Being Comfortable In Who We Are - 10 Questions with Your Friendly Neighborhood Nerd, Robert "the Bobbo" Griffin
Imagine, if you will, that you're a child again. You spend your time enamored with comic books and action heroes; fictitious characters who routinely exhibit gallant behavior in page and on screen to serve as the defenders of good in the timeless battled against evil. Your love of these characters is woven into the fabric of your every day life, from the t-shirts you wear, the book bag you carry to school, the games you play on the playground, and even the themes of your birthday parties.
Now, let us pose a question. What effect do you think it has on a child's self esteem when they idolize these characters yet do not see their race or gender represented within the roster of protagonists? In 2011, the academic journal Communication Research published a study conducted by Kristen Harrison and Nicole Martins, two Indian University professors, titled Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self Esteem: a Longitudinal Panel Study. Harrison and Martins surveyed about 400 black and white students in Illinois, all 7-to 12-years-old and from lower-middle to upper-middle socioeconomic communities, over a yearlong period. The research focused on how much the kids watched TV and how that impacted their self esteem. What they concluded is that television exposure led to a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self esteem among white boys.
What contributes to this increase or decrease in self esteem? It's simple, representation. Children are affected when their race or gender are not represented or represented negatively in popular culture, whether it's television series, movies, comic books, or literature. Historically, young white boys have had greater access to positive media representation. This type of exposure helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, and that they can attain, achieve, and even be heroes. If popular culture reinforces gender and racial stereotypes, then exposure to media can impact how children of color, girls, gender nonconforming youth, or children with disabilities evaluate themselves or see their place in the world.
Robert Griffin, a man who has given himself the title Your Friendly Neighborhood Nerd, is an ardent advocate for diversity and inclusion within the arts and media, with a specific focus on nerd and geek culture. Griffin, who is also known to many as the Bobbo, is passionate about seeing more people of color (POC) and females working as illustrators, writers, and editors of comic books and animated series, as well as owning and operating comic book and hobby shops. He uses outlets such as his blog and podcasts, Geek Street Radio and Bobbo's Block, to spread his message.
In the past, to be a geek was to be either invisible or chastised. Now, with the advancement of platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and podcasts, geeks and nerds across the world are forming online communities and organizing meet ups to proudly profess their love of comic books, anime, cosplay, video games, sci-fi, and more. Griffin knows first hand how important this new level of connectivity is to POC and female fans of the genres. Growing up, Griffin felt like he was caught between two worlds, not entirely embraced by white fans of nerd and geek culture and not understood by his black peers whose interests rested in other areas. This positioned him as an outcast within an already marginalized population.
Griffin is also a poet. In addition to writing, he serves his community by organizing literary events that celebrate poetry and give other literary artists an opportunity to share their work. His newest reoccurring monthly series is titled The Wunderground Notebook, and through it he is organizing live poetry events held in unlikely yet intimate venues.
Griffin will host a photography event titled Black Beyond the Friday on Saturday, November 25 at Studio Zsa Zsa Lapree in Downtown Jacksonville. The event will feature black and white photography from photographers local to this region. Studio Zsa Zssa Lapree is located at 233 East Bay Street and the event is scheduled to start at 8:00 PM.
10 Questions with Robert Griffin
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
My brain works in a really weird way. I see the finished project or show in my head and work backwards. I ask myself "How did I get to this?" It's like I'm reverse engineering my dreams.
I usually get to the small details last, which can make things a bit interesting. I let things fall into place and try to not be stressed, but that never really works out. So, I would say a good bit of stress is in my normal habits.
When it comes to writing, I need music. I sit down and zone everything out with either a playlist or an album that I'm obsessed with at the moment. I then let the words flow out of my head and onto the page.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
The biggest thing that I've learned about myself is that I don't do enough. Honestly. I do a lot, but there are so many more ideas, events, or shows that I want to pull off. The problem is, there just is not enough time in the day for me to get it all done.
My mind never stops working and I'm always thinking about the next project. I also get mesmerized easily. If something grabs my attention I will spend so much time trying to learn about it that I get distracted from my other work. But mainly, I learned that I am still a kid at heart and I love to make those old forgotten dreams come true.
How do you define success in what you do?
Most people get caught up in the numbers. How big was the crowd? Did we pull profit from the door? I try to not let metrics like that dictate how I define a show's success.
