On my most recent trip to Barnes and Noble, my boyfriend and I were on the quest to finally obtain a copy of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, a book that we have been meaning to read together for a while now. We found two copies but the covers were badly damaged so we were escorted to the Humor section to find some more. While waiting for the associate to check the back stock, I began to scan through the shelves and found How To Be Black. As I glossed through the first two pages, I found myself laughing (out loud) for real, not the “I will type lol with a stone cold face” way. This was enough to warrant its purchase.
I can imagine how it appeared. Me, a white girl, walking alongside my black boyfriend, carrying a book entitled How To Be Black. Will I be undergoing some initiation to further our relationship? Is it mere anthropological research? Or am I dating him as a mere cover for my desire to be of another race? And that is exactly the beauty of the book, and we are only discussing its title. The uneasiness that it evokes clearly demonstrates that we do not exist in this postracial fallacy that we desperately want to exist. Race continues to drive institutions and society itself. Racism exists.
The book reminded me of a modern take on the concept of double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois’ explores in “The Souls of Black Folk” as Thurston, along with The Black Panel, weigh in on different issues: self-realization of blackness, being the black employee, etc. Thurston admits that he cannot be an accurate representation of an entire race – which you would think is something that would not require an admission but something on the lines of common sense. Yet the need for this admission becomes perfectly clear as the text demonstrates that such a responsibility is often expected as outlined in (one of my) favorite chapter(s): “The Black Employee.” This results in one of the best moments in the book. One that I could easily see becoming a skit on Key & Peele, or can we resurrect Chapelle’s Show for this one?
Although there is clear evidence of humor, I found it to be lacking at times as it read more of a memoir. A memoir itself is perfectly fine, but when it is marketed as humor, I do expect to have more LOL (for real) moments . I have to mention that the marketing for this book is flawless – it is self-selling. On the cover you have How To Be Black written in white bold letters. I can only imagine how many people bought this:
Keith, who prides himself in wearing ironic t-shirts reasonably purchased at Old Navy, walks into Barnes and Noble and glosses over the Humor section. His eye catches the spine How To Be Black. He has no intention of reading the book, but how can he, Keith, miss the opportunity to carry around a book entitled How to Be Black?
One day, Keith’s date night with Karen at Olive Garden is cancelled. With nothing to do, Keith rummages through his bag only to find his forgotten purchase of How To Be Black. I should give this a go, he thinks to himself. The irony of the purchase is soon replaced with guilt and a newfound awareness. Perhaps it was wrong of me to ask Phil if he had any good recommendations for chicken spots nearby to fulfill my Yelp quota. . .
See? Self-serving and self-awareness granting!
Now this also goes with the back blurb titled, “If You Don’t Buy This Book, You’re Racist.” Ned shifts his eyes. It feels as if all the black people in the vicinity are watching him. He cannot put the book back. After all, he is not racist. He has listened to Notorious B.I.G.
This marketing also works on black people.
“How To Be Black? Yes, please tell me how my entire race should behave.” *Purchased with an exuberant amount of sarcasm*
“Yes, I have been told that I am not black enough. . .”
The most compelling chapters in the book are the very last two and the afterward. In the afterward, Thurston provides a commentary explaining his reasoning for using the vehicle of satire to deliver his message. He and Lander illustrate the slippery slope of comedy when dealing with race – when exactly do the jokes become racist? To answer that question, you will first need to know How To Be Black.
“Let’s say one of your black friends is having a problem with her boss. To you, it’s obvious that this is an example of The White Man holding a sister back. Your friend may try to explain to you that her boss isn’t white and that the problem stems from her poor performance on a previous assignment, but you’re not having any excuses like that. In America, a black woman just can’t catch a break, and you remind her of this at a very high volume by saying, “In America! A black woman just can’t catch a break!” – on “How to be the Angry Negro”