Skip to main content

Baratunde Thurston Explains 'How To Be Black.'

From the comedian and digital director of The Onion, a satirical self-help book for anyone who has a black friend, wants to be the next black president or speak for the black community.



Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Guest: Baratunde Thurston

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new book "How To Be Black" is part memoir and part satirical guidebook. My guest is the author Baratunde Thurston. He's a stand-up comic, the director of digital for the satirical newspaper The Onion, and co-founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics.

The guidebook part of his book has chapters like "How to Be the Black Friend," "How to Speak for All Black People," "How to Be the Black Employee," "How to be the Angry Negro" and "How to Be the Next Black President." The memoir part of his book is about the different cultures he's been exposed to, like being enrolled in a Quaker private school and an Afro-centric program at the same time.

And it's about how his life does and does not fit the popular concept of blackness, a concept he describes as hip-hop, crime and prison, fatherless homes, high blood pressure, school dropouts, drugs, athleticism, musical talent, "The Wire," affirmative action, poverty, diabetes, the civil rights movement, and recently, the U.S. presidency.

Baratunde Thurston, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: It is great to be here. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: So I'd like you to do a reading from your new book, "How to Be Black," and it's a very autobiographical part of the book.

THURSTON: Yes, it is.

GROSS: Would you read it for us?

THURSTON: Absolutely. My name is Baratunde Thurston, and I've been black for over 30 years. I was born in 1977 in Washington, D.C., in the wake of civil rights, black power and "Sanford and Son." My mother was a pro-black, pan-African, tofu-eating hippy who had me memorizing the countries of Africa and reading about Apartheid before my 10th birthday.

My Nigerian name was not handed down to me from any known lineage but rather claimed and bestowed upon me by parents who demanded a connection, any connection at all, to mother Africa.

Yes, I grew up in the inner city at 1522 Newton Street, and I survived D.C.'s drug wars. Yes, my father was absent. He was shot to death in those same drug wars. But it's also true that I graduated from Sidwell Friends School, the educational home of Chelsea Clinton and the Obama girls, and Harvard University. I love classical music, computers and camping.

I've gone clubbing with the president of Georgia, the country, twice. My version of being black adheres as much to the stereotypes as it dramatically breaks from them, and that's probably true for most of you reading this, if not about blackness itself than about something else related to your identity. Through my stories, I hope to expose you to another side of the black experience while offering practical comedic advice based on my own painful lessons learned.

GROSS: Great, thanks for reading that. And that's from Baratunde's - Baratunde Thurston's new book, "How to be Black."

So let's start with your name, which you say some really interesting things about in the book, the name being Baratunde Thurston, very African first name, very...

THURSTON: Not African last name.


GROSS: Not African second name, yes. And you say my name has served as a perfect window through which to examine my experience of blackness.


GROSS: So how were you named Baratunde?

THURSTON: So I was named, as most children, by my parents, and for them it wasn't simply a name, and it wasn't grabbing an ancestral name or a grandfather or grandmother. They were - it was a political act on their part. My mother was very much this pan-African hippy type of woman, and she marched in the streets, and I have photos of her taking over radio stations.

And there was a phase in African-American history, especially in the '60s and '70s, where parents were trying to get back to Africa, and if they couldn't physically do it, they did it by naming their child something African. So they were flipping through books looking for a name that had a particular meaning.

And in my case, my mother had had a series of miscarriages before I was born, and so they were looking for something extra-deep, and they found this name, Babatunde. Babatunde is a very common Nigerian name. It means the spirit of my mother's grandfather returns in me.

In the same book, they also saw Baratunde, a slight derivation, a little tweak with an R instead of the B. And the book also explained that Baratunde means one who was chosen, which I have to clarify with people. It doesn't mean the chosen one. That's a lot of pressure. It's one who was chosen. There could be like 50 chosen people, 1,000. The chosen one, usually life ends poorly for that person.


THURSTON: So I'm happy to be one who was chosen. And my middle name is actually Arabic, it's Rafik(ph), and Rafik means friend or companion. So the combination of Baratunde Rafik is to mean kingly companion, and that's the total history of how I got that name.

GROSS: So what reaction did you get to your name typically from white people, from African-Americans and from Africans?

THURSTON: So very early on, teachers started shortening my name. They didn't want to deal with Baratunde. It was a little strange even for them. So they called me Barry. Actually, Barrington was the first name a teacher...

GROSS: That's the same with Barack Obama, right? He was Barry.

THURSTON: Yeah, yeah, so I'm just like the president. I control the nuclear arsenal, I occasionally disappoint my progressive base, but I'm generally a good guy.


THURSTON: So yeah, I was Barrington, and then I was Barry, and halfway through my middle school time at Sidwell Friends, it was seventh grade, and it just clicked in me, my name's Baratunde. That's a great name. People should call me that. And I had to actually convert the school to call me not Barry but Baratunde, because once people know what they call you, even if you don't approve of it, you know, nicknames, Chester is Chest Hair, right, just stuff like that, it takes a long time to kind of undo that.

