Last Updated September 5, 2023.
A self-help guide on negotiating race in America, Baratunde Thurston’s satirical How to Be Black (2012) is also a memoir, as well as a keen deconstruction of various notions about blackness. To this end, the narrative switches between personal history, a step-by-step “how-to” manual on navigating being black in different situations, and opinions sought from a “black panel” of media personalities (which includes one white member) on provocative questions such as “How black are you?” Through his humorous commentary, Thurston addresses several commonly held stereotypes about black people and also unlocks specific experiences of racism.
The book begins with an ironic list of suggestions on how to celebrate Black History Month. From the obvious (“Avoid being explicitly racist”) to the token (“Observe anything and everything President Obama does”) to the outright culturally appropriative (“Hum a Negro spiritual”), the suggestions illustrate how empty symbolism has come to replace constructive dialogue around race.
The experience of blackness is far more complex than white sanctimony assumes, as Thurston explores in the questions that always arise around his name. Though white people find it easy to pronounce names such as “even Dwayne,” they always trip up around Thurston’s first name, Baratunde, converting it to “Barry” or “Bart.” Thus they make an “other” out of Thurston. However, his name, which is Nigerian in origin, is problematic even for some Nigerians, who claim that as an American, Thurston is himself appropriating an African identity. Thus, Thurston is caught between being too black in a white context and not “that black” in an African context.
Thurston delves further into black identity when he asks his panelists: “When did you first realize you were black?” While for stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell, his “coming-of-blackness” occurred in first grade, when a classmate refused to kiss him because of the color of his skin, for comedian Elon James White it took place when his mother and uncle chastised him for his opinion that the higher rates of arrest of black men had nothing to do with their race. Therefore, through the varying perspectives of his panel, Thurston highlights that no two experiences of blackness are the same.
A complex aspect of minority identity is highlighted in the chapter “Have You Ever Wanted Not to Be Black.” In response to the question, blogger Cheryl Contee asserts that though she wishes others were more open-minded toward black people, she has never wanted another racial identity. A few other panelists express the view that since growing up black meant facing additional prejudices, there were times when their younger selves wished for an “easier,” or more mainstream, cultural identity. While this pressure originates mainly from white people, some of it is also generated from within the black community, such as the disapproval when a child picks up a “non-black” sport over a “black sport.” However, all the panelists say the mixed feelings around their identity resolved as they grew up and expanded their political consciousness. Thus, information and awareness are key in forming a strong sense of the culturally rooted self.
In Thurston’s own case, his black identity has been shaped by his progressive mother’s activism. Raising two children as a single mother, Arnita Thurston not only ensured her children took pride in their black identity, she also ensured they stayed busy enough to avoid getting involved in the raging drug racket in Washington, DC, during the 1980s. Thurston goes on to discuss his father’s death in a “drug war” when he was five, an event he terms a cliché. However, if his father’s murder played to a black stereotype, his mother’s love of...
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heath food and travel disproved others. Thurston thus makes the point that labels cannot contain experiences.
In a bid to expand his worldview, Thurston’s mother enrolled him in the white-majority Sidwell Friends school, where his largely positive experience was peppered with subtle acts of othering, such as when everyone in his class turned to him whenever a “black” text was discussed. If Sidwell provided him with the “white” experience, his mother balanced it by enrolling him in Ankobia, an Afrocentric life skills program run by African American activists. Thurston states that the combination of Sidwell and Ankobia led to certain “hilarious” situations in his life, like when he presented a paper on white propaganda in middle school, so radical in its tone that he feels it would earn him a trip to a therapist if it were to be presented in contemporary America.
One of the most memorable experiences Thurston had at Sidwell was a class trip to Senegal. Visiting Goree Island in Senegal, one of the infamous shipping points from which abducted Africans were forcibly taken to America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, is a humbling experience for Thurston, who feels going back to Africa forges a renewed, poignant connection with his African ancestry.
Although Thurston initially planned to attend a historically black college after graduating Sidwell, a recommendation from his Sidwell senior Paul took him to Harvard on a reconnaissance mission. Thurston found Boston to be reserved and racially charged, but he fell in love with Harvard, enrolling in a philosophy program there. Though finances were tough at Harvard—Thurston made extra money cleaning dormitories—and he faced occasional racism at the school, his Harvard experience was largely positive.
As Thurston goes on to trace his journey from Sidwell to Harvard and beyond, he increasingly finds himself playing a part: that of the black person in white spaces. These roles, such as “black friend” and “black employee,” require walking a tightrope, such as being visible but not too visible in company photos and drinking just the right amount at mixed-race social gatherings so as not to appear threatening. The impossible lists of to-dos Thurston provides in each of these “how to” situations clearly satirize the contradictory expectations around “appropriate” black behavior in America.
Since the memoir was written before 2012, the presidency of Barack Obama and its impact on black identity and race relations is an important theme in the text. In “How to Be the (Next) Black President,” Thurston posits that neither does Obama’s election signal the end of racism in America, nor does it foreshadow an easier path for other black people to be future presidents. Though Thurston has actively campaigned for Obama, he warns against the tendency to place the weight of black expectations on Obama or his presidency. Post-racial America is a myth, and racism still has to be fought by black people every day.
Importantly, in this fight, black people cannot let their behavior be driven by the goal to disprove stereotypes. In the chapter titled “How to Be the Angry Negro,” Thurston examines how society uses the cliché of the angry black person to shame minorities into agreeableness and silence. To resist this trap, Thurston advises that black people advocate for themselves and protest injustices vocally. Thus, owning stereotypes itself can be an effective tool of resistance.
Finally, one of the most interesting ways post–civil rights generations can effect change, says Thurston, is through taking media creation into their own hands, as he and his panelists have done. Through blogs, web series, interactive art, stand-up acts, and musical performances, the panelists author their own narratives and thus challenge white cultural hegemony.