Note: Please direct all outraged inquiries about the title of this article to the publishers of How to Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston, who came up with the original version of that brillant marketing tagline. Or perhaps it was Baratunde himself...
First, a disclaimer. If you are a white suburban teenager wearing a backwards baseball cap and blasting Jay-Z from the speakers of your parents’ Grand Cherokee, Baratunde Thurston’s* How to Be Black is not the instruction manual you desperately seek.
The rock star panel of "expert black people" Baratunde has assembled for the book (there’s one white guy, too, as the control group), asking them to weigh in on questions like “Can you swim?” and “Have you ever wanted not to be black?” doesn't feature any hip hop artists, basketball players, gang-busting community organizers, or other media-vetted representatives of Black America.
Baratunde Thurston himself fits no readymade profile, racial or otherwise: a Harvard graduate, comedian, political blogger, director of digital for The Onion, and social-media prankster/pioneer (in 2009, he embodied the swine flu with a Twitter account of that name, "following" and tweeting to Swine flu fearmongers), he specializes in creative experimentation and redefining what’s possible. The stories he and his and guests tell in the book are funny, complicated, painfully revealing slices of real life in “post-racial” America.
Watch as Baratunde unveils his ambitious, three-step plan for “the future of blackness”:
Baratunde weaves these interviews together with brilliant pieces of satire, including ten Black History Month activities for white people, such as “Demonstrate your superior knowledge of Black History in front of your black friend(s).” This comes with a scoring guide: completing 2-4 activities makes you a “Tolerator of Black People.” Do all 10 and you’re an “Official Friend of Black America.”
But this is no compendium of snarky jibes at clueless white folks. It’s a smart, sincere attempt to advance the national conversation about race beyond self-flagellation or half-assed redemption through love of hip hop. It's also funny as hell. And it’s also an expansive look into how real, live black people build identity within, against, and outside the confines of media-defined “black culture.”
*From the foreword:
I love my name. I love people’s attempts to say it. I love that everyone, especially white people, wants to know what it means. So here’s the answer:
My full name is Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. It’s got a nice flow. It’s global. I like to joke that “Baratunde” is a Nigerian name that means “one with no nickname,” “Rafiq” is Arabic for “really, no nickname.” and “Thurston” is a British name that means “property of Massa Thurston.”
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