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Cannonball Read IV: How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

By tamatha | Books | June 1, 2012 |

By tamatha | Books | June 1, 2012 |

Several weeks ago, as I was driving home late from work, I caught the end of a Fresh Air broadcast, which featured an interview with Baratunde Thurston. His book, How to Be Black, had recently come out and Terry Gross was asking him about the book and his life. The part of the interview which I caught, including Thurston reading parts of How to Be Black, was enough to pique my interest—he was hilarious—and I made a mental note to get my hands on a copy of the book. A couple of weeks later something reminded me of this plan, and I was happy to discover that my library had a copy, which I quickly requested. It turns out, I was the first person to check it out, so that means I’m not racist, I’m sure.

You should read this book. It’s incredibly funny. That’s reason enough to search it out, but the fact that it deals with the complicated subject of being black in America, all the while using humor, makes it essential reading.

How to Be Black is part memoir and Thurston uses his life experiences, such as having a Nigerian first name (though no direct Nigerian heritage of which he’s aware); attending Sidwell Friends school (while at the same time, participating in an Afrocentric “rites of passage” program on the weekends); and later, Harvard; working in mostly white companies; and so on, as a basis for discussing his experience of being black. He also has a group of friends and colleagues whom he interviewed for a broader perspective on the black experience in the United States. He refers to them as The Black Panel. As a perfect example of the humor found throughout the book, Thurston actually includes a white guy on his Black Panel. When you read the book, you’ll see why this particular person makes sense as a part of The Black Panel.

I loved his chapter on “How to Be the Black Friend,” because I really appreciated his insight into the value that being a bridge between two cultures has for society at large. If, via your educational choices (formal or informal) you’ve delved into racism, one of the things you learn is that you can’t assume that every black person wants to educate you—or even talk—about issues relating to racism. One of the things that Thurston points out is that being a black friend can provide an opportunity for white folks to ask questions about a very touchy and difficult subject with someone who is willing to discuss the matter. For example, The Black Friend can explain why it’s not okay to touch a black person’s hair. Then that white person can tell two more white people, who can tell two more white people, and so on and so on, until more whites know that just because they’re curious about it, they can’t just be reaching out to touch some black person’s ‘fro. It’s rude and racist.

I found his chapter on “How to Be the Black Employee” incredibly eye-opening. Thurston explains that being a black employee in a predominantly white company means that that person has two jobs: The one for which he or she was hired, and the unwritten second job “of blackness” (one, for which, the folks who did the hiring may not have even been conscious of). The second job has three main areas of responsibility:

Part A: Represent the black community

Part B: Defend the company against charges of racism or lack of diversity

Part C: Increase the coolness of the office environment by enthusiastically participating in company events

Thurston goes on to explain how these aspects of Job #2 affect black employees in making various decisions about how they interact with their coworkers. It was fascinating.

Another topic that Thurston addresses is the issue of being “black enough.” His point is if you are black, then whatever you do is a black thing. Blacks should not feel that they are restricted to some narrow definition of “black activities” or “black interests.” Nothing can make you less black. He encourages black people to embrace whatever their varied interests may be and to reject the idea that liking something not stereotypically considered “black” somehow makes a person less black. This perspective makes all the sense in the world. And I’m so glad he puts it forth.

These are not the only issues discussed in How to Be Black, but I want you to be able to discover the book for yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed it and want others to read it and enjoy it too. The book had me literally laughing out loud. But Thurston doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, either; he approaches the challenging subject of being black in America with wit and humor, but he never undercuts the difficulty of that experience. Because the subject of racism is so fraught with tension, Thurston’s approach is a welcome one. If you are at all interested in the subject of racism, or even if you think we live in a “post-racial”society, or think that race shouldn’t be an issue, this is a great book to read. Unlike other books on the topic, how Thurston introduces and discusses being black in the US is incredibly relatable, regardless of your race. I highly recommend How to Be Black and think that you should put it at the top of your to-read list.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of tamatha’s reviews on the group blog and her blog, Baboon-Faced Gourd.

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