The Geography of Blackness (Book Review: How To Be Black)

“How To Be Black” by Baratunde Thurston. Harper Paperback. 2012. Kindle Edition. $3

I first ran across Baratunde on Twitter (@baratunde). I use Twitter for personal & professional development. When I declared Facebook bankruptcy years ago, I decided I could not abandon social media altogether. I decided to use Twitter to learn, and to follow only people who I felt I could learn from. Baratunde is one personality among many I follow to learn something. I’m pretty ignorant of black people even though I have black friends. Living in rural Kentucky makes things even more isolating simply due to the lack of diversity. Living and working near a university does improve exposure a little bit but not like the days of living in Kansas City, Missouri. Two decades ago I had black friends I partied and hung-out with, went clubbing with. Today, life and times are different.

I look for people of all types of backgrounds to follow on Twitter, scientists, authors, civil rights activists, journalists, comic book artists and writers, programmers, whoever I think I can learn from.

When I heard Baratunde on NPR (transcript) his comments pushed me off the fence and I bought his book. Amazon ran a good deal, $3 for the Kindle edition.

With my blog, I try to stick with a singular theme – what is the geographic theme of the topic or subject? With “How To Be Black” a number of questions crossed my mind.

  1. How do I write a review of a book which deals with a subject with which I have zero experience?
  2. Can I white dude write about being black? That question is easy: no.
  3. Can I bring something to the conversation on race, at least within the context of Baratunde’s thoughts expressed in his book? Answer: Maybe. Probably. Anybody can have an opinion, right?
  4. Do I feel awkward writing about “How To Be Black?” Absolutely. But, feeling awkward hasn’t stopped me from doing stuff.

Baratunde evokes many thoughts about race wrapped in his humorous story-telling. His “scientific” panel of experts on ‘blackness’ which includes one white Canadian, self-described as more of a “hard-boiled egg” than Caucasian, provide substantive, poignant vignettes of their experiences within black culture. His Panel of Experts are sound like groovy people who I could see myself being friends with, going to Blues clubs, book readings, comedy clubs, talking politics or current events with over beer and pizza, or sushi, or Pad Thai, and generall just hanging-out. Each Panel of Experts member is a stand-out in their own right, bring published authors, comedians, musicians, having achieved some personal goals and recognition for their efforts to move society and US culture forward.

Baratunde’s wryness and sarcasm might be lost on those who are unable work against the current of their own personal struggle or animosity or grievances. Barantunde never comes across as “angry” or “belligerent” or “just another black man trying to bring the white man down.” He is a man of observation, of diligence, and of eloquence who has a depth of experience which surpasses the majority of white people. Thus, his comments are worth exploring.

I never realized being black was so complicated. Blacks have to constantly struggle not only to maintain their “roots” but also interact in several different realms, and act in many different capacities.

  • Blacks have to be experts in all black culture.
  • Blacks have to be experts in all black politics.
  • Blacks must know every other black person.
  • Blacks must know what President Obama is thinking at all times.
  • Blacks must represent their race within Business and Industry.
  • All blacks must understand and identify with Blues, R&B, and Rap.
  • All blacks are related to Robert Johnson and Rosa Parks.
  • All blacks must regularly attend Black Culture Training, which includes dance classes.
  • All blacks must be ready to assume the role of The Black Friend and be ready to respond to well-meaning but ignorant and possibly insensitive questions.
  • All blacks must be fluent in drug culture, terminology, and use.
  • All blacks must have either killed someone, been shot, know a shooter, or know a victim.
  • All blacks must belong to a gang, or if older than 40, must have belonged to one.
  • All educated blacks must work to prevent exposing their education to other blacks. Otherwise, they may be “outed” as a white person.
  • Being black is far more complicated than I ever would have dreamed. While some of the above list is tongue-in-cheek, my guess is some of these stereotypes have been held/are currently held by whites, asians, and hispanics.

    It’s not easy being black.

    The milieu of Blackness does raise many interesting geographic questions. Does “blackness” vary by geography? I mean, do blacks treat other blacks differently based on geographic bias? If blacks in Madison, Wisconsin, run across a black person from Birmingham, Alabama or Detroit, Michigan, is automatic black ‘cache’ awarded? Does cache vary by skin tone? That is, you can’t be very black because you are too light-skinned? Do white people own the roots of racism? Are white people solely responsible for curing racism? Do educated blacks suffer bias from less educated blacks? Why the “N” word? Why do white people use the “N” word referencing other whites?

    2 thoughts on “The Geography of Blackness (Book Review: How To Be Black)

    1. Pingback: One Geographer’s Perspective of Slavery, Racism, and the NBA | Constant Geography

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