It’s D.C. in the 80s, and young Baratunde is doing tae kwon do. Or maybe it’s karate. Or Boy Scouts. Or tinkering with one of the first personal computers on the block. As he remembers it, family friends would say he had the face of a young Muhammad Ali. Never one to settle on a single path, Baratunde was already beginning to form a worldview that’s best encapsulated in a few sentences from The Greatest: “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion.”
Today, Baratunde is nothing if not himself. “First and foremost,” he declares, “I’m Baratunde. It’s a unique job title.” Flip through his stories and you’ll find a few alternative vocations: vigilante pundit, love-letter writer, media critic, your personal tour guide through Black Mirror IRL. Offline, he performs stand-up. He boxes (or practices yoga, depending on the day). He tries to be an informed, engaged citizen at a time when doing so is… challenging, if we’re into euphemisms. It all falls somewhere under the “comedy” umbrella — Baratunde calls it “pro-justice comic expression.”
But humor is a many-edged sword. It cuts as it heals. With internet credentials including former Digital Director at The Onion and co-founder of Jack and Jill Politics, Baratunde knows how to make us laugh — but also how to make us think (often, about why we’re laughing). His bestselling book, How to Be Black, satirizes identity politics and narrates his childhood. With chapters on “How to Be The Black Friend” and “How to Speak for All Black People,” it interrogates the media’s increasingly glib way of talking about race.
The book’s premise took shape back in D.C., where Baratunde developed a complicated relationship with being black. His father was killed before he was 10, a casualty of D.C.’s crack scene. His mother programmed government software by day and practiced political activism by night. In sixth grade, he left public school for Sidwell Friends, the alma mater of President Obama’s daughters. “I was exposed to significant numbers of white people for the first time,” he remembers, “and that took some work… but it worked out.”
In school, Baratunde was the tech whisperer. The kid in the lab, dialing up Dr. Internet. (“I didn’t have any girlfriends until college,” Baratunde reminisces, “probably because of the damn computers.”) As a writer for the high school newspaper, he covered the day the school’s library first connected to the Internet (capitalized, like a newly discovered planet). Two decades later, he republished the article on Medium, triggering waves of collective nostalgia.
His fascination with tech evolved into an obsession with words — spoken, recorded, pixelated. If speech is like whittling, Baratunde imagines, “writing is like full-on sculpture.” After he was commissioned by National Geographic to investigate high arrest rates for black citizens of Gretna, Louisiana, Baratunde felt there was still more to say. So he turned to Medium, and — in a trilogy of stories — took us behind the camera. From being heckled by locals as he films on the street to riding shotgun with a bounty hunter in a car named “Relentless,” he showed us how much legwork it takes to get under the hood of race relations in America. (Turns out it takes… a lot.) It’s the same kind of hyper-engaged digital work he did as a producer for The Daily Show, where he gave us The Zuckerbaby (and other gems).
What keeps Baratunde showing up? Ever-expanding possibilities for digital expression. “My interest in tech is not gadget-based; it’s freedom-based,” he says. Especially in today’s political climate, humor is a necessary refuge. “Laughter’s a pretty good drug, and it’s not heavily regulated, at least not yet,” he contends. Comedy gives us an intellectual high, and the internet is our best dispensary.
Baratunde sees a future where, through comedy and expression, we can hack humanity — not a biohack, exactly, but “an educational, media, and cultural hack.” A way to hard-code the lessons of history into society. To upgrade our collective firmware, so we can stop repeating the same mistakes. His words are an open beta.
Hear Baratunde’s tech-inspired vision for the future in our short film.
Expect more punch-ups in Baratunde’s biweekly column for Medium members, Active Citizenship. Including audio narrations by none other than himself, Baratunde addresses everything from mass incarceration to data detoxes. “Words are my friends,” he says, “and they’ve gotten me through some tough times.” Here’s hoping they’ll get us through these turbulent times, too.
Check out some of Baratunde’s most Noteworthy stories:
In 1993, This Is What I Wrote About The Internet Coming To My High School
This spring, I attended my 20-year high school reunion at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. In between…
What Mansplainr, a Business Card Gun, and 145 Other Funny App Ideas Say About Today’s Tech Culture
For three years, the company I co-founded, Cultivated Wit, has been producing hackathons built around humor. We call it…