'Shades' of meaning as M. Kamau Bell probes cultural divides

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — "America's Best Bigots" is NOT the name of W. Kamau Bell's new CNN series — "although that would be a great name for a show," says the popular black comedian who hosts it.

Bell's series, premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT, is instead titled "United Shades of America," and, while it will routinely place him in a culture clash with the week's chosen groups or subcultures, the point is not to spotlight prejudice.

Bell's mission is to build a bridge — even if only a shaky footbridge — of understanding between him and a racially, ethnically or otherwise divergent sample of his fellow habitants in these United States.

Future episodes of the eight-episode season will feature inmates at San Quentin State Prison; happily disconnected folks who in a Snapchat Age opt for living "off the grid"; retirees and spring-break college kids who annually collide in Daytona Beach, Florida; and a few of the hipsters gravitating to Portland, Oregon, along with longtime residents who weather this assault.

To kick off the series, Bell takes a big swing: He consorts with members of the Ku Klux Klan.

"As a black person, it's good to know who hates you," he proposes. And while one might argue that it would have been smarter to film this episode last, not to start with, "I figured if it really goes badly, we only shoot that one episode and I become a legend."

He's joking about that, but he makes a chilling point: "In history, most black guys that get this close to the Klan don't end up leaving."

Bell does, of course, "and when I left, at least one or two of those Klansmen were like, 'Uh-oh, I think I kinda like a black man now.' They won't be joining the NAACP, but maybe they'll see a little crack in their flawed logic."

For Bell, a towering chap with a Teddy Bear build, the secret is his disarming manner. It's the same cheery style that has helped establish him as a standup comic who can defuse uncomfortable truths with insight and a smile.

"You're always using jokes to explain the world to yourself, and then to the audience," says Bell (whose onstage act will be on display in his first solo standup special, "W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro," premiering April 29th on Showtime).

Humor is a big part of the formula on "United Shades of America."

"But I tried to be very clear, in each case, that we're here to make fun out of this situation, not to make fun OF this situation," he says.

That's true even with the Klanners, one of whom is asked about the infamous robes he's wearing: "We were in Kentucky in the middle of August, so I said, 'It's got to be hot under there.'"

"Oh, it's horrible!" this Imperial Wizard replies from behind his hood.

"It opened up a great human moment," says Bell, noting that certain Klansmen seemed game to even make fun of themselves.

"When one guy says he separates his Skittles based on color, all I have to say is, 'Did we get that on film?'"

They did, and it's a funny exchange.

The episode (which includes a cross-burning, complete with fun facts including the correct terminology: "cross lighting") doesn't laugh off the Klan's hateful principles. Yet even in this netherworld, Bell is able to uncover a bit of common ground.

"I believe in the power of the awkward conversation to initiate social change," he says.

Bell grew up in Chicago, where he first put his sense of humor to work at a local club's open-mic night. He found a local beachhead for his comedy after moving to San Francisco, then gained a national following on tour and on "Totally Biased," a series he hosted on FX.

He has no problem being called "a black comic" — an insufficient if literally true label — any more than he objects to being called a black man.

"I'm not trying to be post-racial, I'm not trying to be colorblind," he says. "I think we should all be able to embrace the parts of our identity we want. Like many people of color, you either have to embrace it or fight it your whole life."

But there's more to the picture: His wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, with whom he has two young daughters, is white. She is also a multi-degreed academic, Bell says with obvious pride, "and a lot of the work that I do has been affected by our conversations. We have a racism-feminism think tank at home."

That news doesn't please a certain Imperial Wizard in Arkansas, who advises Bell that the Bible condemns interracial marriage as "an abomination."

"So, it's worse than murder?" Bell inquires.

"Yeah," insists the Klansman who, a moment later, vows "the Klan will go on forever and evolve."

"One way I hope it evolves," Bell offers, is for the Klan's hoods to add mouth-holes, "cause sometimes it's hard to understand you."

He really does want to understand.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore