Comedian Baratunde Thurston on 'How to Be Black'

Thursday, February 09, 2012

February is Black History Month, and comedian Baratunde Thurston wants you to know that it's the perfect time to buy his new book, "How to Be Black." "The odds are high that you acquired this book during the nationally sanctioned season for purchasing black cultural objects, also known as Black History Month," he writes. "If you're like most people, you buy one piece of black culture per year during this month, and I'm banking on this book jumping out at you from the bookshelf or screen." Baratunde Thurston joins Celeste Headlee to discuss his new book: part-memoir, part-satire, part-political commentary.

Baratunde Thurston is the author of "How to Be Black" and the digital director of The Onion


Baratunde Thurston

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

Comments [12]

Nbr1Geech from Overseas

The two primary barriers to the American discourse on race are: 1) the "desire" to be offended and 2)the fear being offensive, which is exacerbated by the former. These two convenient nuances allow blame to be placed without having to take responsibility for ones own actions.

Feb. 12 2012 06:32 AM
mad as hell

I totally agree with Jeannine from New York

Racism" is not funny. That is part of the "race" problem in the United States. We want to laugh about these negative behaviors and attitudes about race. As a country, we need to discuss racism and its effects on the country, not just people of color, seriously. I would also suggest that Mr. Thurston understand the history of racism. People have died brutal and violent deaths because of racism.

And furthermore how dare you use some tired interview with morgan freeman's driving miss daisy uncle tom @$$ to try and legitimize your totally insensitive point of view.....About black history month being nonsense and as far there being thing in history books talking about the accomplishments of blacks.....I dont know where you went to school "celeste" but,,,,,,If there was no black history month,,,,,,,,some people would think that the only that black have done is create gansgta rap and increase the crime rate..........The only time my first grader gets to see or hear any about black accomplishments is when during black history month my son's teacher prints out worksheets for them to work on.....celeste I dont know if it is because your grand father was black that some how that give you the right to say such a thing.........If white people had their way we would all be shipped back to Africa now that their country is built.but damn it you should have left us where the hell we were....I am a contributor but I will being looking into how I can be a contributor without helping that little show of yours at all.I was appalled that you would say that to a national audience.I will tuning out forever and tell everyone that I know that listens not to.How dare you celeste.foulfoulfoul

Feb. 09 2012 10:05 PM
ericjhenderson from Brooklyn

Thanks for the first question in this interview: "Who is the audience?" I don't think it was answered directly, but it does look like where we are right now - npr/ivy/ipad crowd, etc.

Based on the interviews, the book seems like "black" 101" told as a coming of age. Not to imply that we've passed "black 101" -see resurgence in big-lipped obama caricatures-but as I listened to your interview and the one with Teri Gross just last week, I began to wonder if your platform of the heavy duty literati couldn't be charged for more.

I imagine one step past the 101, still using humor, but set to challenge the powers black and white and other that he implicitly indicts for not understanding him or blackness. These folks are both conscious in their investment in the status quo that would necessitate this book, and, amazingly, still quite unconscious in their 101 status.

Mr. Thurston's voice could move that conversation deeper. And I'm not suggesting castor oil activism over his preferred trade: humor. Humor is stronger, going way past the dead ends of today's satire. Colbert and co. are flat out funny! But sometimes, I'd like to see that funny move the needle. btw, I bet Colbert may be doing that in some way.

We're only 48 years from the barbarism of officially segregated humanity, segregation based strictly on phenotype. (post 1964 Civil Rights Bill) So, again, maybe 101 is in order. But we have made progress in dog years, not unlike on every other front as a nation, and I think the black conversation, as metaphor for true American conversation, is now starting to lag behind, and the whole country's falling behind as we see a straight up retrench into a visible re-emergence of race extremism looking for scapegoats as the country is out of work. The US isn't alone. Europe is seeing the same thing.

I'll check the book. My opinion here is only based on the interviews and presentations on the book. In short, I think Mr. Thurston has the platform and ability to cut with satire and humor on what is now a complex topic, complex because racism hasn't followed a linear decline in the face of individual and non-systemic black successes on many fronts joined closely with "black" as a defeated class by any measure you can name and near-zero representation in decision-making paths, e.g. state and us supreme court clerks to justices -

Race seems to have matured and grown more complex to match the sophistication that black people must have to move around as more than just nominal equals in the minds of the public.

I'm not against laughing, but today's race discussion should also meet the complexity of the forces that are against us unifying as one country of diverse peoples. And that's not black advocacy, just a wishing for some timely new American perspective.

Feb. 09 2012 12:08 PM
Kyle Bergersen from Norman, OK

I think there's room for satire about racism.

One of my production classes is currently producing a web series about this subject. FPU is based on a recent Supreme Court decision that forces all universities to accept puppets as students.

We're just about to start a viral campaign about the political backlash from this court decision. "H8 With 8" plays on voters fears about puppets in our society. And the simple fact puppets probably don't belong in college only complicates things.

Feb. 09 2012 11:11 AM
Dave from Pittsburgh

I'm a young middle class white male who grew up in a predominately white suburban school district. With that said, I dated a bi-racial girl in high school for several years and continue to be best friends with her today. But, at the time, my parents were to say the least, not happy with my decision to be in a relationship with someone of color and threatened me because of. They're good people, but it's certainly sad and unfortunate that they still have that level of prejudice in them. I went ahead and ignored their disapproval, and as they got to know her they ended up liking her more than me. They still are prejudice, although they probably wouldn't openly admit it. I don't know what it's like to be racially profiled in the same way most other people of color do, but I can somewhat understand the frustration that they must have based on the ignorance of people. I do on the other hand find some racial humor funny, but not the kind that is presented in a negative context. 'In Living Color' was a great show back in the 90's and although not all of there skits were racially based, I feel they were able to pull off racial humor of all kinds in a tasteful way. I know that 'white' people haven't had to endure the extreme hardships of racism the way African Americans and other minorities have, but we should all take ourselves a little less seriously and perhaps as we continue to progress as a human race, racism will eventually dissipate. After all, our body's are just vessels for the individuals that we really are. All the best.

Feb. 09 2012 09:58 AM
Amy from Pittsburgh

Just a quick question about the list.... If I made a new black friend last year, do I have to make another one this year? or are they recyclable?

Feb. 09 2012 09:38 AM
Neil from Hollywood, FL

White people are uncomfortable talking/joking about race and ethnicity; we dance around pathetically, hearts pounding, hoping not to offend. Non-whites aren't. EG: Chris Rock, Carlos Mencias. Margaret Cho, Michael Eric Dyson, Tavis Smiley and "Ask" comments like "Ask a Mexican," "Ask a Korean," Guess what folks. They know we're trying too hard and they're laughing about it. Kudos to Baratunde for talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the living room.

Feb. 09 2012 09:37 AM
Dianne from Manhattan

Well, you are not taking the authorities you have on air and cutting them off mid-sentence so much any more. But, Listening just now, there is this high pitched moaning horn in the background, making it very hard and irritating to listen to you. Whose idea was this anyway? Great music, but a really interesting interview too. Can't you make a choice? I did. My choice was to turn you off. I'll read about the interview on your website later today and listen to the BBC now instead.

Feb. 09 2012 09:36 AM
Trevor from Pleasant Hill, CA

The best teacher I had in high school was my freshman Social Studies instructor. One of his thinking-outside-the-box lessons was just a list of racially crude jokes. We spent the class deconstructing the cultural stereotypes inside of them. I found it, like many of his projects, risky but enlightening. It eventually ruffled someone's feathers and a couple years later he was fired. Mr. Ault, if you're out there, you were a great teacher.

Feb. 09 2012 09:16 AM
Jeannine from New York

Racism" is not funny. That is part of the "race" problem in the United States. We want to laugh about these negative behaviors and attitudes about race. As a country, we need to discuss racism and its effects on the country, not just people of color, seriously. I would also suggest that Mr. Thurston understand the history of racism. People have died brutal and violent deaths because of racism

Feb. 09 2012 09:10 AM

Satire can work for some to emotionally-reach another (is not that what it takes to make a change in another?), and it has done so over history, in some degree of efficacy. While any social change requires many, satirists can be an integral and much-desired comedic relief and angle of the philosophy or attitude of change. I have found I am one who speaks straight-forward, in-earnest, with kindness and bravery, about points most-directly and seriously, with a human tongue, rather than mechanical (sometimes). For satire, I feel I am not made in terms of using it for change, though that doesn't stop me from using it. Just as you may find you are more efficacious in making important points in your life by using satire, I prefer and appreciate a straight-forward manner.

Feb. 09 2012 09:09 AM
Sandra Dann from Brooklyn, NY

I enjoy humorous approaches to problems, and I plan on
buying Mr. Thurston's book to learn more about race
relations. I thought the interview was delightful.

Feb. 09 2012 08:04 AM

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