With Black History Month coming to an end, I wanted to do something special. Something that doesn’t get done enough.
So, this article is all about the African American men and women who have contributed to Geek culture!
What we have here will be African American actors and characters in some of our favorite Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies and TV shows, as well as the geeky creators of comics, books, and movies and tv.
I’m not going to be able to get to everyone, but I’m still going to try to touch on some of the most important people that we should be talking about in Geek Culture.
Without further ado, let’s meet the geeks of Black History Month!
Real Actors and Their Fictional Characters
Nichelle Nichols—Lt. Uhura
No discussion of African American contribution to Geeky culture would be complete without talking about Nichelle Nichols, better known for her portrayal of Lt. Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series.
Nichols has probably the most influential and impactful career of any of the actors on this list. She was the first black woman to feature a role on a major television series. Not only that, but her portrayal of Uhura was of a confident and equal member of the crew of a spaceship. On equal footing with white men.
She is also credited with having the first interracial kiss on screen with William Shatner in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” It wasn’t much of a kiss, and it almost didn’t happen, but it was the first time that it did and she made it happen.
At one point she wanted to leave the show to pursue a career on Broadway, but was talked down from that move by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who told her not to because “for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance, and can go to space.”
When Star Trek was canceled, she didn’t stop. She worked with NASA to help recruit women and minorities. And it was a huge success. Among those recruited were Dr. Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, and USAF Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut.
Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura helped pave the way for all of the other people of color in Star Trek, some of whom are also included in this list. Other African-American actors in Star Trek, all of whom followed in the footsteps of Nichelle Nichols, include LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn from Next Generation, Avery Brooks in Deep Space Nine, Sonequa Martin-Green in Discovery, and Tawny Newsome and Dawnn Lewis in Lower Decks. With the exception of Michael Dorn, they all played human beings and they all held positions of command.
And they’re all following in Nichelle Nichols’ footsteps.
Chadwick Boseman—Black Panther
After Nichelle Nichols, Chadwick Boseman had probably the greatest impact on nerd culture of anyone.
And not just of African-Americans, but of anyone. Period.
As a movie, it’s hard to understate how much of a phenomenon Black Panther was. One of the highest-grossing films of all time, Boseman led a predominantly black cast with a black director to become a cultural icon.
I can’t speak for everyone, but Black Panther was the first time that I saw on screen an all-black futuristic utopian society. Not only that, but one whose culture was modeled off of pre-colonial African nations.
Nations and people who are often looked down on and dismissed.
But let’s take a step back and recognize the Aragorn-level of cool that Chadwick Boseman brought to his performance. His T’Challa was on an equal footing with any other Marvel heroes and was so compelling to watch.
I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m gushing… because I am. He was so cool.
He was also a philanthropist who gave a lot of money to charity and did his best to help others by donating to St. Jude’s Hospital, the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and even donating $4.2 million in personal protective equipment to hospitals in black communities at the beginning of the pandemic.
He passed away in 2020 from colon cancer. Even as he was dying, and he kept that a secret from the public, he continued to donate to cancer research.
Michael B. Jordan—Killmonger
One of the other great things about Black Panther was that it introduced us to an absolutely superb villain. Erik Killmonger.
Killmonger was scary. He was brilliant. And his shirtless scene broke the retainer of at least one young woman.
But he was also a bad guy that made sense. He wanted to change the world for the better so that the racism that he grew up with would no longer be tolerated. And to punish the societies that benefited from the enslavement of his ancestors. As Killmonger, he represented what happens when justice is denied for too long: the oppressed fight back.
He was also the only bad guy to be right. T’Challa changed his opinion, and not just his personal opinion but his opinion on his country’s foreign relations, because of Killmonger.
While he is best known for his role of Killmonger, Jordan is no stranger to other nerdy movies and shows. In 2018, he starred opposite Michael Shannon in the sci-fi movie Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of one of science fiction’s classic novels by Ray Bradbury.
But sticking with superheroes, he also starred in and was an executive producer of Raising Dion, a Netflix tv show about a mother who discovers that her 7-year-old son had superpowers. He also played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four.