So it took a couple of years to retrain people, but I finally fully asserted Baratunde as the name I should have. So people, usually they assume there's a nickname, and they'll just jump to it, or they say: What do people call you for short? And I say Baratunde, just say it faster. You can save time and be a little bit more efficient if you're really worried about the time it takes to say the name.

GROSS: So what assumptions were made about you because of your name?

THURSTON: Well, so it's really, I have different audiences that take it differently. First of all, I meet Nigerians, and many of them are initially really excited because they're like, oh, one of our brothers. But then they're like, wait, Baratunde, you mean Babatunde. I'm like, no, I mean Baratunde. Well, where'd you get the name, and who did this?

And so they have excitement, then frustration, then judgment often from the Nigerian community.

GROSS: And the judgment is, like, you're not really Nigerian.

THURSTON: Exactly, and I'm not authentically Nigerian. I'm not really African, which is just fun given the idea of why I was given the name, because I'm not really fully American either because of the history - this was my mother's attempt, and I didn't have any say in it, but I like the sound, and I like the meaning.

So I have that community. Then you have kind of the more American-born black people who really generally don't have that much of a reaction because I think American blacks are used to very interesting names in our community, whether they're derived from Africa or just made up from cars plus like a candy bar and the name of the street you grew up on. Like that's a pretty unique tradition.

And then, you know, from white Americans it's often the assumption of, well, you've got to have to have a nickname, or what does it mean. It's got to have some super-deep meaning. And in my case it actually does.

GROSS: Because it was an African name, a meant to connect you to Africa, because your parents, or at least your mother, was interested in that connection, did you feel that connection when you were growing up?

THURSTON: I did, and my mother wouldn't let me not feel that connection either. It was a part of my programming as a kid growing up. So I grew up in D.C. in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, before it became as shiny as it is today, and my mother after sixth grade enrolled me in Sidwell Friends School, which is a great private school.

The Obama girls go there now. But she also at the same time enrolled me in what's known as a Rights of Passage program. And in the '60s, you know, along with black power, there was even a subset of pan-Africanism, where people were really trying to reclaim this connection and borrowing and learning from traditions.

So you could think of it sort of as Hebrew school or a bar mitzvah for blackness.


THURSTON: And every, you know, weekday I'd be at Sidwell learning Sidwell-type things, and it's field hockey and lacrosse and the sons of presidents and daughters of World Health Organization people. And then every Saturday morning, from maybe 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., we'd have physical training, we'd read books like "The Isis Papers," we'd read Toussaint Louverture, and we would dance and do all sorts of cultural and intellectual activities to try to ground us in what they thought was a more appropriate Africanness in that era.

It was also a time when crack was ravaging communities, and there was a special focus on how do we preserve young black boys and prevent them from ending up in the criminal justice system. So that was also an angle.

So I had this balanced experience of Sidwell. By weekday (unintelligible), which is the name of the program, on the weekends, and that was kind of my strongest grounding. But then even at home, it didn't stop. My mom had this big map of Africa on her bedroom wall, and it had all the nations carved out. She would actually quiz me.

GROSS: And you keep describing your mother as like a hippy and, you know, tofu and carob and all that. How was she accepted in your neighborhood? Was she considered like the hippy of the neighborhood, and was that a bad thing?

THURSTON: She was not in any way ostracized. I mean, my mom also had this sort of hybrid personality. When she grew up, I think it was Fourth Street Northwest, I'd have to double-check, I didn't get that deep into her bio, but she had - you know, she ran the streets. She was in gangs. She was also super-political, and she was a crunchy hippy lady.

She went through her own evolution, grew up in a Baptist church, kind of rejected that because of the images of whiteness all around. She's like, what, they can't all be white. You know, if civilization began in Africa, the logical conclusion is - so she was kind of ahead of her time on that.

Then she became vegetarian and started hanging out with the hippy-type people, but that wasn't the full extent of her personality, and she was still kind of a bad-ass as well. So I think she had, from my young eyes and recollection, a lot of respect in the neighborhood.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Baratunde Thurston. His new book is called "How to Be Black." He's the director of digital for the satirical newspaper The Onion, co-founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more.

THURSTON: All right.



GROSS: My guest is Baratunde Thurston. He's the author of the new book "How to be Black." It's a memoir, it's satirical also. He's the director of digital for the satirical newspaper The Onion, co-founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics. He also does stand-up comedy.

So in the reading that you did at the beginning of the show, you kind of like drop in that your father was killed during the crack epidemic, and he was murdered during a drug deal that went bad, and he was the person buying, not selling.


GROSS: And you say in your book the only thing that could have been more cliched at the time - and you say this with great sorrow - but that the only thing that could be more cliched at the time was that the deal had gone down at a KFC.

THURSTON: Yes, I did write that.

GROSS: How old were you when that happened, six?

THURSTON: I was five or six years old, yeah.

