HARRIET TUBMAN, “HONEST” ABE and THOMAS ALVA EDISON: Movies and the Age of Steam
Movies in the Age of Steam
The age of motion pictures – or movies (“moving pictures”) – began at the end of the nineteenth century with the invention – and patenting – of a device called a Kinetoscope, an early motion picture exhibition device designed for films to be viewed individually through the window of a cabinet housing its components. This device was conceptualized by Thomas Edison and developed by his employee, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, in 1890.
The Kinetoscope allowed a series of transparencies to be recorded sequentially onto a single strip of negative film. Once this film was developed, printed and replayed at original recording speed, it created the illusion of moving pictures.
Once the technology was perfected, business-minded men pounced upon it like sharks on a sea lion, opening nickelodeons – the first type of indoor exhibition space dedicated to showing projected motion pictures with the Kinetoscope (usually set up in converted storefronts, these small, simple theaters charged five cents for admission, thus the name) – across the United States.
A third of these businessmen – being the smart sharks that they were – pilfered Edison’s work and built “Kinetoscopes” of their own. Patent laws and other such inconvenient balderdash be damned!
Another third – being the not-so-smart, but gangsta, sharks that they were – stole Edison’s equipment and set up shop.
The remaining third – being the wiser-than-their-brethren sharks that they were – actually purchased the equipment legally and in strict adherence to U.S. patent laws.
Edison took everyone who violated his patent to court and won every suit – being the relentless and ruthless shark hunter that he was.
The up-and-coming sharks – all based on the East Coast, within a seashell’s throw of Edison’s lawyers – figured, correctly, that being so close, they would only be caught and jailed, or fined heavily, if they pilfered from old Tom Alva.
So, the sharks fled the East Coast and swam west to avoid scrutiny by Edison’s agents, or by government officials.
Since sunny California was as far west as they could travel and still be in the good old U.S. of A, that is where most of the sharks permanently set up shop.
This “second gold rush” led to a flood of silent movies pouring out of California.
These films were the work of such men as Cecil B. DeMille; Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount; and William Fox, founder of what is now Twentieth Century Fox.
Since most of California was still undeveloped at that time, most of the films made in the wild, wild, west were, well…westerns.
Filmmakers who created westerns had no need for elaborate sets. They only needed a couple of horses, a couple of stars – one, tin; the other, a celebrity who earned a whopping five dollars per film – a doe-eyed damsel in distress, some open land and a hill or two.
Many filmmakers simply purchased a vacant lot, erected a few rudimentary sets – which they recycled from movie to movie – and called it a studio. To this day, film studios are still called lots – a carryover from their humble beginnings.
Movies set in the Age of Steam
Released June 22 worldwide, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opened third in the box office behind two animated movies – Brave and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (just can’t compete with the kiddy movies, unless you’re the Dark Knight or the Amazing Spider-Man).
And if you just cannot get enough of Abraham Lincoln offing the undead, check out Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. If you can stay awake, you just might enjoy a chuckle or two.
On the (shark) tails of ol’ bloodsucker stakin’, walking dead decapitatin’, “Honest” Abe comes the short, Steamfunk film, Rite of Passage: Initiation – written and directed by Yours Truly, based on the story Rite of Passage, by author Milton J. Davis – which, if I may say so myself, is Blacknificent!
What makes this film so awesome is the genius of the actors – Dasie Thames and Iyalogun-Osun Ojetade (yep, we’re related – she’s my wife) who were not only incredible thespians, but performed all their own stunts and fight scenes. People will never see Harriet Tubman the same.
This film is chock full o’ genius, as is indicated by the brilliant work of cinematographer Imed “Kunle” Patman and camera operator, Brandon Lamar Davis. These extraordinary gentlemen made me look good and made my job easy. They both have a great eye for action and Mr. Patman brought his experience and mega-talent as both a cinematographer and an editor to the film.
Not to be outdone, Alana Davis – our photographer took some amazing shots of the action and drama and our composer – Dion Wake – produced a powerful score that is part Ennio Morricone (the Good, the Bad and the Ugly; A Fistful of Dollars), part Benny Carter (Buck and the Preacher) and part Mario Paint (Gonna Fly Now / Rocky’s Theme; Eye of the Tiger).
Finally, Co-Producer, Milton Davis, our Associate Producer – Danny “Akin” Donaldson – and Gabriel Adeyeye, our Boom Operator, helped raise Rite of Passage: Initiation to a level of creativity, power and beauty beyond my wildest expectations.
And this is just the beginning.
After we premiere Rite of Passage: Initiation on August 4 at the State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival (for more on the film festival, check out http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/31/adapting-stories-into-screenplays-and-a-brief-history-of-the-first-steamfunk-movie-video/), we will raise funds to shoot Rite of Passage as a five episode series and then either present it as a web series or pitch it as a series to a few local television channels.
Our goal is to bring quality, entertaining Steamfunk into homes worldwide. Expect no less.
Long live the Steamfunk Movement! (http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/13/the-steamfunk-movement/)
FURIOUS FATAL FISTS OF STEAMFUNK: How To Write Fight Scenes That Ain’t Wack!
I write speculative fiction – mainly, Steamfunk and Sword & Soul (for more on those genres, check out http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/13/the-steamfunk-movement/ and http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/04/13/sword-soul-much-needed-new-genre-or-simply-something-old-with-a-new-coat-of-paint/, respectively).
My Steamfunk and Sword and Soul novels contain lots of exciting action and fight scenes.
My friend, renowned spoken word artist XPJ Seven, told me “Dude, I like your fight scenes.”
“What do you like about them?” I inquired.
“They’re not like the fight scenes in most of the fiction I’ve read.” He replied, his brow wrinkling as he scowled.
“What’s wrong with those fight scenes?” I asked.
The wrinkles in XP’s brow deepened into canyons as he frowned in disgust. “Dude…they’re wack!”
Can’t argue with the wisdom of XP.
Thus, I write this as a helping hand to my fellow writers who may struggle with writing fight scenes. If writing fight scenes for you comes easy, please, keep reading; You’re already here…you might as well. And – in the spirit of all things not wack – if you will be so kind as to contribute your wisdom to this post, it will be greatly appreciated.
First and foremost, let the following Fight Scene Plan guide you toward the light at the end of that dark, dank tunnel called wackness.
Just remember – all good plans are malleable. As author, Milton Davis says, “A plan is a work in progress. It must be adjusted and modified based on results. An inflexible plan will eventually lead to failure.”
Fight Scene Plan
1. Show, don’t tell
I put this point first because it seems to be the one most writers have difficulty with when writing a fight scene.
Here is an example of telling:
After taking eight punches and several kicks to now vital areas all over her sinewy frame – such as her solar plexus, spine and head – Harriet Tubman staggered backward, wailing in agony.
This is “telling” because the punches and kicks are all lumped together, making it impossible to say, with any certainty, how many blows Harriet actually suffered.
