Being Yourself: Freerange’s Mira Ptacin Talks With Baratunde Thurston

by Mira Ptacin
December 3, 2012

© Mindy Tucker

Barack Obama called him “someone I need to know.” He’s the co-founder of the black political blog Jack and Jill Politics. He’s also the former Director of Digital for The Onion and creator of the comedy/technology start-up Cultivated Wit. His name is Baratunde Thurston, and he likes to think of himself as a politically-active, technology-loving comedian from the future. In February of 2012, Baratunde released his first book How To Be Black (Harper), which quickly became a New York Times bestseller, and this past October, HTBB was released in paperback. Recently, Freerange’s Mira Ptacin chatted with Baratunde about his cowboy-boot wearing, Stephen King-reading, night-club-singing single mother, how the heck he accomplishes so damn much, and why he loves to hate Twilight.
Mira Ptacin: In 2011, you went clubbing with the president of Georgia…the country…twice. How did you find yourself fist pumping with Mikheil Saakashvili? Also: What are his dance moves?
Baratunde Thurston: President Saakashvili doesn’t have amazing dance moves. I figured I’d just get that out of the way.
I ended up in Georgia because I met a man in Paris. His name is Felix Marquardt, and he runs an international PR firm that works with NGOs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as a number of nations, including Georgia. Last year he organized trips of young entrepreneurs and creative New Yorkers to get to know Georgia and offer our perspective to various government officials. These were the most surreal trips of my life. I rode in a presidential motorcade! Most importantly, I wrote a little bit of “How To Be Black” on the coast of the Black Sea, which is a pretty black thing to do.
MP: Among a hundred thousand other accomplishments, you’re a standup comedian, the digital director of The Onion, you co-founded Jack and Jill Politics, hosted a show on Discovery Science, and just wrote your fourth book (How To Be Black.) Was any of this part of your plan?
BT: It was all a part of my plan. I’m a psychic, and I’m very good at psychic-ing.
I generally don’t make specific plans for the future, but I’ve known for a while that I wanted to work in comedy, politics, and technology, and that I loved writing and performing as ways of reaching people. I’ve been fortunate enough to find outlets for all those passions that make some sense and sometimes result in compensation.
MP: How did you conduct the research for How To Be Black? How did you get idea for the title? What were some optional titles?
BT: Research? IT’S CALLED LIFE!! I WAS BORN! Since so much of the book is autobiographical, I really did try to dig into my own life, reviewing journals and photo albums and memories. I chose a select group of people for the interviews based on their work, and I watched far too many Tyler Perry movies.
As for the name, the original proposal from Harper was for a book titled How Black Are You? based on part of a talk I gave at a web conference. I rejected that because I just imagined people tweeting at me with pictures of watermelons attached. It was a Harper executive, Bob Miller, who suggested “how to be black,” and I immediately loved it. It was so impossible and absurd; I knew I wanted to take it on.
MP: How can I be black? (In other words, what is your book about? and what is it really about?)
BT: You can be black if you’re black. Booyah! The book uses my life and experience of being black to explore identity and the tension created by our knowledge of who we really are and the image of who we seem to be as imposed by outsiders. That gap in reality is what I explore and play around with. Also, watermelon jokes!
Ultimately, the book is about how to be yourself and be comfortable with that.
MP: My sister, a former high school teacher, was once asked the following questions by her students, who happened to be black:
1. Is it true that white people smell like bologna when they get wet?
2. Why the hell do white folks jog outdoors during the wintertime?

Can you tell me about some of the stereotypes, as well as the most absurd myths that you’ve encountered during your 30+ years of experience being black? (By the way, I smell like bologna not just when I’m soggy, but ALL the time.)
BT: I’m going to borrow some from my “research” on this answer. When I interviewed Cheryl Contee about her experiences with swimming, she shared a story about white children teasing her brother. They asked if his skin color would wash off in the pool. For the same question, comedian Jacquetta Szathmari recalled kids on the Eastern Shore of Maryland saying the grease in her hair would ruin the Chesapeake Bay. By the way, both ideas are true. Black children’s skin color washes off in pools, and the Chesapeake Bay was, in fact, ruined by a black girl’s greasy hair. Sad, true story.
MP: What makes you the most uncomfortable?
BT: San Francisco weather. Make up your mind, weather gods!
MP: Your mother gave you the name Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. Was there a runner up?
BT: My original last name was Robinson (after my father), and my birth certificate had a typo with the hospital using a ‘g’ instead of ‘q’ in Rafiq. So basically, I can never be president.
MP: Can you tell me a little bit about your mother?
BT: My mother was an amazing woman who underwent a tremendous evolution over the course of her life. She ran with a gang as a kid, rejected the typical teachings of her childhood church (no white Jesus for her!), was active in the Black Power Movement, sang in nightclubs, loved country music and tofu. She also raised two children on her own during some of the worst times in D.C. Oh, and she wore cowboy boots and loved Stephen King.
MP: What’s your favorite:

BT: In Bombay, there is a restaurant called Trishna. They serve crab. It is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Get on a plane, and go. Right now. Don’t read any further. Go!
MP: Movie
BT: The Rock. I still can’t believe it’s a tourist attraction.
MP: Book (other than How To Be Black)
BT: The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
MP: Animal
BT: Llama. I’ve never met one, but I like the word a lot. Llama. Llama.
MP: In 2011 (is this correct?), you were dubbed Foursquare Mayor of the Year for holding a real-world rally to defend your virtual mayorship. Can you tell me a little about this? What was your winning strategy that won you the crown?
BT: I received the award in 2011 for the mayoral year 2010. I had been mayor of Delicatessen, a Nolita neighborhood restaurant in New York City. All was going well when a friend of mine, Jennifer Magnolfi, challenged me to a mayor battle. We each ate there nearly every day, and at the end of our designated campaign period, she actually had ousted me. Ironically, she did so while I was campaigning for the ultimately-successful New York State Senate campaign of Gustavo Rivera. However, my perseverance paid off, and I eventually reclaimed my position as mayor. I’ve held it for well over a year and will continue to do so, llama willing.
MP: You live hate-tweet the Twilight movies to hundreds of thousands of followers. What is your favorite thing about Twilight–why do you love to hate it?
BT: Twilight is horrible. I actually read the first two books. My then-wife and I listened to the audiobooks on a road trip. Not too long after, we were divorced. I’m not going to claim outright that Twilight ruined my marriage, but it’s possible. Look, the writing is objectively terrible, but the actual content and messaging are far worse. Twilight is basically the story of a sad girl with low self-esteem who obsesses over an abusive, stalker boy who also doesn’t love himself. It’s depressing.
My favorite thing about Twilight is that it’s given me an opportunity to help the public. Every person who avoids seeing this garbage because of my tweeting is a person who is better off. I do what I can for America, and I suppose I have Twilight to thank for this.
MP: How do you manage to kick so much ass?
BT: Reinforced boots.
MP: Do black people actually like Kanye?
BT: Hmm, well Kanye certainly LOVES Kanye, and Kanye is black. Therefore I guess you could say black people like Kanye.


Mira Ptacin is a creative nonfiction and children’s book author, New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, and the founder and executive director of Freerange Nonfiction. She currently teaches writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Twitter: MiraPtacin.