GROSS: How did your mother tell you what happened?

THURSTON: So there was a - there was a phone call that she had received, and you have to understand, my father did not live with us at the time. So I had very few memories and interactions with him. But I knew I had a father, and I'm pretty sure he loved me a lot, and I probably loved him in any way a four or five-year-old kid can actually know what love means for a father.

But she got a call, and she said Arnold Robinson is dead. And I started crying, and I still - you know, it's such a strange thing to think about because I know what those words mean now, I've experienced death as an adult, of my own mother, of really close friends, and hearing those words and having those feelings at five or six years old, they're a little different. So I know I had an immediate physical, emotional reaction, but it wasn't until years later that I fully understood what that meant.

This to me at the time just meant, oh, my daddy's not around anymore, that's bad.

GROSS: Did she explain that he was shot?

THURSTON: I found - I don't remember in the moment, and a young child's memory is a little fudgy. What I do remember is actually not knowing how he died when she told me, but coming across - we had a big file cabinet in our house, a big black file cabinet, I think five drawers - very, very deep; smooth rolling wheels with these chrome label-holders you could slide an index card into.

And we had a file subsection within it called vital statistics, and I remember it so specifically because statistics was spelled with an X at the end because my mom thought that was fun. And I used to think it was vittle(ph) statistics.

And so I was going through the vittle(ph) statistics file one afternoon, as a kid does, rifling through papers, and I found my father's death certificate. And I had never known in that detail what had happened.

And death certificates are just - it's the first time I'd ever seen one. I haven't seen very many in my life, but the death certificate from a gunshot wound is a horrible, horrible representation of mortality, and it's cold, and it's clinical, and you basically watch the body shutting down in text.

GROSS: You quote it in the book. You want to read it?

THURSTON: Yeah. Here's what the death certificate said: Bullet wound of chest, lungs, spine and spinal cord followed by paraplegia and bronchial pneumonia.

GROSS: Right.

THURSTON: That's - I don't know, it's just, it's a strange medical dark poetry, and what I'd understood is he was shot, which translated into something much more troubling yet also richer and just strange. So I don't remember knowing in the very moment that he was shot. I know I found out in the intervening years, and then coming across this document was sort of another shock to my system of just what that actually meant.

GROSS: So what did it do to your sense of, like, violence in the neighborhood, how drugs can actually lead to death? You know, it's the kind of like potentially "Scared Straight" type of thing that, you know, a lot of parents and law officers and stuff try to like instill in young people. This is the consequence.


GROSS: So like at age six, your father's shot to death in a drug deal. What impact did that have in terms of how one goes about living in the world?

THURSTON: So I don't think it was an explicit, like, red flag in my head. I was a nerdy kid. I was a studious kid. I did have friends as well, I wasn't totally isolated and alone, but I was in the gifted and talented program in the public school system and did extracurricular activities, paying bass in the D.C. Youth Orchestra program, Boy Scouts.

And again, this was in part my mother just throwing activities at me to keep me drowning in busy-ness.

GROSS: Keep you off the streets.

THURSTON: Exactly, so I wouldn't have time, literally didn't have time to do any crime because I had assignments backed up from all these different activities. You know, and it wasn't just a matter of not having time, it was being engaged in things that actually stimulated the mind. And I think that probably lifted any burden off of me where it might have been so easy to kind of fall into the statistical future that lay before me of hold this bag, deliver this thing and then look out for that and then collect this.

It just didn't interest me as much, and it was never this loud voice of my dead father saying don't do this, but that probably had a subconscious effect, at least.

GROSS: In your book, in talking about growing up during the crack epidemic and that epidemic affecting your neighborhood, you write - you compare it to the HBO series "The Wire."


GROSS: And you write: When the HBO series "The Wire" came out, I recognized so much of what was on my TV screen from my memories of my own neighborhood. We had everything "The Wire" had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it.


GROSS: I love that.

THURSTON: That's true, we did not have the ratings or the Netflix popularity that "The Wire" did.

GROSS: So how did the crack epidemic affect your neighborhood?

THURSTON: It was - I think the first thing I remember was not being...

GROSS: And do you know one of the reasons why I'm so interested? I remember like during the height of the crack epidemic, like always thinking what's it like for the kids who are growing up in this, you know, and like now we can talk to the kids because they're adults and find out, you know?

THURSTON: Exactly. Let me - I remember not being able to go outside. I remember specifically not being allowed to sit on our front stoop. And on the weekends I used to sometimes sit on the stoop and eat breakfast outside, especially in the summertime. We didn't have air conditioning, it's hot, it's a nice day.

And there was a period of time when that was no longer allowed. I remember not playing outside as much and being told go to so-and-so's house but stay inside, there's a sort of captivity. And I also have a very particular memory of watching some of my friends walk down that road that I didn't walk down.

And there was a family of brothers who lived across the street from us, and there may - there were at least three of them, I'm pretty sure there were four, and you could just watch them almost like that image of evolution, which shows kind of a hunched-over ape evolving into man.

