Memoir Piccolo Is Black sheds light on Black Nerd Experience

A collage shows Jordan Calhoun at a zebra crossing and his book in front of a graffiti wall.

photo: Illuminated Riot Press

When I was a kid, I looked forward to commuting with my mother to work every Sunday at our humble black Lutheran church in Cabrini Green. But what got me excited wasn’t listening to our youth pastor’s sermons to children or the lunch breaks after morning worship. My excitement came from pulling mine out Dragon Ball Z Action figures that I showed my cousin Jordan and played with them during the service when I could get away with it.

I adored dragon ball. I’d reserve it for Blockbuster’s anime section to regularly rent out their movies and paint the manga I twisted around my mom’s arm to buy from the also very broke Borders. But of all the characters in the DBZ I felt most closely related to the ensemble of otherworldly warriors, Piccolo, the series’ introverted villain-turned-Z-fighter.

After I scraped together enough of my pocket money to buy a Piccolo keychain for my mom (I didn’t have my own keychain at the time) at my school’s book fair, my mom asked why I had Piccolo instead of Goku or Vegeta, the heroes of the Series.

“Because he’s black,” I replied simply.

If you would ask anything DBZ Fan what breed Piccolo is, they would probably say he is Namekian, a green, snail-like alien from the planet Namek. But when put in context, it usually serves as the sole representation of an “other” (outside of Mr. Popo but I don’t have the energy to go into it) among a group of white characters, Piccolo was my representation.

Cruncyroll dubs

My ability to identify black-coded characters like Piccolo became second nature to me as I matured in a world steeped in cartoons and anime. Black coded characters are not technically “black”, typically because the racial system we constructed is not reflected in the worlds in which they exist. They are instead “coded” as black, as their stories or portrayals often reflect the black experience in America. Whether facing adversity from villains or allies, these characters stand by their beliefs and make sure their voices are heard. Other examples include Naruto‘s Rock Lee, Goliath out gargoyle, and ankles out Sonic X.

That’s not to say there weren’t any black characters I could identify with growing up. But they were few and far between, which is partly why encoded characters, whether black-encoded, queer-encoded, or otherwise, are popular with those who share that identity.

I wasn’t alone in this experience. Jordan Calhoun, Editor-in-Chief of life hacker and The snackrecently published a paper entitled Piccolo is Black: A Remembrance of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture which explores this very idea.

I spoke to Calhoun about black coded characters and how their proliferation in popular media helped shape the person he is today.

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.

What was your ‘aha moment’ about the existence of black coded characters in media like anime and cartoons?

I think I knew it on an emotional level as a kid, but I didn’t understand it on an academic-intellectual level until I was an adult. As a kid, me and all my friends thought it was pretty obvious characters like Piccolo or characters with a black voice actor that just seemed black on purpose. They had a history that reflected what we recognized as the black experience in the United States. But it wasn’t until I grew up that I was able to put that in the context of the history of animation and a broader cultural picture of where animation was really racist in the ’50s and ’60s. There was a transitional period where black audiences weren’t really considered a marketable audience, so we didn’t get much representation. We have misguided tokenism right now.

The ratio I describe in the book is a one to five ratio. They would have a group like the Power Rangers and there would be a black person and sometimes there would be an Asian person and the rest would be white. Largely because there was a transition where black people were seen like this: ‘Throw them a bone, let’s have some diversity, let’s have some representation. But let’s not focus too much on that, because then we can’t sell these toys. We will not be able to sell these comics. We will not be able to sell this commodity.’

Crunchyroll dubs

You mention that in the foreword Piccolo is black was not originally written as a memoir. What made you change your mind?

I didn’t want it to be a memory. I wanted it to be an approach to all of these same themes and subjects, but from a more distant, safe, academic context. It would be about the history of animation, racial coding, [and] the mental adjustments that black kids made in the ’80s and ’90s during animation’s transition from superracist to less racist. But my publisher and some editors who read the book’s early manuscript tell me that readers will be most interested in how it affected me as a person.

