Baratunde Thurston on How to be Black…and Tech Savvy

On the eve of his keynote address to techies at the annual South by Southwest conference, the author/comedian talks politics, technology and blackness

Author and comedian Baratunde Thurston will deliver the keynote at the 2012 SXSW conference in Austin (Image: Harper Collins Publishers)

Baratunde Thurston is a black guy.

It says so on the cover of his Best-selling, part-satire, part-memoir book, How To Be Black (Harper Collins Publishers), which I assume is an admission of said blackness. But while you may still read it in book form, downloading it and reading it on your Kindle or tablet might be more apropos for the tech-minded Thurston.

A comedian by trade, Thurston owes much of his success to our ever quickening Information Age. Combining his love of comedy, politics and technology, he helped found popular political blog Jack & Jill Politics in 2006, garnered national acclaim after speaking to Netroots Nation in 2009 and for the past for years, he’s been the Digital Director for legendary satirical newspaper, The Onion.

But behind that success is a story both unique and familiar in traveling between worlds both black and white, yet uniquely American. In How to Be Black, Thurston writes of being raised by a single mother after his father was murdered, of attending prestigious Sidwell Friends private school in Washington, D.C. and of graduating from Harvard. He talks about the integrated life of being “the black friend,” and other dramadies that make up our so-called post-racial lives.

And that’s why Thurston’s book, New York Times best-seller How To Be Black, resonates. It’s the story of code-switching and co-existing in a racialized world.

But there’s also jokes and stuff.

In a half-serious conversation about his book and how technology can save you (if you let it), Thurston explained why black people need to be more entrepreneurial in the digital world, and why, when asked if we’re living in a “post-racial America,” he says: not so much.

Belton: You‘ve been on quite the book tour with How to Be Black. Are you sick of talking about yourself yet?

Thurston: As most people go, I’m at above average abilities of talking about myself. My threshold is probably higher than those people built with shame.

That’s good since you’re the keynote speaker at South By Southwest (SXSW) this week. What’s the keynote speech for SXSW looking like?

Thurston: Keynote is about everything. I found the secret. I will reveal it to the people in the room. It’s a one-time only shot. I’m not doing it again and if you miss it you miss everything.

Oh, really?

Thurston: I’m talking about the way I see the world changing. Freedom as a grand concept. Talking about the role for mediators in this more rapidly changing world and where technology and humor fit into that. And I’ve got some theories I’m going to be passing off as facts. And I’ll mention black people. Probably twice.

Now on the tech side of this shift though, as you may recall, not-so-long ago there was some befuddlement about black people using technology, namely Twitter.

Thurston: There were a couple of stories.

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