In its tenth year, the Mark Twain Lecture on American Language and Culture brought not one, but two hilarious and enlightening acts to St. Mary’s. The lecture is the brainchild of English professor and verifiable SMCM institution Dr. Ben Click, and is typically just a springtime occurrence. This year, however, as in previous election years, Click organized a special “Laughing to the Polls” edition, inviting W. Kamau Bell to campus. Bell is known for his appearances on Comedy Central and HBO programs such as Real Time with Bill Maher, as well as segments on The Rachel Maddow Show, and This American Life. He has also been a contributing writer for VanityFair.com, MSNBC, Buzzfeed, and The Hollywood Reporter, among others. Currently, he is the host of CNN’s United Shades of America, which was recently renewed for its second season. Bell describes his show with a simple statement: “A black person goes where a black person shouldn’t go.”
The evening began with a welcome by President Tuajuanda Jordan, who introduced Dr. Click, and thanked him for his hard work on the event. She then ran through the schedule for the evening, which would consist of an hour-long set from Bell, followed by a panel with Bell, two St. Mary’s students, and a professor, then a few minutes for questions from the audience, and finally, a program signing for those who wished to talk with Bell afterwards. Dr. Click then introduced the guest speaker before Bell finally took the stage.
In light of recent events on campus, the theme for Bell’s lecture was “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in about an Hour.” He began by explaining that he would not be using any “comfort words,” as he called them, words like “person of color,” “colorblind,” “minority,” “diversity” (and the celebration of), and of course, “the ‘N’ word.” No, not the actual “N” word, he explained, but the term “the ‘N’ word”(For the sake of this article, however, I will stick with the “comfort word”). With this prologue of sorts, Bell set the tone for the evening, indirectly calling out the perpetrators of quotidian acts of racism. His presentation dealt with a variety of topics, including Donald Trump, country music, Jeremy Lin, All Lives Matter, and the five levels of racism.
At certain points throughout the program, Bell took a second or two to inconspicuously address the issues the campus has faced over the past few semesters in terms of race. He firmly took control of the audience’s emotion, quickly changing the air in the ARC from tear-evoking laughter to uncomfortable silence in a matter of seconds. For the students who identified with Bell’s humorous, frightening, or infuriating experiences as a person of color, the evening was a gift. For the white students in attendance, the evening was a mixture of hilarity and guilt, as they came to realize how their small actions are injurious to their fellow classmates and others around them. As junior Abram Shaw expressed to Bell after the show, “This was exactly what this campus needed.” The segment ended with Bell encouraging white students to take responsibility for other white people when it comes to racism, just as people of color are often held responsible for the actions of other people of color. He urged white students in the audience to “say it loud: I’m white and I’m proud.”
The evening then continued with a question and answer session between students CJ Robinson and Micaiah Wheeler, English professor and Department Chair Christine Wooley, and Bell. They each took turns asking Bell questions about race in America and his experience as a Black comedian. “Do you think the Confederate flag is offensive?” Wheeler asked at one point. “Yestheconfederateflagisoffensivenextquestion,” responded Bell in a single breath.
The floor was opened up for the audience to ask questions. One woman in the audience explained that she is a Muslim mother with two sons, and she fears everyday when they leave the house that they may not return that evening. Another audience member asked Bell about his experience raising two daughters of mixed-race. He explained that he wanted to be the first person to explain slavery to them, and that there are several children’s books, which deal with topics of race that he has shared with his oldest daughter. The evening then concluded with a program signing, where students could take pictures with Bell, thank him, or share with him their own personal stories of racism in America.
Bell’s presentation still remains in the forefront of students’ minds almost a month later, and his message, which resonated with students of all races on campus, is something we are all grateful for. There is someone else to thank for bringing this very poignant lesson to St. Mary’s: Dr. Ben Click, who has filled many roles around campus, including former Chair of the English Department, Director of the Writing and Speaking Center, and, of course, Director of his beloved Twain Lecture. Dr. Click specializes in American humor, emulating Mark Twain as a literary genius and American hero. Dr. Click has taught a number of upper-level English classes on the subject of Twain and cites The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as his favorite novel of all time. Born and raised in Texas, Dr. Click particularly enjoys southern literature, and recounts his experiences of growing up in the American South, having strict Catholic parents and gigging frogs late at night. Dr. Click received the Norton L. Dodge Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2014. In his spare time, Dr. Click plays in a blues band as a guitarist and pianist.
Following the evening, Dr. Click had this to say to the campus: “As usual, you came out big and generous, St. Mary’s! Kamau had a great time and said the energy was so good that he just had to go past his one hour. Thank you for making his visit so special.”