Baratunde Thurston: The Next Black President
Comedian. Writer. Twitter sensation. Baratunde Thurston may be the most media-savvy provocateur around today. His latest bestselling book is How To Be Black, half tongue-in-cheek guidebook on such topics as "How to be the Black Friend" or "How to be the Next Black President," and half memoir about his life experiences with identity and race.
Thurston joins Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to explain how a little Twitter hashtag — #howblackareyou — sparked the conversation that would result in his writing of How To Be Black, and the potent connection he's discovered between freedom, politics and comedy. Plus, one lucky winner receives both the "albino" edition of Thurston's book and The Black Card, a most exclusive and coveted prize presented by Thurston himself.
About Baratunde Thurston
Baratunde Thurston is a politically-active, technology-loving comedian from the future. He co-founded the black political blog, Jack and Jill Politics and serves as Director of Digital for The Onion. He has written for Vanity Fair, hosted Popular Science's Future Of on Discovery Science and appears on cable news regularly to say smart things in funny ways. Then-candidate Barack Obama called him "someone I need to know."
Baratunde travels the world speaking and advising and performs standup regularly in NYC. He resides in Brooklyn, lives on Twitter and has over 30 years experience being black. His first book, How To Be Black, is a New York Times best-seller.
Watch a video below featuring Baratunde Thurston on "Being The Black Friend."
This segment originally aired on July 27, 2012.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour for people who love filling in the blank. I'm your host, Ophira Eisenberg and joining me is this week's mystery guest, Baratunde Thurston everybody.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: Thanks for having me.
EISENBERG: I love that you gave the audience the royal wave.
THURSTON: Yeah. It's like a pageant up here.
EISENBERG: Yeah, it is like a pageant.
EISENBERG: And we have the kind of names that NPR listeners go crazy for.
EISENBERG: Ophira and Baratunde.
THURSTON: Ophiratunde. Here we go.
EISENBERG: Ophiratunde. (unintelligible).
THURSTON: It's on.
EISENBERG: It's on.
THURSTON: Whole new show.
EISENBERG: I know that people always with the weird name.
EISENBERG: I get the, oh so what do your friends call you? Do you get that?
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah, well what I get is, what do people call you for short?
EISENBERG: And what do you say?
EISENBERG: I know. People are like, what do your friends call you? I'm like, well you're not one of them, so...
THURSTON: Yeah. So why would I tell you?
EISENBERG: ...don't worry about it.
THURSTON: You have to earn that knowledge. You have to unlock that.
EISENBERG: Now I love that you wrote that you reside in Brooklyn but you live on Twitter.
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah. It's real comfortable there. Infinite real estate.
THURSTON: Doesn't cost anything.
EISENBERG: But you are super active on Twitter.
THURSTON: Yes I am.
EISENBERG: You have a podcast. You have a blog.
EISENBERG: You have a bestselling New York Times book.
THURSTON: I do.
EISENBERG: Yeah, "How to be Black."
THURSTON: It's exciting.
EISENBERG: President Obama said that you are someone he should know.
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER: Whoa ho!
THURSTON: Roughly, yeah.
THURSTON: No, not that we should know each other roughly. He roughly said...
THURSTON: I'm not fighting the President, like I would lose. 'Cause he has a lot of - I don't even know why I'm defending why I wouldn't win but...
THURSTON: The only reason he beat me is 'cause of the Secret Service, but you know.
EISENBERG: Exactly, otherwise...
THURSTON: His longer reach.
EISENBERG: But you - I mean this is a, a lot of stuff. What - Is this the master plan like just completely taking over? Like social media domination?
THURSTON: Well that's limited.
EISENBERG: Oh really? Not enough?
THURSTON: Take over everything.
EISENBERG: Take over everything.
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah. No I look - I have a fun time. I love existing at like comedy tech, politics intersection. I've been doing stand-up for a while. I've been at The Onion for a number of years. And it's just a very, very fun way to experiment by like how we tell stories and then how we connect to people. And comedy's a really cool way to mess with people's heads.
EISENBERG: Right. Because you can tell whatever story you want, as long as you tell it funny. Right?
THURSTON: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.
EISENBERG: Right. So it's absolute acceptance.
THURSTON: It's like a Trojan horse.
EISENBERG: Now "How to be Black" is obviously a pretty compelling title for a book.
THURSTON: Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: That stands out. It, it's got - It has a nice bold cover too, so it just brings your eye right to it.
EISENBERG: Was that title your idea or did...
