Reading Baratunde Thurston’s satirical memoir on public transportation turns into a social experiment.
Image from Flickr via Ed Coyle Photography
By Lauren A. White
I’ve never known how to celebrate Black History Month. For the past few years on January 31st, I always plan to post a little-known black history fact on my Facebook wall each day. “That’s me doing my part,” I tell myself. “That’ll advance the cause.” But then it’s February 2nd, I haven’t posted a thing and as far as I’m concerned the whole month is shot. All I end up doing is “liking” other black folk’s historical statuses and re-tweeting quotes by Maya Angelou.
This year, I did something different. I still made my plan to broadcast the barely recognized accomplishments of black Americans via Facebook and then, in a couple of days, fell off the wagon. But this time around, I also began reading How To Be Black by author and comedian Baratunde Thurston.
A New York Times bestseller, How To Be Black is a memoir of Thurston’s life growing up black in Washington, DC in the 80s, attending Sidwell Friends, and studying at Harvard. With chapter titles like, “How’s That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?,” “How to Speak for All Black People,” and “How Black Are You?,” the book is also a satirical guide to blackness and racial interactions: How To Be Black is not How To Be Black For Dummies. And it’s not solely for the eyes of black people. As the back cover puts it:
“You don’t need some Jew telling you how to be black.” With a sort of a hiss, he added, “and don’t you forget it.” I sat paralyzed, waiting for him to make some final grand move. Lord knows what was in that fanny pack.
I read How To Be mainly while riding the subway or bus in New York. Though Black History Month was on my mind, I had no intention of using the book to make a statement. In fact, the first time I pulled it out of my bag, I was nervous. What were people going to think when they saw the title? What would they think of me? Would they mistake How To Be Black for a novel? Would they think it was a guidebook handed out to only the most militant of black people? But people read Fifty Shades of Grey out in the open, and seemingly without shame, so why should I think twice about reading a book about race? Throughout his work, Thurston gives tips on how to be “the black friend,” “the black employee,” “the angry negro,” and “the next black president.” What he doesn’t do is give tips on how to be the black person reading How To Be Black on public transportation.
In the first few days of “publicly” reading the book, I only received quizzical stares and saw people putting glasses on or slouching in their seats to better read the cover. It just so happened that it wasn’t until Black History Month that those silent stares turned into vocal encounters and my light commuter reading turned into a bit of a social experiment.
On February 2nd, I read the book while riding the 2 train from Harlem to the Brooklyn Museum. Seated and stifling laughter at Thurston’s anecdotes in the chapter “When Did You First Realize You Were Black?,” I didn’t notice when a tall white man in his 30s or 40s with shoulder length brown hair, mountain climbing boots, and a fanny pack approached. Standing right over me, he began whispering something. I caught only the last part of what he said:
“It’s too late for a book like that to have been written.”
Confused, I closed the book and looked up at him. Wearing dark, thick sunglasses, he stared back at me (I think), but didn’t say anything. No smile. No raised eyebrows. Nothing.
Given his tone and body language—his arms rested on the metal railing above our heads and his legs spread apart—I got the feeling that the words I’d missed went something like: “My beautiful black sister.”
Lauren, do not engage. I returned to the book.
Then, while my head was down, he quietly continued,
“We would have never had Louis Farrakhan if a book like that had been written.”
He slowly stepped back.
Unsure of what to do, I kept my head down. A few minutes later, as the train pulled into the 42nd Street station, he returned and began whispering again, this time clearly angry.
“That book is Jewish propaganda and you don’t need some Jew telling you how to be black.” With a sort of a hiss, he added, “and don’t you forget it.”
As the train doors opened, I sat paralyzed, waiting for him to make some final grand move. Lord knows what was in that fanny pack.
It wasn’t until the car doors closed and the train began moving that I felt sure that he was gone. As I finally looked up, I saw that several of my fellow passengers were staring at me. Did they understand what had just happened?
On February 7th, while riding the 6 train downtown to check out the New Museum, I was right in the middle of a chapter called “Do You Know What An Oreo Is?” (if you don’t, it’s a label used by some to describe a black person who “acts white”: though dark chocolate on the outside, this black person is deemed to have a sugary white filling) when a scruff-faced black man, probably in his 50s, with a windbreaker tied around his waist saw the book and apologetically asked me about it.
Soon, her brief looks turned into a full out read-along session. Our arms pressed together, neither of us spoke as we read the last few pages of the chapter titled, “Have You Ever Wanted to Not Be Black?”
“I’m sorry, that cover just really caught my attention.”
