Baratunde Thurston Teaching Us How To Be Black and Good CitizensEpisode 38
Emmy-nominated and New York Times Best-Selling author, comedian, and commentator Baratunde Thurston has some laughs with longtime friend Dr. Christina Greer as they talk Black history and their shared love for nature and travel.
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[00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network Black Culture Amplified?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:00:06] Hi, and welcome to the Blackest Questions. I’m your host, Dr. Christina Greer, politics editor for theGrio and associate professor of political science at Fordham University. In this podcast, we ask our guest five of the Blackest Questions so we can learn a little bit more about them and have some fun while we’re doing it. We’re also going to learn a lot about Black history. Past and present. So here’s how this works. We have five rounds of questions about us. Black history, the entire diaspora, current events, you name it. And with each round, the questions get a little tougher and the guest has 10 seconds to get it right. If they answered the question correctly, they’ll receive one symbolic breakfast and they’ll hear this. And if they get it wrong, they’ll hear this. But we still have them anyway. Our guest for this episode is Emmy nominated producer, writer and commentator Baratunde Thurston. He’s the host and executive producer of America Outdoors on PBS.
America Outdoors [00:00:58] How does our relationship with the outdoors define us as individuals and as a nation?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:01:03] And he’s also a New York Times best selling author. His comedic memoir, How to Be Black, introduced him to the world back in 2012, and his TEDx talk has been called one of the best of all time.
Baratunde Thurston [00:01:13] I survived something that should not require survival.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:01:17] He also has a podcast called How to Citizen, which was named one of Apple’s top podcasts of 2020, and he’s a founding partner and writer at the new media Startup. Baratunde, thank you so much for joining us here. Black As question.
Baratunde Thurston [00:01:31] Chrissy is so good to be here. In between me taking all the jobs. What’s up?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:01:37] Listen, you know I love all the jobs. I should have put in the bio, also a friend of Chrissy Greer for a good 25 years. That goes in the bio as well. I’m so happy to have you here. We’re going to jump right in and then we’ll talk about all the things. Past and present. Okay, you ready for question number one?
Baratunde Thurston [00:01:51] I am ready. Let’s go.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:01:53] Question number one, the Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., is 12 acres and located in the Columbia Heights neighborhood and has an informal name that many people use to describe it. What is this unofficial name?
Baratunde Thurston [00:02:05] Malcolm X Park?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:02:07] That is correct. The area where Meridian Hill Park is located has an extensive history because of its location overlooking the city during the Civil War. It was used as an army encampment and at one time was the home of former President John Quincy Adams. The area was eventually bought by a wealthy couple who decided to turn the 12 acres into a park. And then the political rally. In 1969, an activist proposed officially renaming the park to Malcolm X Park, but it was never approved by the city. So after some crime issues and some vandalism in the nineties, the park was designated a national historic landmark and has gotten a revamp. And on Sunday afternoons people gather to have drum circles and it’s become a major attraction. So we know that you spent some of your childhood in Columbia Heights, right, in Washington, D.C.. Tell us about that.
Baratunde Thurston [00:02:53] Yes. So this was in my life and understanding always and only Malcolm X Park. I literally didn’t know people called it or that it ever had the name Meridian Hill Park until about a year ago. I was looking it up and I was doing some research in my old neighborhood for a creative project, and I was like, What the hell is Meridian Hill? What kind of gentrifying nonesense is going on? And then it’s like, oh, fax, whatever. Yeah, it was it was a special time to be in Chocolate City in the District of Columbia during the fall of our mayor. The great Marion Barry is a awesome time to grow up under the influence of Chuck Brown and boom in Go-Go music. And it was a violent time. Crack cocaine. Gangs. Which affected my family, my friends, my whole sense of reality. But I also love DC. I love Chocolate City. I love the size of it. I love the Blackness. You talk about the Blackest Questions, DC is the Blackest city and it’s the Capitol. And the thing I liked the most is that you have this city which should be a state, by the way.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:04:05] Right. We’re pro-statehood on this podcast.
Baratunde Thurston [00:04:08] Literally, you know powers the federal government you got all you know a lot of people like to talk trash about the federal government, especially Republicans, but people in general. And it’s just it’s just a bunch of Black people keeping together like we’ve been doing from the beginning, the Government Accountability Office, the Social Security Administration, like. Everything. The Postal Service. Yeah. All the. All the stuff people rely on day to day. Like, if it broke down, we’d have revolution in the streets. Like we were French people, that’s Black folk. That’s DC Black people keeping it movin. So I just deep love for my people of Washington, D.C. from the district.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:04:48] Yes. Well, I got to say, you know, you’re on the Black Questions. I love Baltimore. Now, I will say I love Marion Barry. He’s one of my all time favorite mayors for a host of reasons. You know what he did for Black people, especially during his first term as mayor and in some of his second. I do prefer Baltimore House Club music a little bit more than the D.C. Go-Go. That’s okay.
