TBTS Reviews: How To Be Black
I knew I had no business picking up a book called How To Be Black. After all, I grew up nearly as far from the American black experience as possible, in rural West Virginia (and it’s all rural, even the urban parts.) Everywhere you turn, just about everyone is white, where there is anyone at all. It’s like growing up in a salt shaker. And yet, when I saw the galley on the shelf I was drawn to it somehow, picked it up a few times out of curiosity (noticing the author’s unusual name, Baratunde Thurston, spotting that he writes for The Onion and that he is one of the founders of Jack and Jill Politics) before finally shaking my self-consciousness and taking it home. I’m glad I did.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started the book. Maybe some snarky, hilarious commentary on the state of race in allegedly post-racial America in the form of advice on how to be what you already are (presuming, of course, you are not some white dude from West Virginia trying to salve some nagging liberal guilt.) That’s there, of course, in the form of chapters with titles like “How To Be the Black Friend”, “How Speak For All Black People”, and even “How To Be the Angry Negro”, but interspersed with that is a winning, moving narrative about the author’s life, a serious commentary on where we are as a society and how we might make real progress toward one another.
Baratunde Thurston – the name, he says, is Nigerian and means “grandfather returns” or “one who is chosen,” and occasionally provokes backlash from real Nigerians who react as if he broke in and stole it – is a remarkable guy. He grew up in what he calls “the crack years” in Washington, DC, was raised by a single mother beneath massive paintings of an ankh and a Black Power fist, attended Sidwell Friends school and eventually Harvard. The guy does everything – works for The Onion, does stand-up comedy, goes everywhere as a public speaker, and is giving the opening keynote address at SXSW Interactive this year. (I dream of one day being even half that impressively busy.) For all that, he writes with a deft touch and a disarming humanity, weaving together a vivid picture of a life well lived, of opportunities seized and dangers avoided, of a brass ring firmly grasped.
Of course, Thurston is funny, consistently so. Even the timing of its release – January 31, just in time for Black History Month, which he spends a fair bit of time on – is funny. He goes everywhere with this thing, and in so doing points up what people don’t even know they’re doing. In what is perhaps the funniest and best-written part of the book, Thurston talks about the perils of being black in an otherwise racially homogeneous workplace, capping it with a delightfully over-the-top take on what happens at the super-perilous workplace party with dancing, if you, The Black Employee, demonstrate that you happen to be exactly what a “steady media diet of well-choreographed dancing by black people” has led people to expect and stumble into what he calls a Soul Train Moment, then end up in a dance-off with some other random black guy and
Instinct takes over, and you square off. Pretty soon the two of you are engaged in an epic dance battle. You’re literally putting on a show at this point, and it covers the entire history of modern black dance. You jump between Lindy Hop, Cabbage Patch, Running Man, Samba, the Harlem Shuffle, the Robot, Beyonce’s Single Ladies dance, the Percolator, the Diddy Bop (which you hate!), the Moonwalk, Some New Thing You Two Just Made Up, and you’re actually teaching people how to Dougie! You are determined to defeat this Random Brother and prove that “These are my white people!”
Eventually, Random Brother stands down. Meanwhile, your white people hoist you up on their shoulders, outdoing each other with praise for your astounding talent, satisfied that they know the Best Black Person Ever. You find your date and head home, exhausted and relieved that the ordeal is over.
But it isn’t. Because now they know your secret, and they can never ever let you rest. You are destined to top your dance performance at every company holiday party for as long as you work at this company.
Congratulations, and I’m sorry. You are The Black Employee.
Assisting Thurston is a panel, named simply The Black Panel, of three black men, three black women, and one white guy – appropriately and perhaps inevitably Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like. The panel – quite the all-star collection of comedians, writers, and thinkers – contributes anecdotes and insights that keep you reading and laughing. Thurston turns to the panel to shed light on all facets of what it means to be black, or to not be black, both in America and outside it (one panelist, Derrick Ashong, is from Ghana and grew up on three different continents.) With them, Thurston produces a positive, progressive (but not blindly sunny) vision of what it means to be black today, and in the end, the reader is led to the conclusion that you can be black any way you want to be. What they produce is a sharp, intelligent, highly readable book worth picking up and sharing.
So in the end, maybe I am exactly who should read How To Be Black, because I freely admit I don’t precisely know where Baratunde Thurston is coming from. No, I don’t know what it means to grow up as an African-American, in Washington DC or anywhere. For that matter, I don’t know what it meant to grow up being one of the approximately five black kids in my elementary school. But now, the Great American Melting Pot (hey, remember that from Schoolhouse Rock?) has been taken off the burner and its ingredients have started to separate and congeal. We have self-segregated not just by race but also along class and ideological lines. America today has sorted itself into blocks not just of black and white but of red and blue, two Americas at least, and humor is the first, best way to break down what still divides us. Humor lets us talk honestly in ways we wouldn’t dare. As one of the panel members, the artist damali ayo (who is so much of an artist she needs no capitals, e.e. cummings style) said, “we are operating at this third-grade level of race relations … that goes, ‘Please like me, do please like me,’ versus ‘Can I understand’?” She’s right, of course, and it seems so completely obvious when you put it that way, yet so very hard to get from A to B in practice. How To Be Black is a valiant effort to get there, in the same way that Stuff White People Like can be (even if Christian Lander somehow still sees white Western culture as this beige monolith – dude, come to Appalachia! We have banjos! And we don’t make anyone squeal like pigs!) Whether you’re white, black, or anything else – if you’re a human being living anywhere, really – How To Be Black is a hilariously enlightening read.