‘Why should other races care about the black experience?” The question is delivered a little more eloquently than this and came from an Asian-American woman at the back of the room during a book talk in Washington, DC in the United States.
It’s directed at Baratunde Thurston, who had just spent the past hour doing a stand-up comedy routine on his book How to Be Black, a satirical look at race in the US. The crowd of mostly older whites swivels around, no doubt wanting a peek at the face that dares to puncture the jovial atmosphere.
“Well, because it was an involuntary importation,” Thurston says pointedly. “This country was built on our backs and it was saying ‘We are all created equal, except these black negroes’ … and because it caused immeasurable destruction to black families.” After a pause, Thurston quipps: “Also, because we created jazz.”
The crowd titters and relaxes. Coming from South Africa, I expected a public dressing-down instead of a lesson in history. I imagined what would have happened had the person asked a similar question at an ANC Youth League gathering.
Let us be honest. Black South Africans are angry. And here is another disappointing truth: the last thing their white counterparts want to do is talk about it. It leaves blacks more frustrated, causing whites to retreat even further or, worse, be dismissive.
It is like having the Helen Zille-Simphiwe Dana feud on loop – exhausting and doing little to advance the race discussion.
The US is not on a political pedestal. In fact, five months in I was becoming a little dejected. I had somewhat high expectations. It had a head start on us in advancing civil liberties. It also succeeded in electing a black president – even though the black population is a 13% minority – who it seems to be letting live to see his term through; John F Kennedy, the country’s only Roman Catholic president, was assassinated just more than 1000 days into his first term.
Yet, not unlike South Africa, there seems to be a Twitter racist outed almost every day and now the Trayvon Martin case – the fatal shooting at point-blank range of a 17-year-old, unarmed African-American male in February – has sparked nationwide protests. The political tension here is as thick as it is at home.
So a funny feeling settled in me when I listened to Thurston that day. And reading his book crystallised another notion I had been toying with for some time. There is a new racial movement that seems to be filtering through the US, reinvigorating the discourse in ways that Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson could never hope to do – in fact, in a way that might be seen by some as nearly irrelevant. It is driven mostly by young black (sometimes white) intellectuals who are new- media savvy. The subject is racial identity subverted and its defining characteristic is humour.
Thurston – who went to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, the school of first children Malia and Sasha Obama and Chelsea Clinton before them, followed by Harvard where he majored in philosophy – was until recently the digital editor of satirical news website The Onion. He is also cofounder of jackandjillpolitics.com, which has a black middle-class perspective.
His book is one of absurdities. In an early chapter titled “When did you realise you were black?” one of the respondents says: “My mom would not have let me not know I was black. There would have been no way that she would have let that information slip.”
Every nonblack American, especially whites, will gain from having a black friend, writes Thurston further on in “How to be the black friend”. Because whites can “become cooler by association” and “this same Black Friend can also explain the line between curiosity and an accidental hate crime, say, by telling her white friends that it is not okay to just go up to a black person and touch her hair”.
Doing blackness well
The book, published by HarperCollins earlier this year, is adding to the string of blogs, websites, YouTube videos and art installations that are driving this cultural movement.
Cheryl Contee, who features in How to Be Black as part of Thurston’s seven-member Black Panel – a group of his friends and colleagues “who are doing blackness well” and whom he interviews throughout the book – optimistically calls this a second Harlem renaissance, describing it as “much bigger than it was in the 1920s [because] it’s powered by social media … a thick stew of people in heavy conversation not only with each other … but with the larger group.”
Thurston cautiously agrees with this when I interview him a few weeks after the book talk.
“I think there is something new happening with race and with how we talk about it and how we try to engage with it in the United States. It’s not universal, but it is happening and I think it is mostly positive.”
The Black Panel is a crop of satirists in their own right. Visual artist Damali Ayo started Rent-A-Negro.com in 2003 after “living in a very white community with a lot of white people who were treating me very much like a professional black person. And I was burned to a crisp.” So she launched the site as a comical send-up that offers a service to white people who want to connect with an “African American without the commitment of learning about racism”.
Jacquetta Szathmari’s That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone is a one-woman stand-up show on YouTube that challenges the idea of a hegemonic blackness, taking on anyone who has ever said “black people don’t do that” or “that’s so white”. It is all political parody, poking holes in established notions of black identity and in turn opening up a discourse between the races, even among black people themselves.
The aim of Thurston’s book is, of course, a serious review of race today, an exploration of the shifting dynamics of race, as one reviewer puts it. And Thurston makes that clear in the introduction when he writes: “The idea of a book that claims to cover ‘how to be black’ is, of course, preposterous, but I’m doing it anyway, and I’m not alone.”
Time magazine concurs. In its March 12 issue it listed “black irony” as number six in an article titled “10 ideas that are changing your life”.
“There is so much black irony in the cultural air that certain bold white auteurs are playing with it,” the magazine notes. “On 30 Rock, Tina Fey gives us a black Harvard-educated character, Toofer, and occasionally puts whites in blackface and blacks in whiteface. It’s a circus of irreverence.”
