No one likes to admit to judging a book by its cover but I will freely admit that I picked this book up for two reasons (1) The word awkward in the title and (2) The front matter description on the cover: “Tales of a 6’4″, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.” How could I resist?
After reading Awkward, The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome I have come to embrace my own awkwardness as a gift (and a curse) and find myself on the lookout for other awkward people. Truthfully, I had never heard of Mr. Bell until I read his book. This is certainly not a statement on his popularity, rather on my being approximately five years behind on television shows and without access to anything but basic cable and some instant gratification internet platforms. Except, now I have Hulu and therefore access to his fantastic CNN show United Shades of America.
Mr. Bell is extremely funny in my most favorite manner – smart funny. He observes, ponders, and pours over issues that the rest of society either doesn’t notice or spends no time reflecting upon. I wouldn’t call him awkward but I like that he used the word awkward to spark important conversations.
For example, “Awkward Thoughts about Superheroes and Doc McStuffins.” I remember wondering why there were so fewer black superheroes when I was a kid. Really, I was only into the female superheroes (early feminist) and so I only knew Storm. And when they came out with a Black Barbie I was so happy that kids would have a beautiful doll that looked like them. But, these little tiny burst of awareness didn’t extend to imagining what everyday life was like for a nerdy black kid (hello privilege!). I was surprised to find that Mr. Bell’s favorites were The Incredible Hulk and Spider-man because he could easily picture himself under their green skin or red and blue costume. He also points out that the world is changing and including more representation which is essential for his daughters to see. He credits Doc McStuffins, a Disney show I am aware of but have never seen, as one of the most important shows on television because his daughter’s reality includes a female Black doctor. I don’t love Disney but kudos to them for this show.
I volunteer at my neighborhood elementary school that has a high population of Black children. I love to read and they all know it. When I first started volunteering there years ago I would give book recommendations to the kids. And I was shocked (and then embarrassed again by my privilege) by the lack of representation in children’s literature. Have you ever tried to find a book for a Black kid that wasn’t about the Civil Rights Movement? The remaining books seem to only feature a child who lives in the wrong / dangerous / graffiti-ridden neighborhood and is being raised by their grandmother. Or books about sports heroes. In the past two years things have improved slightly in the publishing world. Kids (white ones too!) need to know about racism. But it is vital that all kids are able to imagine themselves as heroes, magicians, time travelers and powerful people. I do not think, as Mr. Bell put it, that white people are uncomfortable imagining themselves as Black heroes. Instead, we just never had to do it. Pick up a book. Oh, this features a child of color? Put down that book and peruse the one hundred next to it with kids that look just like you! We haven’t practiced it like Black children have had to for generations.
I do agree with him that many white people are uncomfortable with Black people playing a role previously held by a white person. He uses James Bond and Idris Elba as an example and he is right. Every time it comes up it becomes a stupid controversy. I vote that we just stop making Bond films altogether. Bond is boring.
The chapters “My Most Awkward Birthday Ever” and “My Awkward Joking Around with the KKK” really struck a chord with me because they directly confront the continuing and pervasive racism in America. Every chapter is woven with the theme of racism but these two in particular stand out in my mind.
In “My Most Awkward Birthday Ever” Mr. Bell is the center of a coffee shop controversy not unlike the one that just unfolded at Starbucks. He was literally shooed away from his wife and daughter in front of a group of her friends (new friends too), on his birthday after he had eaten there earlier in the day. The stand out part for me was how many of his so-called white friends said, “How do you know it was racism?…I mean that sucks, but how can you be sure?”
This statement has been said or thought by, I would guess, all white people at one time or another. We think it and say it because we don’t understand and, perhaps more importantly, we aren’t trying to understand or empathize. We just want it to not be racism. But, it is.
And that brings me to “My Awkward Joking Around with the KKK.” While filming, Mr. Bell was put in close proximity at night to a barbershop owned by a KKK member and proudly flying the Confederate flag. His show runner was telling him repeatedly to get closer without any comprehension of the fear that Mr. Bell must have felt.
When I read this chapter I wanted to punch his show runner. How anyone could be so unfeeling is beyond my comprehension. I find the KKK terrifying and they would never even give me and my bland Irish looks a second glance. In the first five minutes of the episode (which I watched after finishing the book) Mr. Bell walks along a dirt road to politely greet a man dressed in full klan gear with his voice disguised. The klansman is clearly a coward – show your face, let me hear your voice! But Mr. Bell had every right to be terrified and he still shook his hand. I had two hopes after viewing this exchange: I hope his Mother isn’t watching and I hope he washed his hands. But again, here is Mr. Bell putting into action something he has probably practiced over and over again throughout his life – being polite to a racist.
This book really showcases what I have come to learn is W. Kamau Bell doing what he does best: socio-political comedy. I am working my way through all of the United Shades of America backlogs and they are excellent. However, if you want to hear the more unfiltered awkward thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, pick up his book.
Tell me, please!
What non-fiction book jolted your awareness even a smidge?