I worked in a bookstore for 4 years in my early twenties while I was going to school. This is where I developed my love of reading. Before that job I actually used to boast that, despite my literacy, I made it through high school without reading a book. But when you are surrounded by books and get to pick what you want to read and find the books that speak to you, your mind is opened to a new fantastic world.
I read mainly fiction mixed with some fantasy and Sci-fi and greatly enjoyed the characters, environments, and themes presented in my selections. I rarely acknowledged who the author was until I had savoured every word in a book. Then I would look for more works by that author.
This approach to reading, based on content rather than writer, used to help me in my job a great deal. People would often come in looking for a topic or flow (especially students) rather than knowing who they wanted to read. But every once in a while I would get someone looking for something specific, they were looking for anything by a black author. After this came up a few times I did get to know some names such as Austin Clarke, Toni Morrison, Carl Weber, but for the most part this was a question that was hard for me to answer. A few times I was actually chastised by these customers, who were usually black women, for not having the answer to this question even though I was black.
Because of that, and a few other experiences, every so often I get what I am going to call “black guilt” when I have to absorb black things. Listen to rap and hip hop, check out what is happening on BET, and read something by a black author. I have had very bad luck with reading books by black authors. So far, their writing style or the book’s content does little for me and I tend to give up very early into the reading.
This time, as I felt the twinge of said guilt, I decided to go about the book choice in a different manner. Instead of fiction I picked up a pseudo-autobiography slash satirical comment on black culture written by Baratunde Thurston, a Harvard educated comedian, called…wait for it…How to be Black.
To me, when I first picked it up just the concept of a black person walking around with a book called How to be Black was hilarious but then I read the book jacket and thought this may be an interesting and fun read. Unfortunately I was kinda wrong about that. I have one chapter left with an afterward and I don’t think I will bother. It seems like a waste to give up at this late point but the reason I am officially giving up is the book’s own fault.
I am surprised I made it that far now that I think about it, the smug condescending introduction to the book almost made me put it down. The thing is I do have a sense of humor and I realized that this was an attempt at sarcasm and satire that wasn’t really working so I thought I would give it another chance and continued to read. And at first I was glad I did.
Many of the chapters in the book are about Mr. Thurston’s personal experiences and how they shaped who he is today. Talking about people who questioned him about his name, his mother, the concept of an Oreo (in racial terms), writing a school paper, a trip back to Africa, and so on. These chapters were heavy but he managed to inject some levity with his hindsight. He was able to draw on the experiences and clearly articulate his emotion at the time and how he feels about it now. These were touching recollections that kept me engrossed in the unraveling story of who he was/is.
But then there were the other chapters that would begin somewhat humorously but then as they went on much too long as he forcefully spoon fed the concept became somewhat offensive. These were all the “How to…” chapters where his comedic ability should have shone but it merely showcased his lack of ability. Chapters such as “How to be the Black Friend”, “How to be the Black Employee”, “How to be the next Black President”, are initially interesting; his introduction of the concept and base explaination are well written and understood as he brings to light some societal truths. They aren’t funny “ha ha” but amuse. But then he continues pulling out every possible racial stereotype in an attempt to get a laugh but really it just made me skip the latter half of those chapters. They left a bad taste in my mouth and I am not sure who is supposed to laugh at it.
The second to last chapter in the book is called “How’s that post-racial thing working out for ya?” That whole chapter could have been the first 4 paragraphs and that would have been fine but no it continued with quotes from his “Black Panel” that are unnecessary and just parrot what each other says. I skipped the last two pages of the chapter but stopped on the last paragraph:
So if the furture of the United States in which race is no longer the primary issue that binds or divides us, then (a) why have you read this far in a book called How to be Black and (b) what’s the future of blackness in America?
The context of the paragraph isn’t what matters what hit me were the questions. Why had I read this far into the book? I am not getting anything from it; his “insights” are lame, uninteresting, and sadly racist; it is overall badly written. What is the future of blackness in America? I don’t think that is a question that should be asked by a person who has written a book like this.
But none the less I turned the page to the next chapter “The Future of Blackness” which begins:
This book has been my chance to explore a theme that is essentially personal, necessarily political, and often hilarious: how to be black.
And then I closed the book and came to write this. This book is far from hilarious. Interesting at points, gives some insight, and humor can be found within its pages but hilarious if definitely not a word that should be used to describe it. I understand the personal aspects of this book, those were the parts that were clearly written and I think that is what Mr Thurston should have stuck with. He tried his darnedest to make the political aspects satirical and funny but failed making it more offensive than anything else. And as I said above the humor was greatly lacking.
I am not an easily offended person no matter the topic including race. It all depends on the context and tone and still most of the time I can shrug it off or make it something that doesn’t worsen a situation. But this book really pushed me to the edge. I myself tend to use a lot of race humor because I think it is funny when people are too serious about race issues. No the act of being racist isn’t funny but acknowledging someone’s race isn’t racist. And people forget that. At a party not to long ago I made some joke and a girl asked why my jokes have to be racial. Before I could answer she went on to say that race isn’t important to her and that she doesn’t see colour. To which I responded that colour blindness is a medical condition and she should get her eyes checked. See as many colours as you want just don’t let it affect your judgement of that person.
I am black but what is presented in How to be Black is definitely not how I want to be. Maybe it is the fact that Baratunde Thurston grew up in the US where as I grew up in Canada and we had different life experiences. But I had hoped that there would be a thread of certain similarities that would connect me to the book’s content. Sadly I was wrong.