Growing up with parents who remembered Martin Luther King Jr. as a young figure and who lived through segregation in public schools, comedian W. Kamau Bell always knew that living in America as a Black individual meant finding ways to support his community.
Throughout Bell’s childhood, he was surrounded by conversations about activism and racial injustice because he was born in the early ‘70s, when the Civil Rights Movement was still fresh in the mind of his mother and many Black people, he said in a sit-down interview with The Daily Californian.
“Both my parents were people who were the first Black person to do X, Y and Z. So you know there were a lot of things you could do to be the first Black person to, you know, cross the street safely,” Bell said. “I just always was aware that if you were in the world and … you always had to be looking to support your people and the people that needed support; you couldn’t just be thinking that you were in the world alone.
While his interest in activism stems from his single mother, his interest in comedy was born out of regularly watching “Saturday Night Live.” And according to Bell, simply being an only child left him alone long enough to brainstorm jokes to himself.
“Stand-up comedy seemed like something an only child would do,” Bell said.
So in his essay “Happy Birthday! Have some racism from Elmwood Cafe!” Bell writes, “I use jokes to fight for the people who don’t get a fair shake in the world.”
The essay centers on an acute experience of racism he experienced in the Berkeley café, now renamed Baker & Commons, where he was unnecessarily and rudely told to leave by a barista.
Reflecting on that moment in 2015 and the essay, Bell stated that no person of color was really surprised by this event.
“Just maybe your average white person in America, and this includes white people in Berkeley, kind of defines racism as violent acts that are around race and/or institutions that are far away from them — like ‘the prison system,’ ” Bell said. “They don’t define it as interpersonal things that most people of color or most of the racism that people of color experience is stuff that is hard to prove.”
In this interview, it became clear that Bell puts on no additional affect in his performances. He arrived in his gray American Civil Liberties Union sweatshirt, and throughout the conversation, he found ways to make the most serious of issues lighter with jokes here and there.
When discussing Elmwood Cafe and the microaggressions people of color face every day, Bell explained that it becomes tiring to talk about your experiences of racism on a day-to-day basis, but he said sometimes that thing that happened at 8 a.m. that hurt your feelings will just stay on your mind all day.
“Elmwood Cafe thing was so shocking because I … stupidly got too comfortable in my, like, ‘Everybody knows me,’ ” Bell said. “Even Oprah was turned away at a fancy store — you know I’m not Oprah. So I think that don’t get too comfortable — it’s the recurring drumbeat.”
Bell underscored that this idea of not getting too comfortable applies to the 2019 Academy Awards as well. With increased representation in media and success for people of color, Bell hopes the progress can be sustained. If 2019 passes without sustained or increased diversity in art, he underscores that there was no reliable success because of the Oscars.
While a lot of Black creatives were celebrated at the award ceremony, the critical acclaim is not the ultimate bragging point, in his opinion.
“The Oscars aren’t indicative of everything. They’re also not indicative of nothing,” Bell said, referring to “Green Book” winning best picture, over “BlacKkKlansman.” “At the end of the day, I mean, Spike Lee put it best: ‘Do the Right Thing’ didn’t win an Oscar in 1989; ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ did. No one talks about ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’’”
Of course, Bell said he can be happy that Mahershala Ali won an award because he’s from the Bay but also can disagree with what “Green Book” accomplishes as a movie. It’s moments such as this where he says it’s important to not get bogged down by the meaning, and just move forward with art.
Speaking before his March 6 Cal Performances event “Front Row,” Bell said the show was meant to be experimental with four Black artists — himself, Natasha Rothwell, Roy Wood Jr., and Punkie Johnson — and during the event itself, he planned to gauge what the audience was seeking from their conversation.
Knowing that UC Berkeley has an unmistakably poor diversity of students, with about 3 percent of students being Black, he said he felt as though the event might be interpreted as trying too hard to appeal to students. But only time could tell.
“I mean, for me about Berkeley, somehow it surprised me, that it was so … that it was diverse, but it wasn’t Black,” Bell said. “Here’s the thing, I was also surprised at how few Black people are in San Francisco. I was surprised how Black Oakland wasn’t, even though I heard it was Black. … None of these things are what I thought they would be.”