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SXSWi Keynote Recap: Baratunde Thurston

In a full exhibition room with thousands in attendance, humorist and author Baratunde Thurston took the stage for SXSWi’s most highly publicized keynote speech. Thurston, best known for this work as the web editor of satiric newspaper The Onion, has recently been touring the country in support of his new critically acclaimed “self-help” book, How to Be Black.

Thurston began his keynote speech simply by saying, “I am a very social dude.” He then went into his own personal history, as well as that of his grandmother (who was the first black person to work in the Supreme Court Building) and his mother (whose own social networks changed when she found herself marching alongside the Black Liberation Army). Thurston joked that, while many other children probably began reading See Spot Run, his first book was This is Apartheid. It was through talking about his political upbringing that he transitioned into his talk of “sacred clowns,” comedians who fight for free speech through clever humor.

In the current data age we live in, Thurston argued, “change is constant.” So, when institutions like government bodies and companies fail to lead the average person to a wise resolution, who do we have left? Thurston praised “sacred clowns” like Bassem Youseff, an Egyptian cardiologist who eventually became known as his country’s equivalent to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, the writers of the Wazobia Report, Nigeria’s version of the Onion, and the creators of Parazit, a brave satirical show in Iran that the government has attempted to shut down by forcibly removing citizens’ satellite dishes.”This is about freedom,” Thurston remarked, and ended his speech to thunderous applause.

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