Baratunde Thurston describes himself as a “globe-trotting comic writer and agitator.”
“I was born post-Civil Rights to this very Afrocentric, politically active mother in a stereotypically urban environment — fatherless for most of my life — in this violent environment with a crackhead mayor,” he said. “But the best of the African-American story is [that I] gained access to the upper echelons and went to Sidwell, went to Harvard and worked at the Onion — all that in one life is almost unbelievable.”
The book tackles how to be the black friend, discusses the next black president and includes personal anecdotes about Thurston’s activist mother (Mama Thurston) and the origins of his name.
Fresh off of a trip to India, the founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics spoke to us about visiting his old neighborhood, the Occupy movement and what it’s like to be him.
So “How to Be Black” — just the name alone — it covers a lot of ground.
One of the things that I knew from the moment that we picked this title is that I couldn’t actually satisfy it. There’s no way to actually write how to be black — that’s ridiculous. But I can come close and I can be as honest in the process as possible by being as true to my experience as possible.
It’s big and the story is big, and I know that what’s contained between those covers doesn’t begin to cover that full breadth. But it is a start, and I want to kind of keep that going and prompt further discussion of it, and comedy was a great way to do it, ’cause it’s disarming and people are less defensive.
Once you started going to Sidwell Friends, your mom strove to keep you in touch with your roots by enrolling you in the Ankobia program, which was focused on the rearing of young black men. Do you still tap into any principles you learned from the program?
It’s caused me to have a perspective on stuff that’s not fully embraced in that full Afrocentric attitude is false. “Africa’s not just great — it is also horrible — just like America. Just like people.” That checks and balances [perspective] — it’s almost like I have my own division of powers. For me it’s the street, the Afrocentric and the elite. That is my constitution as grafted by my mother and my experiences.
You grew up in Columbia Heights — have you ever gone back to your old neighborhood?
I left Columbia Heights in 1990, which was just the height of the horror.
I went back in the summer of ’06 for a conference, and I went back to my neighborhood just to walk through it and ended up talking. The Salvadoran neighbors that I grew up with still lived next door. We reconnected. [On another visit] I ended up actually visiting my old house. It was emotional. It was awkward. It was gutted and renovated with sheetrock and whitewood floors and no personality. The house I grew up in had oak trimming and really original wood.
I remember the people living in the basement when I visited in 2006 were paying monthly rent — more than my mother paid for the monthly mortgage note for the whole house.
What is your favorite chapter?
“How to Be the Black Employee.” It was the easiest part of the book to write. I didn’t even know I had all that stuff in me. It captured a lot of my own experience but it captured so many experiences of so many other people and both sides of it. I think it’s also one of the more enlightening ones because that’s where race doesn’t get discussed, or gets discussed awkwardly because we don’t live together in general.
So we kind of mix reluctantly and often in work. And that’s the new school environment where you’re also forced to deal with things you don’t know and weren’t raised around. It’s gonna happen. It doesn’t come out of a place of malice but of ignorance. I wanted to deal with that because I have felt that there was pain associated with those experiences that I hadn’t fully seen represented. And I honestly think it’s the funniest chapter. I just think it’s a good representation of the heart of the comedy of the book. It’s absurd.
You are a writer, comedian, you blog, you work for the Onion; which one is closest to your spirit?
We can be who we were meant to be, and that gap between who you really are and who the world expects you to be is narrowing because you have the power to project who you really are against that onslaught of mainstream imagery way more than our ancestors had.
There is a section in the book that talks about the origins of your name, Baratunde, and how a friend’s father once hilariously called you out about having it. Since it is so unique, do you think there will ever be a Baratunde Jr.?
I don’t think so. I think one of the beautiful things about my name is that it’s unique, and I don’t want to cast expectations or shadows on my kid with that name. I’m already too public for that, too. Anyone who’s going to be my kid — even if this is the peak of my profile in the same — I don’t want to burden a child with that. Like, “Oh, you’re Baratunde 2?” “No, why can I be number one?” You have baked-in expectations and legacy stuff in your name; that doesn’t seem right. Maybe as a middle name or something like that. That could be kind of interesting. I don’t need to pass on my legacy in my way. Plus, that kid’s Google juice would be all messed up by me. You can’t search for a “Baratunde” — you gotta have your own name.
If there is one chapter to read …
It’s all the chapters — because I took the time to write them! I’m gonna say, “Can you swim?” One, it’s just a ridiculous story of my history with water, and with this YMCA instructor just slinging kids into the pool, but the answers that you hear from the people that I interviewed are so wide-ranging. There’s pain, there’s humor, there’s absurdity, and that captures a range of the flavor of the book in one chapter.
It’s funny because there’s a lot — I mean, I love the book. I love the way it came out, and that’s actually the most important thing to me. I really want people to buy it, but I’m kind of proud to have my name on it, ’cause I’m like, “Okay, this represents me. This represents thoughts, and I’m happy to put my name next to them.”
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