Comedian Baratunde Thurston On 'How To Be Black'

Feb 6, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 1:48 pm

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away today.

It's Black History Month and, this year, we're observing it by digging into some of the literature that's expanded the African-American story, the memoir. African-American memoirs date as far back as the journals set down by former slaves, and these days there seems to be even more of a zeal to set out one's family history or tell a compelling personal story.

So, every week throughout Black History Month, we're digging into a new memoir, too, and first on our list today is someone who's very clear that buying his book is exactly what you should be doing to celebrate Black History Month. Yeah. He goes right there, and if you know his work, you anticipated that.

Michel Martin was joined earlier by Baratunde Thurston. He's the digital director of the satirical newspaper, The Onion, and one of the cofounders of the blog, Jack and Jill Politics. His new book is called "How To Be Black."

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thank you for joining us.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: It's good to be back. Happy Black History Month. I'm black, you all. It's a good week to be black.

MARTIN: We get the month now.

THURSTON: You know, I don't want to take anything for granted.

MARTIN: OK.

THURSTON: I'm going to be grateful for the moments that we have.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you mention in the book's intro that you want to re-complicate blackness, so you think it's not complicated enough now?

THURSTON: I think blackness itself is very complicated. I think some of the images of blackness are quite oversimplified.

MARTIN: You know, this book is funny, but it's also - it's heartbreaking in parts. Was there any pain point that didn't make it into the book?

THURSTON: No. In fact, there wasn't much cut from the book. I'll tell you, one of the things a lot of people don't know about the evolution of this book. It started as full satire and on my email list, I make a deal with my subscribers. I say, look, I'm going to give you a true story for every email I send and I was writing these personal stories, not for the book, but my initial editor at Harper said, you have to put these in the book.

And I had written a story about my father and his murder, which I never had told before publicly. It was an exclusive to this email group and I got the most response back from individuals and from the publisher saying, we have to rethink where you're going with this. We think we can find a way to fit this in.

And so I went back and the book became much more personal and memoir-based after that initial set of emails I sent out.

MARTIN: Well, let me just give the broad outlines for people who aren't familiar with you or with your work. Born in D.C. to a mom who is single for a lot of the time of your growing up.

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: In a neighborhood that - you know, your mom was actually interviewed in the paper...

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...for the extraordinary efforts that she went through to keep you safe...

THURSTON: That's right.

MARTIN: ...in this neighborhood at the height of the crack wars.

THURSTON: Yeah. The Washington Post did this big profile on trying to raise black men in this environment.

MARTIN: And you go on to one of the most prestigious K through 12 schools in the city, Sidwell Friends School, which Chelsea Clinton attended, which the Obama girls now attend.

THURSTON: Notably, Chelsea went after I started going. I'm just going to put that out there. Maybe I led the way.

MARTIN: So you weren't following her. I get it. And then you went to Harvard.

THURSTON: I'm saying maybe she was following me. Maybe she was following me.

MARTIN: Then you went Harvard and you've been on all these lists of one of the kind of creatives of your generation, so you've made quite a big name for yourself as a thinker, as a writer.

THURSTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And here this memoir comes and it's kind of like jazz.

THURSTON: Hmm. Wow. No one's said that. Thank you. That's a beautiful word and it kind of captures what I felt in the writing, which is this range, this up and down. The pace changes throughout, but I also hoped it still felt like one book and one story at the end of it.

MARTIN: And it's an instructional manual, too, if anyone's interested.

THURSTON: Yeah, yeah. You got to learn.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you to read from the chapter, "How To Speak For All Black People."

THURSTON: Absolutely. This is in the very middle of the book and it's actually one of the first that I ended up writing.

(Reading) My own experiences as the black friend were merely training exercises for a much larger role. In the classroom, workplace and beyond, once you're known as someone who is willing to talk about race, you become an official spokesperson for your race. Often, your willingness isn't actually required. Your mere standing as a member of the group in question is taken as qualification enough.