How did you decide what to share and what not?

The decision I made was that honesty would be my north star. Whatever my experience, whether I was excited or ashamed, whether I looked good or bad, or whether other people in my life looked good or bad, I decided to write things as they happened .

The funniest example is that the entire first draft of the book didn’t include my father. [laughs] I just didn’t even mention him. And it wasn’t like I was intentionally trying to stop my father from doing it. It was like I just hadn’t thought of it. It was probably the first heavy story in the book. It wasn’t until an editor pointed out that a reader will wonder where your dad is. “You either have to deliberately remove him from the book and explain that he wasn’t in the picture, or you have to explain something about his involvement in your life.” Is that a pleasant story? Absolutely not. Is that a story I want to tell? No, but it was definitely formative in my life and helped steer my life in certain directions.

One of the things that offered some comfort in writing the challenging stuff was that I wrote the entire book from the perspective of my age at the time. The reader may say, “This happens to a child? Oh, that’s perfectly fine.” Or, “That’s absolutely not okay for this to happen to a child.” I’ll only say the things that made me think, feel, or do, and readers can decide if it is appropriate for adults to teach this to a child and if that was a normal reaction for me as a child.

How were black coded characters like piccolo made out Dragon Ball ZGoliath off gargoyle, and Optimus Prime from transformers meaning for you as a child and for the writer you are today?

They taught me a certain level of confidence. Being confident in a place where you are not well represented, being confident in a place where you are outnumbered and holding on to your own morals, ethics or opinion. Not to say you’re narrow minded. One of my favorite things about Azeem Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Goliath or Dinobot Transformers: Beast Wars was that they didn’t give a damn in the face of a dominant culture. They had a strong sense of who they were and they would be unshakable in what they knew they were right. That was the quality I wanted to acquire. I wanted to say, “That’s what I think is right” or “That’s me,” without trying to bow to the majority.

What sticks in my mind to this day is that when I’m in an editorial meeting, I’m one of two or three people of color in that room. And I’ll still use my voice. I will still stand by what I think is right and not be intimidated, even if the ratio is worse than one to five. Your point of view may not be well represented in a loud volume room, but you could still have a voice in that room. As a kid, this was always my favorite thing: watching characters who had a strong sense of self in the face of a dominant culture that wanted them to change or stay silent.

Piccolo and Gohan fight back to back against Gamma 1 and Gamma 2 in Dragon Ball Super Hero.

picture: Toei Animation Co.,Ltd / Crunchyroll

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in pop culture when it comes to how black-coded characters are portrayed?

My childhood experience obviously resonates with me because I had it, but that’s not ideal. What I would wish for today and for the future is that we don’t have to be coded as Black to be palatable to whites, or for them to connect with our experiences and see us as meaningful characters.

Racial coding was a stepping stone to a brighter future. It was a transition in the way that black people weren’t seen as a viable audience that would actually buy things or broadcast a TV show or movie. It wasn’t in until recently Black Panther that proved with an exclamation mark that a mostly black cast could sell very, very well.

When I think about the connections I made as a child, I look at them in both good and bad ways. On one hand, it really sucks that I had to learn racial coding because I had such a bad representation of people who look like me. On the other hand, what I celebrate and highlight in the book is that we made it. We have been able to adapt to this under-representation. We found ways to see ourselves as powerful characters.

What advice do you have for other black nerds who felt, or still feel, seen by black-coded characters that they wish they had as a kid?

Embrace the fandom. The opportunities to open up to fandom and find like-minded people are much greater today than they were when I was a kid, thanks to the internet. When I was a kid, it was about being a nerd, knowing something that’s niche, something that popular culture doesn’t accept as cool. For me, the definition of being a nerd is having things you love enough to want to share with other people. If you have something you love, whatever it is, that you share with others and that you include, that’s beautiful. This is the nerd future I want. Memoir Piccolo Is Black sheds light on Black Nerd Experience

Curtis Crabtree

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