Around 1995, my granny introduced me to X-Men: The Animated Series. She made me a delicious lunch and sat me down in her living room. I was immediately taken by the show. Bright colors, people with amazing powers, Storm (duh). That moment was the start of my lifelong love of superheroes.
My granny didn’t sit me in front of a TV because she didn’t want me to bother her. Years later I would learn that my granny loved the X-Men, misfits who didn’t fit into society. They dedicated their lives to making the world safer and more understanding for everyone. She had an affection for the smartest of the X-Men, Beast. I think she identified with being naturally intelligent but born in a body people didn’t recognize as intelligent.
As a little girl, she read every comic she could get her hands on. That included Captain America. During World War II, Cap was a symbol of American strength, but he also made children feel safe. Reading Captain America gave so many children someone to root for. For my grandmother, a little Black girl growing up in Chicago, having someone that made the world feel a little more secure really affected her. She eventually found her favorite comic characters, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, whose greatest powers were truth and will.
At the age of seventeen, she married and became pregnant (which was not uncommon for the ‘50s). Although that stalled her education, her drive for knowledge knew no bounds. She would spend her free time learning. My granny hated the idea of knowledge being inaccessible to certain people for whatever reason, so she learned everything. She became a proxy for other people to understand the world outside of their neighborhood. She would take her children and other kids in the neighborhood to the zoo. When they asked questions about the animals she had every answer. As a kid, she turned to comics because she realized her limits as a Black girl. She never wanted her children to feel limited.
Star Trek was also a really important part of her life. The idea of a future where Blackness would be normalized and even celebrated was a big draw. The show promoted exploration and respect of other cultures. It made her universe feel big but also made her feel connected to everyone. She brought those ideas of cultural exchange and understanding to her family. Some of us have become big fans of the franchise because of her (we all think DS9 is the best…. because it is).
My first nerd community was my family. My introduction to the idea of a nerd community was full of love and patience. When I entered other nerd communities I realized that unfortunately, so many people feel the need to control how other people engage with something they love. So much of nerd culture today is about competition, alienation, bigotry, and exclusion. My grandmother took the best parts of her favorite comics, TV shows, books, and films and used them to become better. She taught her children how to believe in themselves and be the best person they could be. She showed me the X-Men because she knew four-year-old Bilal was probably queer. She wanted me to learn how to celebrate my differences like the X-Men. She didn’t want me to learn to hate myself like so many queer folks do.
If there’s one thing I learned from my granny, it’s that when you love something you share it and if people don’t like it, you respect their opinion. If you love Captain Picard, Wonder Woman, or Captain America you should strive to leave a positive impact on the world like they do. Every nerdy thing I love as an adult comes with the warmth of my granny. Her laugh. Her smile. Her hugs. Her tears. My granny, Valorie Roberson, died in October 2018 surrounded by love. I know in my heart that she will live on in the stars, across space and time.