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Memoir is guide for blackness

As a kickoff to Black History Month, I can happily recommend the book "How to Be Black," by Baratunde Thurston, even to non-black people who have never aspired to blackness.

The book jacket describes it as a satirical blend of memoir and handbook, which it is. It's also a serious reminder that talking about race doesn't have to be a minefield if we approach it with a sense of humor and humanity.

Thurston, an African-American comedian, writer and former director of digital at The Onion, humorously simplifies awkward aspects of being a black person in America in helpful chapters such as "How to Speak for All Black People" and "How to Be the Black Friend." Thurston's tone is tongue-in-cheek authoritative as he discusses the importance of having a black friend if you're a white person, and vice versa.

"The Black Friend is a key intelligence asset, like a CIA operative, both transmitting and receiving valuable information that continually helps prevent a race war by increasing understanding, lowering tensions and offering diplomatic back channels," he writes.

The book includes short interviews with a Black Panel of artists and comedians who address race in their work, including comedian W. Kamau Bell, stand-up comic Jacquetta Szathmari, who performs a one-woman show called "That's Funny, You Didn't Sound Black on the Phone," and even white, Canadian writer Christian Lander, creator of the blog "Stuff White People Like."

The panel members illuminate Thurston's comments with their own humor and perspectives as he asks them what they think of the term "post-racial America," if they ever wished they were white, and when they first realized they were black.

Their stories of that first realization echo my own experience. I first learned I was black when I was about 5 years old and a little blond girl explained to me that my skin was dark because God made white folks from milk and honey, and blacks from the coal fires of hell. In retrospect, that's funny. Sort of.

Thurston mines this rich vein of stuff-that's-funny-when-it's-not-happening-to-you with frank and thought-provoking humor. The book is at its best when Thurston writes of his own background, blending his sharp wit with painful stories of his childhood in one of the worst crime-ridden neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. He recalls the murder of his father in a drug deal when Thurston was 6 as annoyingly "stereotypical," and being raised by a "pan-African tofu-eating hippie" mother who gave him the Nigerian name Baratunde to connect him with his African roots.

The author also talks of his dual elementary education at the renowned Sidwell Friends Academy (attended by Chelsea Clinton and the Obama children), where he learned French and played hockey, while also attending a weekend black-power program where children learned about black history, African culture and how to use firearms. In his later years, he visited Africa, "The Source Code of Blackness," and graduated from Harvard University.

Thurston's story is a lot about the dual worlds that many minorities straddle in America. "My version of being black adheres as much to the stereotypes as it dramatically breaks from them," he writes, "and that's probably true for most of you reading this: if not about blackness itself, then about something related to your identity."

"How To Be Black" was a fun and quick read and sparked some lively conversations with friends, both black and white. Regardless of one's ethnicity, the real lesson in "How to be Black" is that we all have a unique story, and that to "be" anything, we simply have to ignore expectations and love our complicated and beautiful selves.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.