Like a lot of African Americans, enslavement and other acts of structural oppression stand in the way of comedian W. Kamau Bell* knowing the full extent of his family’s ancestry. The “United Shades of America” host pushed back against that deficit via a search that he documented in a companion docuseries, “Finding Kamau.” He told NPR’s “Fresh Air” yesterday (June 27) that looking for records that document the lives of his enslaved ancestors forced him to confront the barrier many Black people hit while researching their families. 

“The documents that really hit me were the ones where members of our family were being counted as property,” he said. “And they were sort of tick marks on a piece of paper—not with their names attached, but we know, through the records that this person owned your family members. And this tick mark here accounts for one of your—like, your great-great grandmother. That’s the stuff that really shook me because they talk—they call it the ’African-American brick wall,’ because you can’t really get much further past slavery because nobody’s names are attached to them. They’re just, again, they’re just property. And so for me, that’s the stuff that really just sort of sickened my stomach. It’s like, you know, my wife, who is White—and as I’ve talked about a lot—you know, can trace her heritage back as far to like the old countries like Italy and Portugal and, you know, Ireland and England. Whereas mine, for the most part, is going to end in the South. You know, we’re not going to be able to get much further back than that other than the DNA telling you where your DNA comes from.”

Listen to Bell talk about the search, his new stand-up comedy special and the #MeToo movement with “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross:

*W. Kamau Bell is a former board member of Race Forward, which publishes Colorlines.