HOW TO BE BLACK by Baratunde Thurston


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Comedian and Onion director of digital Thurston (Better Than Crying: Poking Fun at Politics, the Press & Pop Culture, 2003) delivers a “book about the ideas of blackness” in the guise of a helpful how-to guide to being black.

The author and a “Black Panel” made up of friends and colleagues, including one white person to avoid charges of reverse discrimination and also as a control group, ponder many questions about being black—e.g., “When did you first realize you were black?” and “Can you swim?” However, the humor does not serve the role of making light of race and racism, but rather as a gentle skewering that invites serious consideration of how black Americans are often limited by certain expectations concerning blackness. In “How to Speak for All Black People,” Thurston challenges the assumption that one black person can speak to the experience of an entire race, as well as the assumption that a black person can only speak to the black experience. In “How to Be the Black Employee,” he confronts the challenges of being hired both for the job and for being black—you will and must be, for instance, featured in every company photo. The humor does not always work; at times it is blog-like cleverness for the sake of cleverness (and is yet another joke about blacks needing white friends to get a cab really needed?). Thurston is at his best when he writes about his own life: growing up in Washington, D.C., attending Sidwell Friends School, matriculating at Harvard (“my experience of race at Harvard was full of joy and excitement”). The key to greater harmony is not necessarily seeing beyond race, but, as one Black Panelist puts it, to “see that and all of the things that I have done, to embrace all of me.”

Flawed but poignant and often funny.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-200321-8
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2012


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