Furthermore, we cannot be sure of exactly which body parts are suffering all the punishment, although we get a grocery list of a few parts that might be getting damaged…or might not – who knows?
Finally, what is Harriet doing while she is taking that beat-down? Just accepting it all willy-nilly? Does she throw a counterpunch? Beg for mercy? Scream “Feets don’t fail me now” and then haul ass? We don’t know. We cannot see this scene. We cannot see Harriet. We’re just being told about it. Wack.
2. Show sequence, not simultaneity
It rarely makes sense to make two different actions simultaneous in a fight scene.
Because a fight scene is loaded with different sorts of actions, each of which takes a different amount of time.
If one action takes a tenth of a second and another takes two seconds, the action will feel distorted if the author asserts that they happen simultaneously.
John Wilkes Booth ducked his head and whirled to the right, simultaneously kicking furiously with his right heel as he shouted “Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you?”
Now, you can whirl to the right pretty quickly. You can kick pretty quickly. But how long does it take to shout ‘Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you’? All this action cannot happen simultaneously. So, writing something like this? Wack.
3. Enforce causality
A Cause should be shown first, and then the Effect shown afterward. Showing the Effect and then the Cause? Wack.
Case in point:
John Wilkes Booth ducked his head and whirled to the right. He kicked furiously with his right heel as he shouted “Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you?” Just after he spotted Harriet throwing another punch at him.
So, what happened first? Booth saw Harriet throw another punch at him. However, that is shown last in the passage. The Effect is shown first, followed by a long sequence of events: Booth ducks his head. Booth spins to the right. Booth kicks. Booth shouts. Only after all that are we shown the Cause of it all.
4. Show the fastest action first
When you sequence a group of actions that happen at roughly the same time, show those actions that happen fastest before you show those that happen slowest.
Do not write the passage this way:
The steambot was no longer a threat to Harriet, as it lay broken in the dirt, wondering if it would ever see its beloved creator – Mistress Nakamura – again, the very woman who had nurtured it and taught it love, as an agonizing scream escaped its metallic throat.
We see the steambot pondering whether it would see its creator again and then we see it scream in agony. A scream usually takes less time than a deep pondering, so it is better to show the steambot scream first and then show it ruminate.
Showing the slower action before the faster one? Wack.
5. For every action, show a reaction
A fight scene should be written in this order: Action then Reaction. The Steambot slams an elbow into Harriet Tubman’s jaw; she staggers backward. Harriet whips a roundhouse kick at the Steambot’s head; it blocks and swings a back-fist at her temple.
See? Action…Reaction. Writing the character’s Reaction before the Action is backpedaling toward wackness. Case in point:
Harriet staggered backward when the steambot slammed its elbow into her jaw.
The Reaction – staggering backward – took place before the Action – the elbow to the jaw. Wack.
Each Action – Reaction should have its own paragraph. This, however, is not always possible. Sometimes, the sentences are too short to have their own paragraphs and can be combined. It’s up to you how to format it.
The steambot swung exploded forward with a powerful uppercut.
Harriet leaned backward to evade the blow. A breeze slithered up her face as the steambot’s iron knuckles swished past her nose.
The steambot exploded forward with a powerful uppercut. Harriet leaned backward to evade the blow. A breeze slithered up her face as the steambot’s iron knuckles swished past her nose.
6. Make it happen in Real Time
When writing your Action – Reaction, be sure to make it happen in Real Time. When a fight is happening, you see one punch and then right away, you see the response; and then right away, you see the next punch. During a fight in Real Time, you do not have time for such contemplations as this:
The steambot’s elbow slammed into Harriet’s jaw. She staggered backward. She was hurt quite badly; perhaps not as badly as when she shattered her shin against the thigh of that giant knoll, but badly, just the same.
This should be written this way:
The steambot’s elbow slammed into Harriet’s jaw. She staggered backward.
7. Control the pace
Pace is important in a fight scene.
It is not cinematic – and you want your fight scene to play like a movie in the reader’s head – to show a nonstop flurry of actions and reactions.
Even a warrior who possesses extraordinary gifts like Harriet Tubman has to catch her breath.
A cinematic fight has ebbs and flows in the pacing.
You show the faster parts of the scene with short sentences that show only the Actions and Reactions.
Use short sentences and phrases to make reading flow run faster. Long, descriptive sentences slow the reading pace.
In a fight scene, you want your reader to roll with each punch; shift in his or her seat with each kick.
Fast reading pace is essential. Use only a phrase, sentence, or – at most – two short sentences for each action. You can also combine short phrases together, since each phrase will still let the action move along:
Harriet paused, listening for movement. The whisper of a footstep to her right. She whirled, exploded forward, felt her knee connect with muscled flesh and then heard a soft thud as Booth fell to the floor.
Conversely, reading flow can also become bogged down if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other. Cases in point:
He kicked. She ducked. He chopped. She whirled.
Harriet turned at the sound of running feet. Booth crashed into her as she stood there. Her body struck the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into the back of her neck.
Continue to avoid long, rambling description, but vary your sentence and phrase length:
Running feet. Harriet turned. Booth crashed into her, slamming her into the table with a thundering crash. A low gasp escaped Harriet’s lips as splinters stabbed into the back of her neck.
You can also show the slower parts of the scene with longer sentences that show Actions and Reactions interspersed with dialogue and interior monologue.
To do otherwise? Wack.
8. Favor completed verbs over continuing action verbs
Use simple past tense verbs, such as kicked, ran or leapt rather than participles such as kicking, running or leaping.
When you say Harriet head-butted Booth, you imply that it happened quickly and the act is now over. When you say Harriet was head-butting Booth, you imply that the act is going on and on and on. A head-butt happens in a fraction of second, so writing “head-butting” causes the reader to envision the head-butt happening over and over and over again. Or they envision it happening in slow motion. Either way, it is not much like a fight anymore, is it? Wack.
Finally, remember that a good fight scene is about momentum and rhythm.
Jackie Chan once gave me some advice on choreographing a fight scene (yep, the Jackie Chan – I’ll tell you that story one day) that I use in my writing. “The rhythm of a fight scene sells it. I use African and Japanese drum rhythms for my fights. Those rhythms draw the audience in and make them love the fight.”
Each move should flow from where the last one ended. If your hero throws a spinning back kick, where is her weight when she lands? Is she standing straight or bent at the waist? In what direction is her body leaning? The next blow she delivers should follow the same line of momentum. If she kicked in a clockwise motion, her next kick will also probably be clockwise.
Try to act out fight sequences – or, if you live off a steady diet of Krispy Kreme donuts and Coca Cola, ask someone else to do it – in order to figure out momentum and balance, which creates rhythm. Throw a punch and observe how your weight shifts, or what area of your body is exposed.
I often act out the entire fight scene with my wife. We are both career martial artists, so, for us, it comes easily. However, if you do not happen to have a spouse that is a martial arts expert handy, watch movies for ideas (or call me – I choreograph fight scenes for films, theater, comic books and novels…for a meager fee).