It also cites Quentin Tarantino, whose new film, Django Unchained, is about a slave who hunts down the plantation owner who holds his wife captive. It is a great deviation from movies such as The Help or The Secret Life of Bees and their clichéd portrayal of ill-treated blacks as sometimes angry, but ultimately redemptive, figures.
Stuff White People Like
Christian Lander is the token white on Thurston’s Black Panel and his website – and subsequent book – Stuff White People Like swept through the US a few years ago. In his exhaustive list are dogs; sushi; knowing what is best for poor people; the Technology, Education and Design Conference, because white people like anything that “allows them to feel smart but doesn’t require a large amount of work, time, or effort” and hating their parents, who they resent because their “high school experience wasn’t a carbon copy of the OC or My So-Called Life.” (Both are teen drama TV series in the US.)
“People who aren’t white come to me all the time (after completing the test in the back of the Stuff White People Like book) and they’ll go ‘Oh my God, I’m white. I can’t believe this!'”, says Lander.
‘At what point did race start becoming funny to you?” a black audience member asks Thurston during the book talk.
He tells the group that the absurdity of race became clear to him during high school, when he would take the bus for hours to get to the school where many white pupils owned cars they could not even drive yet. There were moments of racial tension at school and radicalism on his part.
“I found the humour out of them for me. It released all the seriousness and by the time I got to college I was free to find my own voice [he started a satirical newsletter] and indulge in my own sense of self-determination.”
But why is humour the only way? It is not, he said, it is one of many possible effective ways to talk about race. You can appeal to people’s sense of morality or spirituality as the civil rights movement did, or their greed to show them how diversity in the workplace can be of benefit to all. But humour has special powers, because it is disarming.
“Something that you might not listen to openly from a politician or a preacher you may listen to from a comedian. When they make you laugh they make you more open and emotional. You are more vulnerable, you are already agreeing.”
Besides, humour seems to be the tone of modern communication and it is a tool that has allowed other races to enter and contribute to the race discourse with less fear.
In one of the last chapters of the book, “How to be the (next) black president”, Thurston advises: “Keep a copy of your birth certificate on your body at all times … open to inspection by any white American citizen at any time … To be safe, also run a high-definition video loop of your live birth in a special section of your company website.”
It is funny, but it is also a direct jab at the fear that Barack Obama’s presidency has sparked in whites in the US. But the figure of Obama has had positive spin-offs, he says.
A definite fuel
“I don’t think that this book would have worked nearly as well without President Obama,” admits Thurston, who has taken his tour across the United States and the United Kingdom and whose book landed on the New York Times bestsellers list. “But Obama cannot be credited with all that has happened. It’s like how the actions of Rosa Parks accelerated the civil rights movement; you can’t separate the two. Her actions helped further ignite a fire that was already burning.”
What is a definite fuel for that fire is the splintering of a previously homogenous black experience in the US.
“In terms of black leadership today, I think there’s also a transition. There’s the civil rights generation that is starting to age out, frankly. And they are very reluctant to go,” says Contee.
But the generational gap is not the only division in the community. Much like South Africa, there is a splitting of economic classes as a few more people move into the educated professional fold, which is challenging the preconceived idea of a homogenous black experience.
Thurston comes from far more humble beginnings than his success implies. He grew up in Washington, DC’s drug-filled neighbourhoods in the 1980s and his father was shot while buying drugs. But a scholarship to a private school changed his fortunes. “I was socialised and educated differently from those before me, so I am fully comfortable with all people because I was educated among all people.”
This new generation, he says, thankful of the sacrifices of the civil rights movement, is saying: “You worked so hard to create that, but now let us articulate what that actually looks like and how we can build a future based on those experiences.”
The opinions of this new generation not only matter, they are also spreading faster because of social media. The origins of How to Be Black trace back to a Twitter hashtag. In July 2009, in Brooklyn, Thurston tweeted: “This weekend I picked my red wine because it was called ‘Negroamaro’. That’s how black I am @elonjames #HowBlackAreYou”, which started a “battle of black” among friends and followers, generating thousands of tweets on the subject.
South Africa is seeing the same class-splintering in the black population and as the division widens – and it is likely to take longer because of the sheer numbers – even the ANC Youth League will no longer be the only audible voice of the youth.
You can feel it now in the tone of voices and ideas shared by Twitter’s literati – young, educated and opinionated – poking fun and challenging the establishment on both divides. But it is early days; I feel we are in for a period of head-butting. Both sides have to give in a little to mature the discussion beyond talk shows that ask the frustratingly obvious questions, such as: “Is South Africa a racist nation?”
It is inevitable that the struggle will pale as the sole defining factor that binds the black population, but there will also need to be a show of investment from whites.
When the environment is right, cultural movements start brewing – and they are a great inspiration for political change because they are partially unshackled from bureaucracy and political egos. And though it is a faint distant view for South Africa, like Thurston “I can see it, too, and my skin tingles at the thought”.
Joonji Mdyogolo is an editor and writer living in the US as a Hubert H Humphrey Fellow. She is a former deputy editor of the South African edition of O, the Oprah Magazine