In The Third Season Of 'United Shades Of America,' W. Kamau Bell Goes Home To Alabama

Apr 29, 2018
Originally published on April 29, 2018 6:46 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay with the themes of comedy and current events for this next conversation with comedian and author W. Kamau Bell. He's won a following and an Emmy for his CNN show "United Shades Of America" focusing on his travels to interesting places and quirky and personal musings about identity in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA")

W. KAMAU BELL: As a comedian, I've made a living finding humor in the parts of America I don't understand. And now I'm challenging myself to dig deeper. I'm on a mission to reach out and experience all the cultures and beliefs that add color to this crazy country.

MARTIN: In previous seasons, Bell spent time with Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacists, visited San Quentin Prison and with people dealing with violence in Chicago. For his third season, which starts tonight, he heads to the U.S.-Mexico border and home to Alabama. We spoke with him when he launched the show, so we thought we'd check in again. And W. Kamau Bell joins us now from our bureau in New York. Hello again. Congratulations on the Emmy and the third season.

BELL: Yeah. I mean, the third season is probably better than the Emmy, but I'll take the Emmy too.

MARTIN: How did you approach the topics for this season? What was going through your mind when you were brainstorming?

BELL: Well, as you said, like, the thing I'm most known for is the - Episode 1 of Season 1 is when I talk to the Ku Klux Klan. And then last year, we did an episode where it was about immigration and refugees. But there was one segment with Richard Spencer, and everybody focused on that, which I understand. But - and so people felt like I shouldn't have talked to Richard Spencer.

So this season, I just felt like I had done enough of that. And so when we got the brainstorm meeting together, I was like, look, I don't want to go find another white supremacist to talk to because, one, I think I know what they think now. Two, I don't want people to think our go-to move is to find somebody who hates me personally. Let's just see if we can focus on highlighting stories that need to be highlighted.

MARTIN: In a forthcoming episode, you go home to Alabama. And it might shock some people to know that you are actually from Alabama, as you - you actually kind of tweak yourself a little bit because you do talk a lot about being from the Bay Area. And it's kind of a big part of your shtick.

BELL: It's my brand. We can say shtick, but I like to say brand.

MARTIN: Your shtick - I'm from New York - it's your shtick - and being from the Bay Area. But you talk about the fact that you actually are from Alabama. So why did you decide to go to Alabama for this season?

BELL: Well, as somebody who lives in the Bay Area, I mean, I've lived in Chicago. I've lived in Boston. And I used to go to Alabama every summer. I wasn't born there, but I used to go there every summer to visit my dad and my dad's side of the family, stayed at my grandmother's house. And I would always hear people in the North and the West be like, why would you go to Alabama? And when I was a kid, yes, there were times I would think the same thing. Why am I going to Alabama?

But as I got older and I heard more people sort of condescend to the South in general, and I realized that I was like spending more and more time there, and especially after I had kids and it was really important me to take my kids there, I realize people don't actually know what's going on in the South. And especially with - after the election, there's this real sort of condescension to the South again renewed. And so for me, I was like, people think I'm from Berkeley. People think I'm from Oakland or San Francisco. But really, my roots and the roots I'm most connected to are in Alabama.

MARTIN: Well, you talked about the fact that you didn't want your go-to to be, you know, finding the Confederate flag, but there are Confederate flags in this episode. And one of the interesting people you meet is a black woman. It's important to point out she's an African-American woman named Arlene (ph). We visit with her as she's giving a speech about the Confederate flag, and she actually is wearing a confederate flag pin. I'll just play a clip from your conversation with Arlene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA")

ARLENE: This Confederate flag in my black hand don't represent the same as in a Klansman hand. It represent two totally different things.

BELL: Well, that's good. Let's start there. So when the Confederate flag is in the hand of a Klansman, what does it represent then?

ARLENE: White supremacy.

BELL: So - OK. So what does the Confederate flag mean in your hands?

ARLENE: The South.

BELL: We both know that that symbol causes a lot of people pain who live in the South.

ARLENE: I don't think it caused people pain at the time that this Confederate battle flag was put out there.

BELL: You don't think other black people pained to see that flag?

ARLENE: Nope, but I think that eventually, in the hands of the wrong people, it did. But I'm talking about...

MARTIN: OK. OK.

BELL: (Laughter) OK. That's a great response. That's one of my favorite conversations we had this season, by the way.

MARTIN: Is it? Tell me why.

BELL: Because it's a more nuanced conversation about the Confederacy than the one that people might expect me to have on the show. It would have been super easy to go find a 60-year-old white guy with a thick Southern accent talking about - who could be like, I love the flag but it's not racist, which I could have debated. Or I love the flag and I am a racist. It would be super easy to find that guy. I would - you know, you can sort of - you can step off a plane in the South and just sort of like - you don't have to go that before you find a Confederate flag on a car and talk to that guy.

But for me, it's like, again, we've seen that discussion happen on numerous news programs. We've heard it on radio. I was like, let's find a discussion that is about the Confederacy but is a different discussion. And also, me and that woman, we liked each other. You can tell in that interview that, by the end, we generally had affection for each other while we still talked about the issue. Those are the kind of discussions we need to have. I don't think we always need to be crossing the divide in the way that I've even done or certainly what we see on cable news.

MARTIN: Or is it the typical TV trick of finding the unicorn, you know, making more of it than it actually is? I mean, how many black people are there really who are walking around with Confederate flag pins?

BELL: Well, I don't think there's that many, but I don't think we acted like this woman represents - that's the TV trick. This woman represents the - a growing number of people that we all need to pay attention to. I don't think we did that. But I do think that we are making television. It is a more compelling discussion for me to have with that woman - who, by the end, we sort of laughed and hugged each other - than if I'd gone out there going after - the cliques of somebody who actually wanted to kill me.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you - I'm kind of - another issue that is to the fore, Bill Cosby. I mean, Bill Cosby was just convicted of - on the second try of several acts of sexual aggression against a young woman. And, you know, I know because you have said that he was one of your inspirations, influences along with Eddie Murphy, you know, early in your career. There are those who consider his - the prosecution of him to be racist. And obviously, other people view it very, very differently. I just wondered if you had some thoughts about all of that?

BELL: Yeah. I mean, my thoughts are, yes, Bill Cosby was one of my influences when I was a kid. When I refer to him generally, even before this - he was convicted, I call him the artist formerly known as Bill Cosby as a way to say, let's mark this in time that when I talk about him, I'm talking about him as I understood him to be as a child. But, you know, I certainly stand by the women. I stand by all women. I'm a supporter of the Me Too movement.

I think society is going through a reckoning, but part of it is a cultural reckoning. But I think the cultural reckoning helped sort of create the legal reckoning that had happened with him. I mean, his - the rumors about him started before the Me Too movement kicked off, but I think the Me Too movement has given gasoline and fire to that. So yeah, I don't in any way stand with people who think that he is being unfairly persecuted. Now, yes, the criminal justice system is racist. Also, he's guilty. The two things can exist at once.

MARTIN: That's W. Kamau Bell. His television show, "United Shades Of America," starts its third season tonight on CNN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.