interview: the founder of blerdcon on his intersectional convention for geeks
By Eye Candy
May 5, 2017
By Jacqueline-Elizabeth*, AFROPUNK contributor
On June 30th, and running until July 2nd, 2017, Black history will be made in Arlington, Virginia, as BlerDCon opens its convention doors for the very first time.
Short for “Black Nerd (“Blerd”) Con(vention)”, Hilton George, creator and founder of BlerDCon is the mastermind behind the very first Nerd Convention created for underrepresented and underappreciated Black nerds worldwide.
The event is sponsored by the Black-owned and staffed Noir Caesar Entertainment (NSZR Entertainment)—where I also work. Founded by NBA-player, Johnny O’Bryant III (of the Charlotte Hornets), Noir Caesar is dedicated to Hulk-smashing barriers and releasing Black created, written, and produced comic, manga, anime, and other nerd-media content.
Hilton George was kind enough to grant Afropunk an in-depth interview to discuss this great undertaking in Black History:
First off, who are you, where did you grow up, and when did you first start getting into the Nerd Life?
I’m Hilton George, creator and Con Chair of Blerdcon, the first geek convention of its kind focused on highlighting people of color, LGBT, women and those with disabilities active in anime, comics, gaming and sci-fi.
I grew up in North Carolina where, in the 80s and 90s, there wasn’t much of a geek scene for a young black kid like me. So my introduction to geek came from comic book collecting and Dungeons and Dragons.
What’s your earliest memory of discovering that you had taken a shine to nerd culture?
I stumbled onto a rare Japanese (pre-Hasbro) transformer in a flea market. No English anywhere on the labeling and made of die cast metal. It was in mint condition and I was the only one who knew what it was. It was underpriced so I could afford to buy it on an eleven-year-old’s salary. It was my intro to my enthusiasm for geeky stuff. I later gifted this collectible to my little brother who promptly traded it for a go-bot. (LOL)
What was it in particular that enamored you to nerd culture? Did you have a family/friend etc that was into nerd culture?
I’m a first generation geek, so there wasn’t anyone to mold myself on from my family. My comic book obsession came about on it’s own, but my RPG life came in 5th grade when I was introduced to it by kids in my afterschool program. I was invited to play even though I didn’t know anything about Dungeons and Dragons, and I was hooked after that!
How did growing up Black influence your view of nerd culture? Were you bullied for it? Were your friends supportive of it? What did your family think of your interests, and was it at all disconcerting for them?
Photo: Hilton George in Cosplay
Back in the day, being a nerd came with being excluded from most social groups. So along with general geek exclusion, there was regular ole racism and being subject to losing my “black card” for being a nerd. We in the black community are gradually getting over that as Blerd culture becomes more mainstream and “cool”, but back then it was pretty stark.
I was certainly bullied, and for a variety of reasons. Being a geek was definitely one, but I also was no “slave to fashion” and chose friends across all the dividing lines of race, economic status and orientation even though I might have been too young to be aware of it. I’m laughing as I type because I literally rode the “short bus” to school for a while when I attended a magnet school. The only defense I had was my skills playing “The Dozens”, verbal combat in the form of no-holds-barred put downs. Just the same, my family never had any problem with me being geeky. My mother only saw that I was hanging with the smartest kids in school, which pushed me to get better grades.
Specifically, what are your nerd hobbies and how did you get into them? How does being Black and a man impact and influence your hobbies?
With two jobs and a convention to bring about, I don’t have much of a hobby life right now. But cosplay is still something I make time for. Being a black cosplayer can be interesting, especially since several of my cosplays cover me entirely. People are often stunned to find out that their favorite Deadpool is black. Some people are reluctant to cosplay characters outside of their race, or skin tone. I simply cosplay characters I like and can embody in some new way. Now, I am fully aware that as a black MAN, I am far less likely than a woman to hear negative remarks or insults on the con floor. So I know how bad it can get, even if I’m not the one feeling the worst of it.
When did you start attending conventions and what was your first one? What was your initial impression of the convention scene as a whole? Did you cosplay, and if you did, who/what was your first cosplay and why? If you didn’t cosplay, why not?
I actually began going to conventions back in middle school. I had all but forgotten this, but when I lived in Raleigh, we used to sneak into an annual event at NC State called “Tri-Con”.
We were WAY too young to be allowed into an all night event unaccompanied, so we would sneak into the building through slick, often dangerous means. I swear we entered the venue once by mapping out the underground tunnel networks of the campus.
We entered via a manhole cover, navigating a maze of water and power pipe tunnels to come up into the boiler room of the Tri-Con building! Once we were in, we knew we wouldn’t get hassled and could play D&D with the “big kids”, watch screenings of scifi movies, check out artists, vendors and LARPers. It was only in the open areas where people could tell we were 12 year olds and would kick us out. But that was another life.
