Writing While Black: Fall 2021

Kiwi Ninamori, BlerdCon Cosplay Contest winner, cosplays Himemiya Anshii/Anthy Himemiya from Shoujo Kakumei Utena/Revolutionary Girl Utena. 

In-person conventions are back! But online offerings are still closing the digital divide

by Sumiko Saulson

Summer 2021 saw the return of the in-person indoor convention here in the United States. Las Vegas hosted the first large, in-person convention since the start of the pandemic, “World of Concrete,” a bricklaying tradeshow on June 8, 2021.

But even with additional precautions and the Delta strain putting a damper on things, in-person conventions have made a national comeback. And right along with the return of the conventions is the return of the convention scandal.

White woman wins cosplay contest at BlerdCon

BlerdCon took place this July; its theme was Chocolate City. Blerd, in case you didn’t know it, is a portmanteau of the words Black and nerd, which is why people were understandably outraged when a white woman won the Blerd Cosplay Contest. Despite the scandal, BlerdCon was in many ways a huge success. 

It was likely the first major Black convention to take place in-person since the start of the pandemic. They managed to host over 4,500 convention goers while enforcing a vaccination and mask mandate. The convention, which takes place in Arlington, Va., very near Washington, D.C., is open to everyone, but it exists to celebrate Black excellence. As such, members of the African Diaspora should be centered.

Blerd, in case you didn’t know it, is a portmanteau of the words Black and nerd.

The white contest winner later apologized and returned the prizes, saying: “I am sorry for centering myself in a space that was not mine to do so.” The prize would have included representing BlerdCon at their booth and on a panel at DC’s AwesomeCon Aug. 20-21. African American cosplayer Kiwi Ninamori from North Carolina took her place. Other prizes include a trophy, a $500 cash award, and a slot as one of BlerdCon’s 2022 cosplay guests.

The convention has issued a statement about efforts it is making to address the scandal. One is that they are instituting a Hall Cosplay Contest, where judges will walk through the convention to hand out invites and awards in the hallway as a way to see that more African Diaspora cosplayers are invited to the contest. They are going to rename the contest as the Black Cosplayer of the Year award in order to encourage Black participation and discourage non-Black entrants. 

There will be a new question segment, where people will be asked about their background, what they bring to Blerd culture and how they will help forward the goals of the BlerdCon and Black nerd culture. The goal is to make sure that the purpose of BlerdCon becomes more important and it is not merely a matter of technical construction of costumes and makeup. They want to also involve the audience more, so that the aims of the convention, the audience and the judges all have a say, not just the judges’ scoring sheets.

California conventions make a comeback

The first large in-person convention in California was a medical conference back on July 28, but in the literary arts world and the world of horror in particular, most of the summer conventions got delayed or went online. As a result, I didn’t get to an in-person convention until Aug. 15, when I attended Sinister Creature Con with my girlfriend, Princess Teacup. 

Sumiko Saulson masks up with Chucky and Annabelle at Sinister Creature Con.

Historically a Sacramento convention, this year it took place in Roseville, Calif., at the Roebellen Center. In case anyone has forgotten about the pandemic world we still live in, they moved because their traditional spot at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Sacramento is now a vaccine site for COVID-19.

Celebrity photos and signatures are a big feature of the horror and special effects makeup convention. This year, guests were allowed to de-mask briefly to take photos with consenting celebrities. The celebrities were not required to take their masks off, but special effects make-up artist Ve Neill agreed to take her mask off to take a photo with me. I was very excited. I’m a huge fan of hers and have watched pretty much every episode of the SyFy program Face/OFF.

Sumiko Saulson looks very excited to meet special effects make-up artist and Face/OFF star Ve Neill!

Due to the Delta variant of COVID-19, masks were required at all other times except when eating. The food court was outdoors and guests were encouraged to eat outside. Hand sanitizer was also made readily available. Not only were there stations around the convention, they handed out small containers of sanitizer and masks at registration. 

Panels and talks took place in a cordoned-off corner of a large, high-ceilinged room. Every effort was made to ensure that the convention was safe. We were not required to show proof of vaccination – vaccination was not required at the time for gatherings of less than 5,000 in California, and proof of vaccination was not required at all. This will change on Sept. 20.