THURSTON: Not exactly, no. No here's how it went down. Couple of years ago I was - I was shopping for wine and I don't know how to buy wine. There's a certain way you're supposed to do it. You're supposed to like snort it, right.
THURSTON: And then feelings happen inside of you.
THURSTON: Right and you feel like sadness and darkness and nutmeg and like all these weird things.
THURSTON: It's very complicated.
EISENBERG: Oh when I feel nutmeg, I know I want to dance.
THURSTON: Well then - And people have, oh it's nutty on the nose. What does that mean? Shut up.
THURSTON: So, I don't have patience for this. Well does it taste good? Does it not taste good? And there was a clerk at the shop who could have answered questions, but I wasn't interested in learning.
THURSTON: So, I looked for a sign.
EISENBERG: I love your honesty.
THURSTON: That, that's the thing. Right just be who you are. And so, I look for a sign in terms of the labels. Like how do I know whether this wine is for me or not? And I saw a brand of wine called Negro (unintelligible) and I was like yes.
THURSTON: This is wine for Negros.
THURSTON: I am a negro, therefore - It was like very obvious. And so a couple of days later, I was [unintelligible] my friend Elon James White, who is a fellow Brooklyn Comedian on Twitter and I said Elon, I bought wine because it had the word negro in it. How black are you?
THURSTON: And that was a hash tag and then he responded, I see the subtle racial implications of "Thundercats."
THURSTON: Pathro is black, shirtless and Lion-O's driver. How black are you? And it was on. Like a race war had begun.
THURSTON: And so the attempt to out-black each other with this humorous thing, you know, was a part of a larger talk I gave. And someone from Harper Collins is in the audience. They come in. You should write a book called "How Black Are You?" I was like, No I should not.
EISENBERG: I don't want to write that book.
THURSTON: That's just a - I do not trust America with "How Black Are You?"
THURSTON: Just like grape soda and watermelons flying across my screen. Like...
THURSTON: ...this country can't handle the American-ness of its president, I don't trust it with like "How Black Are You?" And then, someone in the room said, what about "How to be Black" and I said yes, that's ridiculous.
THURSTON: I accept your challenge.
EISENBERG: Right, it sounds like there's some comedy in it right?
THURSTON: Yeah, there's, there's - I mean, one it's a positive statement. Like "How Black Are You?" is very undermining. You're challenging someone's authenticity. "How To Be Black" is like an offering and it's more open. And it's unachievable.
THURSTON: So I accept, right.
EISENBERG: And the book is part satirical, self-help guide book on, you know, how to be the black friend. How to be the next black president.
EISENBERG: And then half personal memoir, which I love that. You're talking all about your life and how your own experience with race and identity. So when you picture the average American reading this book, what do you want...
THURSTON: Average American doesn't read.
EISENBERG: All right.
THURSTON: Just cut you off right there.
EISENBERG: All right. So when you...
THURSTON: But Brooklyn reads.
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah.
THURSTON: Oh yeah.
THURSTON: Here's the deal. So race can be a very awkward subject. A lot of people feel exhausted by it. They're like, oh we gave you your black president, what else do you want from me?
EISENBERG: We gave you the office.
THURSTON: You got Oprah. You know what I'm saying? Well you've got a billionaire and the President, we're done right. Like you're good. You're good.
THURSTON: So - But there is a sort of fatigue of like how you talk about it and then there's like a lot of defensiveness around, a lot of anger, a lot of emotion and so the humor is mean to open the door and then to be able to talk about some more serious things. The, the memoirs, that's very personal, very true. But it is also humorous. And then the guide was to kind of chop that up and offer lessons learned along the way.
There are also interviews in the book. I assembled a panel of black experts.
THURSTON: Right people who had been black their entire lives.
THURSTON: So they have a - What?
EISENBERG: One of them.
THURSTON: Well no, actually you're right. Well there is sort of an affirmative action thing going on. I got one white person...
THURSTON: ...to be on my black panel.
THURSTON: And he's Canadian, so there's really no reason for him to be in this book whatsoever.
EISENBERG: Yeah. He's basically translucent.
THURSTON: Yeah. But he's the whitest guy I could find. He's Christian Lander from "Stuff White People Like."
EISENBERG: Yeah. Great, great, hilarious.
THURSTON: And one of the things white people like is black people.
THURSTON: But he's really smart about what he's doing with his humor and he actually provided a lot of good insight. And for me, it was a scientific control group issue.
THURSTON: This is science Ophira.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Of course.
