“The first day of shooting was the day we went to the cross burning—or ‘cross lighting,’” said comedian W. Kamau Bell about the first day of shooting for his upcoming CNN show. Salon spoke to Bell about that show, “United Shades of America,” which sees the comedian and former host of FX’s “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” traveling the country and showcasing American race dynamics, warts and all. 

Bell—a former board member for Race Forward, the organization that publishes Colorlines—spoke at length about an episode where he spoke with Ku Klux Klan members and even went to a cross-burning. A few choice quotes illuminate the skill with which Bell handled what otherwise sounds like a horrific scenario. For instance, he described using humor as an empowering tool:

In the car waiting to be told I could drive in, I really got myself together, and also started to sort of work myself into, “All right, gotta go in there, gotta be funny.” That episode really taught me that humor is a defense mechanism that I developed—because I’m using it to defend myself. To sort of keep everyone on their toes, show everyone they’re not gonna get one over on me…. Sort of claim my space through humor.

Bell also spoke candidly about the place the Klan holds in contepmorary America:

The Klan was absolutely one of America’s first homegrown terrorist groups…. At some point, a lot of the leadership of the country, and also of cities around the country—those guys were either Klansmen or active sympathizers of the Klan. Well, now those people know you don’t have to wear the robes anymore. As Malcolm X said, you can do it in a suit.
 
And now it sort of exists as the most dangerous men’s group of all kinds. There’s not much difference between the Klan out in the woods burning crosses and a men’s group out in the woods beating drums and claiming their manhood. These guys may have done dangerous things, they may have done illegal things…. But to me it felt like this was a lot of misplaced anger and emotion and sadness. That, you know, you guys might need some therapy or, I don’t know—a better job, a better economy? You’ve decided that your problems aren’t your own—they’re Black people.

Read Bell’s full Q&A on Salon’s website, and catch the premiere of “United Shades of America” April 24 on CNN