Thursday, November 01, 2012

Baratunde Thurston: How to Be Black

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I have one and only one complaint about Baratunde Thurston's otherwise perfect "How to Be Black": even after reading cover-to-cover I have no idea how to re-pigmentize myself. There is no science in this book, and everyone knows I love complicated scientific things. Sure, the second sentence of the book is a disclaimer and the third sentence reads: "This book is not 'How to Become a Black Person If You Are Not Already Black,'" but the book was so good that by the last sentence I forgot about all that and wanted the magic potion he said that I couldn't have in sentence number four. Unfortunately sentence number six even says that I can't have a refund, and Thurston had no way of knowing I got the book at the library, so I guess I no have to take back this complaint.

"How to Be Black" is a phenomenal, satirical look at "blackness" that uses humor to get at very deep issues. For example, Thurston includes a token white person in "Black Panel," so I felt my voice adequately represented when he surveys a group of people he feels "do blackness well." Including one white voice (and the way he does it) is clearly beyond tongue and cheek, it's ludicrous, which, each time, points to the ways black voices are included and silenced. In Thurston's words, "the ideas of blackness that make it into mainstream thought exclude too much of the full range of who black people are. Whether it's musical taste, dancing proficiency, occupation, or intellectual interest, all nuance is ignored for a simpler, often more sellable blackness." Thurston "re-complicates" this picture in an eminently readable, thought-provoking way.

He starts by skewering Black History Month, giving readers ten activities one can follow in order to participate appropriately in February and then handing out points and awards for number of activities completed (ex: Negro Lover or Official Friend of Black America). Tell me none of these activities ring true: Avoid being explicitly racist, Watch BET, Hum a negro spiritual, read "The Autobiography of Malcom X." It rings true.  He also calls out the ludicrous nature of "Black History Month," those 28 days a year when black people have history. Baratunde also discusses naming, and language, through the lens of his name: "For non-blacks, it marks me as absolutely, positively black. However, most of the vocal Nigerians I've met (which is to say, most of the Nigerians I've met) use my name to remind me that I'm not that black." And then, just when he's softened me up, he hits below the belt. He talks about my favorite show ever, The Wire. His childhood neighborhood was just like the Baltimore hood depicted in The Wire: "We had the drug dealing, the police brutality, the murders." But something wasn't just the same, and here's where it hurts: "We had everything The Wire had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it. Of course, eventually white people would fall in love with my old neighborhood as development and gentrification have led to its supporting a subway station, wine bars, and even a Target." He's right: he lived it, I loved it. Wow. That's powerful there.

There is absolutely no reason not to go read this book. It's coming out in paperback now, or maybe it has, and it's at your library. It's short, it's funny, it's hard hitting, and you will come out the same color you went in, so don't worry.


Anonymous said...

Also available on Kindle.