2014 saw my return to the con scene as I had become a manic Halloween costumer, at least according to my friends frustrated by my going a little too far above and beyond every year. Someone saw my work at a big constume party in DC and told me about the area con scene and I was re-hooked. MAGFest 2015 was my first cosplay experience.
I put together a rudimentary version of my Lord Raiden cosplay and marched into the Gaylord, not knowing anyone or anything about the cosplay scene. The reception I received was so positive and I was so impressed with the experience that I went from there to begin work on my Sub-Zero for Katsucon. These were my favorite characters from my favorite game back in the 90s. So it was a no-brainer to cosplay them both.
What initially inspired your begin Blerdcon? Was this something you had been planning for several years or was this a spur-of-the-moment idea, and with race being a factor in Blerdcon, how are you hoping Blerdcon impacts those who attend it?
My background is in events management and promotion. So one day I found myself looking out onto a large convention crowd noticing how amazingly diverse the attendees were. Every race, age, gender, orientation, size, shape and circumstance was in view. I loved how the connection in the geek community centered around the fandoms and the mutual enthusiasm for the genres. So I began asking if there were any cons that highlighted some, or all of these diverse groups since the guestlist and the programming never seemed to reflect the diversity of the attendance. Initially, I was asking for myself as a black cosplayer looking for more cons to attend. But the more I asked, the more I heard the answer, “NO”, at least not on the large scale format of anime or comic cons.
This was spring of 2015 when I said “Someone aught to organize a con like this!” So I began researching and gathering discussion groups to see what it would take. Initially, I was looking at Atlanta but realized it was too far away to manage from DC. I had heard the word Blerd on many occasions and coined the name “Blerdcon”. I called in an investor friend of mine to help back the idea and work with me on the foundation, trademarking the name, purchasing the web domain. I negotiated the contract with the Hyatt Crystal City, and we were up and running.
I sat on Blerdcon for 18 months before promoting it. There was so much to do in designing the logo, building the website, producing the collateral and assembling my team before coming out strong at Otakon 2016!
Race was a huge factor in the name and spirit of the con. As a black man, I could only lead with a theme and mission I could identify with. I also knew that if Blerdcon was going to fit the scope of a traditional con experience, it would have to be inclusive. We would need to go beyond our thematic base to recognize the intersections between the blerd community and other underrepresented groups. One could be a black nerd as well as other things, so it was crucial to allow for the programming and mission to represent the larger POC community, LGBTQ issues, persons with disabilities and others who could be “blerd AND”.
Then it reaches beyond the Blerd community to include non-blerd members of these other minority groups. How can you say that you want to create a safe space for LGBT blerds, but then close the door on LGBT people who aren’t blerds? So I looked to the history of the civil rights movement and its alliances with groups and communities of shared struggle and saw it was a largely inclusive movement. We will keep our core mission as the overarching theme and welcome all to come and experience, learn and enjoy something new, unique and different.
What would you say were some of the greatest difficulties of starting Blerdcon? What challenges do you still feel as though will be difficult to overcome?
Blerd is on the ascent, but it has not peaked yet. We are still meeting black nerds who either have never heard the term before, or reject the title as limiting and undesirable as a “label”.
So while Luke Cage breaks Netflix records, and black heroes like T’Chala are poised to rock the box office in 2018, the blerd wave has not crested. It is therefore a challenge to target a niche market that is still burgeoning and not always receptive to the mission or the message. Another challenge is that, as the first large scale con if its kind, Blend on excites the imagination of so many as they project their highest ideals onto a con that hasn’t happened yet.
This is a marketing dream on one hand, but on the other, the bar is set higher than that of a typical first-year con. So there’s a lot we have to get right the first go round as requests for certain panels, guests, games, parties and content flows in, we are building a 1st year convention at what will be effectively a 5th year scale. It’s a welcome challenge that we meet gladly!
Who/What were instrumental in helping you establish Blerdcon? What were some of the pros and cons? Did you have more doubters than supporters?
The initial support and embrace of the larger convention community has been the most amazing, and surprising (to some). I had the opportunity early on to attend a “con-runners” conference in LA where 150 convention organizers from the biggest and most established events in anime and gaming.
I mixed and mingled with 20 and 30 year veterans from Dragoncon, Otakon, Momocon and others who wholeheartedly embraced the Blerdcon inception and mission from the moment I stood and introduced myself and our event. They have been a huge resource for us generously sharing their connections, staff and events at every turn.
Just like any new event, we have people who do not share our vision. But the support and love has been so overwhelming that we can’t focus on anything short of continuing to build out a worthy event.
