On Tuesday, November 4th 2008, the day Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United Sates, W. Kamau Bell randomly hugged people on the streets. Early on election-day, he went to vote at a local Starbucks. Then he hung out in front of the television with his Mum, who had flown in from Indiana to be with him on that day. More and more of his friends came over, and by the time a TV-host declared Obama the winner, the room was so full of excited conversation, the party almost missed it.
“We cheered”, Bell recalls, “and my Mum cried, which made me cry. My Mom was born in Indiana in the thirties, you know: different bathrooms, different drinking fountains, had to sit on the balcony at the movie theatre.”
In 2008, Bell was working on a show that would earn him national recognition: “Ending Racism in About an Hour”. Eight years later, he’s got his own show on CNN, still tours the country trying to “end racism in about an hour”, which, of course, doesn’t really work, and is sort of sobered out about the black man in the White House.
I am meeting W. Kamau Bell at a show at St. Mary’s College, Maryland
About three hundred students fill a large gym. W. Kamau Bell has just started his show. An English professor has raised the money to book him after students had reported swastikas being scrawled onto cars on the parking lot and confederate flags had been displayed earlier this year. Now they are trying to “get a conversation going” here.
“I walk through life as a 6.4 feet black man.”, he says. “That makes me always letting my checks walk a few steps ahead of me. It’s like carrying an umbrella all day, even though it doesn’t rain.”
I didn’t realize you could laugh about American racism until that night. Bell exposes its absurd side: The fact that People Magazine once voted Nick Nolte sexiest man alive, but only one black guy since 1985 (Denzel Washington, who deserved it, but still). White people asking random black people how they wash their hair and whether they may touch it. Kamau is a fast talker with a bearish appearance. He is sharp and personable and soon gets the young crowd to roar with laughter.
After the show, we sit on stands of the college’s basketball field while roadies take down the stage, and Bell tells me about that incident about one and a half year ago.
He and his wife, Melissa, had just had their second child. Melissa Bell met with her moms-group at a coffee-shop in Berkeley. They had recently had their second baby. It was Bell’s birthday, so he stopped by to say hello. The moms, all of whom were white, were sitting at a table outside. They chatted and Kamau showed them a book he had just bought. It was a children’s book called “The Loving couple”, about Richard and Mildred Loving, the white man and the black woman who won the 1967 land-mark Supreme Court verdict banning all prohibitions and restrictions on interracial marriage in the United States. Suddenly, an employee at the inside of the café knocked on the window and shouted through the glass to “get out of here”. “I looked up and mused, is that person talking to me”, Bell recalls, “and as I still wonder, the employee walked out of the café and shooed me along. I said, what’s the matter, I am talking to my wife. And she said, oh, I thought you were selling something.”
When Kamau tells me that story, I feel caught. Just a few days ago, in New York, I had similarly become caught up in racially biased micro-interaction.
I got up at five o’clock in the morning to go to the airport. The taxi driver says he doesn’t accept credit cards, and I don’t have enough cash, so I ask him to stop at an ATM. He lets me out of the car at a random Bank of America on the Lower East Side. It is still dark. A police car is howling past. Inside the bank’s lobby, there are several machines. Next to me, a young black guy wearing a hoody is withdrawing money. I still fumble with my card when he is done and walks past my back towards the entrance. I turn around and we look at each other. “Hey Miss, give me all your money”, he says, and then, after a well placed pause, laughs, shakes his head and walks out.
It was a cruel joke, and yet when I’m back in the taxi and replay the scene, I have to admit, that he got it right: I had felt anxious – because it was early, and I was by myself, but also because he was black. I did turn around when he walked past my back because I half expected him to rob me and I was getting ready to duck and run.
In April, Bell started his own show on CNN. It’s called “United Shades of America”. In this show, he explores America’s sub-cultures. He goes to places you wouldn’t expect a black guy to go to. In the first episode, which was aired in April, he attended a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning, and a member who insisted on meeting him in the middle of a deserted country-side road at night to tell Kamau that his marriage to a white woman was an “abomination”.
Though he admits that he was scared sometimes during the production of this episode, it’s not the Ku Klux Klan racism that bothers Kamau most. “The Klan still exists, but they are not America’s devil any more”, he tells me. “I thought, well, when this is all over, I can go eat a burger or a burrito.”
But he can’t escape white prejudice. What he finds most frustrating is when people are not willing and able to reflect their own biased worldview, to think twice before they act on a prejudiced thought. “If she had observed us just for a second, she could have seen that we were all laughing”, he says about the café employee. “We are all prejudiced; the question is whether you enact your prejudice.”
When Barack Obama ran for office again in 2012, Kamau endorsed him again, but this time, he wasn’t wearing a t-shirt on election night. His long sobering-out began in 2009, when black Harvard professor Henry Gates was arrested in his own home by police officer James Crowley, who took him for a burglar, and, after a broad national debate, Obama ended up inviting both of them to the White House. “Both of them!”
And yet, Kamau thinks that Obama’s presidency was a great step forward towards the re-programming of the prejudices and stereotypes in white people’s minds. “There was this awesome black family in the white house, people who look good and healthy and smiling, who ran a scandle-free administration. It was just the kind of black family this country needs to see on tv every day.”
In Oakland, a few days earlier, black activists were shouting out a line from Brecht’s poem “All of Us or None“. “Slave, who will free you”, Brecht asked. “Comrade, only slaves can free you. (…) Either gun or fetter. Everything or nothing. All of us or none.”
Would Brecht have accepted re-programming, a national psycho-therapy, as a means of starting a revolution? But Bell is right. One of the greatest challenges in fighting racism is fighting the subliminal. Bell’s method is to drag it to the surface.