Co-Creating the Universe

By Sacha Zimmerman

Baratunde Thurston ’95—the best-selling author of How to Be Black, host of the podcasts How to Citizen with Baratunde and We’re Having a Moment, former Obama White House advisor, and former Daily Show producer—spoke with Head of School Bryan Garman and Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98 on a recent edition of the School’s Lives That Speak podcast.

Thurston explained how his experiences at Sidwell Friends shaped his writing, comedy, and sense of identity—whether through Black Student Union productions or by taking the long way to School. At the end of a particularly tumultuous 2020, Thurston offered a dynamic and even optimistic epistemology: He described how the narratives we’re told and the histories we’re taught come to define the kind of world we live in; thus, by creating new stories, every person has the power to change their world. 

BRYAN GARMAN: Your first book, Better Than Crying, includes an epigraph from comedian and activist Dick Gregory: “A man has two ways out in life, laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing.” You’re very effective at making people laugh and think. Who inspired you?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: I first understood Dick Gregory as some kind of tofu-eating hippie and not a brilliant comedian or potent voice for human rights and civil rights; I would learn some of those things later. But I found in his voice his path through comedy to something even higher. Then, of course, my mother is my primary influence and the model I had in my house. She worked her butt off and also had fun and was playful with me and my sister—and had high expectations, too. As a kid, I really looked up to Bill Cosby. From Fat Albert to The Cosby Show to A Different World, he was creating universes where I could see myself. Whoopi Goldberg was high on the list of entertainment voices that we would listen to. We’d take her audio cassettes on road trips to the Outer Banks, Virginia Beach, or Chincoteague. In the same mix of audio: Garrison Keillor! Those are some of the folks who influenced me.

BG: You came to Sidwell Friends School in 1989 as a 7th grader. What was it like to be in the School then?

BT: It was weird, man. I got to see a different scene. Born in ’77, raised between 14th and 16th Street on a little street called Newton. I would walk to elementary school, four-ish blocks to Bancroft Elementary. Everybody in that school lived in the neighborhood—everybody. We played together; we ate dinner in each other’s places; we played basketball in the alley. There were, by my recollection, two white children in this school: William and Willa. They literally shared a root name! No one was rich. We were probably poor-ish, but no one really knew, because you just lived in your neighborhood; that was your context.

I visited three private schools, and they all blew my face off because they were so different from my experience. When I showed up at Sidwell, there was a campus. Who has a campus for a 7th grader? That’s crazy. At Bancroft, we had a very large building, and our “playground”—generously titled—was the parking lot. The physical layout of Sidwell blew my mind: the design of the buildings, the amount of light. So much whiteness, which I had not been around, and so many resources. It was jarring, it was magical, it was exciting, it was tense.

I had some cultural confusion and run- ins. I remember nearly getting into a fight with these kids because they made fun of the way I spoke—because I said, “I want to ax you a question.” They just mocked me relentlessly. “Oh, you’re going to take out your hatchet? You’re going to chop it into little pieces to get information? You’re going to ax us?” No one had ever made fun of the way I spoke before; that felt shameful, embarrassing, and infuriating. Bob Williams, the principal of the Middle School at the time—this glorious Black dude with the baritone-ious, bassiest voice—was an anchor in a sea of change. I think my mom felt okay sending me to Sidwell because she felt okay about Bob Williams, that he would have my back and watch over me.

That first year was a little wobbly. But then I had fun. Marcus Shaw was assigned to me as my welcome buddy, another member of the Class of ’95, Black dude, lifer. He started showing me the ropes, and we had a little crew. I remember walking down the hallway with Marcus, and we saw a sign for an audition for the Black History Month Show. I did a little singing in the audition, there was a positive response, and I found myself in theater. So that’s how I remember entering Sidwell: awkwardly, with acne and chubbiness, with a lot of ignorance, a lot of hope, with some helpful guidance, and some guardian angels to help me through it.

NATALIE RANDOLPH: Once you were acclimated to the Sidwell culture, did you merge that with the culture you had at home with your friends on Newton Street?