Baratunde Thurston [00:05:09] You’re allowed to make mistakes.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:05:12] And the beauty of it is we have so many beautiful Black cities. But transitioning to season two of your show on PBS.
Baratunde Thurston [00:05:20] Yeah.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:05:21] Did you grow up in D.C.? You know, did you enjoy nature in D.C.? Did you go and check out the cherry blossoms? Did you spend time in various parks or, you know, have you always been an outdoorsman or is this something that you’ve grown into since you’ve left the district?
Baratunde Thurston [00:05:35] It actually is the opposite. It’s something I grew out of after I left the district, and the PBS show has helped bring me back to my childhood. So I grew up for people who really want to get a mat and drop some pins. I grew up at 16th and Newton Street, so really Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, like the border. And I’m I identified more with Mount Pleasant since that’s where my school was. And most of my friends were just across 16th. That’s where the line is. We have Rock Creek Park constantly biking and playing foolishly, you know, dangerously in that park. As part of childhood, we had the paddle boats downtown and my mom and my sister and I would go down and get on those little paddle boats and around the reservoirs and all the monuments. We’d go down the Haines point where the cherry blossoms were, and this beautiful statue called the Awakening and a golf course. First time I ever saw golf in my life was this public golf course on Haines Point in D.C. And I was a Boy Scout in D.C. further up 16th Street and went camping. My mom was in the Sierra Club. We hike Casino Canal, D.C., D.C., not to mention Virginia Beach, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and all the access you have north and south and I-95 corridor take you up to Maine all the way down to Florida. My whole outdoor identity started because of where I was born and because my mother was a really adventurous woman who made me get out of the house.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:06:57] Well, I mean, you know, I always think of D.C. and Baltimore also as very southern cities as well.
Baratunde Thurston [00:07:03] Yeah.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:07:03] You know, because there is so much beautiful nature. I mean, I will say this as a political scientist and, you know, some Black folks like, you know, they bristle when I say this. I think this is one of the most beautiful countries, you know, when you drive around. And that’s the beauty of your show. So tell us a little bit more about America outdoors, because we have so many different you know, we’ve got deserts and mountains and rivers and lakes and streams and, you know, oceans, plural. Yeah. So like, tell us a little bit more about what to expect from season two of America outdoors on PBS.
Baratunde Thurston [00:07:30] So. So the premise of the show is that we were exploring all kinds of Americans and their deep relationships with outdoors. And then we’re doing it in a way that is farther reaching than most outdoor presentations have done. So we have extreme athletes. We’ve got classic hikers and outdoors people. We also have people who work in the outdoors.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:07:52] You’ve got birders like me?
Baratunde Thurston [00:07:54] Yeah, yeah. We got wildland firefighters, who got crabbers and ranchers. And I’ve gotten to see a lot of the country freshly because of that show. And it is beautiful, Chrissy. America is beautiful. It’s not just a song.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:08:10] No, and I tell my students to drive cross-country at some point in time, you know, the northern route and the southern route to also see how we’re supposed to all be connected, not just racially and ethnically, but geographically, topographically. You know, you’ve got flatlands people are supposed to be with the mountain people, the desert people are supposed to be with all these different climate.
Baratunde Thurston [00:08:29] When you start spending time with the nature part of America, it makes more sense why the people are the way they are. Like we are a product of our environments. And you know, New England is jammed up and it’s cold and that’s the people, you know. And you could go where there’s river people and there’s mountain people and there’s plains people and there’s humid, sticky, sweaty people like America is. And really specifically the United States of America is a product of its environment. And we have a lot of indigenous voices in the show to really roll the clock back on, you know, whose land this really is. Season two, we’re doing more of what we did in season one in new places. We have some winter activities. They got your boy out in the snow, in the cold. I was in Florida, Chrissy I was in Florida, in North Florida, which is very southern.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:09:28] That’s where my grandparents are from.
Baratunde Thurston [00:09:29] Yeah, it’s always Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia. And we followed the Swanee River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and picked up stories and followed people along the way. Black motorcycle club, Puerto Rican jet ski clubs. Like scientists who are working to preserve manatees and alligator snapping turtles. And I held a snake. There’s more wildlife in this season and I hope we’re better just because we know more of what we’re doing. My enthusiasm is untamed this season.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:10:05] Well, we’re going to take a quick commercial break. I with Baratunde Thurston. We’re talking about season two of his PBS show America Outdoors. Before we go Baratunde, you know, my third grade science project was Don’t Be a Manatee Buster is about saving the manatees in Florida. Since my parents my grandparents are from northern Florida in a little town called Yulee is where they were from. My dad was raised in Miami, so I’m strong, strong Floridian.
[00:10:29] I have episodes for you.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:10:29] Oh, it’s just for me. We’re going to take a quick break and join us Back in the Blackest Questions in just a moment. Okay, We’re back. I’m here with my dear friend Baratunde Thurston. He is the host of season two of America Outdoors on PBS. Be sure to check it out. Question number two Harvard University is making history this year when it will name its first Black president in the school’s nearly 400 year history. This woman. Here’s a hint. Well, I’ll only be the second woman to hold the position and she begins her role this summer. Who is she?
