Why Geeks of All Colors Need the Black Tribbles

Five black Philly radio hosts talk superheroes and sci-fi—and show the world that geek culture isn’t as white-and-nerdy as the media would have us believe.

By Stephen H. Segal
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted May. 2, 2012

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Most weeks, Randy joins the show remote by phone rather than coming into the studio with the other four. That’s because, much as he loves his Tribble identity, he’s already juggling two other personas: as assistant manager of Comics and More, a comic-book shop in the Plymouth Meeting Mall, and as a serious hip-hop artist who goes by the name R-Son and tours as a member of Gangstagrass, a Brooklyn-based rap/bluegrass hybrid that recently played SXSW and can be heard performing the theme song to the FX television drama Justified.

“I’ve been geektastic since I was yay high,” Randy says, holding his hand at waist level. His cousin introduced him to Dungeons & Dragons at age 8, and from there he followed the familiar ’80s progression of comic books, G.I. Joe, Transformers.

“Comics expanded my vocabulary,” he says. “Comics taught me the speed of light, and I never forgot it.”

Randy, at 38, has an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old of his own now, and he’s more aware every day how important it is for young kids of all backgrounds, boys and girls both, to see themselves reflected in the heroic imagery that pop culture provides. He was startled recently to realize how deeply he was touched when Marvel introduced a new, alternate-world version of Spider-Man, a brown-skinned teenager named Miles Morales who takes up the identity out of respect for the previous web-swinger, the familiar Peter Parker. “Miles is black and Puerto Rican, like my son,” Randy says softly. “That’s my little dude up on the webs.”

It’s simultaneously a complicated issue and an incredibly simple one. Because all the major superhero figures in American pop culture were created between the 1930s and the early 1960s—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc.—black kids have always grown up thrilling to the exploits of white heroes, but white kids haven’t been called upon to step outside their own racial existence in the same way. Len recalls hanging with Randy at the comics shop one day and talking with a white superhero fan who said he could never really get into the black characters, like Marvel’s Power Man, because he couldn’t identify with them. That’s a common platitude in fandom—but this time, Len didn’t want to let it stand. “Look,” he told the guy, “Batman is my favorite thing. I’ve got a Batman tattoo on my shoulder. If I can identify with Batman, well, I ain’t rich, and I ain’t white. Randy here, he’s all about Superman, and if he can identify with Superman, well, he ain’t a farmer from Kansas and he sure ain’t an alien from outer space. So why can’t you identify with Power Man? His thing is that he protects the inner city. What’s so hard to appreciate about that?”

The guy got it. Next time they bumped into each other in the store, he told Len and Randy that he’d started reading Power Man and Black Panther.

That’s the sort of impact the crew wants Black Tribbles to have: taking advantage of the intimate, conversational nature of talk radio to bring that chat to lots more people than they could reach hanging out in the comic-book shop. To bring together fans of all different backgrounds and let them appreciate life perspectives they hadn’t considered up close and personal before—and, along the way, to inspire those young black kids, in Philly and everywhere, who otherwise may never have been given the cultural blessing to take a superhero as their role model. “Man, I would love to open a comics store in West Philly,” Randy says. “I would love to have a big Spider-Man statue out there on 38th and Market.”

In March, the Tribbles were invited to participate as judges at the 33rd annual George Washington Carver Science Fair—named, of course, for American history’s foremost black science geek. Hundreds of students from around the city convened at Temple for the fair, one of the biggest such in the nation; Len and Jason judged students from seventh to 12th grade in the computer science category. “It was cool!” Len says. “This one seventh grader was taller than all of us, had a jacket and tie, and was studying how artificial intelligences respond to human interaction… The amazing part was how this young man was so smart about it, had it so well thought out—he’d even color-coded his project with blue labels and he was wearing a blue tie. Really, the fun of it was seeing these kids invested in stuff, not just in being basketball players, rapping—these kids were like, ‘I want to be a scientist, want to be a doctor.’ Little, little kids thinking like that. It was the gamut of kids: white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Jewish, it didn’t matter.”

