Last weekend’s Wakandacon transformed the Hilton Chicago into the world’s most successful and self-reliant black community | Feature | Chicago Reader

Last weekend’s Wakandacon transformed the Hilton Chicago into the world’s most successful and self-reliant black community 

It was a celebration for nerds of all kinds.

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Last Friday the lower level of the Hilton Chicago was transformed into a mini Wakanda. Lollapalooza might have been happening upstairs and across the street, but Wakandacon was in full swing downstairs. A small but devoted crowd of a few hundred people came to re-create the homeland of Black Panther.

As someone who regularly attends and volunteers at science fiction and comic conventions, I was curious about what would bring people to a brand-new event on a busy weekend. On Friday night there was a smattering of attendees in costumes, Van Jones and his children were roaming around, and the marketplace was just getting set up. Though many were gravitating to the room set up for computer games, there were some people who were clearly there to work. Dressed in suits and business-casual dresses and seemingly ready for a networking event, they stood out next to those dressed as the movie's T'Challa, Killmonger, and Okoye.

Kathleen Caliento, an executive at the Academy Group, an organization founded by Earvin "Magic" Johnson with a coalition of former CEOs, academics and investors to mentor young people from underserved communities, saw the event as a networking opportunity. When I asked how it felt to be in a business suit in a room full of cosplayers she said, "I'm totally comfortable in black nerd spaces, because I know blackness is not a monolith. There are many ways to engage with the meaning of Wakanda."

Wakandacon billed itself as a "new kind of cultural event." It had a mix of familiar science-fiction convention staples ranging from face painting to a cosplay contest. However, unlike other speculative fiction or comic conventions, like ReedPop's C2E2 or WinCon, Wakondacon aimed to include all manner of nerds, whether they be into politics, news, comedy, or technology. Organizers and many attendees were quick to correct any attempt to label this event as being focused on any one topic.

Though there was no official permission from Marvel to reference the fictional country, it was clear that the event was intended to create someplace like Wakanda if only for three days: a thriving and successful black community without a reliance on outsiders. Here, it was all about a healthy black community interacting with and celebrating the things that they had in common and the things that made them unique. As for the competition from Lollapalooza and Gen Con, David Barthwell, one of the founders, says, "It was this weekend or the weekend of the Beyoncé concert, and we didn't want to disrespect her."

On Saturday night the software company Autodesk held a mixer to introduce their products, as well as to encourage participation in STEM for those who loved the idea of this wonderful future, but who might not be into the cosplay or the creating of media. The intersection of race and technology and access for black people is a key aspect of Afrofuturism, a literary and social framework for addressing concerns about the future of the African diaspora. As a genre it includes a wide range of media and artists, as well as scholars who seriously interrogate the imagery that is created and consumed in popular culture.

Though Wakanda's economic system has never been specifically labeled capitalist or socialist, the Black Panther movie made it clear that the people of this fictional nation had all their needs and many of their wants met. It was this idea of a wealthy black independent nation that inspired the three Barthwell siblings, David, Ali, and Matt, and their friends Lisa Beasley and Taylor Witten to start Wakandacon this past February, after they'd seen the movie several times. (The organizers are writers, performers, producers, a computer programmer, and a social worker; like the tribes of Wakanda, they combined their expertise to put the event together.) It was also the reason prosperity and financial freedom were recurring themes throughout the weekend, with panels that ranged from tips on how to turn being a nerd into a career to how to invest in a cryptocurrency called Wacoinda, billed as "the fastest growing Black economic group on Facebook."

The organizers sought out a variety of black-owned businesses for the marketplace. Vendors sold everything from T-shirts to energy drinks to lessons in survival during a major crisis. The Afrovivalist, a self-described "huntress and urban survivalist," urged preparation for an off-the-grid life a few feet away from entrepreneurs pushing for greater technological innovation through 3-D printing.

Wakandacon wasn't just a place for creators and entrepreneurs. Community activists were able to use the space to spread their messages as well. Flint Water Exchange had a table and a panel to explain that, despite some claims to the contrary in the media, Flint, Michigan, still doesn't have clean water that's safe to drink. Rashida "Sheedz" Olayiwola, a comedian and former CPS mentor was there with the Sheedz Success Team, a charity she founded to provide students at Percy L. Julian High School and Marcus Garvey Elementary School with school supplies, clothing, and Ventra cards. Wakandacon helped sponsor this year's giveaway along with, among others, Cecily Strong, Chris Redd, Samantha Bee, and Ashley Nicole Black.

Wakandacon wasn't just for locals. Writer and actress Erika Alexander, currently on a ten-city tour with her content company Color Farm Media, reached out to partner with Wakandacon in hopes of encouraging attendees to sign up for Color Farm Media's nationwide Keep It Colorful initiative. The goal is to get at least 50 digital TV pilots by creators of color greenlit this year. "We are committed to diversity and inclusion," Alexander said. "We know that the industry excluded some of the best talent, but we know that's there's money in there. A lot of money."