Noting the book’s large, bold white letters on jet-black cover, I jokingly told him that was probably the point, and I gave him a quick synopsis of Thurston’s upbringing, the satirical nature of the book, and more. Seemingly satisfied, he asked for the name of the author.
“Mmm, sounds like an Uncle Tom to me.” Surprised, I told him that “Baratunde” is a derivative of an African name. He was unimpressed.
“Well, he just sounds like an Uncle Tom to me.”
“Ok then,” I replied and went back to reading.
When he hurriedly got off at 86th Street, I wondered if he actually left the station or just switched cars.
On February 10th, while reading the book and taking the 6 train uptown, an older white woman, possibly in her 60s, with a blonde bob, wearing high heels and an ankle-length peacoat sat next to me. She told her husband, a tall man in another very long peacoat, to sit across from us.
Within the first couple of minutes, I could see the husband squinting down at the cover of How To Be and I could sense the wife’s eyes wander to the book on my lap. Soon, her brief looks turned into a full out read-along session. Our arms pressed together, neither of us spoke as we read the last few pages of the chapter titled, “Have You Ever Wanted to Not Be Black?” Oddly enough, even though I moved the book closer to her so that she could read it, every time I turned the page, the woman would quickly turn her head away and become interested in the light fixtures.
You don’t have to pretend. I see you.
I wanted to explain to the woman that this was not a novel. I wanted to ensure that she read the whole section that ended with the phrase, “Kill Whitey. Kill white people.” I wanted to ask her what she thought, how she felt. I couldn’t bring myself to utter a word.
“We used to call you all the devil,” he whispered to the older white man. The brown-skinned white man laughed and responded, “Hey, we used to call you all a whole lot worse.”
We quietly moved on to a chapter devoted to the many stereotypes about black people, aptly named “Can You Swim?” As the train rolled into the 86th Street station, the woman began to gather her things. As she stood up, I decided to steal a glance in her direction. Joining her husband, she turned towards me. Our eyes met and she quietly said,
Stunned, all I could do was nod.
As the train moved on, I spent the rest of the ride thinking about what she must be saying to her husband.
On February 15th, I was riding the M15 bus up 1st Avenue when I noticed a khakis-wearing, older man in his 60s or 70s with white hair and mocha colored skin sitting across from me. Very talkative and friendly, he was chatting up a nanny and her charge. They didn’t look very interested in maintaining the conversation. He soon caught sight of the book, leaned over, poked the cover and jokingly asked,
“Now, what’s this all about?”
“Well,” I began.
But before I could stumble through my go-to answer about memoirs and satires and whatnot, he interrupted me and said,
“I can tell you how to be black.”
“Do tell,” I responded.
“Being black is about being yourself. That’s all,” he said confidently, his chin a little bit higher than before.
Well thank you, Mister Rogers.
I, perhaps a bit condescendingly, smiled and asked,
“Are you black?”
Dropping his head slightly, his voice trailed off as he responded,
“No. No I’m not.”
My eyes widened a bit. Was that a tan?
He then proceeded to tell me about how he knew “Martin and all of them,” how he hadn’t seen his first “black” until high school, how he did the Peace Corps in an African country, and how his father, “an educated man” and a scientist, had always told him that black people smelled differently than white people.
“The dogs only bark at black people,” his father had told him.
He laughed as he recalled serving in the Peace Corps and the confusion and disbelief he felt when the dogs in his host country used to bark at him.
Soon, a black couple—probably in their 40s—sitting behind us, joined in the conversation.
The man of the duo told us how growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed Stuy the only white people he ever saw were in movies. As he told it, in those movies the white people were always evil and were always trying to hurt black people. (Probably these had been of the Blaxploitation genre.)
“We used to call you all the devil,” he whispered to the older white man.
The brown-skinned white man laughed and responded,
“Hey, we used to call you all a whole lot worse.”
The black man told us that when he was older and working as a truck driver, one night something was wrong with his truck and he needed to pull over. Using his radio to call for help over the dispatch, he watched as several black truck drivers drove past him telling him over the radio that they just couldn’t stop. He was shocked when two white truck drivers stopped and offered assistance. That’s when he realized that even “your own kind” can do you wrong. He told the older white man and I, “I love all people. I don’t care if you’re purple.”
The mocha-skinned white man nodded and said, “Stereotypes are the worst thing. That’s what’s really holding us back.”
Lauren A. White is a freelance journalist and documentarian based in New York City. She’d like to apologize to the New York Public Library for returning How To Be Black horribly overdue.