Finally, if this isn’t enough to make you love him, he has publicly said that he is a big fan of anime, in particular Naruto: Shippuden and the Dragon Ball franchise.
Funnily enough, it’s a passion that he also shares with rap icon Megan Thee Stallion (who is often shown sporting Nezuko nails).
Dominique Tipper—Naomi Nagata
The Expanse TV show is, in my humble opinion, one of the best things to happen to science fiction. It had a rich amount of world-building with just enough hard-science and space battles to appeal to a large group of sci-fi fans.
And one of the best things to happen to The Expanse was Dominique Tipper.
Tipper brought a ton of heart and soul into a role that already had a lot of heart and soul in it. Not to mention complexity, but holy shit her Naomi Nagata really is the most sympathetic and interesting former terrorist you’ll ever meet.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show (and it did get canceled twice, so there’s a good chance there’s a couple of you) The Expanse is about the near future when humanity had colonized the solar system but not the galaxy. Without spoiling anything, the discovery of new technology threatens to destroy the already tenuous relationship between the three major factions in the system as each group tries to control something that they don’t understand.
But what the TV show and books that it’s based on really does is it shows a future filled with people of color. One of the biggest complaints that science fiction in particular gets is that they show a future of only white people.
Meanwhile, The Expanse broke ground by only having a small group of Caucasian actors in their large cast, the rest of whom were made up by people of color. People of color who were often portrayed in positions of power.
Getting back to Miss Tipper (who, by the way, was also involved in the film adaptations of Vampire Academy and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), is incredibly hilarious in interviews and on Instagram. Seriously, go follow her, you won’t regret it.
Avery Brooks—Benjamin Sisko and Michael Dorn—Worf
Finally, we return to Star Trek, this time with Deep Space Nine and the first African-American commander in Star Trek. And not only that, but one with a very justifiable grudge against Star Trek favorite, Jean-Luc Picard.
It was a very bold move and one that worked really well. Avery Brooks was an amazing choice as Captain Sisko. He had the same calm and cool personality that Sir Patrick Stewart brought to Picard.
He also directed nine episodes in the series, including one of the show’s best episodes, “Far Beyond the Stars” in season 6. In the episode, Benjamin Sisko believes he is Benny Russell, an African-American science fiction author in New York in the 1950s who writes stories about the events unfolding in DS9.
It’s not a happy episode. Benny Russell’s story ends in personal tragedy and with the publishers refusing to publish a story about a black space captain. But Sisko then wakes up from his dream, and we, the audience, are left to contemplate the horror, but also the futility, of racial injustice.
And speaking of racial injustice, we come to Michael Dorn as Worf, the Klingon warrior who joins Starfleet. Reprising his role from Next Generation, Worf arrives on Deep Space Nine as an outsider. In a society where racism no longer exists, the prejudice against Worf as both an outsider to the station, as well as a Klingon, allowed the show to have its proverbial cake and eat it too. Federation society was no longer racist, but with Worf they could still discuss racial injustice.
And, as another feather in Micheal Dorn’s cap, as Worf he made 282 on-screen appearances, the most of any actor to appear in the Star Trek franchise.
While Dorn fell into the same trap that many black actors fall into in science fiction, the trap where they only ever appear as aliens or “the others”, he still delivered his role with humanity and grace and really was one of everyone’s favorite characters.
While some of his reception was mixed, it should be noted that Stan Lee, the granddaddy of Marvel and the original creator of Spiderman, was a big fan.
Then, in 2018, we got the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which introduced Miles to an even larger audience, including the 2020 video game Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
While similar to Peter Parker, Miles was a very different superhero who wrestles with stepping into the shoes of a famous superhero, as well as dealing with the relationship with his father who distrusts superheroes, and his criminal uncle. Again, a very different Spiderman, but still the same.
Tarlton of the Galactic Alliance
What followed was a racially charged long process of litigations in which the Comics Code Authority tried to have “Judgement Day” pulled.
But what was the story that sparked such outrage?
