To say that comedian Baratunde Thurston, director of digital for The Onion, is simply a social satirist is a huge understatement. He is also a revolutionary. Thurston’s keynote address “How to Read the World” at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival drove that point home.
Like his book How To Be Black, which was released January 2012, the author’s insightful keynote was full of biographical comedy. In 2005, after his mother died he was searching through her belongings and found an article about his grandmother, learning she was the first African-American woman to work in the U.S. Supreme Court Building. It was surprising because it was so far removed from his mother who lived the life of a revolutionary, protesting outside the supreme court and influencing Thurston and his sister at a very young age to read books like This is Apartheid. It was also set apart from his own career, making and distributing satirical news. In addition, he told the audience about his great-great grandfather a former slave who taught himself how to read, a skill prohibited by law for blacks.
Upon her death, Thurston wrote a letter to his mother’s family and friends detailing her life and death in a way that was sad yet humorous at the same time. The sequence of events triggered a deeper investigation of himself and how he approached life, comedy and storytelling. He had an epiphany. “Comedians have always played a role of communicating truth directly…making people more receptive to what you have to say,” said Thurston, who co-founded the black political blog Jack & Jill Politics.
Embeded in his keynote was also the message that we are living in a world where everything is connected.“This creates a lot of noise and a scarcity of attention, which in turn creates an opportunity for clarity and trust,” said Thurston. In his opinion, despite our inclination to look to institutions, governments, and religion for trust, they all let us down. But comedians speak truth. He analyzed how the freedom of truth is reflected across different cultures. His conclusion: “…across the world, what those comedians are saying is revolutionary magic.”