Let’s get this much out of the way: though it figures into the title, W. Kamau Bell does not address his asthma in this book. If you were reading the title and twigged on that word, there’s very little here for you. It’s a shame, really, because Bell thoughtfully addresses pretty much everything else and I might have been interested to know what he had to say on the topic, especially given the high incidence of asthma in African Americans. I can only wonder what he’s hiding.
But enough about what Bell doesn’t want you to know because there’s a lot here that he does. He wants to talk about not fitting in and finding friends when you don’t fit in. He wants to talk about liking metal when the world expects you to be conversant in Public Enemy. Bell wants to talk about the struggles of making it as a stand-up comedian when you’re weird (but not charming weird, rather regular “maybe I’ll catch the next elevator instead of standing next to that guy” weird). He wants to talk about being a good son and a loving dad.
My only prior exposure to Bell has been as a guest on NPR’s Code Switch podcast (maybe Pop Culture Happy Hour, too?). I’ve never seen his stand-up (judging by his stories in the book, I’m going to guess you haven’t either). I haven’t watched either of his shows. Honestly, prior to this book, I couldn’t have told you he was a stand-up comedian. I assumed he was an NPR host.
I point this out because settling into this book took me a while. Through the first two or three chapters, I kept thinking that I would rather hear him perform this material than read it on the page. Bell’s anecdotes are of that rambling style where you think they’ve gone far afield of where the story began until they unexpectedly close the loop. Once I settled into the style, it was a lot easier to move through the stories.
This book feels almost like two shorter books that have been awkwardly joined into one. The first book is Bell’s origin story. He describes his nomadic childhood, of superheroes and his personal feelings on representation, of being a little weird and struggling (or not) to be black in “the right way”. He talks about dropping out of an Ivy League school and trying to make a living as a comic. It’s loosely chronological and there’s no “through line” for the story.
I knew I loved Good Times, but I also knew I loved The Brady Bunch. I never thought to pick. Eventually, I found that people regularly wanted me to pick between Black stuff and white stuff. I just like stuff. I’m a stuff-ist.
The second, shorter book feels like it might have been a last-minute addition in response to the 2016 election cycle and outcome. While I know Bell’s comedy niche is social and political humor, the energy of his thoughts on our current political climate is noticeably different than the rest of the book. I wonder if those portions weren’t sewn-in to keep the book’s content fresh and relevant. It’s fine, but a little jarring.
When Democrats say they’re going to ignore Trump’s white supremacy, xenophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and racism because they’re going to find common ground, they’re letting him dictate what the ground is.
Awkward Thoughts is a collection of memoir-ish essays, of a kind with Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Olivia Munn’s Suck It, Wonder Woman. It’s thoughtful and sincere, and while it’s funny, it’s never “laugh until your sides ache and tears come” kind of funny. It makes me want to seek out Bell’s work in other media–his show United Shades of America recently kicked off its second season–which seems the best outcome from a book like this.
I received a complimentary copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.