Finally, choose the type of fights you want in your story. Do you want gritty, brutal fight scenes such as the ones in Steven Seagal’s Above the Law or in the Bourne Identity (the 2002 movie, not the 1988 television miniseries)? Or do you want Hong Kong Cinema-styled fights, such as the the ones in The Matrix, Inception, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Most readers will follow either style as long as they make sense and are a good match with the genre you are writing in.
If you have more to add to this post, please comment. I am always looking for effective ways to shield myself from wackness.
HELL and STAGECOACH MARY: Excerpts from the Steamfunk novel, “Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 and 2)”
HELL and STAGECOACH MARY: Excerpts from the Steamfunk novel, Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2)
EXCERPT 1: I am Harriet Tubman
Harriet crouched low in the thickets. She counted five – no, six – adults in the house. Four men; two women. They were at the supper table, eating a grayish-brown mass from wooden bowls with their fingers.
A constant, dull thump emanated from the rear of the house.
“Must be the child,” Harriet whispered. Harriet reasoned that the girl was bored and was pretending to skip rope, with the heavy chain she was tethered to.
Harriet crept towards the back of the house, but a familiar voice made her pause. She looked skyward. “I ain’t one to question yo’ Word, but is you sure, Lawd?” She nodded. “Thy will be done, then.”
Harriet stood and brushed the dirt from her dress. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The night air cooled the sweat on her forehead, and the flickering flame in her gut. She opened her eyes and locked her gaze on the house.
In three strong bounds, Harriet was standing at the front door of the house. She pounded her tiny, brown fist on the rotting wood.
The thumping of the heavy chain ceased.
The door was flung open wide.
And the stench of sweat and spoiled milk assaulted her nostrils.
Harriet quickly peered into the house. Everyone, except for the wiry man standing before her, was still sitting at the table. But they were no longer eating and their eyes were fixed on the doorway.
The man in the doorway spat onto the porch, the bilious sputum just missing Harriet’s boots. “You hear me, nigger? I said…”
The web of flesh between Harriet’s thumb and forefinger struck the man’s throat. She glided past him as he fell to the floor, clutching his crushed windpipe and gasping for air.
The men at the table jumped to their feet and rushed toward her, as the two women ran toward the rear of the house.
Harriet exploded forward, pummeling the nearest man to her with a flurry of elbow strikes.
Blood erupted from the man’s nose and mouth as his face collapsed under the force of Harriet’s swift and powerful blows.
Harriet threw her head back forcefully. A crunching sound followed and then a scream.
She felt something warm and wet soak the back of her bonnet.
The grip on Harriet’s waist loosened slightly. She took advantage of the opportunity, bending forward and grabbing the man-mountain’s leg with both hands. Holding on tightly, she rolled forward.
The momentum of the roll forced the giant to tumble over onto his back.
Harriet landed on her back, with the giant’s leg between hers. She thrust her hips forward forcefully, ramming her pelvis into the man’s knee, as she yanked his ankle back toward her shoulder.
The man-mountain’s leg made a loud, popping noise. Harriet tossed the badly twisted leg aside. The giant screamed as his leg flopped around on the floor, no longer under the goliath’s control.
Harriet sprang to her feet.
She was met by a powerful punch toward her face as she stood. Harriet shifted slightly to her right and the punch torpedoed past her.
Harriet countered by slamming the heel of her right foot into the man’s solar plexus, which sent him careening through the air. He came to rest on the supper table. Slivers of wood and chunks of gray-brown mush sprayed into the air.
The last man turned on his heels and ran toward the door. She kicked an overturned chair. The oak chair flipped through the air and struck the man in the back of the head. The man’s head split open like an over-ripe plum. Harriet turned from the dying man and walked to the rear of the house.
The back door was wide open.
The wind had extinguished the candles, but the moon bathed the room in a silver-blue incandescence. The women were – wisely – long gone, but the girl was still in the room, crouched in a corner. An iron manacle was locked to her right ankle. The manacle was connected to a heavy, iron chain, which was screwed into the floor.
Harriet crouched before the little girl, and placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder. “You alright, baby?”
The little girl perused the room, as if to ensure they were alone, and then nodded.
“You Margaret, I reckon.”
The child nodded again.
Harriet rubbed her hand over the girl’s matted, light brown curls. “We gon’ get you outta here and get you cleaned up. Gotta have you presentable for yo’ daddy.”
The little girl’s eyes widened and the corners of her mouth turned up in the hint of a smile. Yet the act of smiling seemed to strain her, as if she had not smiled in quite some time. “My daddy? He sent you for me?”
Harriet pulled an L-shaped, sliver of metal from behind the ribbon in her bonnet; and slid it into the back of the manacle around Margaret’s ankle. “He sure did.” The manacle clicked and slid open.
Margaret caressed her bruised and swollen ankle. “Ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking…”
“Go ‘head, child.”
“Who are you?” Margaret asked.
Harriet stood, and helped the little girl to her feet. “Me? I’m Harriet. Harriet Tubman.”
EXCERPT 2: And Hell Followed
They would bury Father Ramon today and – if the Lawd saw fit to let Harriet have her way – she would bury John Brown today also.
Harriet turned away from the window and resumed her search of Sinai’s cabin.
Argentine blades and bullets, used for killing lycanthropes, were in abundance; as were stakes of sharpened oak; and axes and swords of cold steel – common tools of the trade of one who hunts monsters.
Inside a silver box, tucked under Sinai’s bed, Harriet found what she was looking for – the Bello Mule – a .48 caliber revolver that possessed two barrels and a drum-like cylinder, with twenty chambers arranged in two rows – a monstrous weapon with which to fight monstrous foes.
Baas had given the Mule to Sinai for his birthday a decade ago. The old monster-hunter had put the weapon to use many times.
“Lawd, let me wield this half as good as old Sinai and I’ll be satisfied,” Harriet whispered, slipping the Bello Mule into its massive, leather holster, which she now wore strapped across her chest.
Harriet scooped several fistfuls of silver .48 caliber bullets from the box that housed the Mule and tossed them into leather pouches on the belt she had secured around her waist over her charcoal-gray, cotton blouse.
She stepped out of the hot shadows of the house into the cool breeze that blew across the oasis in the desert that was the village of Punta Blanca.
The warrior woman hopped into Sinai’s cart and inspected its contents to ensure she had not forgotten anything important during her hasty packing of the vehicle. “Two shotguns…crate of buckshot…bag of jerky…barrel of water…I don’t think we missed nothin’, Lawd, so I’ll be takin’ my leave now. I ‘magine you’ll be showin’ me **** *****’s whereabouts soon, Lawd and – as promised – I’ll be sendin’ him on down to perdition, where he belong.”
Harriet looked toward the horizon. A large dust cloud rolled toward the village. Harriet reached inside her overcoat and withdrew her goggles. She slipped them onto her face. The bronze and leather eyewear cooled her cocoa skin.
And then the world tumbled…tilted…fell…whirling around Harriet like a maelstrom, filled with ire and spite.