THURSTON: I'm basically a scientist.
EISENBERG: That's one of your other skills, science.
THURSTON: Yeah. I have a lot of jobs.
EISENBERG: So now I have to ask you, do you consider yourself a fierce competitor? Do you compete with people when you play any games?
THURSTON: I murder them.
EISENBERG: Are you ready to take on an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
THURSTON: Yes I am.
EISENBERG: All right.
EISENBERG: Baratunde Thurston everybody.
He's about to enter into the puzzle hot seat. All right. Let's welcome back Jonathan Coulton to the stage.
EISENBERG: And Art Chung.
OK Baratunde. So what we've decided is that it's very hard to find a competitor worthy of your smarts and brilliance. So what we've done is we've found one lucky member in our studio audience by the name of Eric Billinger...
EISENBERG: If he could stand up, wherever Eric is.
And you are going to be playing for the studio audience member. All right? Art, do you want to tell Baratunde what we have in store for him?
ART CHUNG: Sure. Baratunde, this game is inspired by the chapter in your book entitled, "How to be the Black Friend." We realized that there's no better example of a black friend than in the movies. In Hollywood, apparently, there's no shortage of black characters, whose only job it is, is to help white people achieve their goals.
CHUNG: So this quiz is about those unsung heroes. If you answer enough right, Eric will win a special prize.
CHUNG: You ready?
CHUNG: OK. Here we go.
EISENBERG: And if you want to ring in the bell you can. But you're ringing in just for you.
CHUNG: Baratunde. When you think of Dave Chappelle, you don't immediately think, romantic comedy. Yet there he was giving Tom Hanks advice about how to woo Meg Ryan in what 1998 Nora Ephron movie?
THURSTON: Oh I get to - It's me. "You've Got Mail."
CHUNG: "You've Got Mail" is correct.
CHUNG: In 2011, Viola Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for playing another film trope, southern maid in the movie "The Help." But in what 2010 movie did she play the Boston best friend of Julia Roberts, who was travelling the world looking for romance and spiritual sustenance?
THURSTON: "Eat, Pray, Love."
CHUNG: "Eat, Pray, Love." Yes.
EISENBERG: Did you enjoy that movie Baratunde? Did you like that movie?
THURSTON: I made a point of not seeing that movie.
EISENBERG: Yeah I like the eat part.
CHUNG: In "The Green Mile," Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey, a death row inmate who befriends a prison guard played by, yeah you guessed it, Tom Hanks.
CHUNG: Coffey is a gentle giant but he has magical powers. He brings a mouse back to life and with just a touch, he cures Tom Hanks' character of what medical problem? He touches Tom Hanks in a very special place.
THURSTON: Prostate Cancer?
CHUNG: Good answer. Close.
EISENBERG: That is a very good answer. That is a very...
THURSTON: That would be so much better than whatever happened in that movie.
EISENBERG: I know.
CHUNG: I don't know. The answer was Urinary Tract Infection.
CHUNG: So, there you go.
EISENBERG: Which is never an answer.
EISENBERG: It is this time.
CHUNG: So not including characters voiced by black actors, there's a grand total of two black roles in the "Star Wars" movies. One of them is Mace Windu played by Samuel J. Jackson. What's the other? The one time friend of Hans Solo?
THURSTON: Lando Calrissian.
THURSTON: Got my blackness back. Way blacker than Sam Jackson, way.
EISENBERG: All right Eric, you're in luck, 'cause Baratunde did just well enough for you to win a prize.
EISENBERG: You will receive a signed copy of Baratunde's book, "How To Be Black."
EISENBERG: So we will arrange that to happen.
EISENBERG: Baratunde, that was fantastic.
THURSTON: Thank you.
EISENBERG: You were excellent at our game.
THURSTON: You were excellent, thank you.
EISENBERG: And as our interview.
EISENBERG: Ophiratunde. Oh and a bag?
THURSTON: Is that a tote bag for real?
EISENBERG: It's in there?
This is for you.
THURSTON: I didn't know you guys still made tote bags.
EISENBERG: It's a tote - It's an NPR MUSIC tote bag.
THURSTON: That's awesome.
EISENBERG: And it has in it...
THURSTON: A black cube.
EISENBERG: It is an ASK ME ANOTHER limited edition - we only have a few of them left and by that I mean 200.
EISENBERG: Rubik's cube. Our very own Rubik's cube.
THURSTON: Thank you very much. Yay.
EISENBERG: Thank you.
THURSTON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.