Baratunde Thurston [00:11:02] Oh, she’s she’s a Black one’s going to be president of Harvard University. That’s who she is. She’s a leader and a pioneer.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:11:08] That’s right.
Baratunde Thurston [00:11:08] She is unbent and unbowed. She. She has a name. But why limit her? Well, why limit her to to the syllables of a name bestowed upon her? Maybe Black people need to practice a religion our ancestors practice. Like. I don’t want to get specific here, Chrissy. I will honor the idea of the woman. I’m not about labels. You know what I mean?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:11:28] That’s right. But here on Blackest Questions we’ve got to have a quick label for those people who are playing along at home. And so this is a shout out to our Haitian listeners. This is Claudine Gay. Political scientist I might add.
Baratunde Thurston [00:11:39] There you go.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:11:39] So, Claudine Gay, has a long history with Harvard, she received her Ph.D. from the institution in 1988, and she served as the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 2018. She also taught courses at the university focusing on racial and ethnic politics in the U.S., Black politics of the post-civil rights era. And with her appointment five and soon to be six of the eight Ivy League schools will be held by, will be led by women. That’s Harvard, Dartmouth, Penn, Cornell, Brown and Columbia will also have a female president starting this summer. So, I mean, you know, women are taking over the Ivies in more ways than one. And so I know, you know, we met when you were at Harvard. I was hanging out, my sister basically not going to high school because I was too busy hanging out in Cambridge. But, you know, you you graduated from Harvard with a degree in philosophy. Let’s reflect back on your time in Cambridge, being Black in Boston. You know, as you travel the world, you know, for America Outdoors on PBS and your new show. What what sort of reminds you of sort of your days in New England? Have you gone and taken the show up there? And if so, what’s changed and what’s stayed the same?
Baratunde Thurston [00:12:41] Oh, my goodness. So first of all, I’m embarrassed that I forgot Claudine Gay’s name. I was so she was blowing up a group chats of various communities. I’m a part of in terms of the Harvard Black Alumni Network, so very excited for her, wishing her luck, stewarding this mammoth challenged institution and the troubled waters ahead. It sounds like everything she studied and taught is illegal in Florida as well, so I just wish her the best with relationships with the universities down south. Her up north, as the case may be. My time at Harvard. Oh, my goodness. It was the best of times. It was the worst the time. Boston is a cold and bitter place with cold and bitter people who have lived there for 12 years. I call it my 12 Years a Slave. I forgot you can leave. And and when I realized that I did a lot of love, a lot of love mixed up in my story there. It’s where I became so much of who I am. I met some of the best people, which happens to a lot of people who go to college. I don’t know that Harvard gets credit for that, but they said yes to a lot of us and we said yes to the institution. Just as important, I think it’s the people who make that place. It’s just a powerful institution on its own. So we gave a lot of our beauty and energy and brilliance to the institution, which allows it to continue. And I want people to to know that, especially in the bar, that they’re waiting for those college applications to come back to you right now is a big deal for you to accept them as well as for them to accept you.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:14:09] I think about the, you know, the friendships that I made, not just at Tufts, where I went to school down the street, but, you know, the three years before I went to college, hanging out with my sister and spending so much. Time with all these brilliant, beautiful Black people who were just smart, fun, interesting, interested in the world. You know, so many of you have gone on to do we’ve had Diallo Riddle on the show, a friend of theGrio. In many ways, you know, he’s gone on to do so many creative endeavors. You know, obviously, we’ve got people in politics, in medicine and law and, you know, tech, you name it. And I’m just I’m so happy to have known all of you from when we were all young little teens, you know, just trying to figure it out. But having this city as a backdrop. That wasn’t always welcoming, but, you know, kind of made us a more tight knit group sometimes because it wasn’t so welcoming. We sort of relied on each other as family and friends.
Baratunde Thurston [00:15:02] We figure it out. We make a way out of no way we feel. I think a lot of that being at a place like Harvard, anything that has like rarefied energy, there’s a sense of burden and responsibility. You know, we’re not just individuals there where many of us are carrying our families. Some of us are like the first in our families. There’s a lot of immigration stories. There’s a lot of financial challenges. Also legacy, right? It’s not just like broke Black people or New to America. There’s some folks who’ve been there for some generations and have a lot of stories to tell and a lot to still contribute. But the, you know, the institution ultimately is fully constructed for us. I don’t think I’m walking out on a limb when I say that. And so navigating those waters when I arrived, Professor named Harvey Mansfield was all the buzz, basically saying, we don’t belong there, we’re not qualified. It’s just affirmative action. The bell curve had come out this pseudo scientific explanation, quote unquote, for why Black people just aren’t as smart as white people. That came from a Harvard credentialed professor. Tom Cotton also came out of Harvard. Right. So there is that humility is is required when assessing anything great and being honest about the whole story is part of how you can celebrate a place. And that’s whether it’s Harvard and it’s up and down legacy. What do United States of America? And it’s up and down legacy. So I’m a proud alum. I have served I’ve paid my debts except for my phone bill. I somehow graduated without paying a Harvard phone bill, and I’m going to take that as a teeny, tiny down posit. I’m going to take that as a teeny, tiny down payment on reparations.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:16:44] That’s right. Hashtag reparations. You know, I always tell people before we go to commercial break, it’s like I went to a HWCU. You know, I went to a university that was founded, informed for the production of knowledge for white people, you know, and somehow I would to, you know, people use PWI and I’m like predominately white institutions.