The monstrous relic sported a cape fashioned from dirt and a sword forged from the putrid corpses of Mexican soldados – the plumed helmeted soldiers Harriet faced three days earlier, in Punta Blanca. The skeleton’s heads laughed and then the creature slashed toward Harriet’s neck with its corpse-sword.
The whirling of the world stopped.
Harriet rose from the floor of the cart and hopped into the drivers’ seat. “Yah,” she shouted, snapping the reins she clutched in her fists. The twin horses bolted toward the church.
“Your guns!” Harriet screamed. “Get your guns an’ get ready!”
The villagers turned toward Harriet with puzzled expressions.
“Get ready for what?” A nun asked.
Harriet pointed toward the cloud of dirt rolling toward them. “Hell.”
EXCERPT 2: Harriet meet “Stagecoach” / “Black” Mary Fields
The smell of freshwater and the sound of gently breaking waves told Harriet that she was at the Mississippi River.
“Get the vehicles on board and feed the horses,” she heard Kleinhopper say. “Then, rest well, my children; we head upriver in the morning…oh, and dump Madame D’Oliva’s remains in the river, please. Goodnight.”
Harriet felt a slight bump, followed by the intermittent sound of wood pelting metal as the wagon, under which she hid, traversed the steel bridge.
A few moments later, the pelting sound gave way to the sound of the heavy, wooden wheels of the cart rolling across a wooden floor.
The cart shook as man-sized and toddler-sized knolls exited the vehicle. Massive legs shambled past Harriet, shaking the deck with each step.
A few minutes later, all was quiet. Harriet lowered herself to the floor. She lay there for a moment, stretching her aching back and stiffened fingers, and then rolled from under the cart.
Harriet scanned the area. All was still.
Crouching low, she crept toward a spiral staircase that rose before her.
Harriet paused, taking a moment to study her surroundings. She was on a riverboat of incredible craftsmanship. The floor and walls were constructed from ebony. Etched into the hard, dark wood were symbols similar to those tattooed upon the face of an old Chinese assassin she once encountered. Harriet wondered if Professor Kleinhopper would be as difficult to kill as that assassin.
Harriet crawled up the stairs, her light steps further muffled by the plush Persian carpentry that ran up the center of each step.
At the top of the stairway, Harriet quietly dropped to her belly and perused her surroundings. The floor was covered in the same rich carpeting as the spiral staircase. The ebon walls were covered with paintings of – and, most likely, from – exotic Eastern lands, of which Harriet had dreamed of visiting since she first heard tales of such places from Baas Bello. Baas had visited nearly every country in the world. Harriet recognized – from Baas’ vivid descriptions – an armor-clad Japanese samurai striking a red-faced demon with his gleaming katana; a Maori queen, riding upon the back of a giant blue whale; a pair of boxers from Thailand, fighting from the back of an elephant…
“An art aficionado, eh?”
Harriet whirled around toward the voice.
No one stood before her.
She snapped her head upward.
Clinging to the high ceiling, like a spider, was Professor Amschel Kleinhopper. “Unfortunately, you will soon be dead, so you purchasing a piece is not an option.”
Harriet leapt upward, grabbing Professor Kleinhopper’s neck in mid-air.
Upon their descent, Harriet snapped the Professor’s head toward the floor with a powerful jerk.
Just before The Professor’s skull met the hardwood floor, however, he vanished in a puff of black smoke.
A swishing sound came from behind Harriet. She rolled forward, barely evading the pulverizing strike from Professor Kleinhopper’s cane.
Harriet peered over her shoulder. Professor Kleinhopper knelt on one knee. A spider web-shaped crack in the floor extended from the tip of his cane.
“You have chosen to purloin from the wrong gentleman, Miss…”
“Tubman,” Harriet replied. “Harriet Tubman; and I ain’t come to steal; I came to settle a score for a dear friend.”
“Wait…you are the woman who accompanied Baas Bello,” Professor Kleinhopper said.
“That’s right,” Harriet replied.
“You are quite…talented,” Professor Kleinhopper said. “I have no quarrel with you. Baas Bello – and that fool son-in-law of his – were my intended targets.”
“Why? Why Talltrees? Why Baas?” Harriet asked.
“Baas Bello!” Professor Kleinhopper hissed, turning to face the old genius.
“Are you okay, Harriet?” Baas asked, pointing his Bello Rifle at Professor Kleinhopper’s throat.
“I’m fine, Baas,” Harriet replied. “I was just about to kill The Alchemist, is all. How you be?”
“No, Harriet, this one is mine,” Baas replied.
Two shots rang out from below them, followed by a ghastly scream.
“But, please,” Baas continued. “Mary can use your assistance downstairs. It would appear the knolls have awakened.”
“Mary?” Harriet said, shaking her head. “Black Mary Fields?”
“That would be her,” Baas replied. “Now, please, if you will…”
Harriet darted past Baas and scurried down the stairs.
A hammering backhand to her chest from the gargantuan knoll sent Mary sliding backward.
As she slid past Harriet, she nodded and smiled. “Evenin’, Harriet.”
“Hello, Mary,” Harriet replied dryly.
Mary’s back slammed into the wall behind her. She bounced off the wall and leapt forward, slamming her elbow into the clockwork that was the heart of a charging knoll. Gears, chain links and a haze of steam flew into the air. The knoll fell.
A squad of toddler-sized knolls charged toward Harriet.
“Catch,” Mary shouted, tossing one of her Colt Dragoons to her.
Harriet plucked the pistol out of the air and – with blinding speed – fanned the revolver’s hammer as she repeatedly squeezed the trigger.
Knoll after tiny knoll fell, screaming in agony as oil, dirt, gears and stone peppered the walls and floor.
A loud, cracking noise came from within the gargantuan knoll’s fist.
“Mary!” Harriet screamed, fearing that the cracking noise was the sound of Black Mary’s bones being crushed to dust.
Oil dripped from the creature’s fist and it unleashed a wail that shook the entire riverboat. The giant knoll’s injured hand sprang open, revealing a smoking hole made by Black Mary’s Colt Dragoon.
Mary wrapped her muscular arms around the giant’s thumb and then forcefully arched backward as she raised her arms high above her head.
The giant knoll released what could only be described as a gasp of shock as it was turned upside down, its feet leaving a trail of dirt and grass across the ceiling as it careened through the air.
The creature landed on its back with a tremendous thud. A torrent of steam erupted from its mouth.
“Lawd,” Harriet gasped, impressed by Black Mary’s tremendous strength.
Mary landed on her feet next to the giant corpse’s head. She raised her fists to her chin. “Come on, y’all; I’m just warmin’ up!”
I hope you enjoyed reading these excerpts as much as I enjoyed writing the novel. If you desire to read more, Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Book 1: Kings * Book 2: Judges) is available in paperback from Amazon.
NOTE: The illustration of Harriet Tubman was drawn by Stanley Weaver, in homage to Tony Ballard-Smoot, aka Captain Tony LaGrange of Airship Archon. Mr. Ballard-Smoot is a Steampunk model and is worthy of being considered the first Steampunk action hero.
