© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Comic W. Kamau Bell On The 'Shades Of America' And Not Feeling 'Black Enough'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's continue our series of Emmy nominees with comic W. Kamau Bell. His CNN series "United Shades Of America" is nominated for three Emmys, including one for Bell as outstanding host for a reality or reality competition program. Last year, the show won for oustanding unstructured reality program. In "United Shades Of America," Bell travels to communities around America talking to people about the challenges they face. He's also gone to places you wouldn't expect an African-American to go like a Ku Klux Klan rally. When I spoke with him in June, "United Shades Of America" was in its third season.


GROSS: Kamau, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations. You just had your third baby 16 days ago. Whoa.

W KAMAU BELL: Yeah, yeah.


GROSS: (Laughter) So this is a good time to talk about the genealogy series that you did since you have a new child now. So this is a kind of, like, adjunct to your CNN series. And in order to trace your genealogy, you brought your parents together. Your parents separated when you were a toddler. They were never married, and they hadn't seen each other for nine years since your wedding. What was it like for you to bring them together and to see them together? What's it like for you to see your parents who were so briefly together reunite because of this project?

BELL: I mean, you know, looking back, that's the best thing I got out of it was seeing my parents together in a situation that didn't cause them anxiety. Like, my wedding was kind of a nightmare for them (laughter). Like, I just think that, like, I don't know that they felt like it was a nightmare, but for me, it was, like, they really clearly had a hard time being in the same room together. This was an opportunity for them to come together when they didn't have any anxiety. They were happy to see their grandkids because they were around for the shoot. And, you know, they both were just sort of, like, having fun being on camera, too. So, like, it was really beautiful.

GROSS: So getting back to your Ancestry search, your father and his family had made an assumption about a white man within the family tree. And this man was your father's great-grandfather, your great-great-grandfather. So he was a white man who fathered children with your great-great-grandmother. And the assumption was he was a slave owner - that he probably owned your great-great-grandmother and that's why she bore his children. But what did you actually...

BELL: What we found out was that according to Ancestry, there's no records of him ever owning anybody. He was listed at various points as a carpenter or as a farmer. He was also many years older than my great-great-grandmother and that they - all we know is that they had 13 kids together. They lived together at one point. But he was never - he never owned her, and their first kid was born while she was still enslaved. Like, there were still two more years before slavery ended. And so it's a very - we don't know any of the details, but all of my life, it's been like this slave owner had sex with his slave who's your - who was your great-great-grandmother. And that's where the Bell family tree starts.

And his last name is Dockery, and her last name was Bell. And I was like, why are their names different? And so now we're finding out that, like, she was probably owned by the Bell plantation, but he's just this dude Dockery who somehow comes across Francis and has a kid who is during slavery but then has 12 more kids after that. So they clearly had a relationship. They lived together at one point. And then at one point, they weren't living together, but they were apparently, according to Ancestry, living on adjacent plots of land, so maybe they were still technically living together. But after - but once, like, slavery ends and for a while things get a little bit better weirdly in the South, but then it gets worse that maybe they felt like they couldn't stay in the same house.

GROSS: And they certainly couldn't have been married because it wouldn't have been legal.

BELL: No, no, no, no.

GROSS: And so what was it like for you to see that document?

BELL: The documents that really hit me were the ones where members of our family were being counted as property. And they were sort of tick marks on a piece of paper - not with their names attached, but like we know through the records that this person owned your family members. And this tick mark here accounts for one of your - like your great, great grandmother. That's the stuff that really shook me because they call it the African-American brick wall because you can't really get much further past slavery because nobody's names are attached to them. They're just, again, they're just property.

And so for me, that's the stuff that really just sort of sickened my stomach. It's like, you know, my wife, who is white - and as I've talked about a lot - you know, can trace her heritage back as far to like the old countries like Italy and Portugal and, you know, Ireland and England. Whereas mine, for the most part, is going to end in the South. You know, we're not going to be able to get much further back than that other than the DNA telling you where your DNA comes from.

GROSS: What about the DNA? Did you find out your DNA and was it meaningful for you?

BELL: Yeah. For me, it's weird. For my dad and my mom, finding out the family stories was the stuff that they were really interested in because these are names they've had their whole lives and ideas of how people lived that have been formed in their head for a long time. But for me, the DNA was the fascinating stuff because it's just sort of like, on one level, I was always sort of weirdly afraid of finding out about the DNA because I feel like I'd seen so many black people like flip out when they found out they were more European than they expected they were, like, you know, what does that mean?

And so for me, I was just like, I know I'm black. You know, the DNA can say I'm 100 percent Chinese, but it's not going to change my lived experience. But once I sat there and saw it and you see like a map of Africa and you see all the different places that your DNA pops up and then you also see something that says that 1 percent Scandinavian, you're like, what? Who? Like, where did that come from?

I just - it just feels - it's super interesting to me and, you know, also funny to me because apparently, most black people in the country are 75 percent, you know, from Africa. And according to my DNA, I'm like 73 percent from Africa. And it's funny to me because all my life I've been - I have felt like I wasn't black enough and been told by other black people that I wasn't black enough. And I'm like, I'm literally not black enough. I'm less black than most black people. So to me, that felt a little bit like, oh, that makes sense.

GROSS: No. I'm going to say it's the margin of error.

BELL: Yeah (laughter). I want to go with my not-black-enough theory. It sort of supports my whole narrative of life at this point.

GROSS: So on your mother's side, there was something I thought was really interesting which is that your great, great uncle enlisted when he was 18 in 1864 to fight for the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War to fight to end slavery. That's an interesting fact.

BELL: Yeah. And this is something that there was no knowledge on my mom's side of the family about that. And so that was really interesting because, you know, we went to this church that my mom's mom had gone to as a kid. And it's in Kentucky. And we went to this church. And in the church, they had all these family records. And you could sort of see that the church for the African-American community is where basically the census records are kept because there we were always people, you know.

There was like a piece of paper on the wall that sort of listed all the original members of the church. And we could see how many of those people were our family members. And so it really sort of struck me that like the black church has been basically the government for black people in this country because that's where you were a person. But we didn't know what these people did or what their jobs were. And so when Ancestry found this record that, you know, that he had enlisted to fight for the Union, you know, it makes you feel proud, you know.

I mean, you know, we like to think of ourselves and my family - especially my mom's side of the family - as people who are actively in the world trying to make the world a better place. And at that point in history, as an enslaved black man, that's how you were going to actively make the world a better place. And it just feels like, you know, again, that's not in your DNA but it feels like that's, again, part of our family DNA.

GROSS: My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. His CNN series "United Shades Of America" is nominated for three Emmys. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my latest interview with W. Kamau Bell. He's a comic whose CNN series "United Shades Of America" is nominated for three Emmys. His Netflix standup special is called "Private School Negro." When I interviewed him in June, we talked about the impact of the #MeToo movement on the comedy scene.


GROSS: We've talked before about a friend of yours who called you out for one of your jokes that she thought was just like, you know...

BELL: Sexist and dumb.

GROSS: Sexist and dumb, that's what I was looking for.


GROSS: And at first, you bristled. And then you changed the joke - or took it out, yeah.

BELL: Yeah, my friend Martha Rynberg, who's actually got a consultant credit on my new Netflix special because that's how powerful she is.

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. So anyways, your thoughts on how the #MeToo movement and the insistence on a level of respect, you know, when it comes to what you say - you know, what a comic is saying and how they are living.

BELL: I think every comic has the right of freedom of speech to say whatever they want to say on stage. And then it's up to the audience to decide what they do with it. So first of all, I just want to say that. There's comics that I think are very funny who I would not vote for if they were running for mayor of my city. So I just want to be clear that that's one thing. It's funny. During filming of Season 3 of "United Shades," me and Donny Jackson and my friend Dwayne Kennedy, who also has a consultant credit on my Netflix special - who's a comic, great guy - we would talk about this a lot. And there's was a lot of talk amongst - and we have women on the crew - but amongst the dudes because, like, there was - that was during the time where every day like two or three people - it seemed like two or three dudes were going down.