BT: Sidwell didn’t leave a lot of room in my schedule for merging with anything other than Sidwell. The word that comes to mind is “family.” I developed a bit of family through Sidwell and especially through Black Sidwell. I remember coming home by bus one day and somebody saying something to me like, “Oh, you going to that white School?” or maybe, “Why do you talk that way?” It’s really interesting to get criticized at Sidwell for talking like I’m from Newton Street and to be criticized on Newton Street for talking like I was at Sidwell.

We learn what the world is by the story of that world, as told to us. There’s a great freedom in that. A story can be changed.

The way I physically got to School is a powerful metaphor for the distance traveled. My mother worked for the federal government, and she had to go to work early like any reasonable adult. She would drop me off at a bus stop a little bit south of where we lived. I would take the H2 across town, and it would cut down by the zoo and go up Porter Street. I could either get out and walk the rest of the way or, if I’m feeling lazy, take another bus up Wisconsin Avenue to drop me off right by the tennis courts. Along that journey, I met Neferre Brooks ’96 and her mom. They happened to be driving to School where I waited for the bus. I would regularly get driven to school on certain days because Neferre and her mom would pick me up. We got this little Black car to Sidwell; these working moms driving their little Black kids to this other universe.

I got up so early; we were out the door by like 7:00 a.m. I was usually the first kid at School, and I would eat my breakfast out of Tupperware on the steps of the Middle School. Then kids start to trickle in. You start to see the fancier cars dropping kids off literally on time, as opposed to me: I had to take the early bus from across town. Then after School, you get the extracurriculars. Track in Middle School and Upper School, the newspaper, and the BSU. I just didn’t see neighborhood people is the honest answer. I was in the world of Sidwell pretty full time. I’d get home at dark. There’s no merging of cultures.

BG: From there, you head off to Harvard and are a philosophy major. Then you become a public intellectual. How does that happen?

BT: Well, a lot of roads lead back to Sidwell, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly acknowledge some of the pain and trauma of my time there, which forged me in a certain way to make these other leaps. Sidwell was a bit tritely the best of times and the worst of times, and I found so much of myself there. I found my capacity to lead, to be indignant, to articulate ideas on stage and on page. All of that found its first expression at Sidwell—at Horizon.

Another Sidwell kid saw something in me I didn’t yet see in myself, which was, “I think you could write, you should do the newspaper.” My mom didn’t tell me to do that. My sister who was becoming a journalist herself, nine years older, she didn’t tell me to do that. It was just a Sidwell kid who was like, “You should do the newspaper.” That changed my whole life. The whole trajectory of my story is altered by this one kid, and I remember where I was when he said it. There was a big tree out in front of the Upper School we used to all hang out at, and it was under that tree—like the tree of knowledge. So, I lived the Horizon life, going to the printer’s and being out till 4:00 in the morning.

I got to Harvard University, and I went into a semi-advanced calculus class there. I get the textbook, and it’s the same textbook I used at Sidwell. The head of the Math Department at Harvard wrote the textbook I used at Sidwell. I get into my expository writing class at Harvard University, and I don’t think I’m a good writer. My English teachers at Sidwell thought I could use some work. I write this essay, and they’re like, “You should get this published.” I publish my essay in a campus magazine, and I win an award—judged by Malcolm Gladwell—my freshman year. Sidwell set such a high standard that it made writing and math at Harvard easy. I had confidence and some freedom. I saw other students get to Harvard, get whacked in the face, and run into a brick wall because they didn’t know what was coming, and Sidwell prepared me.

I did a newspaper at Harvard, thank you Horizon, stepped it up to The Crimson. My freshman year, I started writing a comedic email newsletter. It built off of an email newsletter I started at Sidwell, where I shared comedy that I found on the early internet. I was a curator, as they would say today. Then I started writing satirical news and sharing it with my friends. I started an email list, and more and more people signed up for it. That gave me a little pocket to develop my voice—to merge some of this philosophizing with some of this activism-ing with some of this emerging comedic thing to process it all. I would watch Whoopi and listen to Eddie Murphy and Lake Wobegon. I’d read all this inter- net humor and share it—and I’d write. I took my little reporter’s notebook that I got from Horizon, and I just started writing, writing, writing. The winds were at my back at that point; everything else is just a continuation of that.