For me, I know a show was a success if I look around and the participating artists are selling their work. I want to bring art into the homes of everyone and let my artists give a piece of themselves to the world. For poetry shows, it's all about one question. Did we have fun? I try to keep my shows light, fun, and get everyone interacting. I just love showing off my friends. So, that is where I get my definition success from.
How do you think new media outlets have empowered individuals who emphatically embrace niche subcultures to remove stigmas associated with nerd and geek culture and develop communities through which material can be discussed passionately and unapologetically?
Podcasts and YouTube give a voice to the voiceless. Within geek and nerd culture, it opens up so much more discussion amongst ourselves and is creating opportunity for diversity because it has always been considered a boys club. And, for the most part, a white boys club.
Before, we never had the chance as black and POC nerds to really express our love or opinions about the things we have entrenched ourselves so heavily in. This is because we didn't have the outlets to do so. We were seen by other black people as "trying to be white." By others within the industry, we were seen as outsides that didn't know enough about the culture.
But, with the boom of social media and podcasts, we have found our people. Blerd (Black Nerd) culture is the perfect example of this. The rise of Blerd twitter accounts, and the subculture as a whole, grew from a common connection we all felt but were never able to properly express because we didn't have the right platforms to meet each other. There are now POC shows and platforms that normalize us and make it so we don't stick out like sore thumbs. Examples are networks like Black Girl Nerds (BGN), Black Nerd Problems, The Lemonade Podcast, Geek Soul Brother, Nerds of Prey, and my own network, Geek Street Radio.
The community that surround these networks help us be comfortable in who we are. I think we all ask similar questions. What if I had this when I was back in middle school when I was just discovering my nerdy nature? What if I had access to these people earlier and was able to connect with them? That is why all of us do what we do now. I want to make sure the current and future generations of nerds know that it is okay to be you and love what you love. There are people just like you who blazed this trail to make it normal for everyone to enjoy our culture.
What does it mean to take a look inside the pages of a comic book and be able to identify with the features, traits, or characteristics embodied by the main protagonist?
This question gets down to who I really am, like on a molecular level. Representation in media is so important. Seeing protagonists that are like me gives me so much joy.
We are in a time where it is so dope to be a Blerd. We are everywhere, from comics, television, movies, art, and more. Places that we were once held back from. I know I can go into any shop and pick up some of my favorite comics and know that the characters are a full representation of my life.
I didn't feel that when I growing up. Yes, we had black characters and that was good. But, we never got the complexity and spectrum of stories that we are able to explore now.
The landscape of comics and writing in general is changing, and for the better. I love knowing that if I have a daughter she can pick up Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Or that my future son can look to characters like Duke Thomas or Sam Wilson. Seeing yourself in the things you love is one of the most important things to me. It is really like living the dream.
What are some other barriers within geek and nerd culture that you would like to see dismantled to create more diversity and inclusivity?
Black cosplayers are usually the most overlooked demographic in this community. Yet we are a driving force in the nerd culture. We are the least likely to get featured, the most criticized, and the most harassed about doing something we love. This is what led to Cosplayers of Color, which stems from #28DaysofBlackCosplay. The movement was started as a refusal to rely on the "major" publications in the cosplay world to recognize us. It was us showing love to others through our platforms. It's our effort to highlight our friends and major people of color in the cosplay community.
There are many subcultures and professions where barriers still need broken down. The presence and representation of POC needs to be seen as a thing of normalcy. I would love to see more recognition for comic book writers, editors, and artists of color. We scrape for basic visibility in almost every place we go, even when we already have a history of accomplishments and people doing amazing work. It's always seen as though we are not being ourselves or that we are "trying to be white" or "doing that white stuff." When in truth, it is just as much a part of the black experience.
We as people of color have been put into a box where we are suppose to like certain things, and those certain things only. When in actuality, being black comes in so many different forms. We all have different lifestyles and interests, and they all should be celebrated and normalized within the black experience, and in society as a whole. I want EVERY barrier and stigma dismantled so everybody is accepted for who they are and can enjoy what they love.
What are some contemporary comics, animated series, and characters that you feel are helping advance the cause of diversity and inclusion within the industry? Additionally, how do you think the release of Marvel's Black Panther will help advance this cause?
I'll highlight a few of my favorite characters and series. First and foremost is Sam Wilson and the comic Captain America: Sam Wilson. This comic is really the epitome of what it means to shake up the world and put a new face on America.
Sam has been a hero, but he has never been a beacon of hope and justice. He embodies the struggles of an everyday African American navigating the current social climate and just trying to do the most good in the world. I love how no matter what people say about him or how they view him on twitter or in the media, he gets the job done and saves the day. He has ups and downs and has lost so much, but he also gained the world by taking up the shield.
Next is Duke Thomas who was a Robin in the We Are Robin series and is now Lark/The Signal in the current Batman series. All my life I have looked up to Robin, Dick Grayson. I am a huge fan of the character, even when he became Nightwing or Secret Agent Grayson. There have been six Robins in the past, with each being different in their own way. Two were women but there still hadn't been a Robin of color until Duke. The We Are Robin series from DC is the perfect example of what we are talking about when we discuss representation.
Steven Universe is an amazing coming of age series that tackles so many things from gender fluidity, to love, to anxiety. All while keeping it palatable for kids and adults.
All of these examples have amazingly diverse staffs and writers working on them.
Marvel has always championed diversity. Finally seeing the Black Panther come to life will do a lot to show where we have come and where we are going. In addition to showcasing black culture, the movie will also showcase African culture, which historically has been shied away from. They worked meticulously on every little detail, like changing the villain Man-Ape to his African name M'Baku. These subtle details are so important.
There is a dumb misconception that nobody will want to watch a movie if black people are in the forefront. I always wanted something to finally break that myth and Black Panther will do just that. It will show that a majority black cast can carry a box office hit.
What is the Wunderground Notebook and what led to its formation?
The Wunderground Notebook is my newly formed monthly show. It is based in the old style of Black on Black Rhyme's "Drive By" poetry shows. It will be held in intimate settings, within the homes of my friends and fans. It is a small open mic and a featured poet comes a does a set.
The show started as a result of attending an intimate poetry show, in which my friends and I traded poems. I wanted to replicated that moment but I struggled to find a venue and didn't know how to pull it off without one. Then I looked around my home and said "Why can't this be my venue?."
I have always thrown parties at my place or have gone to the homes of others for similar events. Why can't a home be a venue for a poetry show? We all have stories and spaces we want to share. We can become like the Underground Railroad, but instead of being the ones running to freedom, we are giving a place for our art to become free. Everyone can bless the stage and sign the notebook and we can leave behind a legacy.
You've hosted several events at Studio Zsa Zsa Lapree, and have an event coming up on Saturday, November 25th. What is that event and what role do you see event spaces like Studio Zsa Zsa Lapree serving in the community?
The event coming up on November 25th is called Black Beyond the Friday, it is an all black party and photography art show. We will be showcasing black and white photos from some amazing photographers, such as Cheryl McCain, Larry Key, and Clinton Eastman. It will be an amazing time to unwind, get away from the family after the holiday, and have some fun with your friends.
I love Studio Zsa Zsa Lapree. We have been working there all year and when I first met Gigi, the owner, we automatically hit it off. She is such a joy to be around and shows so much love to our art community. She is one of the few black-owned venue spaces in the city and currently the only black-owned art gallery in Jacksonville.
When I first met her she told me that it was always her dream to open and operate her own gallery, and she made it come true. She is Black Excellence, giving back to the community every chance she gets. We've organized events from art shows to community relief drives in her space, which is quickly becoming a cornerstone within Jacksonville's art community. Her eye for choosing art that goes within the gallery is astonishing.
I can go on and on about how much I love her and that space.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city's creative economy?
The major developments that I want to see in the creative community is a re-connection with our educational system. I feel like the arts and education has been in a rocky relationship. We have Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, but it feels so closed off. Like only the kids from DA can truly experience the arts in an educational setting in Jacksonville. I want arts education to be more open and inclusive.
We have this weird notion that art can't grow here in Duval. I know some of the most amazing artist and most talented performers, but they feel suffocated in Jacksonville. I want us to be able to give more support to ourselves and not feel as if we need to go outside of the city to make it big or to find great art. I want the people to know that the art community is alive and thriving HERE, in Jacksonville - and that is art of all disciplines.
I also want to see the collaboration of more unlikely pairings in the art community so we can showcase all we have to offer.
We'd like to thank Robert Griffin for his participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for taking the time to read this week's 10 Questions interview. If you enjoyed what you read or you found it engaging, please consider making a donation to the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Your donation supports the advancement of the arts and culture in Northeast Florida.
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