And me and Dwayne talked one time about it. We were just having - like, man, did read about this? Did you see this? And did you see this? And Dwayne would just go, they're coming for everybody. And he wasn't saying that in like some sort of a witch-hunt-y (ph) way, which I think some dudes are saying. He was just saying, like, all of our behavior is suspect. All of our - dudes, there's just a way in which we are raised and a way in which we are encouraged to be in the world. And I see it with little boys at the park - where we were just raised to, for the most part, take up a lot of space and just sort of play to our baser instincts. That's just how we were sort of encouraged to be.

I don't think - maybe some of it is some sort of biology thing. But I don't think - I think society encourages it - whatever it is when it starts out inside your biology. And the thing that sucks is even if you raise a dude who's not that way - like my mom wasn't trying to raise me that way - eventually I and other dudes who were raised to be sort of nicer people - or whatever you want to say - or more sensitive or are allowed to play into your sensitive states - you are around other dudes who aren't. And you sort of feel, like, invited into being like that - or feel pressured into being like that. And so you will find yourself in situations where you're like, I don't know why I said that, or I don't know. It's just - we're not doing - and I'm not taking responsibility off the dudes who were going down in the #MeToo movement. I'm just saying that there's a way in which men are raised - boys are raised into men that I think is not good and encourages the worst aspects of us.

And then you combine that with show business, where basically it's an industry of people who didn't want to get up early in the morning and who wanted to stay out all night and drink and smoke and sort of be - sort of, like, the late-night crowd who's doing things - that are saying things on stage that you shouldn't say. And there is just this sort of like permanent state of adolescence that I think exists in a lot of stand-up comedy. And I'm not necessarily criticizing it. I just think that, like, that's the case - that you're allowed to sort of be outside of regular society. And we call people who aren't comedians civilians because we think we're really the - we're going to war. And so I think there's a lot of that that encourages bad behavior.

And then you also bring in stardom into that. So like the story of what - of Louis, you know, masturbating in front of the woman in Aspen. I knew that story. And I don't even - I've met Louie once, twice maybe. And I knew that story. But it was never told as assault. It was told as like this crazy thing that happened. And so I hear some men talk about like, "this is a witch hunt," quote, not quoting - you know, basically sounding like our president. And I sort of feel like, yeah, and we're going to find some witches (laughter).

Like I just feel like - and none of our behavior is above reproach if we've been in this industry, and we've seen things. So we all have to be able to stand up to an audit. And it's going to take down some people who absolutely deserve to get take down. But it's also just going to take down some people who - we should have said more. We should have done something differently. And we weren't bad people, but we were just - we were in bad situations. And we didn't do the right things.

And so I just think that there's going to be a generation of men who is properly taken down by this and a generation of men who are sort of caught up in the shrapnel by this. And it's just the way it's going to be. And hopefully, it'll mean that we raise the next generation of men and boys in a different way. But I say that as a guy who's got three daughters and looks at little boys right now, going, it hasn't started yet.

GROSS: So your new special is called "Private School Negro." Your previous special is called "Semi-Prominent Negro." Why do you like the word Negro?

BELL: It reminds me of a time when black people were - were, like, angry and doing something about it. It's like - for me, it takes me right back to the height of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X and, you know, all the people who were like those were Negroes (laughter). They were not African-Americans. They were the people who said, stop calling us colored. Stop calling us [expletive]. We are Negro. It was like sort of the time that black people politically chose a word that was like, this is how we want to be called. And we're going to fight for it. So for me, it just feels like a very - I mean, some people may be offended by it. But to me, it just feels very, like, classically, importantly black.

GROSS: My interview with W. Kamau Bell was recorded in June. His CNN series, "United Shades of America," is nominated for three Emmys. "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" is also nominated for three Emmys. We'll hear an except of my latest interview with Colbert after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "THE BIG ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.