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Baratunde Thurston

Comedian and writer Baratunde Rafiq Thurston was born on September 11, 1977 in Washington, D.C. Thurston graduated from the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in 1995, and received his A.B. degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1999.

From 1999 to 2003, Thurston worked as an associate for Cambridge Strategic Management Group and the Management Network Group. He then worked as a contract senior consultant for Altman Vilandrie & Company, and as a contract producer and advisor for Untravel Media. In 2006, Thurston co-founded the black political blog Jack & Jill Politics. From 2007 to 2012, he served as digital director for the satirical news outlet, The Onion. In the summer of 2012, Thurston co-founded the comedy/technology startup, Cultivated Wit, where he serves as CEO. He also writes the monthly back page column for Fast Company, and has contributed to the Huffington Post and the Weekly Dig. In addition, he is a semi-regular panelist on the podcast This Week in Tech, and hosted the Discovery Science show Popular Science's Future Of in 2009 and 2010. He performs standup comedy in New York City and across the United States, as well as delivers keynotes at South by Southwest, Personal Democracy Forum, and the Guardian Changing Media Summit. In May 2011, Thurston spoke at the presidential palace in Tbilisi, Georgia on the role of satire in a healthy democracy, and he has advised The White House on digital strategy and public engagement. In January of 2012, Thurston joined the MIT Media Lab as a director's fellow. He has been featured on CNN, NPR, BBC, and C-SPAN, as well as in the New York Times and Boston Globe.

Thurston has authored four books: Better than Crying: Poking Fun at Politics, the Press & Pop Culture (2004); Keep Jerry Falwell Away from My Oreo Cookies (2005); Thank You Congressional Pages (For Being So Damn Sexy!) (2006); and the New York Times best-seller, How To Be Black (2012).

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan honored Thurston “for changing the political and social landscape one laugh at a time.” He was also nominated for the Bill Hicks Award for Thought Provoking Comedy. The Root added him to its list of 100 most influential African Americans, and Fast Company listed him as one of the 100 Most Creative People In Business.

Thurston lives in New York, New York.

Baratunde Thurston was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 7, 2014.

Accession Number




Interview Date

4/7/2014 |and| 8/31/2016



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Bancroft Elementary

Sidwell Friends School

Harvard University

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Favorite Season

Summer Into Fall


District of Columbia

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Goa, India

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New York

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Speakers Bureau Region City

New York



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Short Description

Comedian and author Baratunde Thurston (1977 - ) served as director of digital for 'The Onion' and co-founded Cultivated Wit in 2012. He is the author of Better than Crying: Poking Fun at Politics, the Press & Pop Culture (2004); Keep Jerry Falwell Away from My Oreo Cookies (2005); Thank You Congressional Pages (For Being So Damn Sexy!) (2006); and the New York Times best-seller, How To Be Black (2012).


Cultivated Wit

Jack and Jill Politics

The Onion

Kingly Companion Media, LLC

Discovery Communications

Huffington Post

The Weekly Dig

Altman Vilandrie & Company

Untravel Media

The Management Network Group

Cambridge Strategic Management Group

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Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Baratunde Thurston's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Baratunde Thurston lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his maternal grandmother and his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Baratunde Thurston describes the different complexions in his family

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his mother's political activism

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his father

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his parents' relationship

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his childhood personality

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Baratunde Thurston describes the change in his mother between his sister's childhood and his own, pt.1

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Baratunde Thurston describes the change in his mother between his sister's childhood and his own, pt.2

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his sister

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Baratunde Thurston talks about playing music as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Baratunde Thurston describes his earliest childhood memories

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Baratunde Thurtson describes his childhood neighborhood in Washington, D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Baratunde Thurtson talks about moving to Takoma Park, Maryland due to the crack epidemic in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Baratunde Thurtson talks about his grade school

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Baratunde Thurtson talks about Marion Barry, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Baratunde Thurtson talks about Marion Barry, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Baratunde Thurtson remembers his favorite teachers from Bancroft Elementary School

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Baratunde Thurtson talks about his childhood activities

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Baratunde Thurston talks about Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Baratunde Thurston describes his experience at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his involvement in Ankobia while a student at Sidwell Friends School

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his extracurricular development at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Baratunde Thurston describes writing a school paper about U.S. propaganda

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Baratunde Thurston talks about racial politics at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Baratunde Thurston talks about the self-segregation of youth

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Baratunde Thurston remembers going to Senegal as a student at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Baratunde Thurston talks about attending the Million Man March in 1995

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Baratunde Thurston talks about his favorite teachers at Sidwell Friends School

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Baratunde Thurston talks about HistoryMaker Rickey Payton, Sr.