(Reading) Many a black person has been blindsided by the - what do you think about - insert potentially black-related topic here - question. Not thinking about the consequences, the non-black person asking simply reaches for the closest representative he or she can find, but for those unprepared for the call of duty, it can be a traumatic experience leading to episodes of self-doubt, anger and dry skin.

THURSTON: (Reading) Where this demand for black spokespeople is acute however, is in the media. As a blogger, public speaker, and black person who writes books with the word black in the title, I've had my fair share of media exposure, playing some version of the black spokesperson game. There's usually some kind of blackness emergency, in which the cable networks light up a black version of the Bat Signal, hailing any or all potentially credible voices to offer perspective. Sometimes that beam is directed toward me, but unlike Batman, I don't feel the need to respond to every hail.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So...

THURSTON: (Singing) Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah - black man.

MARTIN: So, that part isn't in the book. You have to...

THURSTON: That's the audio mix.

MARTIN: You have to - the audio mix.

THURSTON: That's the jazz, right? That's the jazz.

MARTIN: So who you calling out here, anybody in particular that you're calling out here?

THURSTON: You know, it depends on which side of the call you're talking about. I think in part I'm calling out a media and business model that is shifting and thankfully fading. I'm calling out an era which we all recognize but hopefully see less of which says, we have to get a reverend to talk about everything related to black folks. We have to desperately comment on things that we don't understand to merely say that we've commented on them. And I think what we have started to see now - and I put myself in this category both as the object of my own satire - but also possibly as a generation of that's part of the solution, which is: you have this blogger world, you have this new media world, you have these new voices emerging, and that re-complication of the image of blackness - if not blackness itself - can happen a little bit more because you have more people putting their identities, perspectives and ideas out there.

MARTIN: What do you hope to accomplish with this book besides to have fun? And the story of how it started with tweets actually is actually very hilarious. It started with a bottle of wine called Negro Amaro?

THURSTON: Yes.

MARTIN: Or is it Negroamaro?

THURSTON: Negroamaro.

MARTIN: Negroamaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Is that Portuguese? That sounds like a Portuguese red or Spanish wine.

THURSTON: That's how little I knew about it. All I knew, ladies and gentlemen...

MARTIN: You said that's how black I am, so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: That's - him there was a - I was trying to buy some wine. I didn't know anything about wine. I didn't want to learn about wine. I just wanted to buy it. I used it as a way to make this decision and I saw something with the word Negro in it and I took it as a sign from Black Jesus that I'm supposed to buy this bottle of wine. And so I did and then I tweeted at my friend Elon James White, who is a comedian, whose heavily featured in the book, and I challenged his blackness publicly, essentially, and said, how black are you? I bought wine because it had the word Negro in it. And that was the spiral that helped...

MARTIN: That's how black I am. And he says challenge, son?

THURSTON: Exactly.

MARTIN: And there it goes.

THURSTON: So that's how some of this book got born.

MARTIN: Some of the stuff started.

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: But what do you hope to accomplish with the book?

THURSTON: Well, I'd like to sell a lot of books.

MARTIN: Well, you make that clear.

THURSTON: That would be great. But well beyond that, I mean one of the things is to understand what it's not. I don't want this book to feel like the last chapter, like this is my last will and testament, this is some sort of final moment. Hopefully, it's the beginning. Hopefully, it's a party that everybody's invited to and I want people to talk about it. I think we're at a fun and interesting and dynamic moment in the history of people. I can shout from the mountaintops who I am and others can hear me and have the option to respect that. Serfs didn't have that. Slaves didn't have that. From the 1940s prior, no one had that. Essentially we worked - we died very young with rotten teeth and that was it. So what I think we have a great opportunity to do is to close that gap between who we really are and who the world expects us to be. I also just hope that the humor makes it a little bit more accessible. This topic can be so tense that no one ever wants to even approach it, that maybe this can open the door to some people who were closed to it before.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask you about the humor, because...

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because I have friends, acquaintances who are African-American, particularly men...

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...who will never be photographed smiling.

THURSTON: Mmm.

