough to where I can do this full-time.”
Of course, the reality is that she does put in full-time hours, between live-tweeting shows, daily Twitter conversations, interviews, conventions, the podcast, editing and publishing the articles on the blog and managing the recently-launched YouTube page. Jamie Broadnax is the definition of rise and grind, but she’s also willing to admit that, ideally, she’d be rising and grinding with a little more rest.
“I want to be able to do everything that I’m doing at BGN on a full-time basis.”
Her other goal is to continue building and expanding upon the myriad voices she already has represented on the blog. Broadnax makes it clear that BGN doesn’t just speak to those self-identified black girl nerds, and she will always be working towards more and more inclusion. Her community, now well-established, is not simply for black women and women of color with nerd leanings. She proudly states that her many contributors are not just black women.
“I don’t ever want to be exclusive and marginalize people, just because I’m now in a position of possibly being a gatekeeper,” Broadnax says. I’m not going to do to other people what’s been done to me.” Instead, she’s incorporating various perspectives in hopes of providing a fuller, more compelling picture of the fans who are, along with her, making and remaking TV and other media.
And isn’t that a novel idea? A person in a position to make a world according to her vision, decides to be as inclusive as possible, and still manages to speak to her core followers. This is what happens when a maker creates a space, like Black Girl Nerds, that has a foundation, but maintains flexible boundaries for other voices to help create and re-create that space. This is what happens when a black woman, like Jamie Broadnax, simply decides to write her own dictionary, and re-make the world, beginning with her own image.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about what she’s done is the fact that she’s compelled countless others to do the same. So, if you ever find yourself saying or thinking “black girls don’t—” or “there really are no black women who—” stop yourself. Think of Jamie Broadnax. And go create that space.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon, Heart&Soul and Shadow and Act. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.