I am a fan of W. Kamau Bell. The sort of fan who would watch or listen to him if the media he was on was available or I happened upon them while channel surfing. How could I not be a fan? He represents a part of all people. That part that is, more often than not, afraid to face the discomforts of race, sex, politics, religion, friendships, tolerance (thank you 45) and acceptance.
I heard of Bell several years ago, but only in passing. He was described as the really tall Black guy with the equally impressive “free-style” Afro. That description did very little to pique my interest. I wanted to know what he was thinking, not what his physical characteristics were, but when I was told that he was ‘on point’ and spoke in an uncommon manner about common (if controversial) matters I sought him out.
Bell is principally a West Coast comic who was primarily doing a west coast circuit, or so it seemed. I remember seeing him for the first time on some forgotten television program (maybe Totally Biased). I was laughing aloud at his routine, Googling his name, and trying to understand exactly where he came from. Then, oddly, I lost track of him. But he left an impression, and I waited for the next time he would emerge with his commentary on social issues. A couple years later Bell reemerged as the host of the CNN’s REAL reality/ docu-like show, United Shades of America, and I, as if his apparition publicist, tooted the title from the bell tower (no pun intended) to all who’d listen. His work was genius, in a dry, academic, conscientious sort of way. The odd, edgy, thought-provoking show was at times unnerving (see the KKK episode and look at Bell’s nervous expression) and at other times addictive and hopeful.
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, confirmed my appreciation for Bell as an Everyman. The book exposes Bell true character beyond the television personality, and perhaps, the on-stage comic. The reader is taken on a fantastic journey through his life. He writes about his never married parents (there are no stereotypes here, his parents were both professional people), the woes of childhood, his attraction to all things nerdy, his initial awareness of being “different” (must read the ‘no kiss for you’ part) and the importance of remaining steadfast even when against all odds. The book exposed him as the skater guy who couldn’t skate but cheered for his skate-able comrades because that’s what friends do. If Bell had never mentioned where he planted his roots, it would still have been obvious that he has a California heart.
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 part biography, part history lesson. Bell gives real thought throughout the pages of The Awkward Thoughts. His position and thoughts on racism, although he is in an interracial marriage, are both profound and powerful. His straight line position is that racism is an indicator of something other than the color of one’s skin. He projects that the racist is as he is because he feels that something of personal value (opportunity, usually) has been taken. But, Bell surmises, that is not the crux of the problem. The issue, on a deep dive, is not color but promises not kept and one’s inability to venture beyond their disparaging place for better opportunity. This trap keeps families frustrated, downtrodden and angry. Someone has to be blamed. And the flame of their despair is being fed by the ignorant rhetoric of the man behind the white curtain, further searing their souls with speak of immigrants (illegal) and others stealing their hope. Even a first-week psychology student knows that seething words of the blame on depressed ears feasters unreasonable thought.
Bell urges people to read. To venture beyond the rhetoric and develop one’s own opinion. He sites Ta’Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander as must-read authors. He speaks of his ‘not such a good student’ high school days, but how he was accepted into Penn State (although it was very short-lived). He shows that even the wayward can and often will eventually find their way, if only they listen to their inner voice, and venture along those paths that others may fear to tread. This, Bell states, is the story he’d tell his daughters, who seemingly settled him, but keep him hungry for the next level.
The book concludes with Bell writing about an incident that occurred during his birthday. He and his wife sat (outdoor seating) in a favorite brunch cafe in Cali. When the meal was over he left, temporarily, but his wife remained, engaged in conversation with friends. When Bell, all 6’4″, Black, and militantly coiffed, returned to the cafe, he stood over the table where his wife and others sat. Then, he writes, an overzealous waitress knocked on the window from within the cafe to get his attention. Not knowing who he was or why he was there, the waitress tried to ‘shoo’ him away, assuming that he was harassing the white women. Rightfully, Bell and his wife were infuriated. Shortly after verbalizing his embarrassment and humiliation he organized a meeting based on racial tolerance in the gym of a local middle school. The owner of the cafe attended and tried, passionately, to sympathize his way out of the issue, acknowledging the depth and seriousness of the misunderstanding, stating that the essence of the cafe was and always will be tolerance, but the more he spoke the more Bell and others realized that he didn’t understand. If tolerance was true, and not just a statement of liberal comfort, the waitress would not have approached or mistaken him [Bell] as a street person. After all, Bell writes — building upon the insult– she did not approach the white man with matted hair panhandling outside the door of the cafe for well over an hour, at all.
Indeed Bell has experienced these situations, directly and subtly for a majority of his life. Indeed, and sadly, all Black people have, whether they see it directly or choose to ignore it. In The Awkward Thoughts… Bell not only found and projected his comedic voice, his talent, his story, he, without trying, found and projected ours.