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Fri October 19, 2012
Baratunde Thurston Explains 'How To Be Black'
Originally published on Fri October 19, 2012 12:55 pm
This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 1, 2012. How to Be Black will be released in paperback on Oct. 30.
It's no coincidence that Baratunde Thurston's new memoir and satirical self-help book How to Be Black was slated for release on the first day of Black History Month.
"I feel great about that," Thurston tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I think we have a moment every year in our country where everyone buys black stamps and thinks more explicitly about black people and blackness, so it was a perfect month to release a book on this subject."
Thurston, a stand-up comedian and The Onion's digital director, says that he doesn't get as many gigs this month as one might think.
"There aren't as many black spokespersons to go around, so I'm happy to play that role from time to time," he says. "But I think this year will probably be a little bigger than years past."
That's because How to Be Black is partially a practical guidebook for anyone looking to befriend or work with a black person, become the next black president or challenge anyone who says they speak for all black people.
But the book isn't just filled with comedic advice. Thurston weaves together his comedy with thoughtful missives about his own education at Sidwell Friends and Harvard University, and his childhood in one of the worst crack-addled neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. His father was killed in a drug deal when Thurston was 6. His mother was what he describes as a "pan-African hippie type of woman who marched in the streets" and named him Baratunde as a way to "get back to Africa."
"My version of being black adheres as much to the stereotypes as it dramatically breaks from them," he writes in How to Be Black. "And that's probably true for most of you reading this: if not about blackness itself, then about something related to your identity. Through my story, I hope to expose you to another side of the black experience while offering practical, comedic advice based on my own painful lessons learned."
When Thurston went to school, his teachers shortened his name — which means "one who is chosen" in Nigeria — and started calling him "Barrington." They later shortened it to "Barry."
"Baratunde was a little strange for them," he says. "I was a child and had no freedom, so I was 'Barrington' and then 'Barry' and then in 7th grade, it just clicked for me. My name's Baratunde. It's a great name. People should call me that."
It took some time, but Thurston eventually retrained his classmates to call him Baratunde.
"People assume there's a nickname, and they just jump to it, or they say, 'What do people call you for short?' And I say 'Baratunde. Just say it faster. It can save you time and be a little bit more efficient if you're worried about the time.' "
Thurston says he often encounters different assumptions based on his name, depending on his audience. Nigerians immediately think he's from Africa, and then are disappointed to learn that he's not. The reaction from Americans, meanwhile, is also mixed.
"American-born black people don't have that much of a reaction, because American blacks are used to interesting names in our community," he says. "And then from white Americans, it's the assumption of, 'Well, you have to have a nickname' or 'What does it mean?' Because it has to have some sort of superdeep meaning. So the name for me became a prism, because Baratunde has such a strong sound ... so it signals to people, 'This is definitely not a white dude. Maybe he's a black dude or an African dude.' But the reaction from the actual Nigerian community — which is 'You're not one of us either' — was a fun thing to experience growing up."
Thurston says his name wasn't the only indication that he straddled two worlds as a kid. On the weekdays, he attended the private Sidwell Friends School, where he played lacrosse and hockey and hung out with kids whose parents ran the State Department and the World Health Organization. But every Saturday, he attended what he calls "a Hebrew School or Bar Mitzvah for Blackness" in the Washington neighborhood of Columbia Heights.
"[My mother] enrolled me in a 'Rights of Passage' program," he says. "Every Saturday morning, we'd have physical training, we'd read books like The Isis Papers, and we would dance and do all kinds of cultural and intellectual activities to ground us in what they thought was a more appropriate Africanness in that era ... But even at home, it didn't stop. My mom had this map of Africa on her bedroom wall, and she'd actually quiz me."
Growing Up In Washington, D.C.
Thurston's mom raised him by herself after his father was killed. He remembers his mother telling him his father was dead after receiving a phone call from the police.
"I started crying," he says. "And it's such a strange thing to think about because I know what those words mean now — I've experienced death as an adult — and hearing those words and having those feelings at 6, they're a little different. So I know I had a physical reaction, but it wasn't until years later that I fully understood what that meant."
Thurston says he remembers not being allowed outside at the height of the 1980s crack epidemic in the district.
"I remember not being allowed to sit on our front stoop," he says. "There was a period of time when that was no longer allowed. I remember not playing outside as much, being told: Go to so-and-so's house but stay inside. And I also have a very particular memory of watching some of my friends walk down that road [toward drugs that] I didn't walk down."
Thurston says one family on his street morphed "almost like that figure of evolution — of the ape hunched over becoming man" into drug dealers.
"You could watch the older brother get into the drug business, and then the next one and the next one, and that was the pattern established," he says. "I remember when those guys used to deliver pizza for Domino's and that was their way of making money ... 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. That was such a strong memory in my head."