RITE OF PASSAGE: Blood & Iron
Milton J. Davis
John Henry opened and closed his massive fists, giving relief to his wrists, which ached from the rusty, iron cuffs clamped around them.
He shuffled up the long hallway, his feet unable to move more than a half foot at a time due to the shackles on his ankles.
His four escorts – all clad in navy blue jackets, trousers and constabulary hats and spit-shined, black boots – were in stark contrast to his black and white striped prison uniform. All five men walked in silence toward the double doors at the end of the hall.
Upon reaching the doors, the escort at the head of the detail knocked.
“Enter,” a rich, tenor voice commanded.
The escort pushed the door open and then they all sauntered in.
John perused his surroundings. The gaslight chandelier cast dancing shadows upon the light green walls. A mahogany chest sat against the wall in the west corner. Atop the chest were several trophies featuring brass casts of pugilists or wrestlers standing on bases of cherry oak.
In the center of the room was a desk, which matched the chest. Behind the desk sat Victor Clemmons, Warden of Virginia’s James River State Penitentiary, smoking a meerschaum pipe carved in the image of a snarling hound.
“Prisoner number four-nine-seven to see you, sir!” The lead escort bellowed.
“Prisoner number four-ninety-seven…John William Henry, correct?” Warden Clemmons inquired.
“Yes, suh,” John Henry replied.
“Take a seat, son,” the Warden said, pointing toward the chair opposite his.
“Much obliged, suh,” John said, taking a seat.
The Warden smiled broadly. “How would you like to get out of here, John Henry…to feel the breeze on your face and to smell that Virginia dirt once more?”
“I’d like that very much, suh,” John said, his heart racing with excitement. “My appeal come through?”
“Your appeal?” Warden Clemmons said, tilting his head and squinting. “You’re still insisting that you didn’t rob that bank, boy?”
“I didn’t, suh,” John replied. “It was…”
“Sylvester Roper,” the Warden said, rolling his eyes.
“That’s right, suh,” John said.
“The inventor of the – what was it – the steam-powered pony?” Warden Clemmons asked.
Snickers escaped the lips of the escorts.
“He call it a motorcycle, suh,” John replied. “Mr. Roper robbed that bank ‘cause he needed money to build a motorcycle from steel instead of wood like the first one he built. I was Mr. Roper’s driver and I did all his heavy liftin’, too. When the law come callin’, he put the blame on me.”
“Well, no appeal has come through for you, John,” the Warden said. “However, I can offer you a freedom of sorts.”
“Suh?” John inquired, leaning forward in his chair.
“The C and O Railway needs some boys with muscle to lay tracks and drive steel,” Warden Clemmons replied. “You’ve got more muscle on you than a prize bull and you’re stronger than any two of those other boys out there put together.”
The Warden took a long draw from his pipe and then blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “If you want, I can release you into the custody of the C and O. They’ll feed you, clothe you and even pay you two bits a week. So, what you say, John? You in, boy?”
John flexed his thick forearms. His fingers had gone numb and the tips of his toes were just as dead. “Yes, suh…I’m in.”
“Water break!” A ruddy-faced man shouted from atop his quarter horse.
All of the men working the rails dropped their picks and their shovels and lined up at the water queue.
John Henry, however, kept on driving steel.
“I said water break, John,” the ruddy-faced man said, riding slowly toward John Henry.
John kept hammering away.
“Did you hear me, boy? The ruddy-faced man hissed, drawing closer.
John increased his pace.
“Boy!” The ruddy-faced man spat, bringing his horse within an inch of John Henry’s flank.
John torqued his hips toward the horse as he raised his hammer, swinging it in a wide arc.
The hammer slammed into the ruddy-faced man’s side.
A sickening crunch followed the blow. The ruddy-faced man let loose a choked grunt as he fell from his horse.
John leapt onto the horse’s back and snapped its reins. The horse exploded forward, running over the track and galloping toward the trees in the distance.
The five other guards – all on foot – gave chase.
One of the guards drew his Colt Dragoon revolver and fired a shot.
A second later, John felt something hot tear through his back, just below his left shoulder blade.
As the bullet burrowed through his flesh, John’s vision blurred and a maelstrom of nausea whirled in his gut. His hammer fell from his fingers and he could no longer hear the wind whipping past his ears. He beat back the encroaching darkness with his iron will, however, and rode on.
After what felt like miles, John spotted a large opening in the side of a hill. He pulled the horse’s reins and the beast stopped. He slid from the horse’s back and staggered into the opening.
Inside was a pathway that descended into darkness.
“A good place to die, I reckon,” John thought as he shambled down the path.
Far ahead of him, a light flickered on and off. John continued forward.
The darkness engulfed him; smothered him. John felt the dank darkness coil around his chest and squeeze the air from his lungs. He collapsed onto his haunches and then fell onto his side.
A flame appeared above him. Standing beneath the flame was a naked woman, whose pitch-black skin seemed to be one with the darkness of the cave.
“The angels done come for me,” John thought, smiling weakly.
And then he succumbed to the dark.
John Henry sat bolt upright.
He snapped his head from left to right as he studied his surroundings, half expecting to find that he had awakened from a dream and was, in fact, locked in his cell back in James River.
The flowstones, stalactites and stalagmites told him that he was, indeed, elsewhere.
The light cast by the large fire a few yards from told him that he was not alone.
John became aware of something soft beneath him. He looked down. Under him was a bed of grass, leaves and aromatic flowers. He inhaled deeply, focusing past the scent of pine, wheatgrass and jasmine upon which he sat and picked up the delicious aroma of garlic, onion, red pepper and lemon.
He swallowed the saliva building in his mouth as he became painfully aware of how hungry he was.
“You up just in time for lunch.”
John turned his gaze toward the source of the soothing alto voice. Standing before him, with a steaming bowl balanced on her palms, was the beautiful, black-as-pitch woman he had earlier mistaken as an angel. She was clothed now, her wiry frame covered in denim trousers, a man’s cotton shirt and worn black work boots. Her short, curly hair was only a half-shade darker than her skin and her brilliant smile seemed blinding in contrast to her face.
“You wearin’ men’s clothes,” John gasped, shaking his head.
“I live in a cave, the woman said, shrugging her shoulders. “What you think, I’m gon’ be walkin’ round here in a hoopskirt and a corset?”
“A woman dressed in men’s clothes…talkin’ tough to a man twice her size in a cave? Only thing I’m thinkin’ is – you crazy,” John replied. But, it look like you saved my life, so I guess you good crazy.”
The woman thrust the bowl toward John’s chest.
He reached for the bowl and gasped as white-hot pain shot across his chest.
“Hurt, huh?” The woman said. “That bullet nicked your lung and just missed your heart. I dug it out…put some Ogun medicine in and closed you up. It gon’ hurt fo’ a spell. Now, drink; it’ll ease the pain.”
John sipped the hot soup and, indeed, the pain subsided. The soup was delicious and John quickly devoured it as the woman watched him in silence.
