W. Kamau Bell has a lot to say. Take the title of his new book for example (it’s a mouthful): “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.” Bell, who is also the host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” has been promoting his book on a tour around the country.
After an early flight from Chicago to Los Angeles and a long photoshoot, Bell spoke with the Emerald on the phone about the power of humor and his interviews with white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.
“The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell” explores many of his life experiences with racism, marriage and comedy. He shares about his family and praises his mother for the way she raised him. When speaking to his own children about mature issues, he said that he does what his mom did with him — he puts things in words they can understand. “You want to reward your kids for curiosity,” he said.
Despite being a multi-talented comedian, Bell is still a family man.“I just have to make sure when I‘m doing the work I feel good about it and that when I come home I’m present with my family,” he said.
On “United Shades of America,” Bell goes places that aren’t necessarily inviting to people of color. Season two of the docuseries premiered on CNN on April 30. This season finds Bell documenting issues such as immigration, gun control and violence in Chicago. He also sits down with Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank.
As a comedian, Bell uses humor to break the ice and provide comfort during the tensest of interviews. “I feel like people don’t understand this, but humor is power,” Bell said. “So if you make somebody laugh, you are connecting with them. You’re saying, ‘I understand what you’re saying. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with you, but I understand what you’re saying.’ You’re seeing somebody in a new way.”
Bell said that using humor puts people in a different place than expected: “they’re not focused on that unique situation — they’re just focused on their laughter.”
The most notable of Bell’s interviews occurred during the pilot episode of “United Shades,” when he visited rural Kentucky to speak with an Imperial Wizard of the KKK and watch another active KKK group burn a cross.
“They had certainly never done that kind of thing with somebody like me before. There was just sort of a casual racism to it,” Bell said. “Like they didn’t call me the N-word. That’s just their life.”
“They had pride, and I think everybody should have pride in what they are and where they come from,” Bell continued. “But their pride had been twisted by a very dark corner of this country’s history and I’m like, ‘I wish you had something else to have pride about than this.’”
After challenging interviews, Bell said he unwinds with emotional eating, a couple drinks and a phone call to his family. He is very aware of the emotional toll some interviews take on him and admits that, “When it’s over, you just want to do whatever you can to let it go.” He makes sure to eat healthy and get enough sleep, which he says can be a challenge considering the late nights and early mornings that filming demands.
In regard to America’s current political climate, Bell is striving to improve the dialogue about discrimination. He said his hope is that, “the work that I’m doing, work with my friends and work that people I admire are doing corrects the path that we are on right now.”
As a father of two young girls, Bell’s work as a socio-political comedian, television host and author holds extra weight. Bell’s daughters are 5 and 2 now, but when they are adults he wants them to be able to say, “That was weird when America did that,” about Trump’s election.
From his podcast about Denzel Washington to his stand-up comedy and TV show, Bell has always been passionate about his work to make a societal impact. “United Shades” may have been nominated for an Emmy, but Bell’s pride remains with his family.
“I was doing this before I had kids but when you have kids you just start to take everything more seriously. Comedian is what I do, but Dad is what I am.”
Kamau Bell will perform at the Hult Center at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 19. Tickets range from $28.50-71.50 and can be found here for his stand-up comedy show.