“Judgement Day” is about an astronaut named Tarlton from the Galactic Alliance who journeys to a planet full of robots called Cybrinia to see if they are ready to join the alliance. What he finds disturbs him, a planet where the robots differentiate each other by the color of their sheeting, a practice that has been banned by the Galactic Alliance.
Forced to reject the robots’ request to join the alliance, Tarlton returns to his ship, but not before he gives hope to his robot guide, telling him that his own people once judged themselves based on the color of their skin, but if they can move past that and work together “the universe will be yours too.”
Aboard his own spaceship heading back toward Earth, Tarlton removes his helmet to reveal that he is a black man. He looks out hopefully as his spaceship flies toward home and, in the words of the comic itself, “the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars…”
EC Comics won the legal suit to keep the comic in print, and to keep Tarlton as a black man, a huge win for the 1950s. Unfortunately, they were never able to bounce back and instead began producing the more profitable Mad Magazine instead.
Black Writers and Creators in Science Fiction
The first person I want to highlight is probably the first African-American science fiction writer. Martin Delany wrote Blake, or the Huts of America, a serialized novel of an alternate future in which an enslaved black man from the Caribbean named Henry Blake leads a revolution in the American South and Cuba.
Delany himself had a very storied life. Born a free man, he was probably the first proponent of black nationalism. In addition, he became a physician’s assistant in Pennsylvania and was one of the few not to flee town during a cholera epidemic in Pittsburgh. He was also one of the first three black men admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1850.
Not only that, but during the Civil War he was commissioned as a major in 1865, becoming the first African-American field grade officer in the United States Army.
His novel Blake predated the Civil War, being serialized in 1859, and even predated Jules Verne’s debut novel Five Weeks in a Balloon by four years.
No mention of African-American science fiction authors would be complete without mentioning the late Octavia Butler who, among her many achievements, was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellowship, as well as several Hugo and Nebula awards.
She is best known for her book Kindred, in which a black woman is brought back in time to the slave plantation of her ancestors. But she still has an impressive list of best-selling and award-winning books including the Patternist series, the Xenogenesis series, and the Parable series among many others.
A fantastic author, and one that I’m horrified that I had never heard about until I started looking.
Another big name in science fiction is Samuel R. Delany (as far as I know, no relation to Martin), one of the most well-known and prolific science fiction writers in the African-American community, who is best known for writing the post-apocalyptic novel Dhalgren in 1975.
That said, he also wrote extensively on critical examinations of science fiction (as well as memoirs of his unusual life). And, if that weren’t enough, he also wrote a few issues of the Wonder Woman comic.
A professor of literature, Delany sought to create classic works of science fiction that would be treated with respect by the literary community. And, much like Ray Bradbury who had a similar goal, he succeeded.
He also wrote a comic book arc for Wonder Woman.
Now, if the name Walter Mosely sounds familiar, it should. He’s the author of the incredibly popular Easy Rawlins detective novels, the first book of which was made into a movie, Devil in a Blue Dress starring Denzel Washington.
One of the most prolific writers out there, he’s written a number of other science fiction books (in addition to the million or so detective novels he’s created), and he was even a guest writer for Star Trek Discovery.
Happy Black History Month
This was meant to be a short article, and I had originally hoped to include more artists and contributors to the things we love.
And there is a lot out there.
There is so much more out there that African-Americans have contributed to geek culture, more than I have the skill to find. But, that said, I still had to go looking for them. Normally, all I have to do is walk over to my (ahem, many) bookshelves and I can see a cornucopia of who’s who in science fiction and fantasy.
But my bookshelves, probably like many of yours, is sadly void of many African-American voices and the voices of other people of color.
There are many other people I could have highlighted, like Ahmed Best and his iconic work as Jar Jar Binks (I know you’re laughing but seriously, he did a lot for the industry: Jar Jar stumbled so that Gollum could run), Earthsea’s Ged (don’t trust the miniseries, he was described in the book as a man of color—and immense power), and authors like Victor LaValle (who put his own spin on the lore of Lovecraft and has helped make it accessible to everyone).
Happy Black History Month! Now, like author N.K. Jemisin, we can ask the question in the title of her book of science fiction and fantasy short stories: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?
See what’s geeky every month!