Big Time

The second season of W. Kamau Bell’s hit TV show premieres this month, and the Berkeley resident’s new book is about to drop.



Photos courtesy of CNN

W. Kamau Bell is a big man with a big voice having a big moment. On April 30, CNN is going to launch the second season of Bell’s Emmy-nominated show, The United Shades of America with Kamau Bell, a docuseries that features the East Bay comedian exploring social issues through U.S. subcultures, ranging from the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas to spring break partiers in Daytona Beach.

And in early May, Penguin Random House is set to publish Bell’s first book. It, too, is big—352 pages—and it has a big title: 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.

“I don’t believe that a title can be too long,” laughed Bell, who attributes a love of words to his mother, who is a writer and publishing consultant (cisgender means Bell identifies with his birth sex, and blerd means he’s a black nerd).

“I just love new words, and words I haven’t heard before and that aren’t in common parlance,” said Bell, interviewed recently at home in Berkeley after a city-hopping series of 19 appearances around the Bay Area and nation in January and February.

Bell’s facility with language in service of laughs, confronting racism, and advancing progressive politics, has earned him a devoted following, particularly in the Bay Area, where he has lived and worked for most of the past two decades.

Last season, United Shades of America ranked first in cable news among 25- to 54-year-olds in its time period, and attracted the youngest audience, according to CNN.

Bell isn’t taking anything for granted, though. He previously had another television series called, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, a weekly stand-up comedy series that later became a daily late-night talk show. Chris Rock was the show’s executive producer.

“I really honor this moment and know that I can’t really expect that it’s going to last forever because that’s not how this works,” said Bell, a married father of two girls who in 2011 was still hoping for a big break. “It’s a lot, but I also remember when it was nothing.”

 

In the new season of United Shades of America, Bell visits rival gang members in Chicago and gets them to sit together around a table for a conversation; drops in at the now-gone Standing Rock protesters’ encampment in North Dakota; and interviews white nationalist Richard Spencer at the January event where his supporters were taped giving the Nazi’s “Sieg Heil” salute.

Bell’s schedule is hectic and varied: in Oakland one week taping for CNN at the New Parish theater and hosting a KALW public radio show at Laney College, the next “edutaining” with his solo show at colleges like Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Bell, whose given name is Walter, says he got “hustle” from both his mother, and his father, who managed to become Alabama’s insurance commissioner and chairman of Swiss Re America Holding Corp.

“I learned how to work from my parents. My mom was self-employed for most of her life.

“If she didn’t get up and make things happen, there would be no groceries or rent,” Bell continued. “And my dad has worked in corporate America most of my life, but as a black man he knew, ‘I have to create my opportunities, otherwise I will always be in the same position.’”

After Totally Biased was canceled, Bell and his wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, moved their family back to the Bay Area from New York City, settling in downtown Berkeley after failing to find adequate housing in Oakland—their first choice. “I have a lot of love for Oakland,” Bell said.

The Bells felt that the Bay Area was where they most wanted to live and raise their bi-racial children because of its cultural diversity and the widespread tolerant and progressive attitudes. “This is where I am meant to be,” said Bell, who admits to having his own eyes opened regarding treatment of women and gays by local residents.

Yet Bell, who grew up in Indianapolis, Boston, Chicago, and Mobile, Ala., does not give his love unconditionally. As with so many metropolitan centers, Bell sees the place he loves threatened by gentrification. “The thing that makes cities great is that people of all levels live there,” he said. “If I look up in 10 years and artists can’t afford to live here, and working class families can’t afford to live here, and elderly people are pushed out of their homes and apartments so they can make room for people with more money, then we’ll move.”

The Bay Area also has warts that many people don’t want to talk about, particularly when it comes to racism, Bell said. “Part of the responsibility of living in the Bay Area is to hold it accountable for the standards the world thinks it sets for itself,” he said.

A case in point is an incident Bell addresses in his upcoming book: In 2015, Bell was shocked when he approached his wife, who is white, outside the popular Elmwood Café in South Berkeley, where she and some other new mothers were lunching, and a server rapped on the window and tried to shoo Bell away under the impression that he was bothering customers.

Cafe owner Michael Pearce apologized repeatedly after seeing a blogpost by Bell and his wife about the incident, and he fired the server, though Bell never asked for that and later said he didn’t want it.

Pearce subsequently promised at a public forum to work with Bell to develop “implicit bias” training tools for people working in restaurants and retail settings, but Bell said that Pearce didn’t follow through and in fact stopped returning messages.

“I was just saying [to Pearce], ‘What’s the work you’re doing? Who’s helping you? Can I help you? Can we meet to talk about it? Can you call me? And you know, he stopped answering my emails,” Bell said. “Maybe I was being annoying, but I think I had a right to be annoying.”

It’s a bit of a sore point with Bell because he often passes the usually packed cafe going to and from his daughter’s school. “I used to give them [Elmwood Café] the benefit of the doubt. People would ask me about it and I would say, ‘Well, we’ll see,’” Bell said. “And now I’m just like, ‘I can’t do that anymore, it’s been over two years.’”

Jamie Almanzán, a Berkeley consultant who helps schools address inequity and implicit bias, was one of the panelists at the public forum where Pearce made his pledge. He said that with the support of the general manager he helped the restaurant put on several training sessions for employees, but he does not know what happened after that.

“I think the opportunity fully for the community to have a conversation was missed,” he said.

The ImplicitBiasTraining.com website to which Pearce directed inquiries and suggestions in 2015, meanwhile, remains a landing page promising future developments. A recent reporter’s email to the site and a request for comment left for Pearce at the Elmwood Café went unanswered.

For his part, Bell turned his appraising eye on his own show, which he realized part way through the first season had only one person of color: him. With the increased clout he got from securing a second season, Bell pushed for some staffing changes and brought in, among others, showrunner Donny Jackson and LA comedian Ron G. as a consulting producer. Bell said he wanted another black person to help him with writing some “charged” material.

“I can’t make a show that’s about inclusion and not be inclusive about the staffing and production,” he said.

 

Published online on April 12, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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