Notes From A Black Nerd's Memoir

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 9:12 AM EST

John McWhorter has a quickie in New York magazine arguing that Obama's election will destroy, or at least complicate, blacks' ability to ostracize other blacks for being smart and working hard.

(Ta-Nehisi Coates has loads of fun with that here.)

I, too, used to regale any passerby with tales of my own ostracization for being smart. Did that til my 30's. Then, I grew up and realized that I often told these tales, much enhanced, as a plausibly deniable way of talking about how smart I am. (I also usually left out spitefully speaking in French to the dumbest girl in school, or viciously correcting my classmates' English. I guess it was just me who did those things. All the smart black kids are saints, all the non-smart ones Neanderthals.) McWhorter (with whom I'm chummy when we infrequently cross paths and whose work I support, albeit with caveats. Like this entry), nods to those like me who question this but concludes, "[sociological] work has shown that black students do in fact have fewer social connections the higher their grades, to a much greater extent than white students." White students with equally high grades? And besides, if most nerds, whatever their race, spent as much time alone as I do (then and now), lost in books, un-assigned experiments, furious arguments with newspapers and TV pundits, Star Trek arcania, and debating every minor point uttered offhand within earshot, it might explain that pesky lack of "social connections."

Hello, smart kids spend a lot of time studying, something only other nerds want to participate in.

Glad as I am that Obama's win will undoubtedly lead (finally!) to a focus on black interiority and an examination of our complexity, not just what white folks are doing to us on any given day, I'm frustrated with such uninterrogated formulations. This is a good beginning, but we need to complicate it; negroes are no easier to understand than any other group.

The notion that smart blacks are tormented by other blacks until and unless they dumb down and force themselves to be stupid is both insulting and far too easy. Here's why.

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It just can't be that I was the only smart black kid in the 'hood who was mildly ostracized, mostly as a backhanded compliment. Sure, they made fun of our duct-taped glasses (as I write this, I'm wearing one of my seven pairs of reading glasses with only one arm), our misbuttoned shirts and the shoes I absentmindedly put on the wrong feet til I was 11 or so. What can I say, my head was always in a book. I was famous for tripping up and down the stairs, lost in my own thoughts, and I got parodied a lot. Bien sur, we avoided dances, knowing we'd be laughed at for flubbing The Skate and The Bump (in my day, dances had names and fairly specific moves). And for saying 'bien sur'.

My being a girl makes a difference, I know, but lots of the other smart black kids were f'd with in a way that just amounted to your basic hazing. We were like mascots, the way doctors and nurses are in the military (they can't salute or about-face for shit and we always chuckled more or less affectionately when they tried). But they are, as we were, regarded as special, if somewhat wacky.

People called me "Negro Einstein" and yelled, "Hey, brainiac! What's 1245 time yo mama!" Usually, it was like asking the tallest guy at school what the temperature was up there. Very dark kids, fat kids, ugly girls, and kids who came to school hungry and dirty had it much, much, much worse. My brother was tortured because the girls loved his curly "good" hair. Girls with "good" hair were loathed, and in constant danger of getting it cut off in the locker room. Being the smart kid almost certainly meant you weren't the far more numerous kids lured into truancy, drugs, sex or crime. Why not worry more about them?

On my way home through the hood, with my spine warped by a double load of freely chosen extra credit books, a knucklehead often blocked my path and demanded to know "which book about white people" I was reading that day. Even as a fourth, fifth, six grader, etc., both their pride in me and their own personal wistfulness was palpable. They wanted to know what Great Expectations was about, wanted that I would read it instead of hanging on the corner with them. I could often see them wishing that maybe they'd read it too when it was assigned two grades back. Maybe their lives would be different if they had.

When I served as a USAF linguist in S. Korea, most blacks GIs, upon hearing me speak to the locals, would give me a "you go, girl!" But, every few months, some brother (and it was always a man) would react with surprise, then recover by snarling "Tom!" at me. When they learned I was at Harvard it was, "I guess Howard wasn't good enough for you."

It couldn't be more obvious that torturing successful blacks is more about envy and regret than an actual embrace of ignorance and failure.

Let's just think about this a minute: Of what other group in the annals of history could it really be believed that they prefer failure to success? Really?

We're talking about adolescents here, people. Who do they torture? The people they envy and the people they feel superior to.

Wanna know how we can be sure of that? Do the same knuckleheads that supposedly beat up each and every one of us smart kids for acting white then embrace the black literature that is assigned? Fond as we are of "outing" famous whites as "really" black, do they then devour Pushkin and Dumas and, hey, let's throw Beethoven in there? Dutifully study the black history now so readily available? Master algebra, once informed that it was invented by Arabs and not whitey? Chow down on physics now that the most famous astronomerin the country is a brother?

No, they fail everything equally because they don't believe they can learn, and because they think there's something fundamentally deficient in them since that black kid over there is excelling. We excel at sports because we believe we can—nobody beats up the basketball star, do they?

So, rather than facing the yearning and the yawning failure churning inside them as the smart kids march into their futures, they hide behind a know-nothing "racial pride." What are they supposed to say when beating up the valedictorian: "You make me feel like a failure?" "God, I wish I was going to the Ivy League like you?" No. They say, "Tom."

Is it really more likely that failing students are happy to be so and think the Science Fair winner is 'dragging us all down'? Really?

What bothers me most about this is blacks buying into something so pitifully transparent.