Race to Fame

W. Kamau Bell has built a career on examining the messy intersections of race and class in a supposedly postracial world.

She moved Bell, rather profoundly. "I don't really trust anyone who doesn't believe in Susan Boyle," he said, as the small crew moved from the periodicals room to another spot in the library. His voice deepened slightly as he straightened up and began working out material, not for his current audience of one, but for a potential packed house. "If someone can watch that video and not feel something, I don't want to know them. I just don't."

Watching Bell clown around for most of the shoot — he was fond of poking his head up over bookshelves and whispering into the camera, pretending to have sneaked in to return the book — it's hard to believe that this ham was, for most of his life, extremely shy.

Bell was a classic bookworm, the product of his parents' emphasis on education. It was a rare point of convergence for his parents, who he can't imagine "getting along long enough to agree to have sex."

Bell during a solo performance workshop at the Shelton Theater. Doing a one-man show turned out to be crucial for his progress in stand-up.
Jake Poehls
Bell during a solo performance workshop at the Shelton Theater. Doing a one-man show turned out to be crucial for his progress in stand-up.
The comedian as a young clown: 
Although he was intensely shy, Bell loved the theatrics of Halloween.
Courtesy of Janet Bell
The comedian as a young clown: Although he was intensely shy, Bell loved the theatrics of Halloween.

"My father is black, and my mother is black," was how Bell used to put it in his act. His college professor mother, Janet Cheatham Bell, actively sought to inject race into family conversations, publishing four volumes of black quotations and celebrating Kwanzaa "unironically," Bell says, with her only son.

Bell and his mother moved around for most of his childhood, but the two years he spent in junior high in Mobile, Alabama, with his businessman father, Walter Bell, proved to be formative in his racial consciousness. At one point at his mostly white school, a group of black kids threw him against a locker and demanded to know why he hung out with the white kids. Bell fell between the boundaries of most racial lines. "I wasn't living the story of black youth," he said. "I never was a break dancer, I didn't buy rap albums, I was not even really into music at that age, only TV."

Missing his mother, Bell went to her in Chicago and enrolled in the prestigious University of Chicago's Laboratory School, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Inside the competitive academic environment of the Lab School, Bell formed a small cadre of white outsider friends. He headed to the University of Pennsylvania, intending to get a degree in East Asian studies and become a martial arts star.

But once Bell got to Philadelphia, his perspective began to shift. During freshman orientation, he remembers sitting in a circle, talking about identity, and saying something like, "I don't feel African-American, I just feel American."

"This white guy said, 'Oh I'm so happy to hear you say that,'" Bell said, shaking his head. "And a black woman in the group just looked totally repulsed. Shortly after that, everything changed."

Largely through art, Bell's racial consciousness grew. He found music that spoke to him intensely — black rock bands like Living Colour and Fishbone. He began growing dreads. He got his mind blown by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In his sophomore year, he realized that East Asian studies had little to do with his hero, Bruce Lee, so he dropped out of school and moved back to Chicago.

Bell then made a decision that shocked his friends and family: He started classes at famed comic institution Second City, completing a year-and-a-half-long program. "My resting rate is shy and quiet," Bell says. Standup "came out of left field." Bell had been moved to consider comedy after spending afternoons watching videos of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor; he found that he loved performing, but he didn't cotton to Second City's regimen of improv. So he bought a notebook and began dragging an old Lab School friend, Jason Smith, to open mike nights around Chicago. It took Bell more than a month to get on a stage for what he says, and Smith confirms, was a pretty terrible attempt at humor. "I can't lie," says Smith, now a bookstore owner in Chicago. "It was slow going. He had all stereotypical stuff — stories about the DMV, all kinds of relationship jokes. It wasn't Kamau; it was someone trying to be a comedian onstage."

But Bell kept plugging away, meeting fellow comics and getting turned on to what would be a primary inspiration — the incendiary political comedy of late comic Bill Hicks. "My friend gave me this cassette tape — remember, this was when there were cassette tapes — of Bill Hicks' Relentless," Bell says. "It just rang true ... and he was in charge in a way onstage that I wasn't. The audience wants him to think they're cool, not vice versa." With Hicks in mind, and armed with a few years' experience on the Chicago comedy scene, Bell headed west, hoping to make a living in stand-up.

It's a Sunday afternoon, two days after the PSA at the library, and Bell escorted the stragglers out of the Shelton Theater in San Francisco, locked the doors, and headed to a Starbucks across the street. He had been inside the Shelton on one of the hottest days of the year, helping lead a solo performance workshop with Paul Stein, the artistic director of the Comedy Central Stage in L.A.

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