You could watch the older brother get into the drug business, and then the next one and the next one and then the youngest one, and it was just - that was the pattern established. And I remember when those guys used to deliver pizza for Domino's, and that was their way of making money, and that was their job, and they had rigged up a lawnmower engine to their 10-speed bikes to turn them into motorcycles and would zip down 16th Street - I lived at 16th and Newton - and I thought that was so cool.

And then I remember when those same kids set up a lemonade stand. And then I remember when their jackets got nicer, their boots got nicer, and they were selling drugs. And that was a – I don't know, such a strong memory in my head of, well, they used to that, and now they do this. And I used to be able to do this, and now I can't do that. Those are some of the effects I remember kind of growing up in a neighborhood that was being corrupted and poisoned by crack cocaine.

GROSS: In seventh grade, you moved to a different neighborhood.

THURSTON: Yeah, the end of seventh grade, we moved out of northwest Washington, D.C., to Tacoma Park, Maryland. And essentially it had become too much for my mother, and I think it was very stressful for her raising me. She was raising me alone. So she was working a lot of hours to pay for all these things, including private school at the time.

And I was pretty cool with it because, again, as a kid, whatever you grow up in feels normal. So this is where my friends are, this is the neighborhood I know. I'm not feeling so dramatic about the situation. But as a parent, you're probably just seeing risk, risk, risk, risk, risk - everywhere.

So we moved out to a more suburban area, still a black neighborhood, actually, but we had a little plot of land, free-standing house and...

GROSS: Did you like it?

THURSTON: I did like it. I didn't spend much time there. And it was quiet. It was quieter than I was used to, especially growing up at a major intersection in a city. You have cops and ambulances and people yelling, and that's a sign of life. So we moved out to - near a park, and there's deer that run across the street.


THURSTON: That's actually a little alarming, you know, even for a kid who was a Boy Scout and went camping. I wasn't used to sleeping in silence. So the first while was a bit different. And then I did so many school activities that home really was where I slept and not much more. But it was nice.

GROSS: What kind of work was your mother doing to support you?

THURSTON: So she evolved a lot throughout her life. I think she started doing domestic work, and then she was a secretary, and then she was a paralegal. And she - she never got a full college degree, but she took a lot of classes at the University of District of Columbia and at Montgomery Community College and ended up essentially learning computer programming and taking - you know, sliding from the paralegal department within the federal government to the programming department.

And I don't remember what level grade she made in the government, but it was a pretty good one. So she worked for something called the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency; it's a division of the Treasury Department, and they were charged with overseeing the national banks.

So she programmed in a language called COBOL, this mainstream computer language, and wrote software and inspected software that in turn inspected national banks. She was a big geeky nerd.

GROSS: And you got deep into computers too.

THURSTON: Yeah, because of her. I mean, she - that was so fortunate for her to have discovered that. It really magnified her earning power, but it also positioned both of her kids - I have an older sister who lives in Michigan - and both of us, because of our mother, got early access to computers. She knew it was important. So we were one of the first households in our neighborhood to have a computer, to get online.

I was doing bulletin boards and early Internet before it became anywhere near front-page news.

GROSS: Baratunde Thurston will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "How to Be Black." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Baratunde Thurston, author of the new book "How to Be Black." It's part memoir, part satirical guidebook. Stand-up comic, the director of digital for the satirical newspaper "The Onion," and co-founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics. When we left off, we were talking about the different cultures he grew up in.

So you were describing, earlier, how your mother really wanted to give you a very complete education and some like historical rooting...


GROSS: ...and what it means to be African-American. So she sent you to Sidwell Friends School, a fine school that the Obama children go to...


GROSS: Chelsea Clinton went there. But on weekends you'd go to this, like, Afrocentric school and learn all about like African history and...

THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...and so on. Were you able to be the same person in both those settings? Or did you have to like adjust who you were? I mean because a lot of us are, that's how we are.


GROSS: You know, you have different friends and you're slightly different with different friends, you're slightly different in different contexts.

THURSTON: Yeah, no, the code switching is a real thing and I think there was a Baratunde from Newton Street who learned to walk those streets and navigate that world and be very comfortable with all the stuff that's happening in the street. And then there was the academic library, studious, you know, high school newspaper Baratunde; and then there was the, like, black power Tunde.


THURSTON: That was also going down. And those worlds often collided. I remember I wrote a paper once for an English class, that was extremely radical. It was the type of paper that I won't be president because I wrote this thing.


THURSTON: It was one of those things that they dig up, like Rush Limbaugh would have field day.

GROSS: No, you should read – you have to – you reprint some of it in the book. You have to read some of it.

THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah. I'm be happy to. I'd be happy to...

GROSS: You have to read some of it from the book. It's very conspiracy.


THURSTON: So the title of this piece is "The U.S. Propaganda Machine," and that's what I submitted to my English teacher.

GROSS: Find a really good excerpt in there.

