Baratunde Thurston: Using Comedy to Speak Truth to Power

The Center for the Arts and Humanities was overjoyed to welcome Emmy-nominated host, writer, and comedian Baratunde Thurston as the Keynote Speaker for this year’s theme, Boundaries and Margins. Thurston is the author of New York Times bestseller How to Be Black, and has advised the Obama White House, worked for The Onion, and produced for The Daily Show. He’s the executive producer and host of How To Citizen with Baratunde, which Apple named one of its favorite podcasts of 2020, and which received the Social Impact Award at the 2021 iHeartRadio Podcast Awards. His 2019 TED talk, “How to deconstruct racism, one headline at a time”, was described by MSNBC’s Brian Williams as “one of the greatest TED talks of all time.” Thurston is known for his ability to combine comedy with themes of race, culture, and politics in order to highlight the issues which plague the United States, and the tools which we can use to address them.

Thurston gave his keynote address on Thursday April 8th at 7 pm to a group of more than two hundred Colby students, faculty, and staff. He was introduced by Center Director and Professor of Classics Kerill O’Neill and by Colby Class of 2013 alumni and Director of the Maine Film Center Mike Perreault. The discussion and Q&A were led by Colby senior and leader of the Center Student Advisory Board Carissa Yang.

Baratunde Thurston began by humorously reminiscing about the time before the pandemic, “four hundred or five hundred years ago, when time was meaningful because we moved to other places and saw others faces.” He remembered the first day things changed for him—Friday the 13th of March 2020. He went into a Whole Foods, “to do his civic duty by further enriching Jeff Bezos and buy kale”… and the kale had run out. “That was an apocalyptic sign that something was wrong in the universe”, he joked. “I know there’s been unrest, rallies, but nothing rivals the rage I saw from white women in yoga pants that day.” And from there, things only got “weirder and worse”.

“They almost sold Covid to us,” he said. “They told us it would bring us all together and treat us all the same.” Thurston argued that Covid was supposed to be a great uniter, because disease doesn’t discriminate. However, our system does. Those hardest hit by the pandemic, in terms of illness, death, and economic cost, were those “with more melanin and less money”, who had to work in service jobs and the healthcare industry, and didn’t have the option of working from home. Black people had the cops called on them for wearing masks in stores and “looking suspicious”, but also for not wearing masks during a pandemic. “Covid pulled back the veil on social injustice,” said Thurston. “There’s no right way to be black in a pandemic, because there’s no right way to be black in America.”

Thurston went on to mention an incident on May 25th 2020, when Christian Cooper, an African American birdwatcher in New York City’s Central Park, asked a white woman, Amy Cooper, to put a leash on her dog. The woman became incensed and called the police on Christian Cooper, while he filmed her. “Any call to the cops on a black person is a potential execution”, said Thurston. This confrontation happened the same day that George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis.

These racist events, among many others, triggered protests across the country and across the world. “We need to acknowledge the past,” said Thurston. “Truth is freedom. If you’re living a lie, you can’t be free. We have to wean ourselves off the lies and face the truth.” Referencing the Center’s annual theme, Boundaries and Margins, he encouraged the audience to push boundaries, confronting the truth of the past and of our own prejudices, an act that admittedly can be uncomfortable and even frightening. However, Baratunde Thurston believes that “discomfort is growth. You know what’s uncomfortable? The vaccine. That means it’s working.” He argued that once we’ve faced our issues, we emerge on the other side with a sense of relief and freedom, having grown and changed for the better.

Thurston then discussed the inclusion of token individuals in structures of power. He described people in power who would include a single scholarship student or woman and think that they’d done their civic duty. This single act does nothing to change the dominant structure, and is, in Thurston’s opinion, “a real sad place to stop on the journey of trying to move forward.” Instead of asking that scholarship recipient or woman to feel lucky to be included at the table, Thurston wants them to know that that table is lucky to have them. “We’re in a narrative of our own making, and we can change it”, he stated.

At this point, Carissa Yang began to ask Baratunde Thurston questions from students. The first question came from Carissa herself: “How do you navigate the boundaries of world selection in comedy when you’re intertwining all your interests and identity?” Thurston responded that he simply had a lot of practice. He described words as “spells”, “bridges”, and “portals”, emphasizing the myriad of different meanings a single word can have depending on the context of its use. As an example, he mentioned how the word “policing” can have very different significance to different communities. Thurston went on to discuss his endeavor to reclaim words that he, as an African American, had never felt ownership of—words like “America” and terms like “liberty and justice for all.” Finally, he described how he had learned from watching others use words as weapons. “Choosing words isn’t just making a statement, it’s committing an act. Writing is conveying ideas, and it’s a powerful thing to do.”

The next question was “If you could teach a class at Colby, what materials would you use?” Thurston answered that his curriculum would include books by Dick Gregory and Mark Twain, because “those are both voices who were very aware of the power of comedy to speak words of truth to power.” Next, Carissa asked about Thurston’s book How to Be Black, which was published in 2012, inquiring what had changed since he first wrote it. Thurston joked that he might write a sequel: How to Be Blacker. He went on to say that he had written the book in the context of an Obama presidency, when “we were in this euphoric moment imagining a post racial America—that’s obviously not happening.” The book strove to “re-complicate blackness”, to make it more than a “binary on/off switch. You can be black and a lot of other stuff as well.” Now, he feels that he has less patience for the obstacles to racial equality which his book addressed.

The final two questions were both about how to educate others about racial issues. One student asked “How do we reframe stories about racism to people who don’t want to listen?” Thurston replied that we should tell the stories in a way that people might want to hear, or find people who they might listen to who do want to hear those stories. We shouldn’t open by hitting people over the head with facts, and should use phrases like “have you heard”, rather than “listen to me.” And most of all, we should have sympathy and patience. “We’re all at a different point in our journey—you don’t expect a toddler to have read Marx,” Baratunde Thurston joked. “Don’t open with ‘America is a lie’—work up to that.”

The last question, from a student athlete of color named Devan Williams, was about the role of people of color in educating others about racism. Thurston responded that “It is unfortunately often the case that the oppressed must even consider the feelings of the oppressor as a priority in order to maximize our own chances of survival. However, it’s not incumbent on a tired black person to find the most resistant old timey white person to convert. Personally, I feel done—I wrote a book. And other people have done infinitely more.” The truth is out there, he said. White people should be allies and step in to educate themselves and others instead of expecting people of color to do it for them. “Be an ally and explain, let black people sleep. Let Devan be an athlete, not an assistant professor,” said Thurston. He ended by reminding us that growth is a process. “We need to be patient with the inevitable stumbles of anybody pushing themselves into the uncomfortable realms of trying to grow,” he said. “You can’t learn without making mistakes. Communities have to be there to build each other up.”

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities