Book review: ‘How to Be Black’: more than just a guidebook

by Nerissa Kresge

Baratunde Thurston wears many hats. He is a stand-up comedian, digital director of The Onion, co-founder of Jack & Jill Politics: A Black Bourgeoisie Perspective on U.S. Politics, and an author. In the introduction of his recently released book, “How to be Black,” Thurston freely acknowledgeswhy many will be purchasing his new “guide.”

“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,” Thurston writes.

While Thurston’s book is filed away under the humor section, what follows is a blunt, introspective and insightful look at what it means to be black in America, as well as what it means to simply be yourself.

Thurston’s writing is a constant balance between humorous jabs and poignant stories. In the introduction he supplies 10 activities one can do to celebrate the month and provides a ranking system based on the number of activities one takes part in. Participate in 0-1 activities and earn a ranking of “Honorary KKK Member,” do all 10 and become an “Official Friend of Black America.”

His chapters are humorously titled, attacking many misconceptions and racial stereotypes such as “Can You Swim?” “How to be the Black Friend,” “But I Don’t Want to Kill People,” and “How to be the (Next) Black President.”

Partially autobiographical, Thurston discusses the various aspects of his life that shaped him into the black man he is today, including growing up in drug-ridden Washington D.C., and being raised by a single woman who “was a pro-black, Pan African, tofu-eating hippie.”

While there is a definite humorous undertone running throughout the book, most of Thurston’s discussions are rich with thought and issues of race.

In order to better develop the concept of “blackness” in America, Thurston created “The Black Panel.”

The book’s panel consists of six black men and women (three from each gender) and one white male (Christian Lander, author of “Stuff White People Like”) whom Thurston believes “do blackness well.”

Thurston turns to his panel to give a different in- sight into “blackness” as he believes he is incapable of speaking for millions of people and asks them questions like “when was the first time you realized you were black?” Their answers, like Thurston, are equally smart, humorous and at times, heartbreaking, keeping the book consistent and thought-provoking.

Contact Nerissa Kresge at

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