Cbr11bingo Listicles (From Roxane Gay Book Recommendations) Bingo #8
The full title of this book is The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmantic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian. And all of that detailed identity is covered in this collection of funny, provocative, thoughtful essays that are part memoir and part cultural/political commentary. I have to admit that the only thing I knew about Bell before reading these essays is that he is N.K. Jemison’s cousin. I haven’t seen his stand-up act or his TV shows (Totally Biased, Emmy-winning CNN docuseries United Shades of America). His introduction asks the reader point blank why they are reading this book. To be perfectly honest, I needed to fill a bingo square and I already had a copy of this one. I think I meant to give it to someone as a gift. Whoops. Anyway, all those descriptors sounded pretty appealing to me and I wasn’t mistaken to think that this would be a good read.
Bell divides his book into 10 “awkward” chapters related to his childhood and upbringing, his Blackness, his odyssey through the world of stand-up comedy and TV, and his personal relationships. Bell has always felt like a bit of an outsider. His parents sound pretty cool and managed to co-parent their son successfully even though their own relationship didn’t work out. Bell and his mother moved several times in his youth, and he attended some private schools where he was one of only a couple of Black students. His interests were different from most of his peers: comics and rock versus rap or hip hop. He did not have a way with the ladies. He was/is pretty nerdy.
Bell also felt like something of a failure throughout stages of his life. He dropped out of college and his stand-up career didn’t exactly take off and soar as he had hoped. One of the things I admire about Bell is that he was not afraid to say “no” to situations that he ultimately realized were not right for him. He got in to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania but realized after a year or two that it wasn’t where he was meant to be. His descriptions of working with TV executives and show runners— all white men — demonstrate the racism and narrow vision of that medium and the stress he felt in trying to promote his creative work within it. That stress took a physical toll and nearly ruined his marriage. But Bell learned from those bad experiences and became more vocal about bringing diversity into his next projects.
For me, the best chapters are those in which Bell shows his own blind spots as well as the day-to-day racism that he and his family have encountered. “My Awkward Sexism” stands out in particular. Bell is not afraid to show us that, despite his best intentions to be intersectional, there were parts of his early act that were sexist. To his credit, when he brought in women friends to evaluate his work and they pointed out this problem, he did listen and try to change. It wasn’t an easy process but he understood that he had a blind spot there and needed to address it rather than try to defend it. “My Most Awkward Birthday Ever” is the final essay and the one that packed the biggest punch for me. Bell is married to a white woman; they have two daughters and live in Berkeley, California — probably one of the most liberal cities in America. Yet, even there racism rears its ugly head regularly. The story of what happened on this birthday was particularly infuriating, as it’s one of those cases where the white people involved first try to say that what happened wasn’t really racist and then try to show how progressive and “woke” they are.
It’s this final chapter that really challenges the reader if they are white. Throughout the essays, Bell addresses the racism that he and Black people all over the country have to deal with, the racism that makes it unsafe to be a Black man in a hoodie walking down the street and minding your own business. But there is also the racism that liberal white people demonstrate every time they say that they aren’t racist because they voted for Obama or have Black friends or whatever. Bell challenges us to do more and by do more, he doesn’t mean coming up with that super witty comeback to a troll on Twitter. As he and so many others have pointed out, Black people have been doing the heavy lifting when it comes to dismantling racism in America. White people need to physically get up, work on each other, and engage in meaningful action to do the same. The election of Trump freaked us out, but just showing up at a march isn’t going to change anything.
This is a great collection of essays. Bell is witty and funny as hell, but he also shows very clearly where the racist and sexist fault lines in our culture are. Bell challenges us to really act on what we say we believe if we are the progressive white allies we fancy ourselves to be