Len says Black Tribbles couldn’t have done any of this without G-town Radio’s vital and wholehearted support; at the same time, his visions of the show’s future are bigger. He’s picturing satellite radio. Or even a TV version on a network like the ever-geeky G4. “I think it’s a damn good show. Does it have some things that aren’t quite polished? Sure. But that’s part of the charm. The people involved deserve to be paid for it. Yeah, we do it for the love—but I think it can be more than that, if the fates align.”

He sees the way their local fans light up, responding to the Tribbles’ unique radio voices, when they make public appearances at events like comics conventions. “When we go out, they look for Jason to say something stupid, for Kennedy to be Kennedy, for Erik to drop in some bombastic couplets once in a while, and for R-Son to bring his knowledge from on high. And I—I just steer the ship.”

Which, for any geek of any background, naturally begs the question: If Len’s at the helm—which starship captain is he channeling? He stares for a moment before breaking into a sheepish grin. “It’s a little bit of hubris, but I would say I’m Picard.” He pauses. “I’d like to say Sisko, but I’m probably Picard.”

Black Tribbles will be celebrating Free Comic Book Day on Sat., May 5, with a day of public recording from Comics and More at the Plymouth Meeting Mall, including a contest to give away tickets to the upcoming Wizard World convention. A second Tribbles team will be at the Creation Star Trek Convention in Cherry Hill the same day. More info: blacktribbles.com

Follow the Black Tribbles on Twitter here.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. mark still said... on May 2, 2012 at 07:45PM

“Wooooooooooooo-eeeeeeeeeeee, Kennedy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


- mark”

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2. Sunny said... on May 3, 2012 at 11:39AM

“I remember when i first started wearing all those superhero/sci-fi graphic tees and everyone thought i was "trying" to be different for the sake of being different...that was until they visited my apartment and huge posters on walls and doors, stacks of DVDs and novelty toys.

If you are in the philadelphia area, check out Garden of Earthly Delights. they have everything... I recently brought a WWF magazine from 1986 with Macho Man and Rick Flair on the cover "OOH YEAH!"”

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3. jabnc said... on May 3, 2012 at 04:31PM

“When I think of "black nerds" I flash on Oliver Wendell Jones in the 1980's comic strip "Bloom County" by Berke Breathed. (BREH-thud - think "breathren") He was this 10 year old genius who was always confounding his parents as he calmly went about inventing the most terrifyingly amazing stuff and hacking into computers all over the globe. He was so cool.
That would have been a little before your time (I'm showing my age here) and I haven't read it in quite a while so I don't know how well the humor has aged. You may be interested in it if only to see how the character was handled.”

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4. shirlee said... on May 4, 2012 at 01:50AM

“What about Maurice Moss from the UK's "IT Crowd"? Most excellent nerd/genius. Of course, he's stuck in the basement of his office building....”

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5. Anonymous said... on May 6, 2012 at 03:32PM

“I think of Lem, from Better Off Ted, and his mother. Both scientists.”

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6. Kunle Adekolo said... on May 7, 2012 at 08:42AM

“Yes . . . you're all thinking it, so I will go ahead and say it. Kennedy Allen is the best thing about the Black Tribbles.”

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7. hal2814 said... on May 8, 2012 at 08:54PM

“Kennedy is my girl,my mind was on this subject today thinking how i like big bang theory but we never see any black "geeks" on the show”

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8. Nkosi said... on May 9, 2012 at 09:53AM

“I really felt short changed when they took Mantis off the air. I have one of the episodes on VHS. Glad to see that Lumbly finally got more work after a long TV hiatus.
Tribbles was great. It shows you what you can do with good writing. Tribbles were immobile fuzzy props. Just stuffed fuzzy things. But add creativity, tongue in cheek humor, competent acting, and viola, a memory wothy episode/s.
Deep Space 9 was definately a scifi breakthrough with a Black actor as the main character.Hope it makes it to Bounce (NYC), a new Black focused free channel focusing on AAmerican themes.
Black Tribbles is a great name in that it wil be easy to remember when I want to Google it. Hope it works out for everyone long term
Nkosi”

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9. Serene said... on Dec 23, 2012 at 02:44PM

“Call all Black Super Heroes to Burning Man 2013: www.campwakanda.com”

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