“I’m John,” John said, wiping the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand. “John Henry.”
“I know,” the woman said. “I’m Lana – Ogunlana, really – but folks call me Lana, for short.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lana,” John said. “I would…wait…you know? How you know me and we ain’t never laid eyes on one another befo’?”
“Ogun told me,” Lana replied.
“Who this Ogun you keep talkin’ ‘bout?”
“The Spirit of Iron and War. He come here from Africa, on them ships, with yo’ ancestors.”
“Yo’ ancestors, too,” John said.
“Naw,” Lana replied, shaking her head. “I come here long time ago, from Africa…from a city called Onire. I ain’t never been no slave; my ancestors neither.”
“You from Africa?” John gasped.
“Didn’t I just say that? Lana said, shaking her head. “Baba Ogun, why you send me this one? He ‘bout slow as a dead snail.”
“You awful bold, Miss Lady,” John said. “You don’t know what might happen to you, pushin’ a big buck like me. I might jump up and…”
“Die, where you stand,” Lana said, interrupting him. “Look, I been waitin’ for you in this cave for three years. I gotta train you up fast, ‘cause somethin’ real bad is comin’ and Ogun say you the one to stop it. So, I ain’t got time to sugarcoat…I ain’t got time to pussyfoot, or tiptoe through no tulips. You gon’ learn or you gon’ die.”
“Ogun said that?” john asked.
“Naw, I said it,” Lana replied. “Get some rest. Tomorrow mornin’, you start yo’ trainin’.
A stinging blow to the thigh snatched John from the peaceful realm of slumber back to his bed of grass, leaves and flowers.
Lana stood before him, brandishing a cutlass.
“What you hit me fo’?” John asked, rubbing the welt on his thigh.
“Get up,” Lana replied, ignoring his question. “Time to go to work.”
John rose from his bed. The pain in his chest made him wince.
“Follow me,” Lana said, walking toward a large, circular hole in the wall before her.
Lana crawled into the hole. John followed suit, lying on his belly and low-crawling down the duct just beyond the hole.
The duct opened into a capacious chamber, illuminated by torches that lined the walls.
John looked upward. Embedded in the ceiling was a huge copper disc. Hanging from the disc were scores of thick, iron chains of various lengths. At the end of each chain hung a cannonball.
A loud crack echoed throughout the chamber as the flat side of Lana’s cutlass smacked him across the cheek.
John stumbled sideways, massaging his face with his palm.
“Strike me again, woman and I’ll tan your hide,” John shouted.
“Aw, the big man ‘bout to cry,” Lana said, feigning tears. “You want me to take you to yo’ mama, so she can kiss it and make it all better?”
John searched the chamber for Lana, who seemed to vanish after slapping him. He spotted her on the far side of the chamber. The chains stood between them. “That ain’t funny. My mama dead.”
“Then, I guess you should have kissed her and made it all better, huh?” Lana chuckled.
“What?!” John shouted angrily.
He stepped forward.
A hissing noise came from behind the disc in the ceiling. The great disc began to rotate, causing the cannonballs to swing.
“Come and get me, John,” Lana snickered.
John darted forward; a cannonball whizzed past his face. He shifted to his left, then to his right, avoiding two heavy, iron balls.
A fourth ball hit its mark, however, slamming into his gut. John collapsed onto one knee as the air fled his lungs.
Another ball collided with the side of his head. John fell onto his back. He struggled to maintain consciousness as he stared up at the ceiling, watching cannonballs fly by, just inches above his face.
“Ogun gon’ toughen you up, John Henry,” Lana shouted. “He gon’ make you as hard and as strong as the iron that put that knot on yo’ noggin’. Now, get up and try again!”
John exploded forward.
A cannonball crashed into his side.
John shook off the pain and pressed on.
A cannonball sped toward his face. John raised his massive forearms. The ball bounced off of them, leaving only a minor bruise.
John moved through the deadly obstacle course – blocking, parrying and dodging cannonballs with incredible speed and power.
He smiled as he came face-to-face with Lana on the other side of the chains for the first time.
Lana tossed him her cutlass; the cutlass that had rudely awakened him every morning for the past six months.
“Do your worst,” Lana said.
John raised the cutlass high above his head and then brought the flat side down hard on her bottom.
Lana barely seemed to notice.
“Why you usin’ the flat side?” Lana asked. “I just sharpened her this mornin’; don’t make sense to let all that hard work go to waste.”
John’s eyes widened to the size of a baby’s fist and his chin dropped to his chest. “You want me to…”
“Cut me,” Lana ordered.
“I…I can’t,” John sighed.
“Cut me, or I’ll send you on your way home,” Lana said. “And I ain’t talkin’ bout that old shack yo’ mama raised you in, neither.”
John swung the blade at Lana’s arm. Sparks flew as the razor sharp edge slid across her ebon flesh.
Lana was unharmed. The blade had not even left a scratch.
“How?” John gasped. The cutlass fell from his hand.
“Ogun live in all of us,” Lana replied. “He live in our blood…in our bones. He the heart that beat in our breast and he the heart at the center of the earth that keep this world spinnin’. I’m Ogun; you Ogun…and iron don’t cut iron.”
“You say things I ain’t never heard befo’,” John said. “But, somehow, I understand.”
“That’s ‘cause you a child of Ogun,” Lana said. “You was born to understand. Now, come on.”
John followed Lana into a smaller chamber, which was empty, save for a long stone table, upon which sat a wooden bowl and something large, which was covered by a red quilt. The room was illuminated by a single torch in the far wall.
Lana pointed toward the bowl. “Drink.”
John picked up the bowl. Inside it was a thick, viscous dark brown liquid. John pressed his lips to the rim of the bowl and devoured its contents. The liquid tasted bittersweet and somewhat metallic.
“What was that?” John asked.
“Should have asked that befo’ you drank it, John,” Lana said, shaking her head. “It’s blackstrap molasses, with the bullet that I pulled outta you ground up in it. Also, a little bit of this and a little bit of that thrown in fo’ good measure.”
John’s heart pounded so hard, he thought it would rip through his chest. His muscles tensed involuntarily and he began to sweat profusely.
Lana smiled. “Yeah, you ready now.”
She snatched the quilt from the table, revealing a pair of large, cast-iron sledgehammers. “Pick ‘em up.”
John grabbed the hammers and raised them from the table. They felt nearly weightless and fit his hands perfectly.
The heads of the hammers began to glow a bright red, as if they had just left a blacksmith’s forge.
“These hammers was created by Ogun hisself,” Lana said. “They been waitin’ on you in this cave for over a hundred years.”
“Waitin’ on me?” John inquired.
“Ain’t that what I just said?” Lana replied. “Lawd…anyhow, you was born to bring justice to our people and to teach ‘em ‘bout Ogun, ‘cause they done forgot…and if you say ‘Who me?’, or anything like that, I’m gon’ kill you!”
Lana turned and headed back toward the chamber of chains. She paused and peered at John Henry over her shoulder. “Behind you is a path that leads out of this cave; take it…one mo’ thing…four times a year, them hammers got to be fed human blood. Don’t really matter whose, long as it ain’t yours.”
John twirled the hammers in a figure-eight pattern in front of his chest. He could feel the hammers increasing his strength with each passing moment. “Then, I reckon I’ll see if they like the taste of Mister Sylvester Howard Roper.”
John tossed the hammers over his shoulders and stepped onto the path. He disappeared as he sauntered down the trail, his glowing hammers carving a path through the darkness.
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY BLACK PEOPLE II:
The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth
A nerd is defined as a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
Nerdiness exists on a continuum. Some people are a little nerdy, while others are very nerdy. The more nerdy you are, the more oblivious of yourself as a social object you tend to be, which leads you to behave in socially awkward ways, such as dressing badly, or failing to take subtle hints.
The onset of nerdiness tends to come early in life and people often grow out of being nerds; rarely, if ever, does someone become a nerd later in life.
Because nerds are awkward and un-smooth, they tend to be rejected and isolated by peers; because it is emotionally painful to experience such marginalization, nerds tend to push themselves to be excellent in aspects of life that do not require social skills.
If they are at all smart, they tend to go whole hog into some intellectual pursuit. Computer science is a favorite, but any non-social intellectual pursuit will do.
Nerds can become very good at their chosen fields because they have very little to keep them from devoting all of their energy to those fields.
These are not balanced people with rich social lives. Instead, these are people who spend holidays writing papers.
I am painfully aware of this because I used to be one of these people.
One Christmas holiday, while visiting my oldest sister, my brother-in-law and my nephews in sunny California (I was born and raised in Chicago), I spent seventy percent of my waking hours writing adventures for my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, twenty percent was spent writing raps (yep, I was an avid fan of hip-hop too), eight percent was spent eating and bathing and the remaining two percent was spent chatting with family and thinking about what I was going to write next.
By the time my “vacation” was over, I was dead tired because, as an extrovert, I am actually energized by social interaction.
Some people’s nerdiness is a function of a condition called Asperger’s Disorder which is a mild pervasive developmental disorder on the same spectrum as Autism.
Asperger’s Disorder involves language and communication deficits which have a basis in neurological deficits. The prototypical person with Asperger’s learns language reasonably well, but doesn’t seem to experience language the same way as a normal person. Some quality of emotional transmission is missing.
People with Asperger’s often talk in odd cadences and/or they may fail to understand social reciprocity such that they may manifest an eccentric and one-sided social approach to others (e.g., pursuing a conversational topic regardless of others’ reactions).
An alternative kind of nerd is someone who develops a condition known as Schizotypal Personality Disorder. To say someone has a personality disorder in general is to say that they have grown up with some important part of the normal human coping toolkit missing or undeveloped.
People with personality disorders are developmentally delayed in important social-emotional ways that cause them to be “one trick ponies” who can only react to the world in a narrow and rigid set of ways.
When such a person is in their element, all is fine (because they know how to cope with their element), but when they go out of their element, they lack the flexibility to know how to cope appropriately and experience significant problems as a result (or for some personality disorders, other people experience significant problems).
Schizotypal Personality Disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits marked by acute discomfort with, and reduced capacity for, close relationships, as well as by cognitive or perceptual distortions and eccentricities of behavior.
Recall the character of Kramer from the television show Seinfeld and you’ll have a good idea of what this looks like. People with Schizotypal PD are thought of as eccentric, weird, strange, or different. People tolerate them and may find them amusing but always tend to consider them an outsider.
Having a diagnosable disorder such as Asperger’s or Schizotypal PD might qualify a person as a nerd or a geek in some circles, but the reverse is not true. There are many nerds who don’t qualify for any diagnosable disorder. They may be the way they are for other reasons.
One primary reason that could push a person towards nerdiness is the presence of simple but profound social anxiety.
Social skills are learned through interaction with other children and adults during childhood and adolescence. If you are a very anxious child and avoid developmentally important social interactions, you will tend to remain delayed in your social-emotional skillfulness.
If, because of your social anxiety you cease to push yourself to interact and instead channel your energy into socially avoidant pursuits, the problem becomes compounded. Not being a member of intimate relationships means you are cut off from important feedback such as how to dress appropriately or when it is not good form to wear a backpack.
The true nerd will rationalize his or her odd social behavior, for defensive purposes. It is simply very painful to admit to yourself that you are essentially incompetent in this very important aspect of life.
Origin of the Nerd
And bring back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo
A Nerkle, a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!
From If I Ran The Zoo, © 1950, Dr. Seuss
The first documented use of the word Nerd is in the 1950 Dr. Seuss story, If I Ran the Zoo, in which a boy named Gerald McGrew makes a several extravagant claims as to what he would do, if he were in charge at the zoo.
Among these was that he would bring a creature known as a Nerd from the land of Ka-Troo. The accompanying illustration showed a grumpy humanoid with unruly hair and sideburns, wearing a black T-shirt. A fitting image, these days, for a nerd.
The second documented occurrence of the word comes only a year after If I Ran The Zoo. The October 8, 1951 issue of Newsweek states on page 16:
In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve.
On page 14 of the St. Joseph, Michigan, Herald-Press printed on 23 June 1952 it reads:
To ‘Clue Ya’ To Be ‘George’ And Not A ‘Nerd’ Or ‘Scurve’…If the patois throws you, you’re definitely not in the know, because anyone who is not a nerd (drip) knows that…
Once more, “nerd” is tied to “drip” and “scurve”; and from a city not far from Detroit, at that, just 8 months after the first sighting.
In the February 10, 1957, issue of the Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail, the “ABC for Squares” column gave the definition as: Nerd – a square, any explanation needed?
The 1961-62 “Hamburg Show” featured a character named Millard Fillmore Nerd whose problem is that he is a square, having broken not a single rule.
All but the original Dr. Seuss give it the meaning of “a square” — a dull or boring person.
It was the word used to describe a carnival sideshow “freak”, whose peculiarity was behavioral rather than physical.
The denizens of the “geek pit” would do things like bite the heads off of chickens. The folk who played these roles were often of a similar physical type – tall, gangling men with prominent Adam’s Apples, big mouths and noses, and bug-eyes. Thus the phrase “pencil-necked geek”.
Thus, as an insult, a geek was originally someone with unbecoming habits and few social graces, whereas the nerd was dull and boring – a square. Both were outcasts, but one was hopelessly conventional, the other bizarre and outlandish.
Not surprisingly, as the terms became more common, they meshed with each other. The square not merely wore thick rimmed glasses, but repaired them with adhesive tape. His dull hairstyle became a generation or two out of style and he was not merely non-athletic, but clumsy, and perhaps gangling or slovenly.
Blerds and Bleeks
When I was in high school and college, the last thing anybody wanted to be was a nerd. Today, due to strong media attention and the election of a Black President who – along with his wife – is a professed nerd, nerdy is the new sexy in the Black community.
