W. Kamau Bell on Searching for a United America
W. Kamau Bell, the host of ‘United Shades of America,’ sits down with fellow comedian and activist Baratunde Thurston for a lively conversation on what we learn about this country when we engage with communities very different than our own
Kamau Bell and Baratunde Thurston have seen a lot of the U.S. over the past year. Bell’s been filming the sixth season of his Emmy Award–winning show United Shades of America, which, since launching on CNN in 2016, has taken viewers to the far corners of the country and shown us how to talk to one another. Thurston has been recording the third season of his podcast How to Citizen—a roving call to arms about tapping into our collective power to effect change—and filming his upcoming PBS series, America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, which explores our relationships with the natural spaces we work and play in. The show premieres in early 2022. Despite knowing each other for more than a decade, the two haven’t had time to catch up recently, so they sat down to talk about the outdoors, race, climate change, and the future of America’s cities and towns.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: It’s been a while since we’ve talked not on social media, so I’m excited just to hang out with you. I know I’ve spent a lot of the past year working on my cooking skills, fighting racism, and trying to watch everything on every streaming service. What have you been up to?
KAMAU BELL: Yeah, I got the certificate that says you’ve finished Netflix. But really, I was too busy parenting. When the pandemic happened, I didn’t think I’d be filming United Shades in the fall, so I had pitched a bunch of things, and a couple of them got picked up. When United Shades went ahead, I suddenly had too many things happening. A friend of mine, Kate Schatz, who wrote Rad American Women A–Z, and I have been working on a book—an anti-racist workbook, for lack of a better way to describe it—that comes out next year. And I’m also working on a four-part documentary film project. United Shades helped me get into the documentary film world, so I’m excited about directing projects that don’t have my face in them—I want to make sure I’m not always relying on my face to support my family.
But it’s such a great face! I also had to shift my business away from reliance on that. Last August, I launched a podcast, How to Citizen, which is in its third season now. I started slowly getting back out in the world, first by trying to grow everything my backyard could handle, then negotiating with the squirrels for my share, and in April this year I started filming my new show with PBS, America Outdoors.
Well, you’re an outside person, but you know me enough to know that Outside magazine is not a place you would expect me to be. I was worried that I might be matched up with somebody who’d ask: “So, do you still wear those shoes that are just toes?” I’m glad we’re not having that conversation.
No, I won’t be asking you what your favorite brand of carabiner is. When I interviewed you for my book How to Be Black over ten years ago, we touched on this but didn’t get too far into it. So now I get to ask, what was your relationship with the outdoors growing up?
I think about the summers I spent in Mobile, Alabama, at my grandmother’s house. At some point in the day, you had been inside long enough and it was time to go outside. There wasn’t really an activity set up for you. It was just like: Go, and come back when you’re hungry or it’s dark. It was mostly getting into Little Rascals–type adventures with kids in the neighborhood. You know, walking around the streets, buying fireworks from an old lady’s house, literally playing in the ditch next to the train tracks. Things that I look back on and think, Why did we do that? Mobile is not rural, but compared with where I live now, Oakland, California—and compared with what we think of as urban—it was rural.
My Playground Was a Ditch by the Train Tracks could be a nice blues album if you decide to keep doing work that doesn’t require your face. My own childhood was filled with outdoor adventures like Boy Scouts, road trips, and camping with my mom. After that I grew pretty disconnected from nature. Then America Outdoors comes along, and it gives me a chance to reconnect with that part of me and with people across the country.
When I look at what you’ve done with United Shades, you’re a role model for me. You get to see so much of this country and hang with all sorts of people, and you keep getting renewed for more seasons and winning more Emmys!
I am on a plaque somewhere in the showbiz hall of fame by virtue of the fact that it’s six seasons of a show. It ain’t Friends, but it’s still alive.
You’re doing much more of a public service than Friends. One thing I’ve found is that I get changed by the process of storytelling. It’s one thing to form opinions based on reading something. It’s another thing to interact directly with another human being in their context, on their front porch.
United Shades of America has radicalized me, which is hilarious, because I don’t think that was anybody’s intention. In the first season of the show, we did an episode about policing in America. I was in police cars, talking to recruits, going to dinner at a policeman’s house. And then last year we did an episode that was basically “Defund 101,” explaining what defunding the police means and why I thought it was a good idea. You’ll see the response after an episode and sometimes be like: You know, people got a good point. Sometimes I think: I didn’t say it right, I need to be clearer next time. A lot has changed since the first episode of season one, when I hung out with the Ku Klux Klan.
OK, you brought it up! I remember when your show premiered, and I saw you hanging with the Klan at a cross burning, and I was like, Hell, no! That is not for me. How do you think about that episode now?
When the show first started, it was very much a guy who was figuring out how to be on TV, how to put his voice in the show, how to navigate the people who don’t have the same agenda as him for the show. That first episode was like: Wow, look at these Klan members; they really believe these things. And then by season five, we’re doing an episode called “Where Do We Even Start with White Supremacy?” that actually explains what structural and institutional racism is. Instead of talking to the Klan, we talked to ex-Klan members about what the deal was and how they got out. Some opinions have changed, but I’ve also gotten clearer and sharper about how to express them.
We’ve been through a lot as a country: COVID-19, the election, the insurrection, the reminders of systemic racism. I’m worried that the problems and divisions run too deep, with too many of us afraid to look honestly at our history. I could write a whole book on my diagnosis and prescription.
Even I have referenced our time now as post-COVID. There’s a natural impression for us to be like, We’re through something. I think the election did some of that, too. But I think we’re going to look back in a decade and go, we were still in the middle of it. If things keep drifting in the direction they are, in ten years’ time, it’ll still be called the United States of America, but I think it will qualitatively feel different. Right before we started talking, I was like, what year did the Berlin Wall go up? We’re in a place of not just one Berlin Wall, but several Berlin Walls going up in every city. I think that we are much closer to The Hunger Games than we realize, unless there’s a certain percentage of us who make it our purpose to try to figure this out in a way that actually helps some of those people on the other side and doesn’t drive them away. I think that America needs a serious universal civics lesson.