An Awkward Conversation with W. Kamau Bell | Live Culture

An Awkward Conversation with W. Kamau Bell


  • Courtesy of Matthias Clamer
  • W. Kamau Bell
On Monday, November 24, comedian W. Kamau Bell went for a walk near his home in Berkeley, California. Earlier that evening, a St. Louis County grand jury had decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown. Bell was anxious, upset. He needed to get out of the house. He wanted some ice cream.

What happened next is a tragicomedy of errors that Bell details in a recent online piece for Vanity Fair. When he arrives at the bodega, Bell, like Brown a 6'4" black male, goes through a checklist that is likely standard operating procedure for many BBMs — per Bell's VF piece, that's short for Big Black Male. First, he drops the hood on his sweatshirt to appear less suspicious or threatening. He keeps his hands out of his pockets while he browses, only touching items he's certain he'll buy and keeping his palms visible, just like his mother taught him. When he's ready to check out he slowly, "gingerly" as he writes, places his items on the counter. Just as carefully, he reaches for his money. Then something goes wrong.

The elaborate parade of thoughts that marches through Bell's head at that moment — a series of imagined events that culminates with Bell being gunned down, ice cream sandwich in hand, by police — is absurd. So much so that it would almost be funny, except for the fact that the scenario that plays out in his mind contains elements of the shooting deaths of not only Brown, but several other BBMs recently. Though he's one of the country's bright, up-and-coming comedic stars, Bell's story is no joke. And it highlights the unique day-to-day reality of being a large black man in America in a way few of us who aren't large black men likely ever think about.

Bell is hailed as among the sharpest young sociopolitical comedians working today. He's perhaps best known as the host of the critically acclaimed but sadly short-lived late night FX talk show, "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell." But it's his standup act that has really set him apart. To wit, the New York Times called him "the most promising new talent in political comedy in many years." 

On Thursday, December 4, Bell will bring his latest show, "The Oh Everything! Tour" to Club Metronome in Burlington. In advance of that performance Seven Days recently caught up with Bell by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: The ACLU named you an Ambassador of Racial Justice. That's quite a grand title. What does it mean, exactly?
W. KAMAU BELL: You know, I'm still figuring it out. I'm just worried about messing it up. I think when you take a comedian and give them respectability, sometime comedians don't know how to handle when they're meant to be respectable — but we're not talking about Bill Cosby.

SD: Yeesh …
WKB: My thing is that I just keep doing what I do and if I do the wrong thing they'll take it away from me. They have a bunch of different ambassadors. Harry Belafonte is one them, and all Harry Belafonte has to do is continue to be Harry Belafonte. So I have to get better, faster, stronger.

SD: I imagined you swooping in wearing a mask and cape wherever racial injustice rears its ugly head.
WKB: Nope. I do it from onstage. I just wish it came with a badge so I could be walking down the street and randomly break up racism.

SD: I really appreciated what you wrote for Vanity Fair after the Darren Wilson grand jury verdict. Being a five-foot-eight white guy, it made me think about some things I probably don't think about as often as I should.
WKB: The thing that I'm trying to put out to the world is that we can argue all day long — and we are arguing all day long — about whether you think that was justified. I certainly don't think the killing of  Michael Brown was justified. However, you can't, or at least shouldn't argue how people feel. You can't tell me I shouldn't feel this way or that there's not a reason to feel this way. And since that piece came out, a lot of BBMs — "Big Black Males," as I put in the piece — have come out saying, "Yeah, exactly."

I think we're finally coming to a place, for the most part, in places where adult discussions are happening, that women walk around in the world a lot of times feeling like they have to protect themselves from being a victim. And I feel like this is the flip-side of that. We haven't really talked about that. There is fear of black people of any size. But for black people over six feet tall who have some size and girth to them, as I do — I've got some dad weight on me — there's a way that I have to walk through the world, too, to try and limit the possibility that something bad will happen, even if I'm just going out for ice cream.

