W. Kamau Bell
CNN

“I grew up in one of those households where every month was Black History Month,” W. Kamau Bell jokes. Bell, one of the few comedians tackling issues of race head-on, credits his heightened awareness to his highly conscious mother who grew up in Indiana in the worst of times. “She had just embedded this inside of me. So when I got onstage, that ended up being the stuff I wanted to talk about,” he explains.

His 2012 Comedy Central show, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, may have lasted just over a year, but Bell did make an impression. Now he’s back on TV on CNN with United Shades of America, which premiered Sunday, April 24, to high ratings.

For this show, Bell travels the country delving into different and unique topics. In his first episode he investigated the Ku Klux Klan, and in the second episode he visits the notorious prison San Quentin, located in the Bay Area, where he also lives. The Root caught up with the comedian to talk about the show, San Quentin and prison in general, as well as some of the upcoming episodes he’s excited to share.

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The Root: How did United Shades of America come together and why did you want to do it?

W. Kamau Bell: I have two children, so I need to stay employed, so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. But, also, after my show Totally Biased went off the air and I thought my career was over, luckily, there were people who wanted to meet with me, and one of those people was Jeff Zucker and CNN.

And they brought me to the office to have a general meeting, and they had said somebody pitched them a show, at that point called Black Man, White America, where a black man traveled around to America’s white places. And I sort of said, “Well, that’s a pretty good idea, or we could do something set in the 21st century, where I travel around to lots of different places and we talk to different ethnicities and lots of different racial and religious minorities, so it’s not just the black-and-white America; it hasn’t been that since the ’90s.”

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TR: Tell us about the San Quentin prison episode. Whose idea was that, and what were your initial thoughts?

WKB: Clearly, we start with the Klan [in the first episode], which is an exclusively white space, even more white than country clubs, [but] the whole pitch for the show is places where either you wouldn’t expect [a black man] to go or [places] he absolutely shouldn’t go, and so prison, for me, personally, is a place where [I don’t want to go]. I’ve had light harassment by the police, but that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid to end up in prison because of how the criminal-justice system works.

So that was a place where, for me, personally, I had a lot of anxiety around and also some guilt around not knowing more about the American prison system [other than] from books, not having spent time in there to visit anybody or anything. And so, for me, it was a very anxious episode because I felt some sort of internal guilt as a black person that I should know more about this community, and also this weird sort of sense of like, “What are these guys going to think of me?” because there is nothing about me that comes across hard or street. So I was like, “What if they don’t like me?”    

TR: So what happened when you went in?

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WKB: We went in there, and somebody sort of recognized me from comedy, and it was funny how quick I was like, “Oh, I like this place.” Suddenly I felt welcomed and, from that point forward, I had some really intense and great conversations with men that were basically around the same age as me. So I was very clear about the fact that they just took a left turn somewhere that they shouldn’t have taken or couldn’t avoid and ended up in here. And because the criminal-justice system just subsumes black bodies, they can’t navigate their way out of it now. So, for me, it was so clear that the message to be told here is, “Look at these great, interesting, fully formed, self-actualized people.”

Often, people say if you just give black people therapy, that might be reparations enough, and how black people, we don’t often talk about mental-health issues. And these guys are in San Quentin, some of them, every day talking about their feelings. I have never talked to so many black men about their feelings before, and that just felt like really functioning human beings, that if we let them out of prison—because they’ve been in prison for more than 20 years, most of them—and most of them haven’t done anything wrong while they’ve been in prison because they have been rehabilitating themselves. There’s a whole generation of men and women in prisons who could be contributing to society.

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TR: How did that perspective impact what we see in this episode?

WKB: For me, that episode was about what’s gone wrong here. The idea we have of prison is a scary place that also houses crazy people. And, to me, it was like, none of these guys were scary. They may have done things that are violent or scary, but these are not people that I feel nervous being around, and it feels like to me that we’re wasting these men’s lives in prison.

It was also important for me to show them as being funny and them being humorous and them being smart. Like talking to the guy “Wall Street” about how he figured out how to invest in stocks and bonds from prison, and we’re just like two black guys talking about stocks and bonds, except one of them can’t leave the grounds he’s on.

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TR: What are some of the other episodes you’re excited about?

WKB: Well, we have an episode in Camden, N.J., where I hang out with the police for about a week and go on ride-alongs. It wasn’t planned, but I actually was present for a drug bust. I also got to be a part of a simulator with police officers where I sort of got to pretend to be a police officer in sort of, basically, a giant video game simulation, and then we did an episode in Barrow, Alaska, which is the northernmost tip of America. If you go any further north, you’re either on ice or swimming.

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And then we did an episode in Portland, Ore., which is another show I’m really excited about because, around the country, Portland is often trumpeted as being one of America’s coolest, hippest cities. I’ve been to Portland many times, and I’m always like, “Yeah it’s cool and hip, but also, where are all the black people?” So the episode talks about, “Why is this city so cool and hip, and also keeping the black people away?”

United Shades of America airs on CNN on Sundays at 10 p.m.

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Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.