Baltimore Sun

With some pratfalls, Bell tries to dismantle racism in 7th season

- By Rodney Ho

Comedian, activist and CNN host W. Kamau Bell admits he’s no athlete and proves it multiple times in the seventh season of his Emmy-winning magazine series “United Shades of America,” courtesy of an episode focused on sports.

In one hour in Boston, he gets aggressive­ly wrestled to the ground, is exceedingl­y outpaced by a track star, drops many balls thrown at him and awkwardly rows down a river.

“If you’re going to try to dismantle racism, you may as well do some pratfalls,” mused Bell in a recent interview. “I did the wrestling and rowing on the same day. It took me a week to recover from that episode. I had some feelings. But my kids did find it funny seeing me get flipped.”

The most salient and newsworthy of the seven episodes is the one about what it means to be “woke,” which recently debuted.

The term “woke” is decades old and was exclusivel­y used by Black folks for a time as a warning. As Bell says in the episode, it was “a creative way for one Black person to say to another, ‘Be smart, stay aware, America is dangerous.’ ”

Then the death of Michael Brown by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, led to the hashtag #StayWoke on “Black Twitter.” But as

Bell noted, Black Twitter is seen by everyone. So “woke became the hymn for latte liberals,” he said, who wanted to show off “performati­ve social justice.” Black people, he said, stopped using it seriously.

Then conservati­ves grabbed the word, and it

became a pejorative, he said, “for anything America sees as a threat.” And it’s how the term “critical race theory” became misunderst­ood and twisted into the same rubric as “woke.” The episode attempts to clarify what actually critical race theory is and what it doesn’t mean for public schools, but he knows he is often preaching to the converted on CNN, where the show airs on Sundays.

“I hope it helps people who are just on the fence,” Bell said. “The news treats them like pinballs. At least they will no longer be confused by the definition, that it’s not some global conspiracy concocted by George Soros. I want your random conversati­ons about the news to be better.”

Another episode that hits close to home for Bell is one about the incessant wildfires in California and the inexorably negative impacts of climate change. There are plenty of people, he said, who throw up their hands and say, “It’s too late. Enjoy what you have left!” But he explores solutions, including controlled fires that indigenous people have promoted for centuries.

Bell has worked to incorporat­e indigenous people into multiple episodes, and this season, he did

a second stand-alone episode focused on Native Americans seeking to get their land back. And to build food independen­ce, one tribe raises bison, some of which are killed each year. Bell watched a sharp-shooting woman kill one.

“It wasn’t fun to see it killed,” he said, “but all the food will be given away for free and eaten by people in the reservatio­n.”

They also goaded

Bell into sampling bison bile. He made a face and politely said on camera that it tasted like medicine.

“I felt like I was taking a potion that would make me a superhero,” he joked. “My mutant power might reveal itself eventually.”

The final episode of the season focuses on the impact of tourism on Hawaiians and features Bell trying to be athletic again, this time on a surfboard. After numerous takes of him falling into the water, the camera crew told him they only had time for one more try. Miraculous­ly, he stayed on the board for 10 seconds.

“I really felt a sense of accomplish­ment,” he said. “Women on the beach were watching. There were cops on jet skis. The dude from CNN didn’t drown! My kids were cheering!”

 ?? KEVIN WINTER/GETTY 2021 ?? W. Kamau Bell is the host of “United Shades of America,” now in its seventh season on CNN.
KEVIN WINTER/GETTY 2021 W. Kamau Bell is the host of “United Shades of America,” now in its seventh season on CNN.

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