Have there been any accusations of Blerdcon being “exclusive” for being geared towards Black nerds and not towards white/non-PC members of the nerd community?
There are sometimes questions or concerns about inclusivity where a person might come to our table at a con and ask if it’s ok if they attend if they don’t consider themselves to be a part of a minority community. But most people recognize that Blerdcon will be a shared experience by all.
What do you have to say to those who claim Blerdcon is exclusive and not at all welcoming to people of other races? Without a doubt, there will be quite a few non-Black cosplayers; if there is a chance of Blackface, how will the Blerdcon staff address it? How will Blerdcon address any potential racism that may arise at the convention?
I seriously doubt that blackface will occur at Blerdcon. To do so at a diversity and inclusion convention would be an act of self-immolation. Just like any con, we set rules for proper and acceptable standards in all attire at our event. That can reach from poor taste, offensive language or imagery, to nudity or depictions of violence. So our staff and security will be part of a collective effort to keep Blerdcon an enjoyable atmosphere for all in attendance.
As for racism, again with our focus and theme out front, it simply will not attract people who aren’t bought into our message. In any case of attack or singling out of any attendee by another attendee due to their race, gender, orientation or identity, would be grounds for being shown the exit.
What about sexual harassment? Black women have often been overlooked and offensively under/misrepresented in the nerd community, and are often reduced to being hypersexualized caricatures of long-suffering negative stereotypes. How does Blerdcon intend to create a safespace for Black Women, as well as be inclusive for Black Women when (unfortunately) misogynoir is rather rampantly prevalent amongst Black male nerds?
A con can mold its spirit and atmosphere is several ways, not least of which is through content. Empowering speakers, panels addressing issues of sexual harassment/domestic abuse, signage and community policing of inappropriate behavior can stop problems before they start. Cons can also bring in women voices in the planning and execution of the event. The majority of the Blerdcon planning committee are women and specifically women of color. Our guestlist, featured cosplayers and panelists are majority women of various races, gender identities, orientations, nationalities and ages. Our planning and execution of Blerdcon will embody so many strong female voices that we are confident misogyny and misogynoir of any kind won’t find a friendly space anywhere within our event.
What do you hope Blerdcon achieves and accomplishes now and in the future? What are your future goals, plans, and aspirations for Blerdcon? Do you intend on making it worldwide?
I want Blerdcon to grow into a continuous movement that can sustain itself as an annual event, but can also breathe life into smaller events year round. I want to see it become a receptacle for unique content and unheard voices within the geek and nerd community, evolving into an ownership fandom that feels invested in the growth and direction of the con.
We are planning for Blerdcon’s growth in Arlington/Crystal city to emulate a Dragoncon-style event that encompasses our part of the DC Metropolitan Area. We are partnering with the city and business/arts community to build the buy in and openness to extend beyond our venue and into the city.
What most are you personally looking forward to at Blerdcon? What are some of the convention’s major highlights of this year?
Our partnership with Noir Caesar, a new manga and anime digital publishing company focused on bringing artists and writers of color to the wider market! They are effectively launching their publication at Blerdcon, and that represents a watershed relationship that will see our two entities grow into a staple event, and content providers for our community. We’ve got some amazing things lined up as a part of their sponsorship. So keep an eye out!
Via Noir Caeser
Overall, is there anyone you would like to personally thank for making Blerdcon a success, be they business partners, friends, mentors, etc, etc?
This is a tough one since there are probably 50 individuals who have been there for Blerdcon and myself at key moments, so I’ll give it a try. RGR International was the first on board for the Blerdcon mission. POC Cosplayers, the facebook group, joined early on and has been a great resource in expanding our network that was so crucial to our first months. Project Anime for ushering Blerdcon into the wider con community. The teams at Otakon, Dragoncon and Momocon, our partners at the Hyatt Crystal City and of course my team on the Blerdcon committee. Without them, there is no us.
Lastly, how/where can more people find out about Blerdcon, and the people who make it successful and possible?
Everyone should visit our website, blerdcon.com, and sign up for the mailing list, and check out our Facebook community page as well. We’re also on twitter (@blerdcondc) and Instagram (@blerdcon)! With these, you’ll never miss a beat!
*Jacqueline-Elizabeth Cottrell represents the Black-owned, creative entertainment company, Noir Caesar, as their Entertainment Representative and Spokesmodel. She hosts bi-weekly vlogs that discuss Black nerd culture, and keep fans informed on what’s happening within the company. She is presently writing a script for a brand new comic-book title to be featured in an future edition of the company’s monthly, serialized publication, ‘Hype Monthly Magazine’, similar to Shounen Jump and Shoujo Beat.
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