December 8, 2023

Let’s take a moment to celebrate notable black bookworms in pop culture

Diane Johnson – Blackish

Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson – Orange is the New Black

Huey Freeman – The Boondocks

Stringer Bell – The Wire

Robert McCall – The Equalizer

Short list, right? Which is exactly my point. I’ve scrolled through far too many compilations of famous bookworms only to be disappointed by the lack of color in all of them. In truth, I only had to look online because I struggled to name any black characters with a penchant for reading off the top of my head. This then begs the question, where are the black bookworms?

Black nerds had a moment in the late 2000s and early 2010s. We celebrated acts like Key and Peele and Donald Glover, who in turn gave props to President Barack Obama for popularizing the type. Movies and television followed suit, by creating more geeky black characters. As a result we got Chidi Anagonye in “The Good Place”, Maurice Moss in “The I.T. Crowd” and Annalise Keating from “How to Get Away with Murder.”

The rise of these characters, however, doesn’t actually answer my question. There’s no use in drawing a distinction between nerds, geeks and bookworms; in this day and age the terms are used interchangeably. For a moment, let’s ignore those characters who demonstrate borderline obsessive fascinations with a subject or unparalleled genius. We are simply looking at those whose character traits include an enjoyment of frequently reading. 

Bookworms have always had a place on the screen. We’ve seen plenty of them over the past several decades, in all forms: Lisa Simpson, Hermione Granger, Spencer Reid, Jo March, Tyrion Lannister, Elizabeth Bennet and Matilda, to name a few. Even Disney got some princesses in on the action with Belle and Rapunzel. The Gilmore Girls made seven seasons and a revival about a whole town of bookworms — yet not a single black one was featured. 

Representation has been the word of the last decade, and for good reason. What we see in the media is often what we expect in real life. Unfortunately, media representations of black people haven’t been the most flattering; particularly to women who are often typecast as “loud,” “angry,” and/or “sassy, all the while overly sexualized. Hence, it would stand to reason that we could benefit from seeing the many different faces of black people in the media. 

The lack of black bookworms may seem like a trivial issue, but it plays into a greater problem that we’ve only just touched upon. Black people constantly have to defend their right to exist in certain areas, such as courtrooms, operating rooms and academia in general. Being seen in the media is a small step towards recognition from others and a sense of belonging in ourselves.

This oversight is often dismissed as “not that deep” by those who haven’t experienced this erasure. In their defense, it takes more effort to see the negatives, but in 2021, I’m tired of existing only in my own mirror. The argument may seem repetitive, but it’s important that we, the viewers, keep pushing the issue.

The publishing industry was valued at an approximate $87 billion in 2020, and black authors contributed to the pot, just as they have to literature as a whole. Names like Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou paved the way for those like Talia Hibbert, Oyinkan Braithwaite and Angie Thomas. Like butterflies from caterpillars, it follows that authors come from bookworms. So is it really too much to put them on our screens?

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