Baratunde Thurston [00:17:01] Do you have a special tax bracket HWCU’s?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:17:03] Yeah, I was like, Howard is an HBCU. I went to a HWCU.
Baratunde Thurston [00:17:07] Yeah.
Baratunde Thurston [00:17:08] still a philosophy just totally different racial group.
Baratunde Thurston [00:17:11] Definitely a racialized, you know, origin story in terms of who it was designed to serve and educate. Yeah.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:17:17] Sometimes we’re reminded of that. Okay. We’re going to take a quick commercial break. I’m here with my friend Baratunde Thurston. We’re talking about all the things, but especially his new season of his show on PBS, America Outdoors. We’ll be right back. Okay, Baratunde, that we are back playing the Blackest Questions. Are you ready for question number three?
Baratunde Thurston [00:17:35] I am ready.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:17:36] Okay. This comedian and actor became the first Black man to host a late night talk show in 1989. It ran for five seasons. What show was this?
Baratunde Thurston [00:17:48] Wait a minute. Okay. I’m going to take out loud. Don’t give me any, like, visual feedback. When you say a comedian, actor and late night show. It went to Robert Townsend as I thought he had the first TV show. But I don’t know if it was a late night show. And like Chris Rock Show came later. Arsenio Hall.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:18:07] There we go. Arsenio Hall, just a year after his iconic role in Coming to America. My favorite movie, by the way. Arsenio debuted his late night talk show rivaling host like Johnny Carson and David Letterman. The show quickly became a hit with younger viewers who were not regular watchers of late night TV. And our studio featured talent who weren’t typical guests on rival networks, people like Tupac Shakur, Magic Johnson, Paula Abdul. Queen Latifah, my favorite.
Baratunde Thurston [00:18:31] U.N.I.T.Y.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:18:33] U.N.I.T.Y. That’s the Unity. Listen, that album still slaps, okay? And in 1992, the show had one of its most memorable moments when the presidential candidate, then Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, appeared on the show and played the saxophone. So I don’t know about you, but I remember sort of staying up to watch as the new hall, you know, or sometimes putting it in the VCR and then watching it at a later time, but definitely seeing way more Black folks on television that we weren’t accustomed to seeing on, say, the Johnny Carson than the David Letterman’s and then ultimately the Jay Leno.
Baratunde Thurston [00:19:04] It was a family event.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:19:04] It was it really was.
Baratunde Thurston [00:19:06] I think from a historical perspective, folks should be, myself included, really excited about the volume and range of Blackness that is available in the form of moving images. It is not always been this way. There’s a lot more distance to cover. But we got you mentioned Diallo. Right. Had two shows on television at the same damn time. Right. That’s ridiculous.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:19:34] Diallo Riddle and Bashir Saudi, the creators of South, one of my favorite shows, and also Sherman’s showcase. Check it out.
Baratunde Thurston [00:19:40] They’re both ridiculous shows. There’s a freedom to be Black in so many different ways, from insecure Black to Atlanta Black. To all the stand up comedy Blacknesses that are out there nerdy and ratchet and everything in between. So, you know, back in the late eighties, early nineties, it was like a special event. It was like a family reunion. It was breaking news. Black person going to be on TV. All right. You’ve got to support.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:20:09] And have a thoughtful conversations when our city would have them on the couch and really get into it. You know, I distinctly remember Arsenio talking to Magic Johnson at one point in time about and his son coming out as gay and what that meant for him. And, you know, and I think these are just important conversations that we’ve had. Now, who’s your favorite comedian?
Baratunde Thurston [00:20:27] Oh, my goodness. Don’t make me do this. Okay.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:20:30] You know what I should say, who are some of your favorite comedians or do you enjoy watching? But I think because there’s so many talented folks out there and shout out to Roy Wood Jr, who’s a friend of the theGrio and has been on the Blackest Questions and played well.
Baratunde Thurston [00:20:44] Now, with that, I got to say Roy Wood Junior is one of my favorite comedians. Actually. Roy is a great person. I’m so lucky. I got to work with him for a brief time at The Daily Show when we overlapped. The Richard Pryor is a classic. Who does it go out of style for me because it is worth watching and rewatching. I, I like the weirdness and innovation. Are we talking about Black comics or just comics in general?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:21:12] We can talk about comics. Louis and Joan Rivers. I grew up. She was one of my all time favorite.
