Imagine my surprise when Baratunde asked the dozens of us squashed into the Red Eye Fly bar to not record or tweet what he was about to share. His story was personal. This, coming from a King of Social Media with over 21, followers on Twitter. I was intrigued. Here was a public figure who had decided to share something personal in a public forum but with some very clear parameters for how public.
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Baratunde cofounded the black political blog, Jack and Jill Politics , has advised the Obama White House, and has over a decade of experience in stand-up comedy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. TGD Traveler: The perfect travel-sized version of our beloved large format magazine—small and light enough to take anywhere—packed with the same inspiring content our readers love. Joyously singing and clapping Birth canal!
Birth canal! I came out of a birth canal! That was literally my path. Next question. Tina: Tammi , our intern, is going to have to figure that out. Tina: So what are you doing now, other than making us laugh? There are three of us at its helm, and we combine the power of comedy and technology to explain complex ideas; tell stories in unique ways; and humanize technology by deepening its relationship to humor and creativity.
Sometimes we act as an agency by doing marketing campaigns with wit and digital pizzazz, but we tell our own stories more directly. We also do original productions, like the show Funded on AOL. I wrote a book called How to Be Black , which I continue to support by doing talks on race, identity, politics, diversity, activism, media, and the new versions of all of them. Yes, they are. Thank you. I think my life is best explained by the lives that came before mine. My great-grandfather was born into slavery in Virginia in —a year when that should have been legally impossible, but things are sometimes inefficient in America.
He moved to Washington, DC, and the big family lore is that he taught himself how to read. She was the first black employee at the US Supreme Court building, and there was even press about her.
By the way, most families are dysfunctional—if a family looks happy, then their secrets are usually even darker. She was raised in a very Christian household—Baptist, with a white Jesus on the wall—which she left to become a black activist, civil rights street protestor, and radio station takeover specialist. I was born in , and I have an older sister, Belinda, who is nine years ahead of me.
Our fathers never lived with us. My father was killed during a drug deal when I was six years old. He was the user, but no one knows exactly what happened. No one was ever caught, and there were no arrest records—just a death certificate and a body. My mother never graduated college, but she was smart as hell and worked her ass off to get us a house to live in.
She distributed Yellow Pages and sold dinners that we never got to eat to other families; she was a domestic worker who cleaned floors; she did paralegal stuff and secretary work.
Eventually, she got herself a good job in computer science and became a programmer. She did that without any formal education, in the late s, as a single black woman living in Washington, DC. She just kept applying herself, studying, and busting her ass. Because of her, I grew up in a house full of fun contradictions rather than stereotypes.
We lived in a mostly black and Latino neighborhood, and we were the only house that had a computer—an Apple IIe. Tina: I remember that one. Larry Bird. Tina: I was into Oregon Trail myself. I played that, too. My mother had forged her own identity and path, and she wanted that for me, too. My mom over-populated my schedule with stuff, in part to keep me safe, but also to expose me to the world.
The first chunk of my childhood was full of adventure: camping, swimming lessons, bike-riding, youth orchestra, Boy Scouts—my mom just kind of farmed me out. I remember two Latino guys named Pepe and Pinky who ran a bike shop; then there was a photographer named James, who played the cello and bass, worked as a bicycle courier, and owned several massive fish tanks with all sorts of fish—he was like five dudes in one.
When I look back on it, I can see that I had an early dosage of possibility from the relative lack of limits my mother set up around me. When I was in the seventh grade, there was a phase when DC got more dangerous. We saw drug deals outside the window and our mayor, Marion Barry, smoking crack on television—we had the original Rob Ford. My mother switched me from public school to Sidwell Friends School, which was part of the private school system.
It was a very awkward adjustment: there was money, power, political kids, and white people everywhere. I exercised a lot of who I would become while I was at Sidwell. I became very political on campus about issues of justice, particularly racism. I also found out that I loved writing. Before high school, I had been all about math and science, but a friend of mine said I should try out for the school newspaper, and I loved it. The first time I was put on panels was when I spoke for Sidwell at independent school conferences.
I became a student representative, so I spoke to boards of parents, helped organize protests, and had meetings with the headmaster. I also discovered the Internet in high school. At home and in the library, I used bulletin board systems, which connected through dial-up.
Parents of a Sidwell student worked at one of the Internet backbone companies, and they donated a full-time high-speed connection to the school. I was present when they installed it over the summer, and I was one of the first people at the school to have an email address.
Discovering the Internet changed everything. My first real act of subversion was through the Internet. A friend of mine had been expelled, and we all thought that the way it went down was unfair.
The committee that did the convictions was stacked: the same administrator who had found it was also on the judging committee. When my friend sued the school, I decided to do something. I had access to the deposition transcripts because I knew how to find court records online. I distributed the records selectively. Then I made dramatic black-and-white wanted posters with mugshots of the principal and dean of students along with a list of their alleged crimes.
Did I mention I was a very self-righteous and dramatic person? I wanted to effect a dialogue, so I went to school early and plastered the walls with the posters. I had also covered the gym with the posters, and the meeting essentially became a rally—it was really nefarious shit.
High school is when everything starts to flower: acne, love, aggression, boldness, and confidence. I had tipped off the newspaper about the case because I wanted to get the word out. I eventually ended up attending Harvard, so maybe future me saw it as poetic justice? The fake account I created was called theinformant knowledge. I basically saw myself as a digital Deep Throat.
Reading How to Be Black on the subway platform, because why not? No one knew I had done it. I kept my mouth shut. Tina: Did the friend who was expelled know what you did for him? I was able to keep it a secret for two years, until I was a freshman in college. Where did you go to college? I ended up getting accepted to Harvard early, despite my wishes to avoid your kind. Some of the funny was born in high school, when I found humor through the Internet and spread it around through email lists, becoming a curator of jokes.
Before college, though, I was a serious, self-righteous, holier-than-thou individual. I remember hanging out with some of my black friends after school and they were talking about how much they loved the Redskins. I demanded justice, but, obviously, nobody listened. Once I got to college, things got a little more refined. I was a member of the black organizations, but not in the same way I had been in high school.
I ended up starting a satirical newsletter at Harvard called NewsPhlash because I had always been obsessed with the news. I still had a column in the school paper , but NewsPhlash became my creative home. It was a big part of college, and helped form the path that led me where I am today. I ended up staying in Cambridge and doing theater instead. Did you know what you wanted to do when you were younger? The idea of what my path would be has changed over time.
I was mostly drawn to it because I liked public speaking and being on stage, and the idea of having a resonant connection with an audience and communicating something of a higher purpose to them was instinctual for me, even at an early age. I was always a smorgasbord kid, though: I loved playing bass in my youth orchestra; I loved hacking away on the Internet at night; I loved writing for the school newspaper and advocating for justice—or what I saw as justice.
But once I got into high school, things started to shift towards writing. College was when I started to think about my future differently.
I thought about being a teacher so I could channel wisdom of some sort. I also thought about getting involved in a tech startup, since those were beginning to be a thing in Writing for the newspaper was a precursor to my stand-up, and sitting on panels for Harvard relates to my public speaking.
The Great Discontent