Like its author, How To Be Black is a bit of a scattershot—confessional, political, comedic. But let me explain what the book is not: It is not an instructional how-to in the spirit of …For Dummies. Written more explicitly, “This book is not How to Become a Black Person If You Are Not Already Black.”
Instead, Baratunde Thurston’s book is a ruse. It is a satirical guide to being Black only to make the point that race, any race, cannot possibly be restricted to a set of rules and standards. Race is at once a shared experience and a wholly individual journey. So the satirical structure—with chapters like “How to Be The Black Employee” and “How to Be The Angry Negro”—allows Thurston to discuss the broader topic of the Black experience, lending authenticity to each jokey point with vignettes of his own personal history.
But this book is also not an autobiography. Thurston—a comedian, political writer, and the director of digital for The Onion; sort of a new media jack-of-all-trades—seeks the opinions of seven race-conscious artists, a group that he calls The Black Panel. (Forward thinking: On the panel, Thurston includes Christian Lander, a Caucasian Canadian and creator of Stuff White People Like, “to defend against the inevitable lawsuits claiming reverse discrimination, and also to establish a control group.”)
In “When Did You First Realize You Were Black?”, “Can You Swim?”, and other chapters, the panel weighs in, along with Thurston, in an attempt to conceptualize blackness. Through their own accounts, that concept is vetted and complicated, ultimately crafting the thesis that blackness is elusive—ever-changing and often startlingly different from the way it appears through the mainstream lens.
Consider the idea that America is “post-racial.” Thurston and his panel challenge the media’s perception that America had entered into this inclusive, equal, hyper-tolerant age following the election of President Barack Obama, calling it a “fantasy” and a “media creation” and “some bullshit.”
My liberal leanings aside, I had to agree with them, especially after I spotted one disturbing parallel. In “Being Black at Harvard,” Thurston recounts one on-campus job where he served as bartender at an alumni find-raising event. Alumni young and old rushed the bar and Thurston struggled to keep up with the drink requests. Amid the chaos, one man insisted that he was being ignored. Thurston apologized: “‘I’m sorry, sir. It’s really busy. I didn’t see you there. What can I get for you?’” But the man furiously snapped back, “‘You’re a liar!’” And then the old man said it again.
This was no normal yell. I heard the words with my ears but I also felt them in my soul. There was such anger and contempt in his tone that I froze. It felt as if the voices of his incredulous ancestors were also yelling at me for daring even to be present.
That was the late-nineties, not exactly a racially volatile time. But even in 2009—at the start of a golden age of the nation’s history, in this supposed “post-racial” America—if you are Black, being President of the United States does not exclude you from being called a liar with so much vitriol.
Race is still very much a sensitive issue, which makes How To Be Black both timely and potentially timeless.
And though I would consider myself modernized and evolved (and literally, physiologically colorblind), reading Thurston’s work made me realize that even I’m not immune. The book’s jacket is two-toned with large white block letters over a black background.* Likely a conscious decision by the designers, the title is boldly conspicuous. I read the book on the subway during my commute to and from work. Most mornings, my train runs at half-capacity, lazily peppered with under-rested, preoccupied riders. But one morning, the car I was in filled early on, and by the time I was at the midway point, the train was packed. As we moved closer to my stop, I stood. Maybe it was my change of position, or maybe it was that the train had become even more crowded with passengers (of various races), but I suddenly became totally aware of the book that I was reading. In that moment, I felt uncomfortable. I knew what the book was about and that the title was an inside joke—but these were outsiders. I tucked the book under my arm and kept it there, not wanting to offend passersby.
I attest: Post-racial America is some bullshit.
*There is also an alternative version of the cover with a stark white background and the lettering in black.
Binding: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
[Feature image by Alexa Lee]
Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.