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Posted on Sep 11, 2012

Baratunde Thurston.

By Marcia Alesan Dawkins

“How To Be Black”

A book by Baratunde Thurston

The perfect review of Baratunde Thurston’s “How To Be Black” would be a tweet. Either I’d retweet the review by Patton Oswalt, author of “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” (“After reading ‘How To Be Black’ I realized I’m a white man”) or I’d tweet this: “Daps to @Baratunde for #HowToBeBlack! I bought two (one white cover, one black cover) as he instructed because I’m biracial.” Thankfully I have more space here than a tweet so I can explain why Thurston’s book is a groundbreaking must-read whether you’re black, biracial or anything else.

Few writers explore the complex intersections of race, culture and communication with as much humor, sophistication and downright directness as Thurston. I think the best way to channel his spirit is by listing the top things you get from the book. So here they are, in no particular order: 

1. You get sharp social criticism. Part memoir, part investigative journalism, part Instagram photo shoot and part cheeky instruction manual, “How To Be Black” explores such varied topics as “How to Be the Black Friend,” “How to Be the (Next) Black President,” “How to Celebrate Black History Month” and “How to Be The Angry Negro.” Thurston augments his instructions with commentary from a panel of “blackness experts” whose perceptions and experiences are worth reading more about—Cheryl Contee, damali ayo, Elon James White, Jacquetta Szathmari, W. Kamau Bell and Derrick Ashong. Thurston also shows off his sharp sociological and comedic skills by including a white expert on the blackness panel—Christian Lander (author of “Stuff White People Like”)—as part of the “control group.” Thurston subtly reminds us that blackness and whiteness are codependent.

book cover


How To Be Black

By Baratunde Thurston


Harper Hardcover, 254 pages


Buy the book

2. You get an experience. The “How To Be Black” experience begins with a story about individual identity as Thurston explains how he, an African-American kid from a broken home in D.C., wound up with a Nigerian name although he’s not Nigerian, and attended some of our nation’s most elite educational institutions. It continues with stories about community identity as Thurston tackles the many faces of blackness, including media, school and the workplace today. It concludes with a portrait of an ever-evolving national identity as our nation grapples with changing demographics, economic recession, educational reform and regressive neoconservatism. 

3. You get to laugh. Thurston comes up with some amazing jokes. He responds to the “birther” criticism that plagued Obama’s presidency with his new identification protocol: “Keep a copy of your birth certificate on your body at all times, even in the shower. Use Ziploc bags & Velcro.” Thurston’s brand of comedy encourages audiences to figure out who we are and how we can engage with the social and socially mediated worlds around us for the purpose of positive change. His jokes are persuasive political arguments, informed and authoritative statements, and yes they’re seriously funny.

To see long excerpts from “How To Be Black” at Google Books, click here.

4. You get great writing. On class: “My hood had everything ‘The Wire’ had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it.” On race: “Like vampires and extremely rich people, black folk can sense one another.” On family: “I was crying over the idea that I was supposed to have a ‘father’ and now my ‘father’ was gone. The idea of losing him is what felt bad.”

5. You get to change. The great thing Thurston reveals is that blackness is one of many identities up for grabs today. It’s 2012 and stereotypes are being defied on a daily basis. We have a black president; we have billionaire duo Beyonce and Jay-Z; we have Thurston who was raised in a Washington, D.C., ghetto by a pro-black, pan-Afrikan single mother and educated at Harvard University. Thurston redefines blackness as a set of “ideas” that “are changing, and … differ from the popular ideas promoted in mainstream media and often in the black community itself.” And he explains why, at this particular moment in American cultural and political history, black people are perfectly poised to redefine what it means to be black and what it means to be anti-racism. Translation: You get to be a full human being. You get to be. Period. For Thurston it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever been called “too black” or not “black enough.” It doesn’t matter if you’re not black at all. What matters about you is that you get to be yourself. You get to be a walking argument. You get to let the world know who you are and the causes to which you’ll commit.

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