How to Be Black Summary
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,217 words.)