THURSTON: Yeah. Let me jump to a hyper-inflammatory section, which...


THURSTON: All right. This is fun. (Reading) Now, my brothers and sisters, I will tell you – and what you also have to understand I wrote this as if it were a major speech...


THURSTON: ...that I was delivering to all black people. I imagined kind of a State of the Black Union with everybody around the world, and especially the U.S., tuned into my words. (Reading) Now, my brothers and sisters, I will tell you ways that the white man has led our people into this epidemic - this epidemic of violence. If you want to go way back: It all started when the Europeans invaded our rich, prosperous motherland and robbed her of her people. At the time of the slave trade, there were Africans who sold their own people for beads and jewelry. This was the beginning of our self destruction.

(Reading) Another possibility is found by looking at the brutal times of slavery. During slavery, some of the brutalities were earthshaking and unfathomable.

And I remember being so proud of using the word unfathomable. And so I go on and I blame the white man. I basically call for a reverse revolution against white people. And I turned in this paper, very proudly, not at all conscious that this wasn't a normal thing to submit to a middle school English class at a place like Sidwell Friends. That was the black power Tunde speaking. And my English teacher came to be the next day, asked me to stay after class and said hey, some pretty radical stuff you put in that paper. Would you have written that if I weren't black? And I was like absolutely not. And I expect you to keep our secret. But that was the moment - a flashpoint for me, of conflict, of kind of, using the ability to manipulate words that I was picking up at Sidwell, but with the ideas that I was sucking up Saturdays at this Ankobea Society and it turned out into this, kind of, militant speech that I hypothetically delivered.

GROSS: Were you taught that all of black people's problems were really a conspiracy by white people?

THURSTON: Well, so here was the beauty. And this is why the mix is so important - and even I talk about my mother's evolution in her life. I talk about my mix in these neighborhoods. I was taught extremes, and able to balance them because I was taught multiple extremes. So at a place like Sidwell, and Sidwell's a great school. It really is. But it was also a tough place to be one of the few minority kids, one of the few poorer kids, and there's a big social adjustment. And one of the arguments there was we need more black faculty, we need more black subjects in the curriculum. That always happens at any sort of school, especially kind of elite secondary and then colleges. Meanwhile and the Ankobea environment, it was Africa did this, Africa invented that, Imhotep this, blah, blah, blah and the white men cause these problems. Those either cancel each other out or they drive the bearer of both ideas insane.

GROSS: Right.

THURSTON: I didn't go insane.


THURSTON: And fortunately. And I think most people in that situation probably wouldn't, so a sort of encouraged to me both see the good in old sides, and also challenge both perspectives.

GROSS: OK. So we've established that you were exposed to really different ways of seeing history?


GROSS: Of seeing being black in America.


GROSS: And that that was a really good thing for you.

THURSTON: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

GROSS: And then you went to Harvard.


GROSS: And you say at Harvard is where you learned that some people could see your black skin is just a cover for the whiteness underneath. Not necessarily you, but ones like skin. So was that like your introduction to the whole, you know, quote, "Oreo" concept?

THURSTON: Well, the Oreo concept was, I was introduced to that at Sidwell.


THURSTON: Sidwell was boot camp for me.

GROSS: Right.

THURSTON: It was, OK, you're going to go train here so that you can enter the world, you know, the mainstream world of America. And it was actually my first, possibly my second day, but I'm pretty sure it was my first day at Sidwell, that a black student who had been at the school for a really long time was assigned to be my buddy and adjust me to the environment. And he asked if I knew what an Oreo was. I actually - it's such a strong memory. We were in the first floor stairwell of the upper-school building, southwest corner, I remember all this - southeast corner. I really thought he was talking about cookies. I said, yeah, it's the cream-filled cookie from Nabisco. And he's like, no, no man. Oreo's somebody's who is black on the outside and white on the inside. And then he made an example. And he's like you see that kid across the way. And he pointed across the dining hall a little later, he said, that kid's an Oreo. And I didn't even know the kid's name at the time - I saw this nerdy black kid with glasses hanging out with white friends and I was like he could be president someday. It's a good way to fundraise, you know, make white friends early. And that was the first introduction of this concept of, sort of, inauthentic blackness because you're comfortable around whiteness.

GROSS: And if you were either introverted or, like, intellectual bookish, would that add to an Oreo image?

THURSTON: It, I mean I think and again, I wish I almost have in my head and image of the layers of expectations around your identity. So at a school like Sidwell, first let's just take the fun fact of a black kid who's been at Sidwell his entire life judging another black kid at Sidwell's blackness. It's like you've both been steeped in this environment so are you picking on that kid. But then you have the, you know, take someone like me who would go to Sidwell by day and then go back to my neighborhood and the black kids there, and their judgment of someone like me who goes off to the fancy white private school...

GROSS: Right. Yeah. What was that judgment?