Baratunde Thurston [00:21:16] Like, Yeah, I, you know. It’s kind of like the other end of the spectrum when I say Bo Burnham and that he put out this special during the pandemic and there’s just like innovated the form heavily and differently. And I just, I love when people re mix and match and kind of push the bounds of what’s allowed. And I feel like Bo has done that. Plus, if you didn’t know, like Bo Burnham, that sounds like it could be like a Black ass name, but he’s not. He’s very not Black and and yeah, actually well I from the younger era Hasan Minhaj’s specials have really blown me away and I think he’s also pushed some of the bounds and his multi-media inclusion. I’m a sucker for a PowerPoint presentation. And and what he did with Homecoming King still stands out to me as like a real high point in solo stand up on stage delivery. What he brought kind of a cast with him in the form of those visuals. A little jealous, lowkey jealous, but also really excited.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:22:18] I’ve seen more and more comedians using different meat, you know, different mediums and PowerPoint and different ways to sort of articulate their jokes. And, you know, I think the role of the comedians is so important, I’ve said this to Diallo several times, You know, as someone who studied, I was a classics minor in college. But, you know, the the quintessential occupations in society that have existed since the time of, you know, the Greeks in the Romans. Like if you could only have four. You’ve got doctor, lawyer, teacher and comedian. All right. I mean, the role of the comedian is essential in society. Okay.
Baratunde Thurston [00:22:51] When I was a kid in the in the Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights neighborhood. We would listen to Whoopi Goldberg and we had a lot of, you know, LPs and then cassettes. So we the cassettes we’d take on these road trips, going camping and and play just over and over. Whoopi Goldberg and these characters. I still remember Fontane. This woman is so ridiculously talented.
Whoopi Goldberg [00:23:15] 1994. And it is hitting the fan. Women are pissed. That’s why they go yay. Yes, you’ve done it now. You do.
Baratunde Thurston [00:23:28] It’s easy to forget or not know, depending on when you were born. You just like, Oh, Lady from The View. And like that is.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:35] Right.
Baratunde Thurston [00:23:36] Completely missing the point.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:36] Hosting the Oscars. I mean, just, you know, like when we say just a trailblazer, an EGOT winner, I mean. Whoopi. Yeah. I think most people of a certain age just see her as one of the ladies at the table and, you know, squawking on The View and that.
Baratunde Thurston [00:23:50] She built the table.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:51] Yeah, exactly.
Baratunde Thurston [00:23:52] It’s really important to me that you dig into the archives, check out some Whoopi comedy.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:58] Okay. So we’re going to take a quick commercial break. I’m going to be thinking about Bo Burnham, and I think I’m going to revisit some Whoopi Goldberg after we leave the show. All right. We’ll be back with Baratunde Thurston, my good friend and host of America Outdoors on PBS Will be right back. Okay, we are back. Baratunde, are you ready for question number four on the Blackest Question?
Baratunde Thurston [00:24:17] Let’s go.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:24:17] Okay. This public library has a massive and impressive online catalog of Black history. They also house historical maps, newspapers, census records, and documents known as the Slavery Pamphlet Collection. What’s the name of this library? And here’s a hint. It’s located in the northeast part of the country.
Baratunde Thurston [00:24:41] And this is going to be a wild guess, but I like to show my work in my process, which I didn’t do on that first question. Northeast pamphlets, a lot of freedom stuff, a public library. Did you say it was? Okay, then I’m going to hazard a guess. It is the Philadelphia Free Library.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:25:01] No, it is the Brooklyn Public Library.
Baratunde Thurston [00:25:05] No.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:25:07] Our listeners will soon know why Baratunde is having.
Baratunde Thurston [00:25:10] I’m really wearing the t-shirt right now for the Brooklyn Public Library.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:25:13] Yes, he is. So for those of you who are listening to this podcast, not only is Baratunde wearing the t shirt, he also serves on the board of said Brooklyn Public Library.
Baratunde Thurston [00:25:23] I used to apparently I used to serve on the board as of this moment because I think I just got booted off for failing. That’s a ridiculous. How did I mad when you started? No, just I got it. I got to like, get out ahead. When you started and you talked about just free access to resources, my first thought was like, Oh, BPL, of course. And just the way they’ve opened up stuff like books on Banned, which is this shirt I’m wearing right now for those states that are banning and burning books. Again, Brooklyn Public Library is providing virtual access to like a Brooklyn public library. But then I was like, Oh, no, that’s just like, I’m not going to my library as I overthought it. Classic Harvard alumni move. Like, Well, the freedom is the free post free library. Have a free program with the slavery papers.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:26:09] The Brooklyn Public Library.
