Not many comedians get appointed as Digital Director for an organization the size of The Onion, so when Baratunde Thurston steps on the scene, you know that although he is funny, he's not joking around. How would you know that? Try Vanity Fair, CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, Al Jazeera English and a show of his own on Discovery Science, pal. His grandmother was the first Black employee at the US Supreme Court. His mom took over radio stations in the civil rights era. Barack Obama himself said, as he's quoted, that Baratunder Thurston was "someone I need to know." His new book How To Be Black dropped from HarperCollins this month, and he stopped by to answer seven possibly serious, possibly silly questions with us (not unlike his own Formspring). Go.
KOMPLICATED: Your book comes out a few months after Toure's dissertation on "post-Blackness" (EDITOR'S NOTE: Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now , available now). What is it about this question of our possibly "complicated" identity that has people examining this at this point in time?
BARATUNDE THURSTON: I think there are several factors that could help explain this. First, many of us speaking on the topic today are children of the Civil Rights generation, and have reached a point where we're naturally questioning our place in the world relative to what our folks were up to at our age.
Second, It's Obama time! Having a Black president just changed the game in many ways, and in other ways, things are exactly the same. President Obama's mere existence is excuse enough to bring up the question of Black identity. Third, Toure, Patrice Evans (author of Negropedia) and I all got together at a secret Black meeting a few years back and decided to do this.
K: From Fanon to Dunbar, from playground taunts of "you act white" and "you so Black," examinations of Black identity have been lightning rods for our community. When you approach the question, how do you find an angle that's unique and offers something new to the conversation? What would you tell people to hook them on your take on Black identity?
B: My take is anchored both in my own personal story and in humor, and I think both of those bring something new to the table. In some ways, I had the stereotypical urban Black upbringing: single mother, neighborhood affected by drugs, etc. In other ways, however, my life's story adds to this common media image of Blackness with a mother committed to political activism, technology and organic foods plus access to some of the best education this country has to offer. That overlap of influences early in my life gives me a unique perspective. Using comedy to explore the conversation lowers the tension and defensiveness that often accompany topics like these.
K: You found an interesting way to combine your passion for technology and your talent for comedy as Director of Digital for The Onion. Have you ever had any problem with people taking you seriously as a tech authority or as a performer due to the other interest?
B: I'm still kind of amazed that as many people are into what I do as there are, but the beauty of my slow and steady growth, especially in digital, is that people have time to absorb the fact that I'm into multiple things. There are sometimes conflicts thought. I remember posting something about race on Google+, and the folks connected to me there know me primarily through tech circles. Their reaction to my race talk is often, "Oh man, here he goes again talking about color. I don't see color! Why can't we just see each other as people! Why does he have to be Black!?" And they get exasperated or annoyed.
EDITOR'S NOTE: He's joking — nobody posts on Google+.
K: You're a big fan of the Transformers cartoon. Who was your third favorite Transformer and why?
B: Jazz! Scatman Crothers did the voice!
K: You grew up in Chocolate City, home of Howard University and a murder rate that's often in the nation's top 10. Yet you chose technology and science fiction and the path of the geek. How did that transformation happen, and were there pressures for you to be more "normal" in terms of the criminal lifestyles so prominent there, or the social norms of go go clubgoers and suited political players?
B: My mother was into technology as was my older sister. We had an Apple IIe computer, and when my sister went off to college, she worked with computers a lot, so all this stuff was in the home. We are also all into science fiction for as long as I can remember. As for social pressures, there as a bit of that, but my main social circle in elementary school consisted of other little nerds. My public elementary school had an "air and space" program for kids. One of the teachers knew some Tuskeegee Airmen and took it upon herself to start this club, and we got to meet them. I was no older than 9 at the time. I think that early exposure, and those early influences, with peers, helped make my sci-fi and geek path feel more "normal."
K: Back to Transformers, did it ever bother you that Soundwave and Megatron could fly, but almost none of the Autobots could? The jets and even the cassettes at least had something that looked like it could propel them along … thoughts?
B: I never considered this injustice until you pointed it out. I DEMAND RETROACTIVE FLIGHT REPARATIONS. Or something.
K: Your Twilight hate-tweets have become the stuff of digital legend. If you had to choose between never being able to use a device with electricity again, or having Twilight movies showing on every screen around you for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
B: That is obvious. I would choose a life without powered devices over a life or crushingly terrible writing and even more terrible messages. Sure, I'd lose something without my devices, but I'd still have my soul. In an all-Twilight world, I'd lose everything.
Not enough? Here, enjoy a sample of his book …
How To Be Black is available now.