“How to Be Black”: Race and assimilation in U.S.

Commentary by James Gillespie

I found a moment of spontaneity within me two summers ago, and I entered an online gift exchange. Signing up took no effort. What it did require was a bit of ingenuity. The gift form asked a few questions: what type of literature I liked, my favorite book, my favorite author, movie, games, etc.

Having no idea what to expect, I simply put what I thought would return the most interesting gift. Thus I provided that I enjoy satire and that, in my spare time, I wish I was black (i.e. African American) — the latter engendered from the former.
Given the information that I supplied to my gifter, I wondered what he could possibly send me. A few days later, I received a package; it contained a black book with white text: “How to be Black.”

This is all very true, mind you. I read the book and it was indeed a somewhat satirical text on black culture written by a Harvard graduate and former employee for The Onion named Baratunde Thurston. He is a black man.

Having read the book, it never really became anything more than a coffee table book and a rather nice conversation piece. In fact, one afternoon I (satirically) tweeted at Thurston (@baratunde) something along the lines of, “please help! I’ve read your book and turned black and I don’t know how to be white again!”

As a satirical writer himself I figured he would enjoy the gesture. He did, responding: “@commajim read @clander #stuffwhitepeoplelike. It can help counteract the effects. Hurry.” I never read the text, but I nevertheless enjoyed the gesture.

I began to research Thurston; he was a philosophy student (like myself) and a satirical writer (like myself). I listened to interviews with Thurston and likened to the commentary he gave on his text. The book expresses a message regarding more than just poking fun at the status of black culture within America — it draws a path through which America can better assimilate to that culture.

The word assimilation, as I now believe, is a misconstrued word, not in its formal description but in its semantical usage. Construed broadly, the word means something like “the process by which one group comes to resemble another.” When we say a culture is assimilating to America, we say that group/sect is coming to resemble us or adopt our ideals; we treat it as if it is a one-way act by which we remain idle and force others to adapt to us. This, I believe, is outright egregious.

Perhaps by nature or cultural influence, we assume that others will always change to our needs, that the world forms according to us and not us according to it. And while some thinkers, like Immanuel Kant, have thought that the way the world appears to us is according to us and not the world as it is, I do not intend literal disposition.

I (firmly) believe that assimilation is mutual. We force others to resemble us without even coming to understand them. I think this is a dogma that “How to be Black” attempts to break down.

I use the term “force” with emphasis; it has a certain gravitas (get it?). But really: what ultimately drives all of nature? Physically, it is a class of fundamental forces which together exhaust the (physical) functionality of the world. But on another front, force is met with resistance. Force causes a motion, a change, and at times that change is met with resistance by, you guessed it, another force.

Thurston teaches us how to be black — literally — to obviate the force opposing our force. It gives us insight into a culture to which we should be assimilating as much as we force it to assimilate to us. Thurston introduces a world that we surely do not fully understand, explicating it from within as well as from the general (falsidical) opinion.

I believe that we all become irascible when faced with someone who speaks, or lends judgment, about anything he or she does not properly understand — they speak out of pure ignorance.

We live in an age of unruly ignorance. We get so caught up in ourselves that the world around us becomes murky. Our neighboring cultures or societies become clandestine worlds that we do not bother to understand more than superficially.
Take a serious look at American culture. If you realize there is something wrong with it, read Thurston’s book. If you don’t, I suggest looking again.

Feb. 13, 2015

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