On Thursday, Oct. 25, Baratunde Thurston graced Fulton 511 with his presence at the African and African Diaspora Studies event “Birth Certificates, Fact Checkers and the Art of Negrospotting: A Look at Race, Comedy and Politics in the 2012 Election.”
If anyone in the audience was under the impression they were in for a dry rundown of the presidential election, Thurston proved them wrong within the first moment of his speech with a shout-out to people who love bacon. From there, the political comedian kept the audience laughing as he addressed everything from growing up in a corrupt Washington, D.C. to his New York Times bestseller, "How To Be Black."
Thurston, who has a BA in philosophy from Harvard, is a cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics as well as a former director of digital for The Onion. He is currently involved with Cultivated Wit, a message-focused project that combines the powers of comedy and technology.
The presentation opened with a rundown of Thurston’s personal family history, including his great-grandfather who was born into slavery post-emancipation and his grandmother who was the first black employee in the White House administration. He also delved into his own upbringing, which included a failed wrestling career when he was a student.
Thurston went on to discuss his time working with The Onion, highlighting an instance when the satirical headline “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex” landed itself on a Congress member’s personal Facebook page as a reason why Americans need to band against the health care facility. “Abortionplex” eventually made its way to Yelp, showing how effectively humor and technology can intertwine.
Another personal endeavor of Thurston's is to hate-tweet Twilight movies live on opening weekend. He considers it a service to Americans who may be considering seeing the movies themselves.
Thurston's memoir, "How To Be Black," is a comedic memoir centered around his "coming of blackness." He referred to the book as an "experiment in transparency," because he kept his creative process open to the public and allowed people to look over his shoulder as he wrote.
He read a portion of the chapter titled "How to be the (next) black president," equipped with the warning that the next black president will need heaps of campaign luck, such as a loathed incumbent, a detestable opponent and an America on the verge of collapse.
Thurston, who attended both the RNC and the DNC this summer, also discussed his controversial "negrospotting" project at the RNC in which he counted the number of black people in attendance, a number that narrowed from 238 to 60 based on his calculations after subtracting people who were working the event in areas such as law enforcement, food service and the media. The actual number of black Republicans at the event turned out to be 47. Thurston described the atmosphere at the RNC to be significantly more negative than that at the DNC, as its main focus was "convincing America that Mitt Romney's human."
The speech wrapped up by touching on some election-related commentary, followed by a Q & A segment. The Q & A portion lead to a heated discussion between audience members on successful multicultural programs at colleges.
Dani Xiong, CSOM '16, was pleased with her decision to attend the event. "It was pretty inspiring. I had never been to something like this before," she said.
Thurston's use of humor was especially appreciated by Ted Berkowski, CSOM '16. "I like how he emphasizes that we should look at race more dynamically in this country," he said. "Humor is especially powerful in changing how people think about things."
Peter Connell, CSOM '16, echoed Berlowski's sentiments on the humorous aspect of the presentation. "I really liked his use of comedy to touch on subjects that usually are sensitive. It allowed his audience to connect and be open to discussing these ideas."