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How To Be Black

Over thirty years of experience in being black

By Baratunde Thurston
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How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

How To Be Black (2012) is the funny, revealing and insightful autobiography of Baratunde Thurston. Thurston attended private schools and Harvard University, and the experience of being black in a predominantly white milieu taught him a great deal about what white and black people have come to expect from one another. These blinks tackle a difficult subject with humor and empathy.

Key idea 1 of 9

Growing up as a black kid in 1970s America wasn’t made any easier by having an African name.

School can be tough for anyone, but if your name is Baratunde, things start going downhill around minute one of the very first day. Imagine the teacher taking roll call, zipping through the Johns and Jennifers and then stumbling to a halt: “Barry Tune? Baritone Dave?”

Simply put, it’s not easy having an African name in America.

The author spent his childhood listening to his name getting butchered by white American teachers. He’s been called “Barracuda” and “Bartender,” while other teachers, panicking in the face of all those syllables, just shortened it to “Brad.” For the record, Baratunde is pronounced: baa-ruh-TOON-day.

After a while, he got used to it. Now, he even takes a certain pleasure in hearing how new acquaintances might mangle it. He’s waiting for the day that someone slips up and says “Beelzebub,” or comes up with a way to inadvertently add a Q.

He’s also discovered that Africans living in the States aren’t necessarily fond of his name, either.

The name Baratunde comes from Nigeria, an offshoot of the more common name, Babatunde.

You might think that a Nigerian would smile after being introduced to an African-American with such a name. But that’s not the case. Once, Baratunde called a Nigerian friend but got stuck talking to the friend’s father instead. The man was outraged to hear that someone who wasn’t Nigerian would be using this name.

His friend’s father asked him if he even knew the meaning of his name. And when the young Baratunde was about to tell him that it means “grandfather returns” or “the chosen one,” the man cut him off and shouted, “No! It means ‘grandfather returns’ or ‘the chosen one!’”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated event. Many other Nigerians would later react the same way after hearing his name.

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