Book Spotlight: How To Be Black by Barantunde


Dear Africlectists, ever been the awkward black person in a sea of white people or perhaps white friends who constantly asked you culturally inappropriate questions or made brow raising remarks which you just didn’t know how to respond to or act, well here is where Barantunde Thursten comes in. Released early this February, Barantunde,  a politically-active, technology-loving comedian and founder of Cultivated Wit, released this New York times bestseller that will live you literrally cracking up and make you a better black person in the process.

Checkout the revealing interview he had with NPR with regards to the inspiration behind the book:

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 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.”

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.”



Cultural Authenticity

You won’t be of much value to black people or anyone else if you don’t maintain a cultural connection to black experiences. Like a reporter who clings to the newsroom rather than step outside and actually walk his beat, you will lose your effectiveness. In a practical sense, this means you need to maintain a baseline level of black cultural currency by being familiar with at least some of the history of black people, of trends in black entertainment — this goes for music, film, sports, et cetera — as well as language and style. You don’t need to overdo it by trying to be “too black,” but if you’re not seen as black enough, no one will buy your story, and you won’t get the inside access that makes your role so valuable.

Physical Authenticity

This is not about how you look. It’s about how you act. Intellectual knowledge of black culture will only get you so far in your service. You must also be able to do black things. Ideally, you will be fairly competent in at least one of the following areas: rapping, dancing, grilling or frying meats, running or other stereotypically black sports. If you can back up your mental knowledge of blackness with an occasional Moon (or Crip) Walk and a semiannual freestyle rhyme, your value is assured. Again, this is about appearances to maintain your cover.

A Sense of Humor

A good Black Friend doesn’t take any remark or experience too seriously, but remember that balance is key. There is a risk associated with not taking things seriously enough. Your effectiveness depends on your ability to make nonblack people feel comfortable. You can’t go flying off the handle every time something potentially racist goes down. If you do that, you risk losing the privileged position of Black Friend and sliding into the much less useful role of Angry Negro (see “How to Be the Angry Negro”). Angry Negroes have a role in our society, but they have much less freedom of mobility, and this chapter is about the diplomatic art of Black Friendship, so let’s stay true to that mission.

Just because you’re an uncelebrated secret agent and diplomat doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. One entertaining way to keep your friends on their toes is to occasionally play the race card for fun. For example, if you’re getting in the car with them and you end up being directed to the backseat, you can yell, “Why do I have to sit in the back? Is it because I’m black!?” They’ll be nervous for a moment, but then you’ll laugh, and they’ll laugh, and oh, the fun times you can have being the Black Friend.


Access to White People

You can’t very well be a good Black Friend if you don’t have access to nonblack, and especially white, people. This should go without saying, but I can’t tell you the number of black folks I’ve met who want nothing to do with white people and yet complain nonstop about how white people do this or white people think that. Be the change you want to see. Go make some white friends. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend checking outStuff White People Like, the website or book. It’s all right there for the understanding.


You’re going to get a lot of questions. Many of them will be dumb. Most will be some variation on “Is this racist?” Maintain your cool, and focus on listening to your friends. When they ask, “Why don’t more black people work hard, like immigrants?” don’t assume bad intentions on their part. Stop. Breathe. Think. What are they really saying with this question?

They are doing a surface-level comparison. They see Group A and Group B. To them, both groups have experienced similar setbacks, but Group B doesn’t seem to have made nearly as much progress as Group A in the recovery. This is not automatically racist. They’re asking you because they trust you, because they need you to help them understand. If you scare them away, you encourage a troubling alternative.

Instead of taking that seemingly dumb question to you, their trusted Black Friend, they will continue to live with their ignorance, which will eventually find its way into the news segments they produce at their television network jobs or into legislation they pass. A healthy amount of patience as the Black Friend can go a long way toward helping all black people in unseen ways.


Reprinted from How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston © 2012. Published by HarperCollins Publishers.


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