“It’s good to be back in Boston,” said comedian Baratunde Thurston. “I lived in Boston for 12 years, and I escaped. I come back pretty regularly, because you can never really leave a town that is so conflicted. I remember my first trip to Boston-I was visiting colleges, and I came across the intersection of Tremont and Tremont. That explains everything: the drivers, the politics, the everything.” Last Thursday, Oct. 25, Thurston gave a multifaceted speech, titled “Birth Certificates, Fact Checkers and the Art of Negrospotting: A Look at Race, Comedy, and Politics in the 2012 Election.”
Thurston was the director of digital for The Onion until May 2012, and other projects of his include the websites “Cultivated Wit” and Jack & Jill Politics,” which he founded and co-founded, respectively, and his book How to be Black, which officially comes out on Oct. 30.
Cynthia Young, an associate professor in the Boston College English department and the program in African and African Diaspora Studies, introduced Thurston, who spoke to a crowded Fulton 511 for almost two hours. After a few minutes of audience interaction-cheers for the various undergraduate grades in the crowd, and collective bonding over bacon-Thurston began by running briefly through his family history. His great-grandfather was born into slavery in 1870, which Thurston pointed out should not have been possible, because slavery was over.
“So either my family has more mythology to its history than fact, or the U.S. government was less efficient in shutting down that particular program than they were in establishing it,” Thurston said. “I’m going to go with the latter, in that case.” Thurston’s grandmother was the first black employee in the Supreme Court, and his mother was active in the civil rights movement. Thurston himself was raised by a single mother in the neighborhood of Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., and noted that the first book he remembers reading as a child was called This is Apartheid. He went to college at Harvard University, and described his graduation as a “collective accomplishment” of himself and his family.
Supplementing himself with a PowerPoint and audio, Thurston went on to talk about his involvement with politics, notably his participation in the The Onion’s 2008 “War for the White House” series of stories, and what he called “#negrospotting,” a project in which he counted the black delegates at the 2012 Republican National Convention (Thurston’s final estimate was 238, but the actual number was 47). Another anecdote involving the misconception of The Onion’s 2011 “Abortionplex” story as fact led into one of the main themes of Thurston’s talk: the growing interconnectedness of the Internet and humor, and the fact that social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr facilitate participation in social satire by the general public. After sharing Yelp reviews for the aforementioned, fictional “Abortionplex,” Thurston segued into a lighter topic, talking about one of his own “public service efforts”: live-tweeting Twilight movies. “If you know how to use words, this book should offend you,” Thurston said. Deciding that the book had “horrible subtexts,” he decided to “live tweet the hate in [his] heart.” He also referenced Internet participation later in a more overtly political sense, citing examples such as the hashtags “#bindersfullofwomen” and “#horsesandbayonets” that circulated the Internet after the most recent presidential debates.
The talk became more and more political as it progressed. Thurston read from a chapter titled “How to be the (Next) Black President,” from How to be Black. “You cannot come right out and make promises to black people in public-it’s what white voters expect and fear, so you have to be extremely careful in how you refer to your own people,” Thurston said. “Anytime you’re talking about issues that especially affect black Americans, try to couch it in a more universal language. For example, use the term ‘middle class.'” Telling the crowd members that they were racist if they didn’t buy his book, Thurston combined the serious issues of race and politics with humor for an informative and entertaining presentation.