The provocative humorist talks about black identity, geekdom, and being a really nice guy
Published: May 30, 2012
Baratunde Thurston will speak at the Enoch Pratt Central Library
Thursday, May 31 at 6:30 p.m. (City Paper contributor Lionel Foster will introduce him.)
For more information, visit prattlibrary.org.
Baratunde Thurston is a thoroughly modern triple threat: a comedian, political activist, and technophile so skilled in the use of digital media that he sometimes lists his home address as “Twitter.”
He was an early member of Laughing Liberally, a group that uses comedy to advance progressive causes, and a co-founder of the black blogger collective Jack and Jill Politics, whose coverage of the 2008 Democratic National Convention has been archived in the Library of Congress. Thurston has appeared in Vanity Fair as well as on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and Al Jazeera English. For five years, he served as director of digital for the satirical news publication The Onion.
Thurston’s gift for using humor as an entry point into controversial social issues such as race, poverty, and inequality have earned him a nomination for the Bill Hicks Award for Thought Provoking Comedy and special recognition from the ACLU of Michigan “for changing the political and social landscape one laugh at a time.”
It’s an ability he showcases across more than 200 pages in his New York Times bestselling book How to Be Black (HarperCollins, hardcover). Part poignant autobiography, part satirical how-to guide, How to Be Black examines the complexities of race in the age of Obama. While dispensing advice on how to be the black friend, how to speak for all black people, and the best way to celebrate Black History Month, Thurston illustrates the need for identities that are less either/or and more all of the above.
City Paper caught up with him by phone earlier this month ahead of the Baltimore leg of his book tour. (Lionel Foster)
City Paper : Let’s begin by setting the scene for our readers. I like to imagine you’re seated somewhere in America wearing a Che Guevara cap while adding a few stanzas to the Negro National Anthem, but I don’t want to be presumptuous. You tell me what you’re up to.
Baratunde Thurston: I am sitting in America. I think it’s a little too ironic to purchase a Che Guevara cap, so I would never be wearing one of those. I’m wearing a T-shirt that I got from one of my favorite comedy podcasts, working off of my laptop on a beautiful New York City day.
CP: Your book is part memoir, part self-help guide, part manifesto. How did you come up with that format?
BT: Through practice. It initially was gonna be mostly satirical how-to pieces. . .but while I was writing the book, I was also writing to my e-mail list. I’d made this deal with my e-mail subscribers: In every message, I’m going to give you more than just my next show. I was sharing personal stories, and I wrote this story about my father, which became the chapter “Wealth-Related Horse Violence.” My editor was on my e-mail list and said, “This has got to be in the book. I don’t know how yet, [but] keep writing stuff like this. Your voice is so clear and so true.” So then I just started [thinking], well, maybe the personal part of the book isn’t merely setting the context for the satire. Maybe it’s actually the heart of the book.
CP: The premise of How to Be Black is that each of us has a major role to play in shaping our own identity. You’re well traveled. Is this a uniquely American idea?
BT: It’s definitely easier here because this country’s young, and we’ve got a couple hundred years of identity that we are attached to—maybe. And we’re constantly refreshing the premise of America, that it’s open and new, and it’s this amalgam of people who left places with very rigid notions of identity.
CP: Then where do you think some of the calcified and debilitating ideas about blackness that confine so many people come from?
BT: On the one hand, if we had this deep, rich cultural connection that wasn’t severed and stolen, repackaged, and sold to us in perverse ways, [African-Americans] might have a different sense of self and confidence, comfort, and openness with a range of black experiences and ways of being. But [on the other hand], when you don’t have a strong, historical sense of self worth and value, it can be as liberating as it can be confining. I don’t think it’s written how it has to be interpreted.
CP: The election of the first black president seems to have opened up a space for Americans to rethink our ideas of race and racial identity. Do you think this national conversation will lead to permanent change?
BT: This moment is interesting because we have a biracial/black president, a lot of demographic changes, and this post-civil rights inheritance of choice, that is, for many, pretty unprecedented. So it’s a very fun, strange, weird time to be in America, to be black in America, and to be thinking about identity. That change of the environment can’t help but have an effect on how we relate and talk to each other. Whether it ends up better, which I think it will, is not guaranteed.
CP: You grew up not far from here, in Washington, D.C., and write of your neighborhood there, “We had everything The Wire had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it.” What were your thoughts of Baltimore when you were growing up?
BT: It was a world away. I didn’t have any kinship with Baltimore as a city.
CP: But you share an interesting bit of personal history with Baltimore native and senior editor at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has his own memoir, The Beautiful Struggle.
BT: I’ve known Ta-Nehisi since we were both 13 years old and he was in the [African-inspired rites of passage] program that I describe in the chapter “Why Are You Wearing That White Man Over Your Heart?”
He’s a much more serious columnist and journalist, but we’re [both] talking about race, identity, culture, America, and blackness. There’s this whole Venn diagram of our books where we both have chapters on this experience that was a particular moment in black people’s identity in this country. We’re done with the marchin’. Now are we gonna actually go back to Africa? Are we gonna bring Africa to us? The crack wars are going on. How do we save our young men? That was a real poignant period in the history of cities in this country. [Ta-Nehisi’s] sort of my dotted line to Baltimore, because he was living the Baltimore version of that, and we met in the middle in this super-black boot camp.
CP: In How to be Black, you refer to yourself as “a really nice guy” with “a naturally diplomatic disposition.” I ask this question because it’s been part of my own experience: Have you ever been singled out and rewarded by white people because you’re not the angry black guy they might have expected?
BT: Yeah. I’ve definitely been the good one. I have a nice smile. I talk in a certain way that puts people at ease. I don’t yell unnecessarily.
The ability to make white people comfortable is highly valuable. And whether you use that power for good or evil, for purely selfish or for some subversive, community-wide gains, that’s part of the question.
CP: Do you ever get tired of talking about race?
BT: Yeah. [But] I don’t just talk about race. In my public speaking life I talk about the [ability] of comedy to express complex things. I talk about the future of technology and digital storytelling, how we connect to one another in all these new platforms. So I’m diversifying myself. I’m loud, black, and proud. But I’m also loud, geek, and proud.
That’s part of the point of the book. It’s not just how to be black. It’s how to be.
CP: I feel awkward for raising this issue, but I have to ask. The lettering on the dust jacket cover of How to Be Black is, well, white. Would you care to comment on this?
BT: Oh. Wow. So that just shows your limited view of the world. Half of the books are black text on white background. Half are white text on black background. If you go to a bookstore, you’ll often have a choice. Sometimes if you order online, you don’t: You’ll get the book that is appropriate for you. It’s advanced racial-profiling technology built into the distribution. You got the book with the white text on black. We’ll see what that says about you.
CP: Last question: I’ve seen several photos of you indoors with a scarf. Are you cold?
BT: Cold as ice. Yeah. I just think you can never over-protect your neck. So that is my homage to neck protection.
> Email Lionel Foster