Laughing Through the Pain With Kamau Bell

by Christopher John Stephens

4 May 2017

Why The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is the book we need to get through these times we don’t want to be in.
 
cover art

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

W. Kamau Bell

(Dutton)
US: Feb 2017

In his eponymously titled new book The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, Bell—who describes himself on his website as “Socio-Political Comedian & Dad”—is comfortable with labels. He recognizes the sometimes suffocating effects of political correctness, and if this book does anything it should help more than just mainstream America (whoever and wherever that is) adjust to this “new normal”.

The book sells itself as “Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.” It’s certainly more than a mouthful, and in other hands it would be ponderous. Bell seems aware of that and in this book he helps navigate the skeptical reader into what might be considered the “post- post-racial” world.

Walter Kamau Bell was born in 1973 to a heroic mother whom he describes as “…a race warrior and educator in the true senses of the words… an outside hustler.” Once settled in Chicago, Mom created for only child Walter a book she called Famous Black Quotations. Bell’s father was “… a semiprofessional photographer, turned oldest rookie bank teller even at forty, turned insurance salesman, turned vice president of a Fortune 500 company.” Where Mom was an “outside hustler,” Dad was an “inside hustler,” and Bell’s voice laying out his origin story is both compelling and humorous.

The ten chapters in The Awkward Thoughts of W.Kamau Bell go beyond societal racism and into the personal. Stories are punctuated by thoughts about superheroes, sports, the Disney comic hero Doc McStuffins, the Rocky film, Creed (2015) and film icon Denzel Washington. At first these thoughts seem incidental, discursive, detours from a standard narrative. Shouldn’t this book be about how this man entered the world of stand-up comedy in the early ‘90s, struggled to find a voice (ideologically, or simply as a funny performer), and eventually created a comfortable compromise, asocio-political one man show of theatrical performances and comic club hilarity? The simple answer is yes.

These punctuations, however, serve an interesting purpose. Bell is particularly taken with Doc McStuffins, a black six-year-old cartoon girl with superhero powers (she can talk to and heal her dolls) which he believes expanded possibilities for his daughter; in this character, she felt she could be a superhero. Creed spoke to Bell as the greatest entry in the Rocky film franchise, and he makes a good argument for that. Bell is an unabashed, excited Rocky fan, and it’s fun to read him contextualizing where and how each film played in the superhero canon and in his own life.

The passage about Denzel Washington, at the end of Chapter 3, will encourage those not familiar with it to seek out Bell’s Earwolf podcast about the actor (“Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor of All Time. Period.”) Bell uses Washington as a launching pad to discuss deeper issues of inclusivity, representation, and universality in popular cinema.

Bell has found his niche as a TV host (CNN’s United Shades of Black) political talk show/podcast host (Kamau Right Now and Politically Reactive), but the disconnect he feels as a comic still seems to be having an impact. “Sometimes I wondered if I’d just grown up as a comedian in the wrong time,” he writes, in Chapter 3, “My Awkward Start in Stand-Up Comedy”, “The ‘70’s are my favorite era.” By the time he reaches his awkward middle (Chapter 4), and relates the story of what seems to be his political awakening in responding to the racist drag performer Shirley Q. Liquor, Bell provides what was obviously the no turning back catalyst that brought him to the mindset he developed in his 2007 one man show Ending Racism in About an Hour, which he continues to develop and perform.

By the time we reach Chapter 10, “My Most Awkward Birthday Ever”, he’s set the foundation for the story of his altercation at the Elmwood Café in Berkeley, California. Bell, married to a white woman, had gone to buy a book (The Case for Loving, about the landmark 1966 interracial Supreme Court case.) He returned to meet up with his wife, who was sitting outdoors at the café. Once he approached his wife, a waitress watching from within the cafe assumed Bell was a beggar. It’s a story that blew up and became the catalyst for deeper discussions in one of the most presumably politically “#woke” parts of the country. Bell notes:

In my life… laughter can be healing… if there’s another thing I’ve learned, it’s that if liberal white people have the chance to disappear back into their liberal bubbles… back into the comfortable embrace of white privilege, they will do it…

In other words, there’s a lot of work yet to be done and in The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, there are no easy answers or tidy conclusions. He’s both a throwback to Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Mort Sahl, and a clear indication of how progressive politics and sometimes painful truths can still be delivered with honest laughs. The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, offers a necessary reminder that benign racism and unabashed ignorance still exist. We have quite a ways to go.

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

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