Baratunde Thurston Eats His Feelings (With Ice Cream)

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The writer and cultural critic Baratunde Thurston wasn’t exactly a shoo-in for the PBS nature series that now bears his name.

“I was known for race and technology and comedy,” he said in a video interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I had been at ‘The Daily Show.’ I was a very progressive political pot stirrer on the internet.”

Still, Thurston — who hikes and surfs and still remembers his Boy Scout knots — was like, “Yo, they’re trying to have a Black person host a show about the outdoors,” he said. “I’ve never seen that show.”

“America Outdoors With Baratunde Thurston” begins its second season on Sept. 6, and while there’s plenty of flora, fauna and water to behold, the focus is on the people who live, work and play in it. And Thurston gets to tag along: swimming and jet skiing on the Suwannee River in Georgia and Florida, riding with cowboys in Oregon, harvesting ice in Maine, even turkey hunting in New Mexico.

Not that he bagged anything. “I think the turkeys got a memo that there was a newbie out on the hills,” he said while elaborating on Black men’s support groups and the healing powers of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. “They weren’t trying to go out in a blaze of videotaped glory.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1

Librarians are heroes, and libraries are some of our last truly democratic public spaces, literally open to all. I first encountered the ferocious power that is a librarian in the early 2000s. With the Patriot Act and surveillance, librarians were on the forefront of fighting for our liberties.

2

The Blackout Chocolate Cake flavor, oh my God. It’s chocolate within chocolate within chocolate. It makes me go a little crazy because you can’t just have a scoop. But if you’re feeling like maybe your society is tending toward fascism, Jeni’s ice cream can help you process that feeling.

3

I’m deeply committed to my water bottle. I can’t be having four-ounce, plastic, single-use bottles. If I check into a hotel and they don’t have a refilling station, I’m like, “Just so you know, I judge places based on this.”

4

Our culture doesn’t have many spaces for men to be vulnerable out loud or with each other. And for Black men, at times it can be even tougher. We carry a lot. And some of what we carry that is overly burdensome is the image of us that’s been promoted throughout the world: that we are always tough, that we are violent, that we can’t show emotion. Kings Council is a safe space for us to check in with each other, to hold ourselves high and hold ourselves accountable. We have cried so much.

5

Every Thanksgiving we would go to a body of water — the Chesapeake Bay, the Outer Banks, the eastern shore of Maryland. When my mom was dying in Portland, Ore., my sister and I took her out to Astoria Beach as the kind of last hurrah. Every time I’m near the ocean, I have to touch it.

6

Lofi has emerged as the Muzak of now. To take old-school hip-hop and slow it down or to remix things — it’s about vibe setting. There’s one I watch that’s like, what if 1990s hip-hop stars all hung out together in a diner? It’s got Tupac and Biggie and Nas all chilling. It helps me open up when I’m in a creative space.

7

Composting is cocktails with soil and dirt and leaves and grass — you make a mix and you get something delicious out of it. Composting takes allegedly useless things and turns them into useful things. That action becomes symbolic when you apply it to human beings.

8

It is not my first experience of a cocktail, but it’s the first experience that made me say, “Oh. Yeah.” It blew my mind when I learned you could make an old fashioned with rye, as is classic, or bourbon or scotch or gin or tequila or rum. Just spirit plus sugar and bitter. That’s it. People muddling cherries in them are committing a sacrilege.

9

It is so much more than the seat of the federal government. Despite economic development and gentrification and displacement, it’s still a very Black city. There is a texture to D.C. — to the architecture, to the physical layout, to the fashion, to the street names and signs. It loves New Balance to a totally unreasonable degree and has go-go music that has never really achieved escape velocity from the planet of D.C. No one in Los Angeles has ever or will ever rock go-go music, and that makes it even more special.

10

She is this extraordinarily intelligent and experienced political organizer, and she is spiritually aware and developed and enlightened. She appreciates the power of rest and self-care in the midst of a struggle. She reminds me of my mother.



POST AUTHOR: Kathryn Shattuck

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