#37: How To Be Black by Baratunde R. Thurston

A few years ago my friend Tamatha told me about Pajiba.  Later she told me about CBR and got me started last year.  This year she verbally attacked me with excitement over How To Be Black.  I don’t even think she had actually read it yet, but she was going to, and by god, I was too.  She posted her review back in May and would occasionally ask me if I had gotten a copy.  I told her it was on my To Be Read list (along with, no lie, around 600 other books) and I’d get to it.

I finally got to it.  And she was right to demand that I read it.  It’s smart, funny and honest, and since I didn’t read it during Black History Month, I am totally ahead of the game.

I liked the mix of this book.  (Was that racist?  Shit.)  It’s part memoir, part stand-up routine, part social commentary, part super depressing reality, part politics and part a whole lot of other stuff.

Thurston explains that this book is written for black people, but totally understands that white people are going to pick it up, and good for us!  He knows it’s going to be displayed prominently during February and that whites will prove that there’s no racism when they buy it.  Good job!  Problem solved.

His goal is explaining to black people all the things they need to do to help white people like me.  Each individual black person is responsible for explaining the entire population’s hopes, dreams, and beliefs while at the same time serving in sort of an undercover role for the black population.  While they make sure their white friends don’t walk around asking if they can touch a black person’s hair, they are also gathering data on the whites to share when we’re not around.  I appreciate the amount of work being a Black Friend is. They have to be cool, but not too cool.  They have to be black enough without going overboard.  They’re going to have to make mandatory office social gatherings cool… simply by showing up!  And once they reveal themselves as a Black Friend, they are going to have to answer millions of “Is it racist when…?” questions.

I particularly liked the importance he puts on Black Friend as National Black Friend serving as the Official Black Spokesperson for all black people.  I’ve seen this in action before, and I know it’s not something to be taken lightly.  When I, as a white person, need to know how the black community feels about the latest pop culture story that may or may not be racist, I need an official black spokesperson, and I need one fast.  I cannot tell you how much time is saved when one person can explain an entire population’s reaction, thoughts and feelings about an issue.  I don’t understand why more people don’t do this.  I guess it’s a black thing.  (Was that racist?  Shit.)

Side note: If you are black and don’t want to be the Black Friend or Official Spokesperson, there’s a chapter called How to Be The Angry Negro.  (I can say “negro” because it’s a direct quote, right?  Is that racist?  Shit.)

Another part of the book I liked is his Black Panel.  While he teaches black people how to be the official spokesperson for all black people, for some reason he has concerns that he can’t fully represent so many people.  This was confusing for me as a white person.  His seven person Black Panel comes in throughout the book to answer such questions as “Can you swim?” and “Have You Ever Wanted to Not Be Black?”.  In the interest of equality and to avoid a potential reverse discrimination lawsuit, he even includes a white guy.  A  Canadian white guy.  W. Kamau Bell is one of his panelists, which was a great bonus for me because I’m a huge fan of Totally Biased.  If  you haven’t seen that show yet, you should get on it.  It’s like having your own Black Friend/Official Spokesperson right in your living room.  (Was that racist to imply that you wouldn’t want him in your living room if he was there in reality and not on tv?  Shit.)

I especially responded to the chapter on Post-Racial America.  Some white people think this is a thing.  And on behalf of all white people: I am so, so sorry.  I try to get other white people to shut up, but it’s so hard.  So very hard.

On a serious note, I’m also reading a book about the state of feminism (Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas) and the parallels between the idea of Post-Racial America and Enlightened Sexism are so depressing, and yet hopeful because maybe we’ll all get our shit together and get stuff sorted out by helping each other.  That could be a thing, right?  Reading these books back to back has been great, but I know there are things I’m confusing between the two.  I think each book makes a point about the previous generation.  The media and younger members of the population don’t want to hear from the angry elders.  While we can appreciate the work the civil rights leaders and the bra burning protesters did, we kinda don’t want to be That Guy.  I think it’s worse for the feminists because they get dismissed as angry man haters who wear horrible shoes.  Civil rights leaders seem more honored and less ignored by members of the black community.  (I say this as a white person.  Was that racist?  Shit!)

The memoir parts about his mother are wonderful.  He had an interesting childhood and she created an environment where anything could happen.  I love how he had access to all sorts of different worlds and created for himself what it meant to be black.   

This was a great read.  I really appreciate his acknowledgement of how much a white person (me) can sprain an ankle trying to dance around any ideas because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Rather than engage in what could be an enlightening conversation, I’ll just sit quietly.  Or I’ll make a statement that I assume goes for everyone.  I definitely don’t want to assume I’m talking with an Official Black Spokesperson so I feel weird about asking questions.  Thurston starts of explaining that he gets this and he’s going let you in on some secrets and ideas.  This is especially helpful if you don’t have access to your own Black Friend.


PS: It’s baa-ruh-TOON-day.  You’re welcome.


One response to “#37: How To Be Black by Baratunde R. Thurston

  1. Pingback: pyrajane’s review #37: How To Be Black by Baratunde R. Thurston « Cannonball Read IV

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