THURSTON: Well, so and I never got hit with a heavy like you think your white, in part because I think I, these kids just knew me - at least from the kids that actually knew me. But you will get it from kids who don't know you. I mean we're - as people who are really good at judging people we don't know, that's part of how we move through the world and were programmed to do it. So you see some black kid in this environment like, sellout, Oreo. It's just an instant, mild envy, misunderstanding and judgment about someone who you don't really get. And when you start equating success and literacy and achievement and hard academic work with white, and more importantly, with not black, then it becomes a little troubling, or actually, I'd say, very troubling. So I experienced a little dose of that but mostly because I was interacting with kids who knew me and I had made that transition, they saw me make it, they were less harsh.

GROSS: And I'm also wondering if the African name Baratunde...


THURSTON: My black pass. Yes.

GROSS: Seriously. And also everything that you knew about like African history, because of your Afrocentric schooling on the weekends...


GROSS: I mean, you know, I mean come on.


GROSS: You know what I mean? Like you...

THURSTON: Actual knowledge never prevents people from judging you.


GROSS: That's true, isn't it?

THURSTON: There was a great moment in the book - I interviewed people and this book, as well - and one of them was a friend Derrick Ashong, who was born in Ghana. And he described an experience of being judged by black Americans, saying he wasn't black enough because he wasn't radical enough, because he hadn't written some middle school paper calling for the death of all white people.


THURSTON: And he's like slow down. I was born in Africa. Like, I can trace my family back generations. You can't out black me. It's impossible. I am definitely, definitely black.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Baratunde Thurston, and he's the author of the new book "How to Be Black," which is part memoir, part satire, part satirical self-help book. He's also the director of digital for the satirical newspaper The Onion, and the co-founder of the blog Jack And Jill Politics. Let's take a short break here and we'll talk some more.

THURSTON: All right.



GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Baratunde Thurston. He's the author of the new book "How to Be Black." He's also director of digital for the satirical newspaper The Onion, and the co-founder of the blog Jack And Jill Politics.

At Harvard you say you learned how important and powerful the role of black friend to white people could be. Explain that.

THURSTON: A lot of white people like black people, right? They buy hip-hop, they watching black athletic and sports figures, and this black culture it's super popular - from jazz through hip-hop and everything else that's come in between and beyond. And so having a black friend, which I think is actually in the book "Stuff that White People Like" that Christian Lander wrote, is a mark of progressive success as a white person. And the black friend that they have is usually seen as their asset. It's like oh, I'm cooler by proxy, I can get my questions answered, I'm hip.

What I try to describe in the book a little more is like what black people get out of having emissaries in the white community as the black friend.

GROSS: What do they get?

THURSTON: Well, you have a covert operative behind enemy lines. You've got a trusted source who can shuttle information back and forth. It's like the Cold War. It's basically a back channel that prevents race wars from blowing up. So if your white friend has a question about something, they can ask you, their trusted black friend, and you can feed them real or false information, depending on your purposes, but they don't necessarily have to just make an assumption or a leap that ends up in some even more awkward, more public moment. So it's actually very important to have this cross-cultural exchange of actual friendship going on and the black friend is a really, really big part of preventing that conflagration.

GROSS: I want to quote something else from the book. You write about, I write that upon graduation from Harvard, you say I was conscious of the fact that I could be me and thus be black, but not have to be black in order to be me.


GROSS: Talk about that.

THURSTON: Harvard was a liberating experience, which I don't know many black people who would say that. But it was because of Sidwell. I spent six years at Sidwell Friends going through - there is a typical lifecycle kind of minority in private schools. You know, first they challenge your right to be there and say it's all affirmative action, you feel awkward, your friends back home judge you as selling out, you have the black student union, you probably protest something, someone writes the N-word on the wall or in the bathroom, or in your locker, like these things are going to happen. And by the time I got to Harvard, I had been through all of that. And then I could just - Harvard's a great place. It can be a really great place if you can enjoy it and take advantage of it and I was able to do that there. So I was involved in the Black Student's Associations at Harvard but at Sidwell I felt this like absolute obligation to like fight and lead and protest and write reports.

And at Harvard I still was actively involved in that black community, but it wasn't the core source for, like, my full identity and I felt as comfortable hanging out with the kids at the newspaper, hanging out with the kids with the computer society, and the theater kids. And black became more of a part of my identity and less of kind of an ongoing protest movement, which it can often be because you often can feel besieged. And I was able to let go of that feeling of being besieged and just sort of be instead. And so there were protests and there were controversies but I think I was able to not let them define me or limit my definition of myself, certainly not affect my feeling of a right to be there. And so many folks that's a harsher transition when they haven't had the boot camp of some kind of private school to prepare them.

GROSS: We were talking earlier a bit about your, the Afrocentric part of your education.


GROSS: Jack & Jill politics is not in Afrocentric title by any means.


THURSTON: No it's not.

GROSS: What does Jack...

...the afro-centric part of your education.


GROSS: "Jack and Jill Politics" is not an afro-centric title.


THURSTON: No, it's not.

