February 1, 2012
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."
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."