Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"How To Be Black," by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston’s “How To Be Black” (Harper, 2012) is, as one might expect from an “Onion” writer, a deft combination of humor and the serious. Tongue firmly in cheek, Thurston addresses not only racism, but also the discomfort that both African-Americans and those of other races – mainly white – often feel in talking about race. His chapter titles include “When Did You First Realize You Were Black?”, “How Black Are You?”, “Do You Know What an Oreo Is?”, “How to Be The Black Friend,” and “How to Be the Angry Negro.” Thurston includes many stories from his own life, stories that show the balancing act he has lived, and that inform his writing of this book. He grew up in 1980s Washington, D.C.; his father was shot during a drug deal when Thurston was six years old; his mother was a “hippie” and activist who made sure her son got an excellent education, attending an exclusive private school (Sidwell Friends) and at the same time attending a Saturday group on black history and culture (Ankobia). She wanted him to know and be proud of his black ancestry and culture, and at the same time to be comfortable anywhere in society. He went to Harvard; a multi-talented person, he now is, among other things, a blogger for Jack and Jill Politics and a writer for the Onion. There are so many pages I want to quote from, but just for one small sample: In the chapter “How to Be the Black Employee,” Thurston writes that once a black person is hired, he/she is expected not only to do the job she/he was hired for, but also a. to represent all black people; b. to prove that the company is not racist; and c. to “increase the coolness of the office environment.” As part of Job B, the black employee must join the ubiquitous “diversity committee”; the author states that “the primary functions of the diversity committee are to establish meetings, generate reports, and use the word ‘diversity.’” As someone who has, over the years –- like you, probably –- seen and perhaps been part of various diversity committees at various institutions (job, school, professional organization), all well intentioned, I have to smile at his description. Thurston intends this book to inform and to provoke thought and understanding; he uses humor as the vehicle, and does so very effectively.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds fascinating. I also heard the audio review on The Book Report ( it is now firmly number one on my weekend shopping list.


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