ALEXANDRIA,VA- Alexandria resident Stephanie Byrd thinks that her best chance of making selling her hand-crafted buttons and bracelets is on the convention circuit. Byrd is selective about where she goes and few conventions have caught her attention like Blerdcon.
“It’s one of the few places you can feel good in your own skin no matter who you are,” Byrd told The Zebra. “It’s a great loving accepting place and everyone’s here to have a good time no matter who you are.”
The convention, celebrating nerd culture among minorities (particularly the black community who call themselves “blerds”), was held at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City from July 12-14.
Founded in 2017 by comic book aficionado Hilton George, the event aims to celebrate nerd culture—mainly comic books, anime, gaming and science fiction—among marginalized communities. Specifically, the event caters to racial minorities, the disabled, the international, and the LGBQT community.
“There’s nothing wrong with those other conventions, but we don’t see a lot of other people who look like us,” said attendee Bill Johnson. “Visibility’s important.”
Hilton George started Blerdcon in 2017 after travelling the comic book convention circuit for many years as a cosplayer. Three years prior, he started shifting his attention from cosplaying to volunteering behind the scenes, learning logistics and building contacts. George also credited the Crystal City Business Improvement Districtand the Crystal City Economic Circleas big supporters.
“It’s not just about wearing a costume but becoming the character for the entire time I’m in the suit,” said George whose go-to costumes are Deadpool and Mortal Kombat’s Raiden. “What I don’t take for granted is there’s a lot of people behind the scenes volunteering their time and community. It would simply be too many to count.”
From a technical standpoint, Blerdcon isn’t particularly different from other stops on the comic-book convention circuit. There are opportunities to talk to celebrities, play games, participate in panel discussions, show off their cosplay attire, and buy (or at least window shop) a wide variety of memorabilia. The featured guest list is exclusively made of people of color.
This year’s headliners included Star Trek and anime voice actor Beau Billingslea, martial artist Shaina “Samuraider” West, Grammy-winning singer Estelle (known for the 2011 hit single “American Boy”), and actress Rachel True (Half Baked, The Craft). True made headlines in January for tweeting that convention bookers excluded her from reunions of the “The Craft,” and said was grateful to be invited to Blerdcon.
“It was super important to come to this convention that made room for diversity because for me, realizing how important the role of Rochelle was in ‘The Craft’ to a certain demographic is so amazing,” True said. “Those who were around and said I was the first weirdo that they saw on the screen.”
Although the guest list was entirely culled from the black community this year, George explains that this as a reflection of the tastes and connections of what he calls the “Blerd community” more than any sort of rule and it isn’t meant to be exclusive to any other groups.
“The idea is that any individual that feels marginalized and under-represented sees what we do and feels more comfortable and more hopeful about their own visibility,” said George. ““Being a nerd wasn’t cool until very recently, with all the show and television shows, everybody knows about the Avengers and the X-Men and the storylines behind some of your favorite characters in sci-fi. A lot of geek stuff becomes mainstream, in fashion, and in music.”
Stephanie Nosalik, dressed as Hela from Thor Ragnarok, said she feels at home with people who share her interests.
“These conventions are necessary because you want to talk to someone who speaks the same way you do,” Nosalik said.
As for how black culture and nerd culture intersects, Kenneth Young has awkwardly found himself as the only black person at a convention.
“The essence of being a nerd is finding something that you have a passion for, studying every aspect of it, and finding someone to argue about it with,” Young said. “The second I felt uncomfortable, however, I’d just talk to them and all of a sudden you’re a lot less uncomfortable.”