I sort of wrote that for the Vanity Fair audience. I don't need to tell black people that story. If that piece was in Essence magazine they'd be like, "Yes. I know." It was for people that that idea had never even crossed their mind before. And there are million different versions of that story. But this one literally happened the night of the grand jury decision. I was up and anxious and it was 12:30 and I needed to take a walk and that all happened. So the lingering feeling from that story I felt was inarguable. And if you do argue it, which many people have, then you … are … a … dick.

SD: One of the things that has struck me about the Michael Brown case is that in the immediate aftermath there has been so much outrage and anger, for obvious and justified reasons. It's the hot button issue of the moment. But not that long ago, Trayvon Martin was the hot issue. But then that story faded away and now everybody acts surprised when it happens again …
WKB: I would say, just to be clear, that maybe everybody in your circle acts surprised. In my circle, there's a little bit of an exhaustion over how often it seems to happen now. Sadly, it's not a surprise.

Again, at the end of the Vanity Fair piece I was saying that if it does happen one day that I'm gunned down by a cop, it's not going to be anything where the black community is like, "I can't believe that happened." Maybe, "I can't believe that happened to him." But not, "I can't believe that happened." That's the bummer of this. That's just one of things. The big causes of black men's deaths are heart disease, diabetes aaaand cops. That's just one of the factors. 

SD: You're right, and perhaps surprise isn't the right word. I guess what I was getting at is this: What needs to happen to have the underlying issues at the root of these tragedies in the forefront of people's minds for longer than the week or so after something like this happens and we've dialed up our righteous outrage? 
WKB: At some point, people have to decide what kind of world they want to live in. Do you only want the world to be OK for you? Or do want it to be OK for lots of people? Sometimes people get caught up in, like, "Well, my world's fine. I have Netflix and all my music on my phone and I've got a job. Everything's fine here!" Not to bring up the Vanity Fair thing again, but part of the reason I wrote that was to get people who may not think about this to think about this so that the next time something like this happens, you're not sitting on the fence. Because it will happen again. But the next time, you're armed with this information and you can talk to your fence-sitters.

I think we all need to reach outside of ourselves and our circles and not to the people who we're fighting with on Twitter to pass time. The people who are like, "I never thought of it this way," that's who I want to talk to. We have to be willing to have those awkward conversations before we get angry. Or at least not get angry about the awkward conversations and let it be awkward and work through it. 

Baratunde Thurston wrote a book called How to Be Black [laughs], which is a great book. He had a "black panel" in it and I was on it. So one of the things I said in the book was that all of us who are working on the side of good should have to work on a cause that is not our own for a little while. Like, black people would have to work on immigrants' rights. And immigrants' rights workers should have to work on marriage equality. And marriage equality people should have to work on inner city public schools. We get caught up in our own causes a lot and we don't realize that you don't just want this thing to be good, you want all of it to be good. 

SD: That's a great idea.
WKB: And white people would work on everything. [Laughs] 

SD: That's probably fair. In your standup, you initiate many of those awkward conversations. But you're able to do it in a way that, while still provocative, isn't so aggressively confrontational that people are running screaming for the exits. You're coming to Vermont, which is one of the whitest places in country. So how do you walk that line between pushing buttons and alienating your audience?

WKB: I try to address each audience in the way that they can best handle it. That doesn't mean that I'll soft sell it. It just means that I know that if I'm in an environment that is mostly or all white people, then I know a lot of what I'm saying is going to come off like court testimony, because there's not black people in room going, "Mmm-hmm. Sure!" Or what will happen is that those black people who do come — and I'd be surprised if there were no black people in the crowd — I'll form a bond with them early in the show and go to them repeatedly and when they're laughing hardest and be like, "Look at the person. And look at this person." I'll do anything I can do to let people know that their reaction isn't the only reaction.

There have been times when I've  performed at colleges for "Diversity Week" and I was the diversity. So you highlight that, like, "See, this is part of the problem. Where are the other people?!" So, I don't write new jokes, but I try to point a show in the direction that's going to be received by the people in the audience. And sometimes there are tough moments and people leave. It's hard to hear this stuff. But still the goal is laughter.      

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