How to Be Black (Book Review)


Review number two for the TwitterBooks Project is of Baratunde Thurston’s satirical memoir, How to Be Black.

Twitter Handle: @baratunde
Actual Name: Baratunde Thurston
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: About two years
Book Title: How to Be Black
Book Format: Hardcover book from library
What I liked: Genuine humor, usefulness, originality and I could relate.
What I didn’t like: A few chapters near the end missed the mark for me.

I’m one of those black people with loads of progressive white friends, most of whom probably read this book before I did, because I’m just that hip. When the book first came out two years ago, there was a long wait through the Seattle Public Library, but I only had to wait a week or two to get it this year (SPL has eight copies).

Reading on the Go: My library copy of How to Be Black

Reading on the Go: My library copy of How to Be Black

Baratunde Thurston is a Harvard grad, tech-head, writer, comedian, and co-founder of things. To illustrate the tech-head part: he has 150,000 followers on Twitter, but 1.5 million Google+ users have him in their circles. I first heard about him through Google+ but I keep up with his writing on Twitter.

From its opening pages, this book had me laughing – including its assumption that I was reading it during Black History Month. As a matter of fact, it was Black History Month, but I swear it was a total coincidence! Or was it? I laughed a lot about this – mostly at myself. Thurston starts off with satire, and launches into how his book will help you – if you’re white – meet your annual “I learned about black people” quota. (If you’re black, the book will help you help white people meet their quota.)

After poking fun at white guilt, cultural divides, and Black History Month cram-fests, Thurston switches into memoir mode. Now, Thurston’s lived a pretty impressive life, and we don’t have much in common as adults, but reading about his childhood was enjoyable, familiar, and affirming in a lot of ways. We’re about the same age. In fact, Baratunde was born on the same day I was – one year later.  His mother sounds like a more intense and industrious version of my New Yorker mom, who had our family eating tofu when most Americans were still calling it, “Toe-what?” And like his mom, my parents moved us kids from the inner city to a black suburb in part to get away from drug-related violence and poverty.  I could even relate to Thurston’s experience of having  an “ethnic” name.

How to Be Black is funny and an easy read, but it’s also informative. I hope many of my non-black friends who haven’t read this book do pick it up. While not all black people have the similar childhoods (gasp!), life experiences, or opinions, there’s real value in having an informed and “happy” black man talk  honestly about race for 200-some pages without interruption. Also, the books conveys some black cultural stuff that I sometimes forget many of my friends don’t know!

One of the smartest things about How to Be Black is that Thurston chooses to shares the stage. The book isn’t all about what he thinks. He refers frequently to his Black Panel, an assembly of 7 people (one of them a white guy from Canada), who chime in to give their perspectives, with a range of experiences and personalities.  While Thurston is a fairly extraordinary person, he doesn’t seem to suffer from There Can Only Be One (Black Person Talking) Syndrome.

There were a few chapters I didn’t find to be funny or that I was unclear about the intent of: How to be the Angry Negro and How to be The Next Black President. But the last few chapters are really excellent, so maybe it’s just a case of burying the weakest material somewhere in the middle of the book.

Lastly, I have to say his dedication is great:

“To my mother, Arnita Lorraine Thurston, who embodied authenticity and taught me how to be black, American, human, and awesome. I miss you, Mommy Lady.” 

He truly does owe so much to his mother. By his account, she was a brilliant woman. She was very intentional with her child rearing and put him in positions where he’d be prepared to be successful out in “the world.” But his early years were rooted in blackness and nourished by her love and attention, and maybe because of that he didn’t lose himself when he had to go and navigate an upper crust, very white world. How to Be Black is part memoir, part how-to, and pretty much all funny.


One thought on “How to Be Black (Book Review)

  1. I want to check this out, thanks to your review. We’ve been working on equity issues at my work (as best we can with the majority white staff we have) and this sound like it would be good to pull things from for discussion.

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