GROSS: By any means. What does "Jack and Jill Politics" supposed to mean as a title?

THURSTON: Sure. It is, first of all, a political blog that I helped found with Cheryl Contee who's my co-founder and also featured significantly in the book. We started it in the summer of 2006 as a platform for black – we were called the black bourgey(ph), black middle class people to talk politics. The blogging was really taking off and had taken off by that point, but among black people in the world of politics, there wasn't a big home.

There were a few places and where black people did blog at the time, there was a lot of entertainment and hip hop and there was a lot about being gay and black. Actually, I think you find in blogging, people are able to build communities virtually that they may not have in their physical home. It made a lot of sense for homosexual/lesbian black people to find that common ground.

So we started this in '06 as a way to just throw down and talk about what's going on, politically, in the country. What are these policies doing? What's the state of black leadership and the congressional black caucus and the name was a subtle nob - nod to and mild jab at an organization that exists within upper middle class black America called Jack and Jill.

And this has existed for a couple of generations and the idea was for pretty well to do black people – you're often alone. You're one of the few black families in this neighborhood. You have a few black kids in this type of school. And so for the parents who want their kids to still experience a black community, but at a certain class level, they kind of create this forum and this organization.

I was never a member of Jack and Jill. My co-founder was not a member of Jack and Jill, but it's a mild signal to those who know about it that, OK, we're kind of coming from this perspective while also messing with the idea of a class-based race organization. We have a gigantic watermelon as our logo, which is to signify intelligence, people who are really smart love watermelon.

And that's the only possible thing that could mean; anyone who thinks otherwise is a racist. So I think we're sending a bunch of different signals. For people who have no idea, she's a woman, I'm a man. Jill and Jack. And it doesn't go any farther than that. But for certain types of black people it's like, oh, so are you in Jack and Jill? You're kind of making fun of Jack and Jill? You're representing that? And it's yes to all of the above.

GROSS: So between "Jack and Jill Politics"...


GROSS: ...and you work at The Onion as director of digital, you must have to follow politics pretty closely.

THURSTON: I try not to lately because it's just so much. But, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I've been political my whole life. I grew up in D.C. with a mother that we're all getting to know a little bit through this conversation, so it's hard to put that down.

GROSS: And your favorite headlines, recently, from The Onion?


THURSTON: Oh, man. Let me think. I mean, I'll go back to two old ones and they're so different. One was – it kind of relates well to this book – I will mash up - I will mess up the headline, but it was essentially the idea of Obama as an elite is a great boon for African-Americans. And it was an Onion News Network satirical video news report where they had this panel discussion.

And they're saying: for years, black people were seen as not good enough for white folks and now they're saying this guy is too smart? Too educated? Eats arugula, too elite?


THURSTON: That is an amazing step forward for black people to be seen as too good for white people. And I love that that...

GROSS: Yeah.

THURSTON: ...kind of satire came out of The Onion. Obviously our election headline of Black Guy Given Nation's Worst Job...


THURSTON: ... is probably the most accurate news headline real or satirical ever printed, I'd say humbly. And this is actually pretty non-sequitur, but we have a magazine cover which is my own personal favorite and it's in the style of like a Sunday magazine, New York Times and it says Enough - in large font and then smaller beneath that: Is it Enough?


GROSS: My guess is Baratunde Thurston, author of the new book "How to Be Black." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Baratunde Thurston, author of the new book "How to Be Black." He's also director of digital for the satirical newspaper, The Onion, and cofounder of the blog, Jack and Jill Politics. Your book "How to Be Black" is part-satirical self-help book.


GROSS: And one of the chapters is about how to take advantage of the booming black spokesperson market.


GROSS: And provide a valuable service to the nation's clueless media outlets. What's the kind of spokespersons you're thinking of there?

THURSTON: So I'm thinking of, first of all, of a spokesperson who fills a void. And I think, actually, the world is getting better at this, but for most of media history there would be a pile of things happening called black things. And they would be associated with, OK, there's this drug problem, there's a crime thing, there's some sports thing, there's some R&B soul/hip hop thing. We've got to get -there's a riot somewhere.

Quick, grab a black guy, throw him on air. And that was often some reverend type figure: Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson. And they would be looked to, to kind of fill that void and speak for all black people. And ever since King and X, people have - in the mainstream, have been like well, who speaks for black people now? Farrakhan maybe had the last go-around with the Million Man March.

And people still try to ascribe all black thought, occasionally, to him. So this black spokesperson idea in the book is to kind of mock that desperation, that, OK, we've got to get somebody to explain all of blackness. I don't care who it is. I don't care what the qualifications are. Is it a dude in a suit who ran some kind of organization with the words national and organization in it?


THURSTON: Put them on, mic them up, get some foundation makeup on them, and let's just have him talk. And it's almost always a him.

GROSS: My impression, now, is that in part, ever since Obama was elected...


GROSS: ...that there's a much, like, wider – like on the news channels, for instance...


GROSS: ...a much wider representation of African-American, like, pundits and experts.


