Can Thanksgiving Save America? | W. Kamau Bell’s United Thanks of America

Posted by on November 19, 2018 in Conscious Living, Inspirational, Relationships & Sex, Thrive with 0 Comments

W. Kamau Bell in “Private School Negro.”

In a Q&A, the comedian and host of United Shades of America explores the place of gratitude in a divided country.

 | The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley

Thanksgiving is approaching, but according to one new study, we’ve been spending less time with each other over turkey and mashed potatoes. The reason why might shock you: Americans are avoiding Thanksgiving with family because of political differences.

W. Kamau Bell doesn’t think that’s a good thing, which might be why he’s carved out an unusual niche for himself on today’s polarized social and political landscape. He’s a comedian with real moral seriousness, a black man who reveals the lives of people who hate him, and a social commentator who tries to tear down barriers rather than build them up. Through his autobiographical stand-up specials like Private School Negro and best-selling book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, he’s explored how social forces have shaped his personality and life. Through his CNN series United Shades of America, he’s encouraged extremely diverse groups of Americans to speak for themselves and explain their own lives, decisions, and values.

Unlike many peers in comedy, Bell isn’t bombastic, and he’s relatively unsarcastic. Instead, he’s created a persona that is self-deprecating, modest, patient, compassionate, and curious—all qualities he brought to bear in this conversation with Greater Good about the place of gratitude in a divided America.

Jeremy Adam Smith: What are you grateful for these days?

W. Kamau Bell: I’ve got three kids. They’re healthy. I’ve got a seven year old, an almost four year old, a twelve week old. I’m grateful that my oldest likes school. I think it’s a gift to not look at school as a burden but as a fun place to go to. Grateful that my wife figured out how to have the 12 week old and have a job at the University of San Francisco teaching, and figured out how to hold it down while my work takes me on the road constantly. And I’m grateful that we just moved my mom from Indiana to up here in Oakland, so she can see her grandkids whenever she wants to.

Last year, when I won an Emmy, I was like, “What? Excuse me?” I didn’t expect to win an Emmy, because that was not on my list of things to do. When my wife and I were on the plane coming home, I said, “We should just email all our friends and see if they just want to come over and take pictures with the Emmy,” because it’s just this thing, this physicalized example of your success. My kids call it a trophy. I feel super grateful about it. I know that it means something, if it means people in my industry think I’m doing good work. It also means that if my show gets canceled, somebody will give me something else to do because I won an Emmy! I’m grateful that it’ll help me provide for my family.

But I also think it’s silly. I wanted my friends to be a part of this, so we invited them to a playground across the street from our house. They were like, “Can I touch it?”  And I’d say, “Yeah, you can touch it, take a picture with it.” All these people took pictures with the Emmy. That helped me feel grateful, because I wasn’t thinking, “It’s my Emmy and nobody else won this Emmy but me.” Instead, it’s like this: “These are the people in my life who have been around to help support me as I made this long march toward this career.”

JAS: What do you find people thank you for?

WKB: I feel like the thank you’s I get the most often are people who are fans of either United Shades or my stand-up, or any entertainment media stuff I’ve done. They’ll say, “Thank you for exposing me to stuff that I had no idea of,” or, “Thank you for highlighting a community I’m a part of that never gets highlighted…” Those are the two big ones. I hear them in airports, because I get stuck in airports a lot. That’s my number one recognize location.

JAS: Yeah. I’d probably thank you in an airport, too.

WKB: Sometimes they say, “Thank you for your bravery,” which I think is overplayed. People think I’m braver than I am. Like, “You really went to that place to do that thing.” But yeah, I get thanked for that.

JAS: Do your wife and your kids and your mother just grunt at you and never thank you for anything?

WKB: No, they say “thank you” all the time. It’s a big priority in our parenting. When I put the kids to bed, some nights I’ll go, “Okay, tell me three things you feel gratitude about today.” We taught the girls gratitude at an early age and what it means. Just put that idea in their head that you have to be grateful. I also have a thing I say to my daughters: “You can’t say thank you enough to somebody.” They know how to say thank you, but sometimes they forget or they’re too quiet about it. I’ll remind them: “Say thank you.” They’re like, “I did.” And I’ll be like, “Say it again.” Nobody gets annoyed about somebody saying thank you too often.

Three Good Things: This practice teaches you to notice, remember, and savor the better things in life. Try it now…

JAS: That’s pretty interesting that you try to cultivate some gratitude at home with your kids.

WKB: Yeah. My oldest daughter, who’s seven, was born right before I got my first big show-biz opportunity—my first television show. She has grown up with me being on TV and being around celebrities. We travel a lot, and she sees people stop me in the street. I feel a big pressure to make sure she doesn’t think this is normal. My career gives us access to a lot of people and places and things, and I just think that it would be really easy, if my career continues on this trajectory, to raise privileged assholes. So, I’m just trying to actively not raise assholes. My kids aren’t assholes, though. But I feel a big pressure to make sure our life doesn’t go to their heads. Gratitude helps us all keep our feet on the ground.


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