BG: You’ve talked about living a lie: Whiteness is a lie; race is a lie. How do we move forward from a lie that has very real consequences on how people live their lives?

BT: I’ve learned to naturally interrupt my story with an aside. It’s a check in to say: “I’m still with you. I’m one of you. I’m on this train, too. I don’t actually know everything. I’m not the king of Blackness or wokeness or anything. I’m on the journey, too.” Technique-wise, I throw jokes in and throw asides in to humanize myself, because I know what it’s like to be preached to by somebody who seems to know everything, and it’s very hard to identify with because they seem to be on a different level. I try to sympathize and empathize with the struggle, the plight. I’ve learned to share my version of the thing I’m asking other people to do. I tell this story about the idea of “privilege”— including my own privilege. I can’t be asking you to take some journey I’m not willing to take myself.

We’ve got to celebrate our wins; we’ve got to glory in our resilience. At any moment, any Black person has the right to break out into a joyful celebration for possessing life.

I don’t remember Superman ever wallowing, complaining about his “flight privilege.” It didn’t happen. He out here saving kids, catching school buses, trying to reverse time—using the power he has, however he got it, to help others, to help the many, not just himself. He’s not out here just robbing banks with his flight, justifying it because he can’t help how he was born. He’s trying to serve with it. So how are we trying to use whatever we got to serve? That’s a part of the transition.

The other big piece is that we are living inside of stories mostly. The philosopher in me has come to the conclusion that the idea of the “real world” is slippery. Most of us don’t interact with the real world, per se. We don’t have direct experience with all the things we know to be true. We’re in a faith-based existence. I’ve never been to most places in the world, yet I agree that they exist. How do I know they exist? Because someone told me. How do I know this is how I’m supposed to operate in the world? Because someone told me actively, through words and instructions, or implicitly, through their own behaviors and through incentives and punishments. We learn what the world is by the story of that world, as told to us. Then we get invested in that story, and we repeat it to the next generation.

There’s a great freedom in that. A story can be changed. We can edit it. It’s a Google Doc. We’ve been living in this tiny, tiny story, which has privileged a few at the expense of the many for at least a couple hundred years. We can first acknowledge that: Okay, historical facts, boom, let’s establish that. Then we can honor what it’s gotten us. It helped me become who I am. It is a part of my story. Now it’s time to write some new stuff. Now it’s time to grow beyond it. Collectively, we can look at our past and not be held hostage by the shame associated with it.

I like to think about all the greatness that our species has achieved, that our nation has achieved, with most of the talent not even in the game. Take the white supremacist argument: “Well, the white man went to the moon.” Barely. You might have been to Mars by now! I’m going to look at these achievements as half-empty, because you left out your most talented players. You locked them up. You made them stay at home and raise your kids. You threw them into wars you didn’t want to fight. You made them believe they were less than, such that they didn’t even push as hard themselves. Imagine if you unlock that. And it’s not finite; the “real world” is just what we imagine it to be. We can consensually, collectively, delusionally agree on things like money and Apple computers. Those aren’t real. We can generate so much more if we free ourselves.

That’s the invitation to white people, broadly speaking, white men, more narrowly speaking: This change doesn’t have to be a threat. What a lot of people fear and seize on, what the former president exploited masterfully and heinously, is that this change is going to lead to your destruction, that the only story possible is a story where one person is on top of someone else. So the moment Black people get freed, they’re going to do to you what you did to them, or what your ancestors did to them, so you can’t trust it. I want people to feel like there’s another option: that change is possible, and it doesn’t need to lead to vengeance and petty smallness. There’s a bigger story possible. You can live in a tiny world where a male executive exploits a female employee for sexual gain and power dynamics, or you can live in a bigger world where he mentors her, and as a result, they both make more money and achieve their creative passions.

It’s not easy. And doing it for the downtrodden, doing it for oppressed people—charity and altruism only go so far. I need people to realize they’re going to get something out of it, too. Don’t do it for me, do it for you. 

NR: When I talk about allyship, white folks always ask the question, “What can I do? How do I serve as an ally?” But they should look at it not as “What can we do for these brown people?” but “What would help me, too?”

BT: The good news is, there’s plenty of work to go around. Anything and everything can contribute. I like to tell folks: Extend your time line, and humble your expectations. What we are up against is every industry, every practice, every institution. There is not an institution that has thrived in the past 50 years that hasn’t benefited from this subjugating, oppressive system, because that’s how the whole system was set up. To undo that will take a lot of time. We’re not going to wrap this up by the next fiscal quarter so we can get back to brunch. Folks want to cut right to: “Who do I write a check to? Do I give all my money to Bryan Steven- son’s Equal Justice Initiative or to NAACP or Stacey Abrams? Who can I outsource my allyship to in a transactional way?” But I want people to explore themselves. I want people to look at their family his- tory, look at their financial transactions, look at their associations, and think about what you were taught. Who taught it to you? How do you react? And just be honest with yourself.

Don’t perform it for a person of color. I’m not asking you to flagellate yourself publicly like some puritanical person; do it just for you. Dig into that historical truth for you. I want people to think about their power. I have this podcast, How to Citizen with Baratunde, and we have this premise of what it means “to citizen” as a verb, as opposed to some legal status, which can be weaponized against people. “To citizen” is to show up and to participate. It’s to build relationships with other people, to understand your power, and to do this for the benefit of the many. I know people pay attention to me. So, who am I citing, elevating, sharing? When I put my news- letter together, who are the authors of the pieces? What sorts of publications am I generously offering traffic to? That’s how I have power. It’s not to be ashamed of; we should only feel bad if we’re misusing it or not using it to the best of our ability to contribute. Where do you make decisions? Are there places where people listen to you more than another person? That’s an opportunity. Feel into all these choices. I’m working on it with money. Where do I bank? I’m giving somebody the power of compound interest with these assets, do they have my interests at heart? Can I make a different choice? Start researching. Understanding your power is a critical step for the person who wants to be a good ally.

The last piece is that I want people who want to be good allies to expect to mess up and not be deterred by that. That feeling of awkwardness, embarrassment, or shame when you say the wrong thing or show up in the wrong way—great, you have erred. To err is human. So, let’s allow for that and keep moving.

NR: Finding that balance between understanding that systemic change takes time and that we want to do something right now is difficult. How do you deal with that?

BT: This is all significant work. It is political work; it is emotional work; it is spiritual work. I handle hazardous material every day. You can’t just be grabbing nuclear material with your bare hands. I want us to remember that there’s more to us than struggle. We need to not just define our- selves as the oppressed, the downtrodden, the strugglers. That’s exhausting. We’ve got to celebrate our wins; we’ve got to glory in our resilience. At any moment, any Black person has the right to break out into a joyful celebration for possessing life. We don’t need an excuse to have a block party; every day is a frickin’ block party, because we’re here. If you’re in a Sidwell-type space, all the more. You take everything that institution has to offer, and don’t burn up all of your time feeling bad about the way the thing is set up. You grab what you can, you party like a rock star, and you nudge and you change. You do the wokeness thing, but it’s not your responsibility to be a full-time agent of change for all these institutions. Cut yourself some slack. I want everybody to be forgiving with themselves. Because it can be toxic and exhausting. Remember how great you are.

BG: What is your spiritual foundation? How do you reverse systemic oppression and still find a sense of joy?

BT: I aspire to and often feel a sense of marvel at existence. It’s crazy that we get to live; we get to experience things; we get to struggle; we have emotions. And we are not just passengers in the experience; we get to drive it. We are not consumers of life; we are co-creators of the universe. This energy that’s in us has flowed through countless others and continues to right now and will after we no longer have a conscious awareness of our existence. That’s inspiring to me. I consider myself part of something great. I have felt at times my own ability to contribute to that greatness, to that thing that’s not just me, and that keeps me in the universe. I’m not an observer; I’m not strapped to a table, people experimenting on me like some aliens on a ship. I’m helping the pilot in some small way, for some short period of what we call time.

To renew, I lean into appreciation. I have enough awareness of the relative comfort of all human beings who have ever existed to know that I’m in the top 1 percent of people who ever lived. I’m just so damn lucky.

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