GROSS: And think tank people and bloggers and so on.

THURSTON: I actually agree with you, and I think that's part of the transition we're in, because we're entering a world where we need less to ask permission from, sort of, centralized authority. Whether it's media authorities to get a certain image out, whether it's political authorities to promote a certain policy, whether it's religious authorities to express a certain type of spirituality, the range of black thought - and Jack and Jill Politics is a part of this booming tradition - of black people just representing themselves.

And when that happens and when we're all given, not just the right to demand change or the right to work from the inside to adjust the system or protest, but to actually build native systems, to build your own perspective and voice using these tools - a lot of them technologically based - you can't help but diversify the range of that conversation.

I've been - you know, this chapter also kind of mocks myself a bit, because I've been that black pundit. And they go, oh, now we have Baratunde Thurston from Jack and Jill Politics to talk about something related to blackness. And Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois, said something dumb which should not be news-making at a certain point, because that's what he does. And he said: I'm blacker than Obama.

And some cable news outlet, they said we'd love you to come on and talk about Rod Blagojevich's comment that he's blacker than Obama. I said what? There's nothing to say. Just let the dumbness stand on its own sometimes, and just sit out there--

GROSS: So you declined?

THURSTON: I declined because the idea of Rod Blagojevich, who was an attention seeking dude saying absurd, and a white guy saying he's blacker than a black guy, which has been done before — it's kind of hacked, too – just wasn't that interesting.

GROSS: So it strikes me that as an African-American memoirist, and -

THURSTON: Ooh, I'm a memoirist. Nice.


GROSS: Yes. And blogger and, you know, pundit...


GROSS: ...that you're in a kind of interesting spot, in the sense on the one hand, you're satirizing the whole idea of, like, spokespeople speaking about the black community...


GROSS: ...and, you know, spokespeople being, in a way, confined to talking about the African-American issues of the day. But at the same time, you know, you start Jack and Jill Politics to specifically address what a certain socioeconomics bracket of African-Americans are thinking.


GROSS: And your book is called "How To Be Black" and it's all about your experiences as a black boy, as a black man.


GROSS: And it's satirical, but there's a lot of real genuine emotion in it, too.


GROSS: I'm not sure exactly what the question is, but I think it has to do with being at that point in time where you can kind of stand back and satirize the whole idea of, like, the black spokespeople, but at the same time feel like - but that's still needed.


GROSS: Do you know what I mean? That you still have to be there representing African-American points of view in what is still a kind of white dominant culture, politically.


GROSS: And socially.

THURSTON: Part of the mission of this book, besides being uproariously funny and occasionally tear-jerkingly emotional, is as I said in the intro, to re-complicate blackness and to just put out some other examples. Because we're at a time where the gap between who we really are and who the world expects us to be can be closed, because we can articulate who we are much more loudly than any of our ancestors.

We can paint ourselves better. And so this book, what I hope - it's definitely steeped in blackness because a part of me has been. But there's also so many quote/unquote "non-black things." All the gardening stuff, and the computer science-y stuff. You don't see those held up as shining examples of blackness. But I'm black and I do those things. And Elon James White, who I interviewed, he had a great line to, kind of, sum this up.

He said, you know, you don't have to do any particular thing to be black. Right? You do what you do and you open up the doors to blackness. And that's kind of a fun way to think, not just about blackness, about the self, and about identity in general. And so this book could be "How to Be Jewish." It could be "How to Be a Woman." It could be "How to Be Gay."

And I probably should buy all those domain names right now.


THURSTON: So I can cash in - cha-ching - and make money off my tweets. But I think that everyone has had some kind of experience like, well, I'm not who people think I am or think I should be because their information about me is so off. We can kind of change that information.

GROSS: Baratunde Thurston, thank you so much. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you.

THURSTON: Thank you. This has been a life goal. I'm checking this off the bucket list.


THURSTON: Thank you so very much, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you. Baratunde Thurston is the author of the new book "How to Be Black." You can read an excerpt on our website where you can also download Podcasts of our show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Private opulence, public squalor: How the U.S. helps the rich and hurts the poor

Pulitzer Prize winning author Matthew Desmond talks about the roots of American poverty and how he says so many affluent citizens benefit from government subsidies and exploitation of the poor. His new book is Poverty By America.


Songs by Iris DeMent, Sunny War and Margo Price speak urgently to the current moment

Whether it's the folk-protest music of Iris DeMent, the cutting-edge blues of Sunny War or the hard-charging Americana of Margo Price, these three artists create music that stands out.


From 'Almost Famous' to definitely famous, Billy Crudup is enjoying his new TV roles

Billy Crudup is an actor you've probably seen more than you realize. He won critical praise and an Emmy Award for his performance in the Apple TV series "The Morning Show" with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. His film credits include "Almost Famous," "Sleepers," "Jesus' Son," "20th Century Women" and "Watchmen," where he played a marvel comic superhero who's bald and blue.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue