How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

2012. Harper Collins. Hardcover. 254 pages.

From: I bought this book.

Recommendation from: Buried in Print

In a nutshell:

From the back flap: “Baratunde Thurston is the director of digital at The Onion, the cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics, a stand-up comedian, and a globe-trotting speaker.” How To Be Black is an engaging blend of satire and memoir, with some points to make. From the introduction:

The ideas of blackness that make it into mainstream thought exclude too much of the full range of who black people are. Whether it’s musical taste, dancing proficiency, occupation, or intellectual interest, all nuance is ignored for a simpler, often more sellable blackness. In this book, I will attempt to re-complicate blackness, exposing the challenges, the fun, and the future of being black in the United States. It’s also a convenient way to make you care about my life story.

p. 11-12

Chapter titles include: “When Did You First Realize You Were Black?”, “How to Speak for All Black People”, “Going Black to Africa”, “How to Be The Black Employee”, and “How’s That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?”


I read How to Be Black about a month ago. I first heard of it via Buried in Print’s review of the book, and then I went to HarperCollins’ browse inside feature and read the introduction. I read it aloud to my roommate and we both thoroughly enjoyed Thurston’s snarkiness and pointedness. I decided I wanted to read the rest and soon, so I ordered it. I finished it not long after it arrived, because it’s a pretty fast and interesting read.

The introduction captured my attention for its humor and that humorous style continues throughout the book. One of my favorite humorous moments was actually a footnote on page 46 about Hermain Cain:

At the time of this book’s writing, Herman Cain was a Republican presidential candidate. He is a black man best known for having been the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. I feel quite confident that by the time you read this book, his campaign will only exist in the past tense. If I’m wrong, then it means the country has fallen into ruin more quickly than I could ever have imagined, and there are probably roving bands of feral, armed children dominating the streets, which begs the question, what are you doing reading this book? You should probably be foraging for scrap metal and hoarding ammunition.

p. 47

I also liked the memoir bits of the book – about Thurston’s mom and all the experiences she wanted her children to have; about Thurston’s experiences at Sidwell Friends and Harvard.

For How To Be Black, Thurston also put together The Black Panel, a group of seven people who weigh in with thoughts throughout the book. Most of this panel consists of other comedians. One of the panelists is a comedian named Elon James White. Late in the book, Thurston wrote: “Elon and I are constantly mistaken for each other within certain left-wing blogger circles, and we love to joke about it because we are, in fact, so very different. We generally acknowledge that he’s the angry progressive black comedian, and I’m the happy one.”

I picked out this quote because, weeks after finishing the book, the lasting impression I have of the book is of Thurston’s ebullience, especially as he’s discussing ideas (his own and those of the panelists) about the future of blackness. He writes in a conversational style, so his excitement about different ideas and positive things that are happening comes through transparently:

Are you keeping up? We’ve got experimental blackness abounding at this point, but how do we make it stick? How do we replace the overwhelming media images of limited blackness with a more expansive concept?

It’s already happening. You’ve got the Afro-Punk movement and Black Geeks and the black people who love nature, and more . . .

p. 222

I haven’t got around to checking out Thurston’s other work such as the Jack & Jill Politics blog, but I hope to.

Anyway, if I have managed to spark your interest at all in what feels to me a somewhat haphazard review, I would add that this is a book that would be best read soon. Thurston’s references can sometimes be very of-the-moment (see quote about Herman Cain above), so get them while they are fresh.

Excerpts from other’s reviews:

Buried in Print – “If you truly believe that humour can be one powerful agent of change? And if you want to know about one man’s experience of being black? How To Be Black is definitely worth a look.”

relentless reflection – “The two parts that I have appreciated reading most thus far are the “name-calling” section and the accounts from Thurston and some of his friends about the first time they realized they were black.” [The author of this blog, Teela, goes on to give her own story of when she first realized that people thought she was “less than” because she was black.]

What Red Read – “And the book is hilarious. Not only that but it can get the conversation started. It may not be a happy conversation, but without it there is no progress.”


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10 responses to “How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

  1. That quote about Herman Cain cracked me up.

  2. aartichapati

    Thank GOODNESS Herman Cain’s campaign is in the past tense! Whew. This book sounds really fascinating- I loved the quotes you shared, and it seems like the book strikes a very good balance between not taking itself too seriously, but taking the underlying issue VERY seriously.

  3. This sounds like a really good read! And a good recommendation to read it now while it’s very timely, instead of waiting. (Oh God what a relief the Herman Cain chapter of our lives is closed, knock wood.)

  4. Vishy

    Great review, Christy! That passage on Herman Cain made me laugh 🙂

  5. I love this book and so glad you did too.

  6. buriedinprint

    I’m soooo glad that you enjoyed this! And I love the idea of you sitting there reading passages aloud to your roommate; I bet it was hard to stop reading to them, because it’s the kind of book that just makes you want to share it with everyone around you. Funny and intelligent: unbeatable combo! (Thanks for the link to my post, too!)

  7. Glad lots of you enjoyed the Herman Cain quote!

    buriedinprint – My roommate gets to experience a number of my current reads through my semi-frequent desire to read aloud passages to her. 🙂

  8. Super review, I really enjoyed it! Elaine Charles also did a review on this book on The Book Report ( a couple of weeks ago, maybe I will give “How to Be Black” a try

    • I hope you do try out How to Be Black. And thanks for the link to the Book Report. I hadn’t heard an audio clip of the book before and it was funny hearing it when I had read those words aloud to my roommate when I first heard about the book in February.

  9. Pingback: Book Review: How to be Black by Baratunde Thurston | Joy's Book Blog

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