The success of Black Panther, Get Out, Moonlight, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and other media properties from creators of color certainly lends itself to the idea that a diverse and inclusive media is a largely untapped market with plenty of room for growth. Attendees were interested not only in creating their own media, but also in positions that would allow them to work behind the scenes. The panel on concept design for entertainment led by Anthony Jones, Thabiso Mhlaba, and Black Panther costume designers Phillip Boutte Jr. and Marco Nelor quickly strayed into the kind of nuts-and-bolts career advice that those on the fringes or completely outside the industry would need.

Scholarly panels covered everything from Afrofuturism to physics, giving attendees a chance to interact with people working in industries where black people are severely underrepresented. Jessica Esquivel, one of under 150 black women in America with a doctorate in physics, explained her work at Fermilab and how she got there. Sami Schalk, a fan, a scholar, and a professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of book Bodyminds Reimagined, a study of disability, race and gender in black women's speculative fiction, gave a presentation on how diversity in speculative media can be used in educational and activist spaces to further work toward a more just society. Schalk said she was drawn to Wakandacon because "there are going to be a lot of black people here, and nerdy black people in one space is exciting."

Other panels covered topics on sustainable futures and the idea of Queerkanda and being explicitly welcoming to the LGBTQ members of the diaspora.

The children in attendance seemed to love the programming that catered to them explicitly, ranging from the Shuri Project's coding workshop to the Matt Damon Improv workshop that let them practice their comedic skills.

For many attendees the feeling of not standing out in a crowd, of being part of a community of black nerds seemed to be the biggest draw. Whether you were a con newbie or a veteran or more focused on Afrofuturism than cosplay, there was something for you to see, and someplace where you could feel seen. Even though I was covering and not participating, I could see how exciting it would be for those who are not able to access these sorts of community events regularly. JP Fairfield, a regular con goer tweeted, "It's so weird going to a con and seeing so many people with . . . hair like you . . . Skin like you . . . Not giving you weird looks. I don't feel like an outsider. I need more of this."

There is no shortage of geeky events in Chicago or the surrounding communities. But not all of those events are as explicitly focused on inclusion in the way that Wakandacon was, and that contributed heavily to calls from attendees at the Hang Out With the Founders panel for this event to occur again next year.

The questions of whether it would be the same weekend, be held in the same location, or even be called Wakandacon were all up in the air at the end of the event. Although organizers were clear that they could only schedule a nap by the second day of the event, they did not shoot down the idea of having a similar event in the future. During interviews and throughout the weekend it was easy to see that the organizers were profoundly overworked because of their small staff. But as David Barthwell said, "We are a small team of only five people who worked really hard and appreciate all the love and support."

After the untimely demise of Universal FanCon under a cloud of suspicion about the way funds were handled by founders Jamie Broadnax and Robert Butler as well as subsequent issues that arose around the lack of accountability by the board for the time and money spent on an event that never came together, it's understandable that the founders would be hesitant to commit to anything before the receipts for the weekend have been counted. Fan cons are not traditionally financially stable with many being lucky to break even, though a few have gone on to become large scale money makers, for people who have only attended cons in the past the first time running one can be a lot of hard lessons on event planning.

Still most events planned for the weekend went off without a visible hitch. The Emergence of Afrofuturism panel was canceled at the last minute, but with such a wide array of options and the understanding that this was the inaugural event, attendees seemed willing to accept that there would be a learning curve and responded with a lot of patience and respect. Those who were seeking something to replace the panel knew that they could go to the gaming room, another panel, the relaxation room or the marketplace and find something fun to do.

Though Wakandacon strove to be inclusive, there were some notable absences from the event. Without Marvel's approval or support, there was a distinct lack of creators directly responsible for Black Panther on the page. (Since its acquisition by Disney, Marvel has pulled out of fan cons.) Writer Nnedi Okorafor, who was recently tapped to write a Shuri comic for Marvel, took to Twitter the first day of the convention stating "There's a WakandaCon happening in Chicago (where I live). I was never invited. So I'm not going. The End." Although some on Twitter who seemed to be friendly with one or more of the founders attempted to mediate the situation, Okorafor tweeted that she was busy and refused further discussion.

Not everyone needed an invitation though. Actor and producer Demetrius Grosse, who was in town filming the HBO series Lovecraft Country, stopped by to check out what was happening and chat with fans. Writer Eve Ewing took the time to wander the halls and listen in on some panels as well.

For those looking to keep the geek fun going there's always Chicago Nerd Social Club's monthly events, Ladies Night at Graham Cracker Comics or taking a page from the Wakandacon founders and starting something to help meet other people in the community. Businesses can open their internship and mentoring programs to more at-risk kids and embrace the possibilities of an inclusive future right now. There's no way to know if Wakandacon will ever happen again, but there are so many ways to keep the spirit of community involvement alive through the use of technology, or through setting the tech aside and talking to each other. If there's one thing Chicago can always use, it is ways for the community to engage, whether that be in entrepreneurship, scholarship, or in happy healthy harmless fun.   v

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