Friday, January 18, 2013

Nonfiction: How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston's How To Be Black was nominated for Best Humor in the Goodreads Choice Awards, and that is how I came across it. Being someone from the African-American community, I had to at least read the synopsis and see what people thought of it, and what I saw and read was enough to convince me that I need to give this book a chance. I'll go ahead and say that the title is meant to be funny, and while the book does address quite a few serious issues, Thurston approaches all of them with a refreshing sense of humor.

The Situation: Thurston is a Harvard Graduate who brew up in Washington, D.C. during the violent and tough "crack years" of the 1980s. Through his mother's insistence that he not only get a good education, but a diverse one, Thurston was exposed to many disciplines and ideas that are not stereotypically considered to be part of the black Americans experience. Thurston can swim, he learned to appreciate travel from an early age, he's into organic food, enjoys British comedies, is politically informed...the list can go on and on. Out of his 30+ years of experience being black, he decided to write this handy guide book for people of all colors. The book is not only geared towards black people, but also anyone who has befriended, worked with, or even heard of black people (see what he did there?). And every chapter - from "How to Be The Black Friend" to "How to Be The Angry Negro" - ultimately leads to the final chapter, "The Future of Blackness," in which Thurston presents his theory of where American is headed, and where he would like for it to go, when it comes to the issue of race.

The Problem: As anyone in this country with any sort of racial awareness at all would be able to see, even writing such a book that is even ironically titled "How To Be Black" is going to touch a lot of nerves and make many people extremely uncomfortable, if not downright angry. Even to approach the issue of race in American with a sense of humor can invite a myriad of criticisms and complaints, and mostly because people, black or otherwise, are just not in the mood to deal with this. But as Thurston ultimately points out, we have to deal with this in order to make any sort of progress. To sit around thinking we are enjoying some sort of "post-racial" American just because we managed to get Obama in as president, twice, does not mean we can start believing all of our past racial issues have been taken care of and that there is no need to bring it up anymore. But that isn't the only problem: young black people often have to deal with doubting their own blackness, and mostly due to the pressures from their black peers. Are they black enough? Are they too black? Thurston addresses all of these issues with chapters like "How Black Are You?" and "How's That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?" It is a complex issue, and while Thurston attempts to give it the attention it deserves, he approaches it with a sense of humor, which he believes can take a lot of the pressure off of those who get uncomfortable when it comes up.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is non-fiction that is part memoir, part user manual/handbook, and somewhat political. Placed in between his practical (whether humorous or serious) advice are stories from Thurston's own life, such as what it was like as an African-American at Harvard, and his life growing up in the 1980s in Washington D.C. This book was published in February of 2012, so Obama has been re-elected since then, but the book does bring up current events issues of the time such as Herman Cain's candidacy for president and the growing Tea Party movement. Probably the one theme that was bigger in this book than the general one of the state of the black community in America, was the issue of black people feeling like they aren't black enough and constantly having to prove their blackness to others. Everyone, black or not, seems to have their own idea of what being black really means and what makes a fully realized black person in this country. Ultimately, no one has to prove anything to anyone ever, and everyone else needs to just chill out. 

My Verdict: Thurston strikes a great balance between taking on serious issues with a sense of humor, and still somehow presenting those issues with the severity they deserve. I mean, if you have to discuss a serious and difficult issue that most people would rather just avoid, why not have some fun while you're doing it and make it as easy as possible on everyone. The bits about his childhood and adult life are never boring, and the how-to parts are often laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, every black person, and non-black person, will get something out of this book. The one issue I take up with this book is the noticeable lack of any mention of the black church in America. I'm not looking for a whole chapter on it or anything, but it is a big part of our history and I feel something is definitely lacking since it isn't there. But otherwise, this is a fantastic read.

Favorite Moment: There were many great moments, but my absolute favorite is when Thurston provides step-by-step instructions to the black employee on how to navigate a buffet table at an office party that happens to include watermelon. Basically, there is a stereotype out there that black people love watermelon, and I'll go ahead and let you in on the not-so-secret secret that this stereotype is 99.9% true for every black person ever. So Thurston provides advice of how to get said watermelon on your plate without validating to your non-black co-workers the mostly true stereotype that black people love watermelon. Hilarious.

Favorite Quote: "Upon graduation, I was conscious of the fact that I could be me and thus be black but not have to be black in order to be me."

Recommended Reading: I would like to recommend pretty much any book by either Junot Diaz or Edwidge Danticat. While Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American, and Danticat is Haitian-American, both have written both fiction and nonfiction (or semi-nonfiction in Diaz's case) that deal with their experience as part of the new immigration to the U.S. I recommend them because they give different perspectives of what it is like to be a minority in this country and not be African-American.

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