Baratunde Thurston [00:26:12] Look at that. Okay.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:26:13] You can try and scrape this episode. This at least this question, you know, when you go to your next board meeting. But Brooklyn Public Library is one of the largest public libraries in the country, is in the top ten most of the most visited public libraries. It was established in 1852 as the Brooklyn Anthony and Reading Room and was a private subscription library for men only. It took nearly 30 years for it to be to be changed into a public library in 1878, and today it houses more than a million items, including video on African-American history. And as Baratunde mentioned, they’re doing amazing work, providing access to library subscribers and also young people across the country who are getting books banned in their communities. And they have a great library card program for high school students, which makes me so proud to be a member and a donor to the public library. And so you’ve written several, you know, books, but one of your books was the New York Times bestseller How to Be Black. Tell us how you got into your work with the Brooklyn Public Library and just, you know, put in a plug. I know you travel across the country. You know, in New York, we’re dealing with sort of defunding of our libraries, and they serve as such crucial institutions for all different types of people, but especially our young people.
Baratunde Thurston [00:27:28] So I got involved with the Brooklyn Public Library first as just a Brooklyn resident and doing events at the library to connect that history point. You know this well. Many listening will, some will not. Frederick Douglass, essentially one of the founding, you know, voices of this country, issued a famous speech, What to the slave is the 4th of July. I did a dramatic kind of reenactment remixing and reading of that at the Brooklyn Public Library in the Duke Center in the basement there. And it went off really well. I’ve hosted other authors and Q&A is there. I’ve done at least four events at the Brooklyn Public Library at some point during that run. They reached out and said, like, Hey, I live in Brooklyn and you love the library and books. We think you’re good for words and whatnot. Do you want to, you know, serve? And I was appointed as a trustee by then-Mayor. Oh, I So erased this dude’s name from my memory.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:28:31] De Blasio, Bloomberg. You know, was it’s not Koch, it’s not Dinkins. I definitely don’t think it’s Giuliani’s one.
Baratunde Thurston [00:28:39] It was the last one. Oh, my goodness. I will blame COVID on that. So, yeah, And then I got an inside view of the funding of the services of the program for people who are incarcerated and those who love them and want to connect with them. And reading hours for kids and the number of languages and communities like the Brooklyn Public Library is one of the biggest employers in Brooklyn. Most residents live within walking distance of a branch. And you know, I do this podcast How to Citizen, where we take the word citizen as a verb, and we just are in our fourth season right now. And one of the things that I love about all libraries is that they are places where democracy still happens as a practice. This is accessible to everybody, regardless of your legal citizenship status. There’s a lot of citizen ing activity that goes on passport photos, English as a second language with wi fi. So yeah, it’s just amazing. Public service, amazingly representative, amazingly inclusive, and and it’s one of the few institutions that still truly, you know, of, by and for the people.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:29:46] Yeah, I love a good library. And, you know, I’m so worried that, you know in our. Funding struggles in so many cities. You know, the first things people think to cut are the public library systems. And so for all of our listeners out there, whatever city you live in, please support your local public library.
Baratunde Thurston [00:30:01] The libraries catch people, yo. It’s just like folks who are unhoused have a place to go and look for jobs, air conditioning, trying to learn a language, have a place to go. Folks with kids have a place to go when it’s raining outside. You got a place to go? Yeah. And books are expensive. You know, the core process like to be able to to be able to lend a book out and return it. Like, that’s just as a beautiful concept. I grew up in libraries in DC and so, yeah, I echo your call wherever you are right now, there is a library near you that could use your help and that you could probably benefit from. And with that, I’m going to double check what’s going on in L.A. libraries right now after this.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:30:41] Thank you. Oh, good. Excellent. All right. We’re going to take a quick commercial break. I’m with Baratunde Thurston, host of America Outdoors and PBS and host of the podcast that you just mentioned, How to Citizen. And hopefully by the end of this podcast, a board member of the Brooklyn Public Library. We’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back. I’m with my dear friend Baratunde Thurston. We’re having a little two words, part of the Black of questions. Are you ready for the fifth question?
Baratunde Thurston [00:31:10] Probably not.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:31:10] Well, okay, come on. We got friends. We got this. I support you. 25 years of friendship. I got you.
Baratunde Thurston [00:31:17] Huh?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:31:18] This hip hop figure sold his company to Apple for more than $3 billion back in 2014, making him one of the first hip hop billionaires in history. Who is he and what was the product?
Baratunde Thurston [00:31:30] It’s clearly talking about Vanilla Ice and the white airpods. You know, that was that was. Nah, it this is Dre. Unless there’s another hip hop billionaire acquired by Apple and Beats by Dre, Jimmy Iovine, the whole thing.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:31:43] Absolutely. So Apple paid $2.6 billion in cash, gave Dr. Dre another $400 million in company stock. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was interested in beats. Not so much for the actual headphones, but rather beats music, which was a streaming platform that had been launched along with the headphones. After acquiring beats, Apple discontinued the streaming service but used the technology and rebranded it, launching what we now know as Apple Music. So basically we have Dr. Dre to thank and his team for how we now get our music today. So Baratunde, are you a tech guy?
