W. Kamau Bell made his first visit to Corvallis on Thursday and dazzled a capacity crowd at the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University with a comic sermon on race, culture, life in the Trump era and why all of this matters.
Bell, who turned 46 last Saturday, is an award-winning writer, television host and comedian best known for the CNN program “United Shades of America.”
He spoke, ranted, sang, shouted, cajoled, pleaded and admonished while clicking his way through a slide presentation he kept veering away from.
Some of his targets were obvious — ball teams such as the Washington Redskins — while much of it was insightful and thought-provoking. At one point he displayed an American Red Cross swimming pool safety poster in which only brown people were doing the “not cool” things. How does this happen, Bell kept asking?
But this wasn’t a cute, safe … show. And one of the challenges of writing about it is trying to define, accurately, just what it was. Bell went after big targets and small, with some takes producing side-splitting responses from the OSU crowd. In fairness it’s hard for a reporter to do side-splitting while taking notes. And the reporter is there to “cover” the show, not react to it.
And Bell made it clear at the outset, noting his goal was “ending racism in about an hour,” while adding that “comfortable and safe is NOT THIS SHOW.”
He showed pictures of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and noted that they made him feel hopeful. He showed a picture of President Donald Trump “and a woman who lives her life with much regret.” Maybe.
“A lot of the time people are afraid to talk about racism.” Bell said at one point. “You have to find ways to invite people into the conversation at a lower level. You have to work people up to more difficult conversations.”
Bell spoke passionately and incisively about Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and Black Lives Matter and race-based beauty standards and Olympian Jesse Owens, but he also noted that when people find out his wife is white they ask if they talk about racism all of the time.
“No,” Bell said. “She is Catholic and I am sane.” But no one hissed at him for a comment that could be viewed as anti-religious.
The indefatigable Bell then spent another 25 minutes on stage being interviewed by OSU Associate Professor Elena Passarello on topics such as his reading habits, his 21-year-run to “overnight success” and how much he learned from the TV show of the late Anthony Bourdain.
Earlier Thursday Bell met with a group of students and community members for a one-hour discussion at the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center. Bell answered questions from the group of 40 or so participants, all of whom received free copies of his new book, “Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.”
He also told the forum the story of the “black man who got kicked out of a coffee shop in Berkeley.” Bell noted that even in a classically liberal city such as Berkeley, whose political profile — if not quite the demographics — is similar to Corvallis, racist incidents still happen.
In the coffee shop incident Bell was asked to leave by a white manager who felt he was bothering a group of moms seated at the shop’s outside tables. Among the moms was Bell’s wife, who is white, and his then-newborn daughter.
“The choice I made,” Bell said, “was to not let this one go.”
“And f--- that coffee shop!”
Bell also discussed testing his DNA to learn more about his ancestry and finding out that he is 27 percent white and zero percent Kenyan. Kamau is a popular name in the East African nation, where it means “quiet warrior.”
“Every Kenyan I have met wanted to explain to me what Kamau meant. They made me a honorary Kenyan. I totally accept that.”
Bell’s black ancestry stems from West Africa, where the slave trade originated. He said he took the DNA test partly so that his mixed-race children would have a firm idea of where they come from.