How To Be Black

By Baratunde Thurston

Clearly I’m not so much the intended audience for this book, though author Baratunde Thurston was very kind of include a welcome to non-black readers in his introduction:

Book Cover: How To Be BlackIf you are not black, there is probably even more to be gained from the words that follow. They may help answer the questions that you’d rather not ask aloud or they may introduce a concept you never considered. You will get an insider perspective, not only on “how to be black” but also on “how to be American,” and, most important, how to be yourself. This book is yours as well.

He does provide a caveat though:

If you purchased the book with the intention of changing your race, I thank you for your money, but there will be no refunds. None.

This made me laugh and also feel better about reading about it, though not enough to read it in public. (In fact, Rebecca told me that it made a list of poorly-chosen books to read in public.) Then, I felt worse when I realized when I was reading it. Another excerpt:

Now, more to the heart of the matter, the odds are high that you acquired this book during the nationally sanctioned season for purchasing black cultural objects, also known as Black History Month. That’s part of the reason I chose February as the publication date. If you’re like most people, you buy one piece of black culture per year during this month, and I’m banking on this book jumping out at you from the bookshelf or screen. Even if you’re reading this book years after its original publication, it’s probably February-ish on your calendar.

And so I am. Sigh. I actually heard about the book through Samantha Irby on her blog bitches gotta eat, (which I’m slowly reading all entries backwards in order to catch up) in which she talks about getting to open for Thurston at his Chicago show.

Anyway, the book is a combination of his personal memoirs, thoughts on the black culture in the United States, and interviews with a group of other writers and artists. It is just really funny (as it should be—Thurston works for The Onion), and really informative.

This is making me very uncomfortable to write, but I think it is important. It is very easy to fall into the liberal trap of ‘black people aren’t scary, just culturally different’ while still keeping them very much grouped as one solid entity and separate from yourself. I was continually surprised at how many similarities there were between my childhood and Thurston’s.

First off, my mom and his mom would have gotten along like gangbusters, both outspoken and often radical feminist professionals in large urban areas (Boston and DC, respectively) with long-standing hippy tendencies. We were both the first ones in our peer group to know what tofu was and to have eaten, if not enjoyed, it regularly for dinner. Both of our parents struggled with the idea of sending us to underfunded public schools, before deciding to send us to the local private Quaker schools (of course, his turned out to be Sidwell, so he won this round).

The funny thing is that some real disconnect for me happened around college, when Thurston describes going to Harvard, and while he mentions certainly having to deal with entrenched racism, the experience was overwhelmingly positive and his main take-away was that anything was possible for him and his fellow Harvard grads. At which point, the grubby little communist in me rose up to bitch about how these rich college boys think they can just have whatever they want whenever they want, which was certainly not a response I thought I would have to this book.

Honestly, though, the biggest take-away for me, the thing that was the most important lesson and revealed some hidden racism on my part, was just how funny I found the book to be. Because a lot of humor is shared experiences and personality, and I guess I’d figured that Irby and I are both women, so I relate to her humor in that way, but I just hadn’t expected to relate to Thurston so much. I’m glad I did, of course, and more than a little ashamed that I assumed I wouldn’t.


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