Baratunde Thurston [00:32:15] Very, very much. In fact, I just I’ve been writing a lot of pieces about A.I. and whatnot over in Puck. Paid for college by being a tech guy literally like supporting people with their computers, installing things, fixing them when they’re broken. Yes, I’m a tech guy.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:32:33] So tell us, A little bit more about Puck, and B, can you tell me if I should be nervous about ChatGPT as a professor? And is A.I. going to take over and these like robotic dogs, are they going to just be running our cities in the next ten years? What’s going on?
Baratunde Thurston [00:32:49] All right. So Puck is a media company founded by John Kelly and a bunch of folks who left their full time journalism jobs to. You can kind of think of it as like a hybrid between a traditional newspaper and a substack where, you know, it’s like kind of on your own and doing everything for yourself. In the newspaper. You have all this staff and overhead, but things also move very slowly. And as a contributor, as a writer, you don’t necessarily own the thing. So, so in Puck you know we in the in the founding partner writing crew have a stake we’re part owners of the business and puck covers power in the US Wall Street, Washington, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. We just added fashion with a writer of fashion just very recently. And I’m not a reporter. I don’t have sources. I’m not a reporter. I don’t have sources. I don’t like niche people out of their board meeting. I write, you know, opinion pieces related to race, technology, democracy and sometimes climate. And so it’s a good place for me to get some runway and think out loud, not in social media snippets. So on air has been a big topic of debates and excitement and worry for me over these past few months as these generative A.I large language models like ChatGPT are in public now. As a professor, you should be concerned, you should be aware. I don’t know how you test for that. I feel like, you know, I was just speaking to a friend who’s got kids in school, in high school, and the teachers are switching to oral exams because you are 100% know, like what is emitting from that child is actually coming from them in the moment and opposed to a copy and paste job.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:34:35] I still have in-class written exams. I still use blue books. I’m that professor.
Baratunde Thurston [00:34:39] No.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:34:39] Oh yeah. I love the blue book.
Baratunde Thurston [00:34:41] You have instituted a time machine.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:34:43] Yeah, but, you know, they’re like “my handwriting is terrible.” I said “Well it’s not going to get better if you don’t practice.” Let’s get it together. And if I can’t read it, it’s wrong. Welcome ot the blue book
Baratunde Thurston [00:34:51] I love it. This is going to be. We have always I mean, through literally the history of our species, we’ve employed tools of various kind and technological innovation to help us get things done. And so these autocomplete language models and visual, they make music. They make visual imagery as well. They are part of a tradition of us leaning on other capabilities to enhance our lives. The category of this one, the speed, the scale is a next level thing. Like your word documents will write themselves. Your PowerPoints will create themselves at least a first draft. And then so we become something different in terms of how we get things done. And it shifts the creativity and skills test to like, Do you know how to ask the right questions? Do you know how to prompt this machine? We move from software engineers to prompt engineers and that’s a mini edged sword. You know, the opportunities for misinformation, bias, what is not included in these training sets that have these models determine what is good or real or not is a huge cultural question. But it’s, you know, one we’re going to have to keep wrestling with. And I think there’s a lot of creative possibilities for Black people, for folks seeking freedom and liberation, for folks who’ve been behind to kind of help catch up if we structured it the right way. Otherwise, it will just concentrate wealth and resources among those who already have it, like many other innovations.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:36:22] Yeah, that’s the piece that I think I’m a little worried about. But yeah, it does make me feel better knowing that you’re in the space and shout out to our good friend Ron Williams, who’s also in the tech space, you know, just.
Baratunde Thurston [00:36:31] Ron and I have a lot of conversations about this stuff and when. When we and I use we in so many different collective senses. But this is the Blackest Questions, right yet. So when we are able to catalog our own knowledge, you know, when we are able to query our own selves and experiences with a tool like this that’s generative and regenerative, that I’m interested in regenerative AI, you know, for our souls, for our relationship with the planet, for our climate, not just, you know, generative for the sake of extracting more resources and leaving waste behind that someone else is going to have to clean up. Or we’re running out of finite resources, which I don’t want that.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:17] We’re going to take a quick break and we’re going to come back and play Black Lightning. Can’t wait. .
Baratunde Thurston [00:37:21] Are we going to come back. We’re going to come Black.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:23] We’re going to come Black after this commercial break.
Baratunde Thurston [00:37:26] Be right Black.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:28] Okay. We’re back with my good friend Baratunde. We’ve been playing the Blackest Questions. Baratunde, are you ready for the Black Lightning round?
Baratunde Thurston [00:37:36] You know, I used to read Black Lightning comic book as a kid. Almost. Yes.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:39] You’re completely ready. So there are no right or wrong answers here. This is just for you to tell me the first thing that pops to your mind. Okay.
Baratunde Thurston [00:37:46] Dangerous game.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:47] Dangerous game, right? This is PG and it’s for the children. Here we go. Now, are you playing Uno or Monopoly?
