W. Kamau Bell
Joyce Kim
W. Kamau Bell
(Photo: Joyce Kim)

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

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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.

“You have to keep raising the stakes of your commitment to this new day,” Bell says.
Bell at the Oakland Museum of California (Photo: Joyce Kim)

We definitely need more spaces to be able to see each other and connect on a human level. I’ve found in filming America Outdoors, I’ll know I’m talking with someone who has very different politics than me, but we’ll literally be standing on common ground, both enjoying nature, and that’s an opening. You’ve brought the stories of so many people to the rest of us. What places did you like traveling to for the show and what connections have stuck with you?
The show is all about meeting people, and I wanted to stay in touch with everyone I met when we filmed in Puerto Rico. I would also say this about your hometown of Washington, D.C.—it’s being hit hard by gentrification, but the thing I really respect about it is that you get to see Blackness at all levels. Every time I’m there, I say, “I could live here.” My wife, Melissa, who’s from the Bay Area, is like, “No, every day has to be 55 degrees at some point.”

Oh, I remember when the weather was predictable!
We’ve had to be wildfire refugees two years in a row now. That day in the middle of the pandemic when we looked out our windows and, instead of seeing the blue sky and the sun, it was red—that day changed me forever. I was surprised the past two years, and this year I’m like, we should probably start thinking about where to go when we have to leave because of the wildfires. Again, I’m admitting a significant level of privilege that I can do that.

I feel you. There are times when I’ve looked at a map, searching for a climate-safe place to live, but I’m realizing that nowhere is safe. There’s fire or smoke or floods or all of the above and then some. Now it’s coming into focus that we are all going to go through it.
I see it through my kids. There are days when they go to school and can’t go outside. The hardest part of the pandemic wasn’t restaurants or to travel, it was playgrounds being shut down. There’s no substitute for being outside. And there was nothing I could compare that moment in time to. I don’t have the experience from childhood.

I’m used to thinking about the generational break with technology—parents not relating to their kids’ use of TikTok or something. But “Dad, why is the sky red?” is not something we had to ask our parents. That impact of it will, of course, be felt unevenly, like with COVID-19 or recessions, but even in the U.S., with all our might, rich people can’t yet buy their own private clean air for an outdoor playground for their kids.
No amount of individual American exceptionalism can fix that. You can’t buy your way out of it, not individually. But collectively we can.

I’ve been watching your career for over a decade, and you care about representation of people and stories we often don’t hear about. Why do you care so much about sharing these undertold stories?
Because it makes for better television. You know, when United Shades was first pitched to me, it was called Black Man, White America. The idea was that I would go to white places every week. First of all, there’s no way you’d get to six seasons on that show. When people see me coming now, they usually say, “Hey, Kamau’s here!” If we went with that show, it’d be white people like, “Here comes this Black guy to make fun of us.” I couldn’t do something that I didn’t believe in, and there are more stories to tell when you’re looking for people whose stories haven’t been told in this country. That’s just math.

I love math. So you get to spend time in a lot of cities with different politics and have an up-close view of some of the divisions in this country. We both live in liberal California cities, where that division and inequality is rampant. Where I live in L.A., that’s especially evident in the lack of affordable housing.
I mean, Oakland is one of those places that’s regularly on the list of top places to live in America, but then you know people who are having to move out because they can’t afford it anymore.

All right, Kamau, we’re coming to the end. The people deserve to know. What’s your real agenda?
I’m trying to promote the same agenda that Sesame Street is trying to promote. We should be smarter, kinder, and more cooperative. We should notice the people in our neighborhood. We should be OK with the one who doesn’t look like somebody we expect in our neighborhood.

I have no idea what’s going to happen after I out you as part of the Sesame Street agenda. Lots more people seem to have signed up for the liberty-and-justice-for-all mission, which is great. But a lot of folks are uncertain about how to move forward, how to get past this high-intensity moment of awareness around race and inequality. What I usually tell people would take more space than we have here, but it’s a combination of moving through the fear and shame that an honest accounting of history might generate, committing to using whatever power we have for some collective benefit. You’ve been in this game as long as I have. You understand this country better than most. What’s your advice to media outlets, including Outside, that want to do better at race?
The big thing you have to accept is that you’re going to get things wrong, and you have to be willing to admit to your mistakes and not equivocate an apology. You’re only going to show people you’ve changed over time. So if Outside magazine hires a person to write an article who is of a perspective that’s never been in Outside magazine before, and everybody claps and they tweet it out, but then that person or others like them never get an article in Outside magazine again, then you’re full of shit. You have to keep raising the stakes of your commitment to this new day. When they asked me if I wanted to be on the cover, I was like: This is going to be the lowest-selling issue of Outside magazine ever. I spend a lot of time outside, but I’m not known as an outside person. So what if some executive goes: Well, look, this issue sold X, and normally we sell X plus three, so we can’t do this again. Then whose fault is that? Is it mine? Is it the person who agreed to this? Or is it an indicator that we need to keep working on this, educate our audience, and figure out how to expand on it and make it work?