Arts Desk

Baratunde Thurston on How to Be Black

Once, when comedian and author Baratunde Thurston was drinking at a bar in New York City, a woman sat next to him and struck up a conversation. “What do you do?” she asked.

“I work for The Onion,” said Thurston, who's the satirical news organization’s digital director.

“Where do you live?”

“Brooklyn.”

“And before that?”

Boston, responded Thurston, who studied philosophy at Harvard University in the late '90s.

“You work for The Onion and you went to Harvard? You’re the whitest black guy I’ve ever met.”

It’s because of such exchanges that Thurston, a 34-year-old D.C. native, decided to write How to Be Black, a humorous guide on how to be anything from the ideal friend of a black person to the next black leader of the free world. Harper released the book on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month.

The book largely takes the form of a memoir, challenging and complicating conceptions of blackness by examining Thurston’s life. “[There’s a] gap between what an actual 3-dimensional black person does and the idea of what a black person can and should do,” Thurston says. “It’s a complex matrix of identity that we’re all navigating through, and I wanted to interrogate that and play with that.”

Thurston's story, it turns out, is as stereotypically black as it is not. He was raised by a single mother in Columbia Heights; he also went camping and enjoyed swimming. “Some of my story is very popular—the single mom stuff, the inner-city stuff, the drug/Wire stuff—we’ve seen a lot of that on TV and film and music,” Thurston says. “But we have not really seen the story of Afrocentricism in the black household and what happened in between those years of the Civil Rights Movement and now—and the kids raised in that shadow.”

How to Be Black may be playful, but it also traces the story of kids whose parents redirected the political activism of the Civil Rights movement into raising more self-aware families—and, as he says, “gave their kids African names with no known connection to Africa.”

One of Thurston’s fondest memories from his childhood in the District revolves around the statue The Awakening, when it was still installed at Hains Point. Thurston, his mother, and sister would sometimes go there with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “There’s a lot of memory tied up in that spot and a lot of things that have significance for my family,” Thurston says. “Parks and water, playing outside and getting dirty—kind of the opposite of a typical city life.”

Thurston discusses his book tonight from 6:30-8p.m. at the National Press Club. An after-party at Blackbyrd will follow.

Photo by Alexa Lee, Baratunde.com

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