Redefining What Nerd Culture Looks Like

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ATLANTA — Sonic the Hedgehog, Storm, a blue-haired Green Lantern and several Knights of Wakanda posed on the steps of the Hilton Hotel in Atlanta for a photo on Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. They had come together for Dragon Con, a distinctly Southern take on the modern multigenre convention where the rules include always saying “please” and “thank you” and the beverage of choice is sweet tea.

In this world, conventions, or cons, are large-scale events where fans of a particular interest gather to hear panel discussions, meet others with similar passions and often dress up as characters. When they first began in the 1980s, they traditionally focused on a single topic, like science fiction books or comics, and didn’t leave room for overlap between fandoms. The audiences at these cons were also similarly homogeneous.

“A lot of the panels, early on, at a lot of sci-fi conventions, were, let’s be honest, four or five white men up there talking about things,” said Channing Sherman, who has been attending Dragon Con for over a decade.

Dragon Con was founded in Atlanta in 1987 on the then-radical idea of combining a science fiction convention with a gaming convention for people who enjoyed both. It attracted 1,200 fans the first year. The idea caught on, with the convention expanding to include dozens of topics like video games, anime and comics. Over the decades, attendance grew: On Labor Day weekend, Dragon Con drew an estimated 65,000 people to downtown Atlanta. As it has grown, the con has begun to more closely reflect the diversity of the city it calls home.

Cree Michelle Pringle cosplaying as Storm from the X-Men.Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

Cree Michelle Pringle, 30, an Atlanta native, has been attending Dragon Con since she was in high school. “There was always this disconnect between me and my Black friends when it came to being a nerd,” she said. “That wasn’t cool. You weren’t supposed to like comic books and anime. I needed to find people of my skin color who liked what I liked. When I started going to cons, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these are my people.’”

In addition to hundreds of panels, Dragon Con’s signature event is a parade on Saturday morning that runs down Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s main thoroughfare. Dragon Con has a reputation for its displays of cosplay, with many attendees painstakingly crafting homemade costumes and accessories to dress up as specific characters.

For many, the annual gathering is a chance to catch up with fellow cosplayers, take photos together in costume, show off their craftsmanship and swap ideas. “In San Diego, it’s like we’re here for the merchandise and the exclusives, the media of it. It’s very glossy, glamorous celebrity style nerd-dom,”Ms. Pringle said about Comic-Con, the hugely popular international convention in California. “Dragon Con doesn’t really have new releases or anything like that. They just have good, fun camaraderie and amazing cosplay, which is very southern grown. It’s more of a party.”

Attendees get the chance to show off their outfits for the public during the Dragon Con parade through downtown Atlanta.Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

Mr. Sherman, who traveled from Lake Charles, La., for Dragon Con, has attended nearly every year since 2008. That first year, Mr. Sherman, a former journalist, took photos of cosplayers he was impressed by. “One of my friends half jokingly asked, ‘Were you the only Black guy there?’” he said. He looked through his pictures and counted about 20 or 30 Black cosplayers. He posted an album on Facebook with all of them and named it: “Proof that I’m not the only one: Black geeks at Dragon Con.”

The Facebook photo album became an annual tradition and eventually morphed into an annual meet-up.

Meet-ups happen at Dragon Con for all types of groups, from Deadpool cosplayers to Trekkies. “If you can imagine it, there’s a photo shoot for it,” Mr. Sherman said. But at the time, there wasn’t one for the Black community, so the Black Geeks of Dragon Con meet-up was born.

The first meet-up in 2015 brought in a little more than 20 people. In the years that followed, Mr. Sherman and his friend and meet-up co-founder David Somuah handed out cards at the con inviting Black cosplayers to join, and word spread.

“We went from 20 to 80, then all of a sudden it just jumped to 200 or 300,” Mr. Sherman said. “In 2019, going through the pictures, we were close to 350 people. You couldn’t see the back of the stairs.”

Angela and Tim Haynes cosplaying as Eddie Munson and a mash-up of LL Cool J and Eleven from “Stranger Things.”Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

In recent years, Dragon Con has made an effort to broaden its scope. A diversity track has been added to the programming that features panels on cosplay and disability, dealing with hate as a cosplayer, and representation in fantasy media.

“As a kid, I didn’t see as much variety or diversity of Black women,” Ms. Pringle said. “I want to make sure that everyone knows the Black characters we have to represent us. Even though there is a big gap, we still do have representation to be proud of.”

At the Black Geeks meet-up, playful character mash-ups are encouraged, with past highlights including Django Fett (“Django Unchained” meets Boba Fett from “Star Wars”), and Diana Prince Rogers Nelson (Wonder Woman if she were a Prince fan).

“They kind of think of this as their Blerd family reunion,” said Mr. Sherman, using a term combining the words Black and nerd. “It’s people that they may only see this one week out of the year. For a lot of people, this is their one big event, and they get to see people that are normally online friends.”

Here are some of the looks we saw at this year’s Black Geeks of Dragon Con meet-up:

Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

“Beyond just being a place to cosplay, Dragon Con has been a place to reconnect with friends and the fandom community. It’s not just a con here, it’s a culture.”

— Akua Harris, left, cosplaying as Velma from Scooby-Doo

“Since childhood I’ve loved these characters. In addition to that I studied fashion design for almost a decade. Cosplaying allows me the freedom to really put my skills to work in a fun way that isn’t for work. ”

— Arkeida Wilson, cosplaying as Daphne from Scooby-Doo

Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

“My folks taught me how to read with comics, so I’ve literally been into this nerd life since I could read. Dragon Con is my home con now. It’s the time folks like us can let our alter egos out. It’s all love.”

— Bradley Goodloe cosplaying as Woody from “Toy Story”

Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

“Every time I come, I get to fully embrace my geekiness. Everyone is so accepting and welcoming, no matter your background, race, gender presentation or anything.”

— Myron Abernathy, cosplaying as a mash-up of Bishop from X-Men and Eazy E from N.W.A.

Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

“I’ve been a Blerd all my life, I’ve had a love for comics since I was 9.”

— Montel Thompson, cosplaying as Moon Knight from the Marvel series

Credit…Ari Skin for The New York Times

“I love that Dragon Con recognizes the effort we put into cosplay, and provides a space for us tocelebrate a genre that we grew up with, even if we didn’t always see ourselves in it. I rejoice when a small Black girl comes up to smile or hug me. It just makes me so happy.”

— Joy Stephens, cosplaying as Rogue from X-Men

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