Changing guidelines and how they will affect California conventions

When it comes to COVID-19, the state of California is very careful compared to most of the USA. The Bay Area errs on the side of caution even more than the rest of the state, with many events opting to remain out of doors. 

Indoor events in San Francisco mostly ask for proof of vaccination or an onsite instant COVID test combined with masking. Soon the state will follow suit. Beginning Sept. 20, 2021, proof of vaccination or a negative Coronavirus test will be mandatory for gatherings of 1,000 people or more.

As a result, you can expect to see more outdoor events, especially while the weather remains warm – usually until the end of October in the Bay Area. You can also expect to see more small, intimate indoor events, literary festivals that take place in many separate small locations like LitQuake and LitCrawl.

Online events offer the ability to partake of convention events by means of recording, at a schedule tailored to an individual’s needs.

I will be participating in The Hydra: A Series for Experimental, Flash, Sci-Fi and Horror and the People Who Love Them readings with other African American authors live in-person at LitQuake on Saturday, Oct. 16, from 1:15 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. at the Yerba Buena Gardens Esplanade in San Francisco at 750 Howard St., San Francisco, CA 94103.

I will also be one of the readers at a Bay Area Reporter sponsored Lit Crawl on Oct. 23 at 5 p.m. at Martuni’s at 4 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94103.

Online conventions remain a mainstay in 2021

Despite the gradual return of the in-person convention, online conventions in their many forms have remained a staple of the 2021 literary arts world. There are many reasons for this. COVID safety is first and foremost. Additionally, online events are more cost-effective to produce. They can also reach out to more people for less money, helping to create more buzz for some growing festivals. Online events can host more authors, artists, and other panelists.

Many Black people are front-line workers; not only do they thus have an increased need to manage their possible exposure, taking time off of work can itself be a financial barrier. Online events offer the ability to partake of convention events by means of recording, at a schedule tailored to an individual’s needs. People with sickle-cell anemia, mobility issues, agoraphobia, and many other types of bodies and minds also often find online events more accessible. Finally, online conventions can have guests from all over the world without spending money on travel and hotel accommodations for high profile or even not-so-high profile national and international guests.

This summer I was fortunate enough to participate in online panels and presentations for ReaderCon Aug. 13-15 in Boston, and for StokerCon May 20-23, which was going to be in Denver, Colo. I will be appearing at a Horror Panel for Pikes Peak Writers based in Colorado at 1 p.m. via Zoom with Carina Bisset, Clay McCleod Chapman and Shannon Lawrence on Oct. 16.

I am also going to be a part of the DePaul Humanities Center’s annual Halloween event Horror of the Humanities, an interactive exhibit in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, from 6 to 9 p.m. CST. The online haunted house will be visited by people in avatar form, who will see various art installations and a movie screening.

Although I haven’t participated in any zine fests this year to date, my zines from 2020 are still in the SFZine Fest Aug. 28-Sept. 5 and EBABZ, East Bay Alternative Zine Fest – 2021 dates TBD – zine libraries from 2020. 

That’s one benefit of everything being online for a year or two – more and more access to content by Black and other marginalized creators is being made available to the public. The zine fests are able to rotate in a whole new list of vendors and introduce a brand new group of zines to their growing online libraries. Bay Area Queer Zine Fest on July 27 was also online. 

Social Commentary in Horror panel at AfroComicCon 2020.

Many Black and BIPOC conventions are still online, helping to narrow the digital divide by creating online content by Black creators that remains archived after the event is over. The Bay Area’s very own AfroComicCon will be online again in 2021, Oct. 23 and 24. FiyahCon, an event celebrating BIPOC in speculative fiction, will be online Sept. 16-19, 2021.

Bestselling author Sumiko Saulson writes award-winning multicultural sci-fi, fantasy, horror and Afrosurrealism. Winner of the 2017 Afrosurrealist Writer’s Award, 2016 HWA Scholarship from Hell, and 2016 BCC Voice Reframing the Other Award, (he)r monthly series Writing While Black follows the struggles of Black writers in the literary arts and other segments of arts and entertainment. (S)he is gender non-binary. Support (he)r on Patreon and follow (he)r on Twitter and Facebook.