Baratunde Thurston [00:37:55] Uno.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:56] What’s your favorite city and why?
Baratunde Thurston [00:37:58] DC. Chocolate City. It’s the, you know, the nation’s capital and where I grew up.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:38:03] Okay, what’s the best piece of chicken? The. The chicken wing, the flat or the drum?
Baratunde Thurston [00:38:09] The flat.
[00:38:10] Hmm. My sister.
[00:38:12] Because you got to work for it and it’s crispier.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:38:17] My sister used to always give me all the drums, and she would take all the flats. And so I, I like flat, I think. But I just sort of like every time I eat, when I feel like it’s like a delicacy, it’s like I’m stealing. Okay. What’s your favorite thing to do in nature?
Baratunde Thurston [00:38:33] Oh, float like Janelle Monae. Just float. Oh.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:38:39] Okay. I’m going to see.
Baratunde Thurston [00:38:40] I like to be in water in nature. Doesn’t much matter what kind, the river, lake, sea. But to be able to float. Salt helps. So, you know, if I’m picking a body, the Mediterranean holds me best with my dense, dense Black bones. I love to float in nature.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:38:57] Okay. And if we’re in the U.S., was all head to Utah and go to the salt lands. Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Baratunde Thurston [00:39:03] Oh, I’m both okay. You can’t force me to choose between my kids. I grew up with both of them, and somehow I’m one of those people that connects with both. My wife doesn’t trust cats. Oh, she thinks they’re kind of evil. Because they don’t like her, but I love cats and cats love me. But I also love. Yeah, I just. I’m a cat and a dog person.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:39:24] You should be both, I think. I think that there’s space and there’s beauty for both. Okay, last one. We know you’re a big advocate of getting people involved in local politics. Are you going to vote early? Are you going to cast your your ballot on voting day?
Baratunde Thurston [00:39:36] Oh, here’s what’s likely to happen. I’m going to pre fill out my ballot and think I’m a drop it in the mailbox early, but I’m run out of time or misjudge my calendar, end up racing it over to the library, put it in the slot. I like the sticker. I like to get the sticker person.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:39:53] I mean the stickers, the stickers, everything, right? I mean.
Baratunde Thurston [00:39:56] I’m still five years old.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:39:57] Best marketing tool, ever. Baratunde, I want to thank you so much for joining us on The Blackest Questions. I want to wish you the best of luck with Puck, with your podcast, with your season two of America Outdoors, Your podcast How to Citizen. Just wanted to make sure I plug that to listeners and check it out. Please promise to come back and talk to us and play more games with us On the Blackest Questions.
Baratunde Thurston [00:40:16] I absolutely promise it. And the Keep Things Blackish and Black-est what we have in this season. We have Adrian Marie Brown to kick off season four on this on this podcast we have Ruhollah Benjamin Well, I would say Ruhollah got you all in check. No one’s ever said that before. I’m told the original first Black person ever to comment in such a fashion. Just I’m really proud of the voices that we have. But those are some of the Blackest voices in our season.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:40:41] Wishing you the best of luck, I want to thank you all for listening to the Black. This question. This show is produced by Sasha Armstrong, Jeffrey Trudeau, and Regina Griffin is our director of podcast. If you like what you heard, subscribe to this podcast. So you never miss an episode. And you can find more from theGrio Black Podcast Network on theGrio App, website and YouTube. Thanks so much for listening to the Blackest Questions.
Panama Jackson [00:41:03] Coming this February, theGrio Black Podcast Network presents Dear Culture: True’ish Black stories.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:41:11] When you think of sheer artistry, sheer creativity, the ability for someone to bring Black people together in the most fundamental ways. It’s, you know, I would say of my four, Randy Watson’s my number one.
Michael Harriot [00:41:26] When the news about Ricky first broke, what I heard about it is the thing you hear about, you know, every time somebody Black dies that it was gang related. That means the police don’t know what happened. So they just said probably the gangs, probably, you know, the other Black dudes.
Damon Young [00:41:42] When I think of Akeelah you know, I think about I just think about how impressionable white people can be. I think about how, you know, if you watch that movie again, you know, he should’ve lost like three times.
Panama Jackson [00:41:54] Where were you when you heard the story about them suckers getting served by waves, dance crew?
Shimira Ibrahim [00:42:01] You know, it’s crazy that you mention this. So as a New Yorker, right, Everyone knows where they were. Oh 911 Right. You know, couple of years later, Right. It’s 2003 Everyone hears about this crazy moment in a boxing ring because that’s where dancers duke it out. Right? In Boxing rings.
Panama Jackson [00:42:18] If you could say something to Ricky right now, what would you say to him?
Monique Judge [00:42:22] Ricky, you should’ve never got that girl pregnant. You knew I had a crush on you. You should have got with me instead.
Panama Jackson [00:42:27] Moments in Black culture examined like never before. Join us each week as we dive into the Black moments that changed us. That changed the world. Make sure to subscribe to Dear Culture so you never miss an episode.