MARTIN: Because they feel that they have to be...

THURSTON: Hard.

MARTIN: ...perceived as hard...

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...or serious. And...

THURSTON: They would find themselves at home in the chapter "How to be the Angry Negro."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But your author photo, you're smiling.

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: There's humor throughout. And I just want to ask you about whether the humor is itself political?

THURSTON: It absolutely is. I mean I'm political, so the things I do are. I'm a humoristic, that is not a word. I'm a humorous person...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: ...and very well educated obviously, 'cause I can just make up my own words and so those two things are constantly at play. But humor is a powerful medium to communicate, to engage, to reach people who would not be reached. I've been doing even more study into the sort of history of humor, and satire in particular, and I found this great quote from Horace way back in the day. And I'm going to butcher it, but essentially he says he who badgers less can convince more. And, you know, that's not to say that badgering doesn't have a place. You need people in all angles of attack and change, but for me this works. So the smiling, I'm a happy dude. Why wouldn't I be?

MARTIN: Because you had to...

THURSTON: Yeah, but...

MARTIN: ...navigate some tough, I don't know, tough experiences.

THURSTON: But the navigation led to the happiness, you know, and the pulling through it with the community around me, I mean I also think it's very important, people to really understand this. I am not on a pedestal preaching like I did all this. I did add some genetic talent. I clearly had an incredible mother. I had an incredible older sister who's had my back. And I had a community, an infrastructure around us, a D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, the Boy Scouts. I was an all-black Boy Scout group. All these are part of the infrastructure that kind of helped me. So I'm super happy because I've been helped as well and have kind of seen and navigated this crazy journey.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Baratunde Thurston. He is a comedian. He's digital director of the satirical newspaper "The Onion." He's the author of a new memoir called "How to be Black."

And just to remind, every week during Black History Month we are joined by someone who has penned a memoir.

Why was this the right time for this book in your opinion?

THURSTON: Ooh. I think for me it was - I've mature enough myself as a writer to be able to pull off something like this. And I think politically where the country is. I think the Obama moment has been a very good one...

MARTIN: Well, you have a Nigerian name.

THURSTON: And I have a Nigerian name.

MARTIN: How excellent is that?

THURSTON: It was written, Michel. It was written.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You too could be president. Or maybe not.

THURSTON: Slow down. Slow down.

MARTIN: Or maybe not. But, you know, I do want to, I want to lift up something in the book because you also talk about the very interesting reactions that different people have or different audiences, maybe I could put it that way...

THURSTON: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...have to you name. Could you talk a little bit about that?

THURSTON: Sure. I mean my name is Baratunde, which derived from Babatunde, which is a very common name in Nigeria. My people, so far as I know, are not Nigerian. So enter the first hurdle. When I meet Nigerians it's a great moment because there's this instant flash of recognition, then confusion, and usually irritation, annoyance or anger. Because they're just like what you mean Baratunde? You mean Babatunde. Then they try to tell me what my name actually is. I'm like well, I've got a birth certificate that says it's this. And they're like well, no, there's something wrong with your name.

Meanwhile, you know, I've met various types of white people who were just ecstatic. They're like, what does it mean? Does it mean the drummer on the tops of the mountains and, you know, it's got to have some deep tribal essence to it. And it actually...

MARTIN: Well, it does...

THURSTON: ...kind of does, right. It means one who is chosen. That's the colloquial translation of it. And then you have a lot of other black people like Baratunde? That's normal. My name is, you know, this hybrid between a car and a bottle of wine and you know like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: So we have so much uniqueness already in the subset of African-American culture that it doesn't really shock people that much.

MARTIN: But doesn't it imply that there's a constant judging...

THURSTON: Well...

MARTIN: I mean that is a part of the sub theme of the book is a constant judging of...

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...who is black enough, what does that mean to be black enough.

THURSTON: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask you a question that one of my colleagues, a host in another program in another city just recently asked me who is white, he said are you surprised that there's still this judging about what it means to be black, what it's supposed to mean, who's allowed to do what?

