W. Kamau Bell: Comedian, activist, USF resident

W. Kamau Bell spoke to students as this year’s J. Paul Getty Visiting Artist, Scholar, and Resident. JOHN NOWAK/CNN

Sam Crocker

Staff Writer

In November, USF welcomed comedian and social justice advocate W. Kamau Bell as this year’s J. Paul Getty Visiting Artist/Scholar. Bell — host of the CNN documentary series “United Shades of America” — participated in a residency organized by the Honors College. Each year, a well-known public figure is invited to USF to speak with the community and teach students; the content of the residency typically aligns with USF’s social justice-oriented mission. Bell joined Professor Jonathan Hunt of the rhetoric and language department in conversation over a Zoom webinar on Nov. 19 that was free to the USF community. The following day, Bell attended a Getty Scholars rhetoric class and spoke with students.

At the webinar event, Bell and Hunt had a discussion that was entertaining and insightful in equal parts — they spoke about a wide range of topics, from COVID-19 to Kamala Harris to the role of comedy within the revolution (Bell believes that comedy is a sort of lube that makes revolutionary ideas more agreeable and accessible).

Much of the conversation centered on steps we can take to practice anti-racism, both as members of the USF community and in our personal lives. Bell brought up patterns of discrimination aginst students of color in higher education, advocating for greater support for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students from administration, admissions, and fellow students. He also addressed the importance of paying reparations to Black and Indigenious communities, arguing that America’s continued failure to do so exposes a fundamental brokenness of our country.

Bell thinks that early education has failed many people — especially white people, who he said need to stop being afraid of conversations surrounding race. “It’s hard to heal if a group of people doesn’t feel a disease is a disease, or that structural racism doesn’t exist,” Bell said. He argued that we need a more comprehensive and actively anti-racist early education system that provides young people with the resources they need to combat anti-Black, anti-Indigineous, anti-transgender, anti-science, etc. narratives.

The day following the Zoom webinar, Bell visited a Getty Scholars rhetoric course and chatted with students. Sadiya Kazani, one of the students in the class, said that Bell spoke at length about the ways in which comedy and social justice intertwine for him personally. “Bell noted that the field of comedy has evolved an extreme amount since he began… it has become more accessible,” she said. 

According to Kazani, Bell credits the wide variety of streaming services and other online media platforms with making it easier for comedians to publicize their work. This allows for an increasingly diverse comedy scene, as shows like “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” are able to achieve mainstream success.

In the class, Bell also discussed microaggressions and how some comedians will try to repackage them as “dark humor.” Bell sees a very clear difference between a good joke and a microaggression when it comes to joking about marginalized groups; the former comes at the expense of the oppressor while the latter is at the expense of the oppressed. “[Bell] said that he takes care to ensure that the punchline of his jokes are not making fun of a marginalized community, but rather highlighting their experiences in a way that brings in even the most difficult audiences,” said Kazani.

Hunt, who has known Bell personally for over a decade through the Bay Area stand-up comedy scene, was the first to suggest that the comedian be brought in for a residency at USF. Hunt cited Bell’s focus on community as well as his emphatically anti-racist brand of comedy as qualities that made him a great potential resident. Bell is, as Hunt puts it, someone who is “nationally prominent but who could also really connect with USF students and with USF’s mission and values.”

When asked to give advice to USF students during the Zoom webinar, Bell said that college is the time to figure out what kind of human you want to be as you enter the world beyond school. We should consider when we’ll stand up for others as well as ourselves. “More people need to be willing to reach out to others when they need help,” Bell said. One of Bell’s closing remarks was that it’s important for us, as students, to keep ourselves engaged and to keep having conversations — it’s how our generation can make the world a better place.

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