Baratunde Thurston’s book begins with a disclaimer; he announces straight-off that if you bought this book hoping to change your race, there will be no refunds.
It sounds funny when he says it. Well, humour is hard to predict, right? But I thought it was funny when he said it.
And, after all, Baratunde Thurston is a comedian.
And, as he observes, he has more than 30 years of experience being black.
That conjunction of facts might be enough to recommend this book to you.
If you truly believe that humour can be one powerful agent of change?
And if you want to know about one man’s experience of being black?
How To Be Black is definitely worth a look.
I didn’t know anything about Baratunde Thurston when I picked up this book. But readers do feel, with only a couple of dozen pages, that they could start to know him.
He has the air of being forthright and charismatic, self-deprecating and proud, and demonstrative and intimate: all sorts of contradictions in one person.
“At twelve years old, I was a bass-playing, tofu-eating, weekend-camping, karate-chopping, apartheid-hating, top grade-getting, generally trouble-avoiding agent of blackness.”
See, maybe he’s not what you were expecting as an advisor on this matter?
He was raised in Washington D.C. and attended Sidwell Friends (where Chelsea Clinton and the Obama girls attend/ed) and Harvard University; he co-founded the LOC-archived blog, Jack and Jill Politics, and he works as Director of Digital at The Onion.
All this in just one man. Just one set of life experiences.
And the author acknowledges that having the experience of more than individual on this matter might be helpful.
So he has selected a panel of seven people who each represent their own personal experience of being black / being too-black / being not-black-enough / being white — yes, that too — and the spectrum between and surrouding these various states.
Because, of course, identity is exceptionally tricky stuff.
It doesn’t get more complicated than that.
To assist in sorting out the complications, Thurston imagines a “special edition LEGO™ Negro Identity Building Set”:
“Build the black identity that works for you! Tired of being pressured by black people and others to fit their ideal of blackness? Don’t wear the ‘right’ clothes? Don’t listen to the ‘right’ music? Don’t commit the ‘right’ crimes? This set will liberate you. Inside you’ll find every country, every type of food, every genre of film, all granting you the unlimited power to be whoever you want to be while maintaining your strong sense of blackness.”
In further efforts to coach the reader, Thurston and his panelists offer ideas on “How to Be the Black Friend” and “How to Be the Black Employee”.
(He also talks about swimming, movies, going back to Africa, student unions, parenting styles, sports, wine, and wealth-related horse violence.)
But perhaps one of the most useful bits comes from the section in his book entitled “How to Be the (Next) Black President”.
(It’s ironic because of all the twenty-one essays, this is the one that I enjoyed the least because the talk of congress and voting systems is patently American, so it didn’t have the same sense of pressing relevance that the other twenty essays had for me.)
Still, the advice is useful. And I expect that Baratunde Thurston was expecting to need it and heed it himself, in publishing a satirical work like How To Be Black.
That piece of advice?
“Expect Haters from all sides.”
“The Black Panel, including its white Canadian member, universally agreed with me that post-racial America is indeed some bullshit…”
There might be some agreement within the binding that holds these pages together (though, to be fair, even in this instance, each member answered the ‘why’ part differently) but this is bound to be a divisive work.
There will be haters on all sides.
There are plenty of statements in this book to which readers may take offense.
But the inverse is also true: there are plenty of statements in this book which will not offend.
And, as one panel member states, “If people aren’t talking, there’s no progress.”
And as a reader who believes that talking about what you read can unequivocally change the world — one book at a time, one reader at a time — I see a work like this being full of potential for conversation.
But back to that disclaimer; Baratunde Thurston was very clear with his disclaimer at the beginning of the book, but I expect that there will be actual rewards as outlined in Thurston’s introductory chapter, based on one’s skill level in celebrating Black History Month.
Because the rewards that he outlines — and it’s not all about the free totebag either — for those of us who have ten activites planned for February are un-missable in my book. (I thought this section was very funny indeed.)
Thurston’s book is strategically marketed to those celebrants that Thurston so aptly describes, because if you’re “like most people, you buy one piece of black culture per year during this month”. Obviously Thurston hopes that the one piece will be his book.
(And if there are key elements that you are concerned that you may have missed about BeingBlack, there is an e-book available as well, designed to meet the needs of the reader who is NotBlackEnough in mere moments.)
But what comes after that — what comes after February — that’s when those rewards can really start to pay off.
Have you been offended by / inspired by / amused by How to Be Black?
If you want to see more, you can Browse Inside HarperCollins here.