Monday, May 05, 2014

'How To Be Black' ...

Once upon a time, I pondered converting to Judaism.

I was working with a rabbi on his materials for the High Holy Days. What I was reading made a lot of sense to me. It resonated in a way that none of my religious instruction as a child ever did. I went through confirmation when I was 13 because it was expected of me. But, to paraphrase a line from "Shadowlands," I am a lapsed Lutheran.

I never did convert but it was fun to entertain the moment of informing my parents that I was becoming a Jew. (I do like chopped liver ... .)

Saturday, I popped by the library to pick up Baratunde Thurston's "How To Be Black." As I stood at the counter, I chuckled to myself thinking about what might be going through the mind of the library clerk as she pulled that book off of the Hold shelf for me. Tall, middle-aged (Jesus, I've never used that phrase to describe myself before, but it applies), white chick checking out a book titled "How To Be Black"?

Unlike Judaism, that conversion would have to be an honorary thing.

But I follow @baratunde on Twitter and folks are always tweeting good things about his book and he tweets well and often and he appreciates Chicago, so why wouldn't I read his instruction manual?

Also, on the back cover, these conditions are set:

– Have you ever been called "too black" or "not black enough"?
– Have you ever befriended or worked with a black person?
– Have you ever heard of black people?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this book is for you."


So, given the parameters of his desired readership, I meet at least two of the three criteria. To my knowledge, I have never been called neither "too black" nor "not black enough." In the "too white" arena, though, I was once informed that I had a "Wayne Gretzky tan." I am no fan of the sun. But I digress ... .

The copy I picked up at the library (I rediscovered the library after a massive purge of my bookshelves; I love authors and I want to support them but a gal can only buy so many books before she has to own up to the fact that she's never going to read most of them again; someday, I plan to be in a financial position in which I can buy books, read them, and them pass them along right away, but in the meantime: library) is smaller than I expected and softcover. That seems to bode well, instruction-wise. If "How To Be Black" resembled the Yellow Pages, fewer people might be swayed. We have ceased to be a nation of big readers, it seems. Hence the popularity of Twitter. At the moment, @baratunde's followers number 152,280.

Yesterday, fanning through the pages in anticipation of a day of reading, I nearly spit out my coffee when I saw the chapter heading "Can You Swim?"

The day was grey and chilly and provided the perfect excuse for staying inside and reading.

So I stayed inside and read.

This is the book, sticky-noted in places where I thought I might want to call something to your attention:

I was conservative with my sticky-note usage this time. (Note: That may be the only way in which I am conservative.) As I read a book, I often want to remember passages or sentences but know I never will (see: middle-aged reference, above), so I sticky note. But then I'm also mindful that what engages me isn't necessarily what might engage you, so whenever I set about writing a blog post about a book, the gist of it, if I liked the book, is simply: "Read this."

So, read this.

I will tease a few things, so as to whet your appetite, as it were, so we can all be comforted that the sticky notes did not die in vain.

— On his name and its invariable mispronunciation: "Who will see a Q where none exists?" Yes! We have that in common. People are forever inserting an L into my last name. I don't know why, but Kowalski seems less terrifying to people than Kujawski.

— Eight pages later, my jaw literally dropped. In a book titled "How To Be Black," you can probably surmise the offense, but the context made me extra sad.

— Go, Baratunde's grandmother!

— "I didn't know much about wine and still don't, but I didn't want to ask the shop employee and then pretend like I cared about her in-depth description involving earthy hints of nutmeg and subtle karmic rainbows of frankincense or sadness or whatever." Best wine-pretention takedown ever! I can't wait for a snobby wine person to ask me what I detect in a glass and answer, "Sadness."

— Two sentences that appear relatively near each other, page-wise, that made me laugh: "I like brunch!" and "We ate couscous!"

— "Never underestimate the media's hunger for a rhyming Negro." My life is better for having read that sentence.

— My life improved by a factor of eleventymillion, then, when I read this: "If you find yourself in the media spotlight, being asked about nuclear proliferation or Riverdance, don't panic." I literally laughed 'til I cried.

There are many, many laugh-out-loud moments. But this book contains a lot of poignancy, too.

W. Kamau Bell, a member of The Black Panel (which comprises six black friends / colleagues / suppliers of insight ... and one white guy), shared this amazing thought:

"I think that all people who are fighting for oppressed people should only be allowed to work for the group that's one over from them. Black people should only be allowed to work for the Mexican immigrants' struggle in America. Mexican immigrants should only be allowed to work for gay marriage. Gay marriage should only be allowed to work for black people. I feel like if we all just stepped one group over, I think we would get things done a lot quicker."

I rather love that. How often are we willing to expend even more energy on behalf of someone else than we are on ourselves? Of course, we can do both. More people lending hands to help more people would be a good thing.

The very last paragraph is a quote from one of his friends. And it made me cry. Powerful, powerful words.

I read the Acknowledgements because I read acknowledgements. And I smiled when I read, "My literary agent, Gary Morris, for having my back." I had known Gary was Baratunde's agent because Gary was also my friend Jeff Zaslow's agent. But I had forgotten that Gary was Baratune's agent. And I had been thinking about Jeff yesterday, remembering his funeral, at which Gary spoke. And so seeing Gary's name just kind of tied it all together. The world is smaller than it seems.

So, as mentioned: read this. Indeed, as set forth on the back cover, if you have ever so much as heard of black people, you will find meaning in this book.

Many times as I was reading yesterday, I was wishing that L.A. Dave could have read it. Oh, the conversations that would have ensued.

When he died and I wrote this post, I remember my friend Angela, who is black, informing me that she bristled when she read, "We spent hours on the phone every week, whiling away minutes on banalities – like the finer points of french fries – but shifting with ease into thoughtful topics like politics and religion and race."

She wanted to know why we were discussing race.

And then she Googled Dave.

And she found his blog.

And she saw that he was black.

I had never mentioned that, she informed me.

Nope, I hadn't. It had never come up. He was my friend Dave, not my black friend Dave.

I had a lot of Daves in my life at one point. They all had modifiers. Dave's was "L.A." ... because he lived in L.A. I didn't announce his race to other people in conversations.

But yes, he was black. He was so, so proud when Barack Obama was elected. And I remain forever grateful that he witnessed President Obama's inauguration, if only on TV.

He would have loved this book.


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