Fifteen Minutes sat down with Baratunde R. Thurston ’99, author of How To Be Black, and a former news and photography editor of The Crimson. He is the digital director of The Onion and co-founder of “Jack and Jill Politics”. The following interview took place in the Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge, one stop of many on his national book tour.
1. Fifteen Minutes: What house were you in? What was your concentration?
Baratunde R. Thurston: I lived in Lowell House, though I never lived in Lowell proper; I lived in Claverly Hall the entire time. It just was like an apartment, it was a little cooler, it had the janky elevator. I love Clav. I was a philosophy concentrator.
2. FM: What activities did you participate in as an undergraduate at Harvard?
BT: In terms of major activities I did, [The] Crimson was very high on the list, [also] Harvard Computer Society. I was a big nerd, and a geek. I was a very active member of [the] Black Students Association, and the Black Men’s Forum...and the Signet—that was later in my career.
3. FM: Your recent book is part satire, part autobiography, part self-help. How much of each would you describe this book as?
BT: Anything you thought was hilarious was actually very true and painful, anything you thought was true and painful I just made it up for dramatic effect. No—it’s anchored in an autobiographical memoir and even those pieces are funny, but they’re true, that’s all very true. And then the how-to satire was meant to basically accentuate the story, and bring out a little more color, no pun intended. And just to mess with people. I really like messing with people. And I wanted to go over the top. It’s an absurd concept, that there’s a way to be black. There is none, and so I embraced that absurdity, and used the satire to get away with it.
4. FM: Why did you write the book?
BT: Because publishing is very lucrative! You can just become a billionaire by putting words on dead trees and hoping people buy them…. And I think because we’re in a good time, like we’re in this sort of post-civil rights moment. We have a bi-racial slash black president in America, and we have this moment of identity where things are more interesting and flexible and people can kind of be more of who they are and be the multiple aspects of who they are, and present that, and have the world accept that in a way that wasn’t quite the case in the past.
5. FM: You wrote that you rejected the tentative title, “Thoughts On Post-Racial America.” What would a post-racial America look like?
BT: To borrow some of the thoughts from the people I interviewed, it would be an America full of unicorns and leprechauns, and other non-existent creatures. I don’t think a post-racial America is worth pursuing, because it kind of doesn’t have meaning. I think the way people think about it is very idealized, but not helpful, which is, ‘Oh, we just ignore race,’ but ignoring its existence doesn’t help us deal with some of the outcomes that are still heavily correlated to or dependent on it. So I think a better America, rather than seeking for a post-racial America—we should be seeking that more perfect union and I think we can do that.
6. FM: Are white people and black people supposed to have different experiences reading the book?
BT: Yeah, so when white people read the book, it’s supposed to burn their fingertips a little bit. And their soul actually flees into the body of a black person. It’s kind of a race-swap program.
7. FM: How does one get a job writing for The Onion?
BT: One does not get a job at The Onion. One murders a current Onion employee and assumes their identity. So I am actually technically Mike DiCenzo, who left The Onion a few years ago to write for Jimmy Fallon, and I’ve been filling in for him ever since. So skin’s a little tight, but it works out well.