THURSTON: I'm not surprised. One, we're programmed to judge people. We have pattern recognition. So we are constantly trying to overcome our biology with civilization and culture and manners. So I'm not surprised at that base human level. I hope that we're moving beyond some of the rougher edges around that and just getting more nuanced with it because we should have more models at our disposal to be less shocked.

MARTIN: But you also lift up something in the book, which I want to spend just a minute on...

THURSTON: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...which I found fascinating is - and this something that other people - that people have been known to ridicule. And I assume you're being serious.

THURSTON: OK.

MARTIN: ...in humor...

THURSTON: Oh-oh.

MARTIN: The importance of being the black friend.

THURSTON: Yes.

MARTIN: You say that there is a value to this and that you want to lift that up. Talk a little bit about that.

There's absolutely a value. And I think we have publicly at least assumed the value accrues to the white group of friends. It's like oh, these white people have a black friend. Good for them. They feel more progressive or hipper by extension. But the black community and both communities get a lot out of that exchange. If we just retreat to our own existing assumptions it's more difficult to grow. And so having an actual peer-to-peer relationship again, softens the pre-judgments. You may end up with judgments anyway but at least they're based on an experience you had rather than things you may have heard or may have read or cues you picked up from the mainstream media society, which is not fully respectful of the range of individuality at the present.

But why do you even have to defend that? I mean isn't that integration? Isn't that what integration was supposed to be about, which is that people would meet people who were different from them and we'd all be better?

THURSTON: And that's...

MARTIN: Why do you even have to defend that?

THURSTON: I don't, I'm easily have to defend it, you could just let it go. But I think you have when charges are sort of levied at people that say, oh, because you're a black person who is hanging out with that group you're this label, you're an Oreo or a sellout. That judgment is what you're combating, not just the act itself. The act itself doesn't require a defense. It's human to want to connect with people. So I think that is OK.

Also, I think we're hopefully at the younger levels too, these barriers are getting more porous. Kids all over the world rocking out to hip-hop and break dancing and there's a global culture and the youth level that's emerging that's allowing kids to talk to one another across previously thicker lines and that's, I think a good sign for the future.

MARTIN: Well, before I let you go, do you have any tips for me on how to be black?

THURSTON: So, yeah...

MARTIN: Anything you, any, just polish me up a little bit.

THURSTON: So, there is, the book closes on a plan for the future. It's called "The Future of Blackness." I propose a kind of a grand unified theory of blackness and some elements of that I think you could benefit from, or maybe everyone listening. One, we've had this assumption that the people who are oppressed are supposed to fight the system of oppression, which makes sense. It's in their primary interest. But it's also in society's interest. And so what I'd look into do is kind of find one of your white friends and officially designate that it's now their job to fix racism. And you could have a ceremony. You can hand over of the baton on the front porch or in the church or a park.

MARTIN: So just a little pass-off kind of thing.

THURSTON: Just an actual symbolic but substantive gesture that says hey, why don't you lend a hand to this?

MARTIN: And then what do I get to do? What do I do?

THURSTON: Well, then, you get to chill a little bit. You could work on one of the ideas that came out in the book in a conversation with Jacquetta Szathmari, a comedian friend, was, you know, intercultural exchange within black communities. She's like I'm rural. I don't understand the people in Chicago and L.A. They talk a whole different language. So we're going to work on a Negreta Stone app that allows black people to communicate within one another and really try to build that up a little bit. So maybe you could work on that in your newly liberated time from fighting racism.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. You freed up some time.

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was actually going to take a nap.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Baratunde Thurston is the author of "How to Be Black." He is also a comedian and a digital director of "The Onion." And he was nice enough to join Michel here in our Washington studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD, I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, huh. Brother, we can't quit until we get our share. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. One more time. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.

(Singing) Ha, ha. I've worked on jobs with my feet and my hands.

LYDEN: That's our program for today. I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD, I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

BROWN: (Singing) And now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves. We tired of beating our heads against the wall and working for someone else. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. Aw. Ooh-we... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.