(Non-Fiction) Baratunde Thurston: How To Be Black – HarperCollins, 2012

The Company Office Party…
Your food
Often these events are catered, and if you’re in the job long enough you will face a food choice dreaded by black people since breaking the Corporate America color line: whether or not to eat the watermelon. First of all, don’t panic….Is it the only fruit? Is it arranged on its own plate adjacent to other segregated fruits? Is it mixed in with a fruit salad? Again, take a brief moment. Smile at the person across from you in the buffet line. We’re going to get through this together.

Yes, it’s a funny book. But it also, in the finest tradition of humor, makes a point. Several, in fact.

Baratunde Thurston got his autobiography into his humor – or maybe he got humor into his autobiography. In any case, it’s a fun read. He’s a stand-up comic, writer, director of digital for The Onion, and political blogger at Jack & Jill Politics (the logo of which is a watermelon). He’s also a Harvard grad, and an alumnus of Sidwell Friends (pre-Chelsea; she started the year after he did). His mom was a computer programmer in DC, and an unrepentent hippie who started him early on organic foods and a world view. She did good.

There’s a lot of him on youtube, including There’s a #Hashtag for That (a few f-words show up, mostly around #swineflu) which, at the 7-minute mark, recounts the hashtag war with friend and fellow comedian Elon James White that began after he tweeted he just selected a bottle of wine purely because it was labeled “Negroamaro.” Among my favorites from both of them: “I not only know why the caged bird sings, I feed it, clean its cage, and named it Taniqua” and “Despite the possession of an Ivy League degree, I occasionally ‘axe’ people questions.” A HarperCollins editor picked up on it. A whole book on hashtags seemed improbable, so it broadened into How To Be Black.
I chose to read this book after Melissa Harris-Perry (who did a cover blurb for the book) put it on her Summer Reading List. Melissa Harris-Perry is my Black Friend. You’ll learn more about the Black Friend in the chapter titled, “How to Be The Black Friend” and “How To Speak For All Black People”. Fact is, Melissa, in addition to being a Tulane professor of Political Science, and an excellent policy analyst and discussion leader on her weekend show on MSNBC (well, of course, where did you think it would be?) is very funny and very patient – two important qualities of a Black Friend – and her Teachable Moment on Black Hair will live forever (but don’t forget it was part of a more broad-ranging segment – it’s just that she gets a lot of email about her hair so she answered all the questions, plus a few more. That she’ll be remembered for the hair thing is probably as sad as Bobby McFerrin being remembered for “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” but that’s how it goes sometimes; hair is more universal than the economy, taxes, or Congress).

In 1926, Negro History Week was established by the black historian and author Carter G. Woodson. It was expanded to a full month in 1976 after the government realized that black people’s demands for self-determination and an equal seat at the table of American opportunity could be satisfied either through a comprehensive program of economic and political empowerment or by extending the buying season for postage stamps featuring noteworthy Black americans by a factor of four.

In addition to the gently satirical sociopolitical and interpersonal commentary, Thurston also gives us a look at his life. Not just what it felt like to be black growing up, as a student at those prestigious schools, but what it feels like to be him in the world. After all, he got that chapter on “How To Be The Black Employee” from somewhere. And, he assures us, he can swim.

Featured in several chapters is The Black Panel, a group of seven of his friends – Cheryl Contee (cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics), damali ayo, Jacquetta Szathmari, Elon James White, W. Kamau Bell, Derrick Ashong, and Christian Lander (a white Anglo-Saxon Canadian included as a control group and to “defend against the inevitable lawsuits claiming reverse discrimination”) – who offer their opinions and experience. Among other things, they recount their recollections of the moment they first realized they were black; just the title of the chapter gave me a “whoa” moment, because of course those of us who are white never have a moment when we realize we are white. And no, realizing other people are black is not the same thing.

I was a little puzzled by the chapter title “How’s That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?” I thought post-racial was a someday-we’ll-get-there thing; I never realized someone actually thinks we are now in a post-racial period. The Black Panel gets quite a kick out of the notion, too.

It’s just a funny guy writing about his life, and how what is all around him in the media and society strikes him. For pure sweetness, he’s included a picture of his mom hugging him at his graduation from Harvard. The satire is gentle rather than biting, but I can see myself in a few places. I never felt called out or scolded, though. More like a tap on the shoulder, a whispered word to the wise. From a Black Friend.

Funny, warm, interesting – highly recommended reading.