Time and time again, W. Kamau Bell’s traveling docuseries, United Shades of America, gives me a renewed sense of how not to be an ignorant piece of shit. Whether the topic is the colonization of Hawaii or the realities of what actually goes down at the US-Mexico border, I become better informed with each episode. Bell has mastered the art of casually interviewing a diverse range of people—he listens to understand—and he explains in his book that he’s “built a career on asking ‘dumb questions.’”
Bell’s 2017 memoir, 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 is geared toward the fanbase he gained from a prolific career as a sociopolitical stand-up comic, podcast host, and TV star. In Awkward Thoughts, Bell tries to play it off like he’s an uncool person by nature, but at this point in his career, it’s obvious Bell is something much cooler than cool: He is a good person. Perhaps that’s why he’s able to joke about things like slavery and lynching in a tasteful-but-still-funny manner. Thirty pages in, I had already LOL’d three times in a quiet downtown coffee shop.
Were there also poignant arguments and insights about the world we live in as it has evolved in regards to race relations? Of course! And I love those insights—they’re similar to those Bell makes in United Shades of America. I enjoy listening to Bell explain the lack of options for Black kids trying to identify with superheroes, why “Black” absolutely must be capitalized, growing up feeling like an outsider in Black circles, why he thinks the children’s program Doc McStuffins is one of the best TV shows of all time, and why he’s surprisingly tolerant of Southern white folk who ask if they can touch his hair (“Outside of the South, it’s ‘No, you need to go make some Black friends.’”) Bell’s expression of Blackness is both familiar and relatable, and his parenting stories about raising his daughter are seriously hilarious.
Though I certainly enjoyed Awkward Thoughts, somewhere in the middle I wondered if listening to the audio book would have been the better choice. After all, Bell has three successful podcasts/radio shows where he also tackles an array of topics: Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, Politically Re-Active, and Kamau Right Now! Plus, his recent Netflix special Private School Negro is maybe even funnier than the show I caught at the Aladdin back in 2016. It was a couple weeks before the election, and after his set, Bell announced he wanted to meet fans and take some pics while wearing a T-shirt that read, “Bad Hombre Raised by a Nasty Woman.”
Bell has family in Portland, and it’s a city he’s familiar with. He even filmed an episode of United Shades here—exploring the problematic history behind our highly gentrified city. W. Kamau Bell is good people, and he still knows how to keep it real.