This Thursday, UCSB Arts & Lectures brings famed sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell to campus to perform his show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. Bell is an African-American, San Francisco–based comedian whose one-hour comedy show — which he performs at many college campuses across the country — addresses race and racism in the United States and his own life.
Bell has much to say about “BBM,” or Being a Black Male, in America in 2015. His Vanity Fair article from November 2014 discusses how “petrified of the cops” he is as a 6’4”, 250-pound black man. He mentions the “precautionary action” he must take every single day of his life. He states, “BBM is why I smile quickly. It’s why I don’t usually stand to my full height. I slouch and bend.”
Most recently, Bell made news in the Bay Area after he was racially profiled at a Berkeley café. On January 29, Bell described his experiences in detail in a blog post on his website. For his birthday, he and his wife attended one of her favorite breakfast spots on College Avenue. He described how his wife went back to the café later that same day to have lunch with some of her new friends. Melissa Bell, Kamau’s white wife, was holding their 13-week-old baby when Kamau approached the group of young mothers with his Macbook under his arm. An employee of the establishment then proceeded to “shoo” Bell away because she thought, “he was selling something.” After Kamau published his blog post, news of this “textbook racism” has spread all over the Internet. Details of his experience could very well be described during his performance at Campbell Hall later this week.
Bell started the Bell Curve in 2007, “before the idea of Barack Obama being president.” His show, which is composed of big news stories, as well as tales from his personal life, has gone through many different incarnations since then.
“When I started doing it, it was about the fact that I had a white girlfriend. At this point, it’s about the fact me and my white wife have two mixed-race kids,” Bell said.
Bell describes himself as a comedian first and an activist second. Currently, he is a member of the advisory board of Race Forward, a racial justice organization. He’s also the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice ambassador. Bell states he was “inspired by Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby as a kid.” It was not until he got older and starting becoming politically involved that he was influenced by Bill Hicks, another political comedian of the ’80s and ’90s.
After withdrawing from the University of Pennsylvania, Bell began to focus on comedy full-time. He describes himself as “big fan of higher education,” as long as one has a plan in mind. Although he did not complete his degree, Bell is no stranger to college campuses. He is invited to universities all over the country regardless of how diverse or homogenous a town might be.
Even though he likes to perform at places that are “racially, ethnically, and socially mixed,” he also freely goes to places like Spokane, Washington, or Eugene, Oregon, which are 85 percent white. “I have done a lot of colleges where they bring me in for the diversity thing and I actually am the diversity. I adapt to whatever the circumstances are,” Bell said.
Thursday’s show, which is offered to UCSB students free of charge, is meant to “inspire conversations” among attendees. “Ending racism in an hour: Clearly that is tongue-in-cheek,” Bell said. “But if people walk out having different conversations about race and racism because of the show, mission accomplished. Even if those conversations are, ‘I disagree with everything he said, and I hope they never bring him back to my school.’ Well, at least that’s a new thought in your head.” Bell acknowledges that he will not get through to all the people who attend the show, so he hopes to address those “sitting on the fence.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents W. Kamau Bell at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, February 5, at 8 p.m. The event is free to UCSB students with a valid college ID. For info, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.