Baratunde Thurston describes his experience at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.
Baratunde Thurston talks about his involvement in Ankobia while a student at Sidwell Friends School
Yeah, okay. How does that affect your sense of self when you're a kid, when you're around people that have much more money than you?$$Well--so the idea of bein' around money and the effect on my sense of self--subconsciously, it might have had an effect on me not really inviting kids to, to my home; it was a real point of contention. My mother [Arnita Thurston] was always annoyed I'd invite people over, especially after we moved to Takoma Park [Maryland]--had this nice big house, this big yard; and I don't think of it as shame as what kept me from doing it, I think it was just like awkwardness. I just wasn't developed in that area enough to be like, "Yeah, everybody come over." Now, I actually love hostin' things; I throw dinner parties and events at bars, and I'm all over the globe hostin' things. But as a teenager, I was a little more shy in that regard. I'm fine being on stage, but bringin' people into my home just didn't quite cross my mind, so the early effect of goin' to a school like Sidwell, coming out of a school like Bancroft [Elementary School], was shock; there was definitely a cultural adjustment. You know, there was a bit of an Ebonics tone that I had to my style of speech, which I remember these two white kids, these twins, makin' fun of--there were these blond hair, blue eyed, thin dudes--twins--they were just so classically out of some kinda book, and their names were quite similar. It was like Ricky and Richard--somethin' like that; just one letter off kinda between them, and they were makin' fun of the way I spoke and we actually came to a little physical violence; I just went over and kicked one of 'em 'cause I was just tired of hearin' 'em talk, you know, all this nonsense. That wouldn't end up bein' my preferred method of conflict resolution over time but, you know, there was--it was, it was weird, that seventh grade year. My name was strange to people, and just seeing the houses--I remember visiting a friend who lived in Georgetown [Washington, D.C. neighborhood], and I never been to anybody's house in Georgetown, you know. Anybody's house I'd been in was in the neighborhood, or maybe a friend of my mother's, and this was a--like stupendous house; he had these speakers that were super-thin, I'm like--how do you have speakers like that? Big old TV, cable--we were watchin' like MTV or somethin'--some kinda cable or music video thing--this is early high school. But I don't think it affected me in the sense that it made me want all that, or feel bad about the stuff I had. I also got exposed--I had a preconceived notion about rich people problems, and that they didn't have 'em, and white people problems that they didn't have 'em, and I discovered by goin' to school with them and socializing and doing plays and, you know, just having human relationships--like everybody's got problems, and there's some kids who can't come outta the closet 'cause their parents would be ashamed. And there's some kids who can't make their own choices 'cause their parents have had their lives all mapped out for them. And I remember feelin' very lucky as well, being at that school, of the household that I came from, and that I was encouraged to try this and play that and go here and be that, and didn't have any career expectation that I'd have to take over the family business or live up to some name. That was a real eye-opening experience for me with that side. My previous experience is like the Jetsons, Benson (laughter), like I don't know who my references were, but they were through television mostly.$Okay. Now you had like two streams, and you discuss 'em in your book--$$Emm hmm.$$--'How To Be Black.' Two streams of Ankobia--$$Yeah.$$--Rites of Passage project, and Sidwell Friends [School, Washington, D.C.]. So you had these two cultural paths--divergent paths--$$Yeah.$$--with one (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--One person (laughter) straddling the line.$$Right.$$That was a part of my mother's [Arnita Thurston] genius in how she sent me Sidwell where she also enrolled me in a pan-African Rites of Passage program called Ankobia.$$And that's spelled--$$A-N-K-O-B-I-A; it is born out of a pan-African group not unlike the one she was a part of in the '60s [1960s] and '70s [1970s] that stayed together, and we created an Afrocentric school called Nation House Watoto [ph.], and had extra programming to assure their youth into adulthood. Men--boys' program, girls' program, meeting every Saturday for enrichment of the mind and the body. And so we read a ton of books that were never on the Sidwell Friends reading list or the public school reading list, we learned to drum, we learned African dance, went out to the country, and we were schooled then in a different way of being and a different level of pride, so--oh, and the way we found that program was through the principal at the Sidwell Friends School, which still blows my mind. Like, there's a black dude running the Sidwell Friends Middle School at the time, who's also an elder in this pan-African program; that's in the same person.$$Okay, what was his name?$$Bob Williams; Robert Williams--yeah. Yeah, he was, he was known to us as Baba Jawanza [ph.].$$Okay.$$Yeah.$$All right, all right.$$So this is, this is a brother livin' two lives too, you know, dealin' with boards of trustees and all these parents, and college, you know. Well, in middle school, you're not really dealing with college people too much, but then dealing with this program, you know, and the curriculum and what--what is it that you should have a young black mind know? And what experiences should it have to prepare us for the world?$$Now this is an interesting idea. Well, for years, Jewish people--$$Yep.$$--have like a Friday (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--They have Hebrew School.$$--Hebrew School--$$Yeah.$$--for the children, where they learn everything it is about being Jewish--$$Emm hmm.$$--and the history and culture and all that--$$Yeah.$$--and it's not religious study (unclear), you know, under the political position (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--Yeah.$$--of Jewish people in the world of what's important, what isn't, you know, and the stories, the folklore, or all that other--you know, the dance, arts, and so this is--I don't know if the worlds are quite as different as (laughter) the ones Ankobia would have in a (unclear).$$I think what it--you know, it was--I joke that it's the Hebrew school for blackness. I mean what it did for me in the Sidwell environment is it just gave me somethin' else; it gave me some depth, it gave me some conflict, it gave me another perspective to see the world, it gave me some weird traditions to carry. You know, there's a--sort of an initiation component to the program; we had to wear this African medallion every day, like you're not supposed to take it off--ever. And so that means I had to explain this to my classmates. "What is--why--what is this thing around your neck?" "Well, I'm a part of this program and I have to wear it." And so it forced a level of publicity around pride in self, and around your history that might have been different from what was being taught. Not that--I mean Sidwell is a very progressive school, so it's also the school where at high school I took an elective in Islam and an elective in African history, taught by a black person. That's not typical in a public school system (laughter), or of a lot of the private school systems, certainly at the time, so I feel like, you know, there's a lotta tension in goin' to a school like that, there's a lotta race issues and class issues, but I also was very fortunate that that was the version of that experience that I got because of the principal I had that led us to Ankobia, because of the nature of the Quaker traditions that were viewed in some of the processes in a place like Sidwell that might not have been in a Catholic version or in a purely money version that has no spiritual or religious grounding--yeah.$$Okay, all right. So this--$$Those are the hippie version, you know. I mean there's, there's looser versions, you know. There's--I think Georgetown Day [School] was hippy-er [ph.] than Sidwell Friends, but Saint Albans [School], which is attached to the cathedral and the church, is much more strict and narrow, in certain ways, than a Sidwell.