Thankfully, gone are the days of Steve Urkel as the poster-boy for Black nerdism. When I first laid eyes upon Urkel – played by actor Jaleel White – back in 1989, I said “there goes the death of young, Black male intellectuals”.
Just watch an episode of Family Matters and witness the over-the-top nerdy antics of Steve Urkel – who was never given the time of day by his long-time love interest, Laura Winslow, until he morphed into his “cool” alter-ego, Stefan Urquelle – and you can see why many Black boys in the inner city did not want to be smart.
And it appears that Steve Urkel’s influence is quite far-reaching.
Take these recent statistics, taken from a study released in 2010 by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, for example:
Only 47% of black males finished high school for the school year.
Out of that number, only 28% of black males in New York City finish on time.
I am confident, however, that this will rapidly change, as Blerds – or Black Nerds are being touted all over the web as the new cool. College-aged and older Blerds are coming forth and reveling in their nerdy Blacknificence. I imagine our teens and tweens will soon follow suit.
Blerds, by nature, are not typically as extreme as their non-Black counterparts. They embrace and celebrate both Urban and Geek cultures. A Blerd may collect comic books, engage in Steampunk cosplay and have a collection of the latest hip-hop music, or maybe even rap themselves.
When I – and author Milton Davis – announced the 2013 release of Ki-Khanga: the Sword & Soul Role-Playing Game, we did so without losing any “street cred” or facing social alienation from the popular crowd. In fact, a whole host of people I did not think even knew what a Role-Playing Games is came forward with enthusiastic support and eagerly await the game’s release.
Blerds in the Media
Actress/writer Issa Rae’s brilliant web series, The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, about a nerdy Black girl and her many humorous escapades, has become an instant classic, popular with Black (and other) males and females, ages 13 and Older.
Another web series that is wildly popular with Blerds of all ages is Angela Tucker’s Black Folk Don’t, which explores the notion of stereotypes about Black people both without and within the African American community.
Theo – the black nerd at the center of Hans Gruber’s plot to steal $480m in bearer bonds in Die Hard – is both badass and master of technology.
Witty, empowered and shamelessly nerdy, Theo – played expertly by Clarence Gilyard, Jr. – leapt from the screen and stole the show. “You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality,” he says, “…though you could have.”
Hip Hop producer/artist Pharrell of the Neptunes – an avid skateboarder, a professed lover of video games, a fan of Star Trek (he named his record label Star Trak) and a student of the works of astronomer Carl Sagan – named his quirky band N.E.R.D..
Andre Meadows, founder of http://www.blacknerdcomedy.com and known as The Black Nerd, blogs,vlogs and delivers a unique and very humorous perspective on racism, the workplace, entertainment, science-fiction, political correctness, and his own personal life.
The Black Nerds Network, hailing from the UK, is a collective formed to readdress the words, Black and Nerd. According to their website, they seek to connect with “fashion thinking, book reading, kite flying Nerds.”
Blerd Warrior Syndrome
One’s strength can often be one’s weakness and many a Black Nerd has fantasies of being a superhero. While these fantasies are great stress relievers, Blerds must be careful of those fantasies, which are often nihilistic, becoming desires for martyrdom.
In a recent meeting with friends – all martial artists, athletes and intellectuals – one friend – a forty year old man of African descent – confessed that he wishes he was a real-life superhero in opposition to a powerful government or secret cabal; that he often prays for civilization to fall, so he can reinvent himself as a man who – armed with his wit, will and weapons – brings justice to a world of injustice and sculpts order out of chaos.
I confessed that, until I reached thirty-one years of age, I, too, had the same desire and, in fact, believed that I would die fairly young in an epic battle with an opponent of equal skill, intellect, experience and will. I was actually disappointed, at the time, to discover I was to walk a different path.
These escapist fantasies – often associated with being a “nerd” – are not unique to those classified, or identifying, as such.
These escapist fantasies are not unique to my small circle of friends and me – all of whom could be classified as “nerdy jocks” (Or jocky nerds? Sounds like a bunch of pocket protector wearing, taped-glasses sporting, little equestrians) – either.
In my research in the fields of psychology and sociology, I have found that a vast number of people of African descent – who do not identify as nerds, blerds or geeks – also long to escape into brave new – or old – worlds.
Related to this is the fact that, throughout the African Diaspora, fantasy and science fiction are rapidly growing in popularity.
In a world in which we have been marginalized, vilified, misrepresented and miseducated; in a near-dystopian world with a stranglehold on society, science fiction and fantasy books, games and movies create arenas for the “controlled decontrolling” of emotions.
It is not socially acceptable to hit your racist boss in the throat with a crushing elbow strike and destroying a wall of your duplex with a trebuchet when your landlord locks you out of your apartment for a late rent payment will land you in prison – and on some government watch list for owning a trebuchet in the first place.
So, escaping to worlds of magic, anachronistic technology and fantastic creatures allows us to do the things we wish we could do and to be what we wish we could be or – unstifled by an oppressive society – what we know we truly are.
Cosplay – “costume play”, the wearing of costumes that are the likenesses of characters from a certain era, film, television, comics, video games and novels – and role playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft and Ki-Khanga: The Sword & Soul Role-Playing Game are perfect avenues of escape from mundane and profane lives. “Blerd Heaven”, my daughters call it ( and yes, all seven of them – and my son – are Blerds).
Escaping to another dimension or reality is normal. In fact, most people spend about half of their time daydreaming and fantasizing.
Daydreams and fantasy play a vital role in everyday life – inspiring us, regulating our moods and helping us contemplate future possibilities.
This includes the possibility of violence and, indeed, even evil.
Parents who rail against games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed do not understand that idolizing villains such as Darth Vader and Agent Smith can be liberating.
Play and fantasy gives our youth the opportunity to practice what they will be later in life – as well as what they will never be.
For decades, fantasies of physical conflict and danger have been called “violent” by people who don’t trust or understand them, but such fantasies are valuable tools for the hard work of growing up. Black people, who arguably suffer the greatest anxiety about taking risks and the greatest reservations about exploring their own strength and destructive potential, have the most urgent need for fantasy.
Adults also often turn to fantasy for stress relief. With Blacks suffering from the highest rates of hypertension, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes of any other ethnic group, fantasy and science fiction can literally save our lives.
For more on stress and stress relief by personality type, read my blog http://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/blow-off-some-steam-the-steampunk-stress-machine/.
For Black people, the most beneficial heroic narratives depict essential human struggles: betrayal, revenge and overcoming great odds.
In everyday living, we re-enact the classic conflicts and victories of the hero. We may not be real vampire hunters, but the monsters in our lives and psyche pose no less a threat.
So embrace that inner Blerd. Hell, give it wings and let it soar!
And take your place among the Blacknificent in The League of Extraordinary Black People!
For first installment of The League of Extraordinary Black People, please visit: http://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/04/22/the-league-of-extraordinary-black-people-african-african-american-steampunk/.