I’m one of those people who visibly twitch at those supposedly clever online posts about how technology is killing our ability to socialize. You know, “We live in a society, dang nabbit, and you kids with your darn tootin’ Facebooks and Tweeters have forgotten how to hold proper conversations.”
Let’s be real. It’s not as if we were on the bus singing “Kumbaya” before cellphones, and no amount of technology has prevented anyone from attempting awkward, unwanted conversations—we learned that lesson with the advent of headphones.
I’m a freelance writer who travels from one state to the next, so a lot of my job connections aren’t in my own backyard; and beyond using the internet to keep my lights on, social media has become a way to keep in touch with loved ones. In college, it was how I talked with my long-distance girlfriend. Today, it’s how she sends me a pic of coffee creamer to make sure she’s getting the right brand. And if you need me to pull out my tear-jerking story about reconnecting with my nephews through Facebook, I will.
TL;DR: Get out of your feelings about me checking my phone.
Now that you’ve done that (hopefully), let’s talk about the sense of community social media has given me. Not that I wasn’t aware of the existence of black nerds, but when I go to conventions here in Minnesota, I can usually count them with just a couple of fingers. But with social media came a little thing called #28DaysOfBlackCosplay, and y’all, I’ve NEVER seen this many black costumed geeks in my LIFE!
But let’s backtrack for a minute. This hashtag isn’t what opened my eyes to black nerd culture. We’ve been in the media ... kiiiinda ... and I’d seen a couple of cosplay photos—usually in a shitty meme.
There’s a particular article I remember from 2013 written by a woman named Chaka Cumberbatch-Tinsley, otherwise known as “Princess Mentality Cosplay.” She’d apparently started a race war on Tumblr because she dared to dress up as Sailor Venus, who, gasp, isn’t black! As she wrote in her article:
My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a “face like a gorilla” and wasn’t suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.
I later used her article in a piece about my own battle against internet trolls, which, ironically, took place mere months after hers. I guess the anons had a hate convention in 2013? I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than the Blackface Chronicles of 2014 and beyond.
So I had knowledge of black cosplayers other than the handful at my local events, because we were busy trying to fend off Ghetto Ball Z comments while diving into debates on why painting your skin brown to be Michonne (portrayed by an actual person) isn’t the same as painting it blue to be a Na’vi (a fantasy creature from James Cameron).
Cosplay is about having fun, but black cosplayers were busy dealing with people who thought they were good ... for a black cosplayer (not meant to be racist, of course). Because that’s what we want to face after trying to find the right wig and pleated skirt: racism, you know, that thing we’re trying to get away from? Our geek space is supposed to be an escape, not a reminder.
The woman who wrote the article that launched a thousand racists and their “I’m not racist buuuuut ... ” counterparts had plans for 2015:
“It began as a sort of grassroots awareness campaign, and over time has started to become something of a rallying call-to-arms,” Cumberbatch-Tinsley told me in a recent conversation.
Her idea was to share black cosplay pictures all throughout February while using the hashtag #28DaysOfBlackCosplay (and yes, that month was chosen for a reason). With this movement, we were suddenly being featured on websites because of armor builds and flawless seams, not because Joe, the Dude With No Life Aspirations, decided to channel his bigoted ancestors by calling us monkeys.
“28DaysOfBlackCosplay isn’t about popularity,” Cumberbatch-Tinsley said. “It isn’t about how many followers you have. It isn’t about tenure, it isn’t about skill. It was designed to shine a light on black excellence in cosplay, to lift each other up and encourage each other.”
That’s not to say the insults stopped; oh no, this is the internet we’re talking about. There’s always gonna be a need for that cultural think piece, and trust me when I say I have my ban button at the ready, so stay out my mentions, Joe, and the same goes for the five lonely followers you have.
But for the first time, I was seeing black cosplayers in a predominantly positive, encouraging light, and that continues to be the case whenever February rolls around.
“As the years have gone on, this project has evolved in several different ways to meet the needs of the constantly growing black cosplay community,” Cumberbatch-Tinsley said. “But one thing that hasn’t changed is its core tenets: representation, community and positivity.”
Through Cumberbatch-Tinsley and this movement, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: As vital as it is to dismantle the negatives, we should never forget the importance of celebrating who we are.