In many ways, reading “How to Be Black” by Baratunde R. Thurston ’99 is similar to listening to my alarm clock go off in the morning.
Unsparing in its lessons about race and persistent in its sardonic undertones, Thurston’s prose flashes across the page, prompting a level of alertness akin to my iPhone’s razor-edged sirens. Every sentence is a necessary rapping of knuckles at the door, offering a much-needed wake-up call in a world of denial.
Like an alarm clock, “How to Be Black” coaxes readers out of their nighttime delusions, pledging to teach them to open their eyes and dispel fictions of a post-racial, colorblind world. It calls for readers to come to terms with the contemporary status of race in an America rife with tokenism, internalized shame, and haphazard Band-Aids of diversity slapped on cavernous wounds of exclusion. It’s incisive, slicing away at ossified stereotypes perpetuated by even the most well-meaning among us. And like an alarm clock, it promises to awaken stubborn readers who insist on sliding under the covers and falling back asleep.
But in his book, Thurston also achieves what no alarm clock can ever profess to have induced: laughter.
Through a hysterical matter-of-factness that treads quietly beneath the narrator’s second-person voice, Thurston places “you” at the center of his book. But he does not berate “you” for your ignorance, nor does he blame “you” for societal injustices.
Rather, Thurston—through aptly-timed quips, witticisms, and outright jokes—makes you laugh, ultimately conveying critical lessons about race that would only slip through the cracks of formal didacticism. Whether it’s providing you with a tongue-in-cheek list of ten things to do during Black History Month, teaching you appropriate ways to “acquire a new black friend,” or offering you tips on how to “avoid being explicitly racist,” Thurston professes to instruct you and your fellow unsuspecting readers on self-improvement, yet does anything but preach. Instead, he lets hilarious yet profound anecdotes do most of the talking.
And perhaps that’s the key to what makes “How to Be Black” so effective: It’s unafraid to tug at the very seams of humor eschewed by many of its counterparts. By carefully treading the fine line between the gravity of a sensitive subject and the levity of its portrayal, Thurston’s book is part of a canon of comedic nonfiction that encourages its readers to laugh, with the ultimate goal of enhancing their self-awareness. In pursuit of opening the eyes, minds, and hearts of even the most obstinate readers and encouraging them to embrace a thorny subject that has pervaded national discourse for decades, “How to Be Black” does the unthinkable: It tickles.
In a world that often feels like the emotional amalgam of stubbed toes, slapped wrists, and slammed doors, it’s easy to feel snubbed. Today, countless conversations about sensitive subjects end prematurely, chased into silence not by a mutual inability to agree, but rather, by a mutual inability to understand.
But understanding one another does not require ideological consensus—it requires access to conversation. And laughter—for all its simplicity—has the power to build the foundational notion of trust that gives rise to the most vibrant dialogue. While impassioned moralizing is often a hit-or-miss approach to sparking reflection among a diverse group of readers, the careful use of humor to underscore social problems has a universal, enduring impact, giving rise to the contagious effect of laughter and allowing an audience to let its guard down. In doing so, it paves the way for compassion, sprouting the very seeds of empathy that anger repeatedly fails to do.
Some write off humor as a meaningless distraction, claiming that it undermines the solemnity of contentious issues, turning them into opportunities for cavalier jokes and ill-timed chuckles. And indeed, some types of humor are guilty of doing just this. But when wielded appropriately, humor maintains the gravity of a sensitive subject, while providing much-needed breathing room for honest reflection. Humor is the aloof reader’s loyal page-turner.
By harnessing the boundless potential of laughter in order to engage others in constructive dialogue, we can learn to forge foundations that have been largely absent from contemporary discourse. We can learn to extend a hand to a challenger, invite them inside the walls of our own lived experiences. We can learn to soften the divisive barriers of mistrust often present in difficult conversations.
When we line our most raw opinions with a careful glaze of humor, we allow its impact to reach beyond traditional expanses, ultimately resounding within the hearts of even the most resistant among us. In doing so, we allow them to take on a more fresh, accessible form—one that nurtures genuine interest and empathy from others.
And above all, we allow ourselves to indulge in a core human reaction, one that’s been largely lost in the silence of misunderstanding: a well-deserved belly-laugh, all in the name of dialogue.
Meena Venkataramanan ’21, a Crimson News editor, lives in Adams House. Her column usually appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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