For someone whose job involves flying around the country to talk to people about particularly sensitive political issues, W. Kamau Bell is surprisingly bearish on the power of a frank exchange of ideas. “What ever changes in one conversation?” he asks.
Not much—it’s true. But for Bell, the East Bay comedian and host of the CNN political-travelogue series, United Shades of America (which returns for its third season this spring), the notion of spurring—and, crucially, sustaining—meaningful conversations that bridge political divides remains paramount.
Between his CNN show; his podcast, Politically Re-Active; his KALW radio show, Kamau Right Now!; and the release last year of his memoir, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, the longtime stand-up comedian has been able to broach thorny political themes—particularly surrounding race, gender and income—with his own brand of disarming humor. It’s in that middle ground, where people of all stripes can share a laugh, that Bell finds hope. “I understand being pessimistic,” Bell says. “But you have to be excited about the idea of: What can I do today? What conversations can I have? What can I learn about the other side?”
The weeks of Feb. 12 and March 12, Bell will bring his unique perspective to Santa Clara University, where he is serving a residency as the Frank Sinatra Chair in the Performing Arts. “I wish my wife’s Sicilian grandfather could have lived long enough to hear that,” he says with a laugh. (Bell’s wife, for added good measure, is a Santa Clara alumna.) Bell says he’s looking forward to setting up shop on campus. “This way, I can have the academic life people assume I have,” he jokes. Bell never graduated from college; he dropped out after a year and a semester at the University of Pennsylvania. Bell says the residency will be fairly unstructured; he plans to drop in on classes that relate to his work, invite some of his friends and colleagues to speak, and generally make himself accessible to students.
You know, in case anyone wants to strike up a conversation.
Originally published in the January/February issue of Silicon Valley