How A Black Superhero Inspired Conversations About Race And Technology In Nashville | Nashville Public Radio

How A Black Superhero Inspired Conversations About Race And Technology In Nashville

Feb 20, 2018


“Black geeks” want to be heard: That's the focus of a two-week celebration organized by Nashville business and tech leaders in honor of Black History Month.

And the events this year are dominated by the blockbuster movie Black Panther, which is fueling more conversation about representation.

What makes Black Panther great, say fans, is not just that the lead is a black superhero — though many are encouraged to see a studio put millions of dollars behind a movie written, directed and acted by people of color. But the real appeal is that Wakanda, King T’Challa’s fictional kingdom, has inspired conversation.


Wakanda is what could have been — an African nation in control of its resources, a country untouched by the lingering effects of colonization and slavery. It's one of the reigning ideas of “afrofuturism."


That was the topic explored in a panel during Nashville’s “Black Geek Week.” The group included a tech entrepreneur, a STEM professor, a museum curator and a self-identified “blerd” — that’s slang for black nerd — working for Google.


Panelists, from left: Daynise Joseph, Community Impact Manager at Google Fiber Nashville; Jurnell Cockhren, Black in Tech Nashville co-founder, Dr. Ashley Nicole Bouknight, curator at Andrew Jackson Hermitage Museum, and Dr. Eboni McGee, Asso. Professor of Education, Diversity and STEM at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.
Credit Julieta Martinelli / WPLN

They defined afrofuturism as "being able to be who we want to be," as a "reimagination of who [they] are in a world that doesn’t exist yet." And simply, "a world of possibility." Then, taking cues from technology and science fiction, panelists explored what society can learn from the land of Wakanda.


"We really wanted to capitalize on all of the energy going on around Black Panther," says Alicia Cotrell, a local podcaster and one of the panel’s moderators. "Talking about afrofuturism gave us a chance to talk to people about how technology, imagination and social justice can go beyond just entertainment but can actually fuel movements."


Black Panther, she says, is the first time many young people see strong, positive representations of their African culture.


"People say the old adage, 'You can't be what you don't see.' It is a real thing. You don't know that you can be a leader unless you see those representations," Cotrell says.


Lack of representation is not just a Hollywood issue. Fallon Wilson, one of the event’s organizer and co-founder of “Black in Tech Nashville,” says it’s also a problem at many of the city’s tech companies.


"You think about Black Panther, which is so exciting, or you think about Hidden Figures last year, which was equally exciting around STEM, but yet it wasn’t trickling down to the local space here in Nashville," Wilson says. "So we founded an organization to make those connections real."


Because afrofuturism isn’t just about imagining life in a different world tomorrow, organizers hope to inspire conversation that leads to changes in society today.


Wilson says it’s also about knowing when to take a break from addressing what’s wrong — and simply celebrating that there’s a black superhero on the big screen.