Baratunde Thurston On “How To Be Black”
Onion editor & comedian takes his memoir to the bar
February is as good a month as any for author and comedian Baratunde Thurston to release his new memoir, How To Be Black. Not only because it’s Black History Month, but also because he’s been hosting the multi-city Black Grouse Distinctive Bartender Tour, which meant there would be plenty of free Scotch to celebrate. As the digital editor at The Onion and co-creator of black political blog Jack & Jill Politics, Thurston has made a name for himself as a gifted satirist, shrewd social critic, social media whiz and rising Scotch fanboy. We sat down with him to talk race, whisky and the digital revolution.
Your book is called, How To Be Black. Race can be a touchy subject for folks — who did you write this for?
I wrote it for smart people. And for people who have had an experience like mine, especially if you are black and lived in multiple worlds. But also for people who have black people in their lives. Or if you’ve ever heard of a group of people called “black people.” It’s a pretty big group of folks.
What are your tips for "eating black?"
In the book, there’s a chapter called, “How to Be the Black Employee,” where I talk about the challenge of the company holiday party and what to do if there’s watermelon in the buffet. I have some scientifically sound suggestions that depend on how the fruit is presented. For example, if the melon is segregated, you should have a four-to-one ratio of non-watermelon to watermelon. If it’s in a mixed fruit salad, well, good luck to you.
And you talk about how your mom had you eating local and organic from a young age...
There certainly was a lot of health food growing up because my mom was a big hippie. The level of food choices that are available in many black communities – especially urban black communities – is terrible. There’s fast food, pre-packaged, heavily processed foods that contribute to unhealthy lifestyles. My mom was the exact opposite. She was consciously trying to counter that environment. We shopped at the local co-ops, the farmers’ market – and this was before farmers’ markets were cool or hipsters existed. It certainly made us stand out in the neighborhood to be eating rice cakes and tofu.
Did you rebel, at any point, by eating processed, fatty crap?
I remember being with my friends and McDonald’s was where they were going and I just had to go. I never told my mom. I think it would have brought shame to the household.
Tell us about the Distinctive Bartender Tour.
I was approached by the Black Grouse, which is part of the Famous Grouse family of delicious blended Scotch whiskies, to do this tour to unveil it here in America. The idea was to find distinctive bartenders in four major cities [to design cocktails with] this distinctive whiskey. I got a sense of how much more performative bartending is becoming. They’re like DJs; they have followings. It was interesting for me, as someone who sits generally on the other side of the bar. Unless something’s gone horribly wrong.
Are you much of a spirits connoisseur?
I’ve been a whiskey fan for the past few years. I never really drank growing up – because I was a child – or in college. It wasn’t until I started working at The Onion that I got into whiskey. We have this tradition called Whiskey Friday, where we drink whiskey in the office on Friday afternoons. I started tweeting and Facebooking about it and encouraging the world to join in, and learning about whiskeys through that. Whiskey can bring people together and help solve a lot of the world’s problems.
You've been the director of digital content at The Onion since 2007. Do people often come up to you with suggestions for content? (Our idea: restaurant reviews?)
People do that all the time. I never listen.
You’ve been called a “social media king.” Is there something about digital media that has revolutionized the ability to spread a message or effect real change?
First of all, please don’t ever refer to me as a social media king. Social media has been around forever, whether we had Twitter or bulletin boards or chain letters or town hall meetings. We have an evolutionary-required demand for social connection. The physical tools we have now are revolutionary [mostly] in terms of the hyper speed and the level of mass adoption and connectivity compared to what we had 50 years ago. The ability not only to receive but to contribute messages – at a low cost – is revolutionary.
Jerry Seinfeld once used the black-and-white cookie as a metaphor for racial harmony. If you had to come up with a post-racial-themed cocktail, what would be in it?
I guess, nothing. Because "post-racial" doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a word and an excuse to not talk about race. It’s an empty vessel, so the best cocktail for that would be an empty vessel. But something that captures where I hope race is going? The drink would have to be brown because America is pretty brown. Ice is good because we all need to cool out on some of these topics. And there has to be an opportunity for people to bring their own ingredients. Because we’re all our own bartenders. We all should get to determine what goes into the drink that has our name on it.
Video: Check out Thurston's trailer for "How To Be Black"