In junior high, Thurston moved from Columbia Heights to a suburban black neighborhood in Maryland. The move, once again, made him shift his persona.
"I think there was a Baratunde from Newton Street [in Washington, D.C.] who learned to walk those streets and navigate that world and be very comfortable with all the things happening in the street, and then there was the library-studious high school newspaper Baratunde, and then there was the Black Power 'Tunde that was also going down," he says. "And those worlds often collided."
Thurston says he was able to balance his worlds because he was taught "multiple extremes." At Sidwell, he says, the faculty was always trying to find more black faculty members.
"Meanwhile, in the ['Rights of Passage' program] it was: Africa did this, Africa did that, and the white man caused this," he says. "And those [viewpoints] either cancel each other out or they drive the bearer of both ideas insane. I didn't go insane. So it encouraged me to see the goods in both sides and challenge both perspectives."
On the term "Oreo"
"It was my first day at Sidwell. 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. We were in the first stairwell of the upper-school building, in the southeast corner, I remember all this. And 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 someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside.' And then he made an example. He pointed to a kid across the way and said, 'That kid's an Oreo.' And I didn't know the kid's name at the time — I saw this nerdy black kid with glasses hanging out with white friends ... And that was the first introduction of this concept, inauthentic blackness because you're comfortable around whiteness."
On judging identity
"I have an image in my head of the layers of expectations around your identity. At a school like Sidwell, let's just take the fun fact of a black kid who's been at Sidwell all his life judging another black kid at Sidwell's blackness ... Then you take someone like me that 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 private school. Initially, it was like: 'Oh, you go to that white school.' I never got hit with the heavy 'Oh, you think you're white,' in part because these kids just knew me. But you will get it from kids who don't know you."
On learning how important it is to have a black friend if you're a white person, and vice versa
"A lot of white people like black people. They buy hip-hop, they watch black athletic and sports figures, and it's superpopular — from jazz through hip-hop. Having a black friend is a mark of progressive success as a white person. And the black person is usually seen as their asset. It's like: I'm cooler by proxy. ... What black people get in the white community [is having] a covert operative behind enemy lines. You have a trusted source who can shuttle information back and forth. It's like the Cold War. It's 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 have to make an assumption or a leap that ends up in a more awkward, more public moment."
On hate-tweeting Twilight
"I hate the franchise. I think it is bad for America and little girls. You basically got this stalker vampire who's basically abusing this low self-esteem child, and that is hailed as a great image of love and respect. Because I have read the books and suffered through them, I wanted to prevent others from falling into that same fate. So on opening weekend, I go to the theater, I sit in the back to not disturb people, and I live-hate-tweet the film. And that just means I tweet in real-time with hate. I absolutely disdain this franchise. So I'm describing the storyline through my eyes and what the story really means, and it's proved very popular. And most importantly, I've prevented people from spending their hard-earned money."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The 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 former director of digital for the satirical newspaper The Onion, co-founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics and founder of the new digital comedy project Cultivated Wit."
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," "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 doesn't 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. The book will be published in paperback later this month. We spoke in February, when it was published
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.
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.
THURSTON: 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 rites 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, 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 African-ness 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. So 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: 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 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.
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, playing 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: My guest is comic and writer Baratunde Thurston, author of "How to Be Black." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is writer and comic Baratunde Thurston, the author of "How to Be Black," which is part satirical guidebook and part memoir. When we left off, we were talking about how his neighborhood was affected by the crack epidemic when he was growing up.
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 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...
GROSS: Oh COBOL, wow.
THURSTON: 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: We'll hear more of my interview with Baratunde Thurston in the second half of the show. His book "How to Be Black" will be published in paperback later this month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Baratunde Thurston, author of the book "How to Be Black." It's part memoir, part satirical guidebook. Thurston is a stand-up comic, the former director of digital for the satirical newspaper "The Onion," co-founder of the blog "Jack and Jill Politics," and cofounder of the new digital comedy project "Cultivated Wit." His book is in part about the different cultures he was brought 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...
Chelsea Clinton went there. But on weekends you'd go to this, like, Afro-centric school and learn all about like African history and...
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'd 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 me 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 a 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.
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.
THURSTON: I did.
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.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
THURSTON: Sidwell was boot camp for me.
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 was like, 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 an 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 why 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. What was that judgment?
THURSTON: Well, so and I never got hit with a heavy like you think you're 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. Yeah. And also everything that you knew about like African history, because of your Afro-centric 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 in 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.
My guest is comic and writer Baratunde Thurston, author of "How to Be Black." We'll talk more after a break.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is writer and comic Baratunde Thurston, the author of "How to Be Black," which is part satirical guidebook and part memoir. When we left off, we were talking about his experiences as a student at Harvard.
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 movie 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 make 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 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 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: 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 book "How to Be Black." It comes out in paperback later this month. Our interview was recorded in February, when it was first published. You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.