The real reason Kamau Bell took a DNA test
Updated 8:35 AM ET, Sat June 9, 2018
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(CNN)W. Kamau Bell didn't need a DNA test to confirm his identity.
But when Ancestry -- one of the many companies that analyze DNA to unearth a person's genealogical history -- offered to look into his family tree, Bell accepted the vial to collect genetic material and coughed -- er -- spit it up.
And he has a few good reasons why: His two daughters with his wife, Melissa, plus a third on the way; and his parents, Janet and Walter, who are going on this family history journey with him.
"I think if I (wasn't) married and had kids, maybe I'd be idly curious but I wouldn't be actively curious because I just feel like whatever history says, I know who I am," Bell says. "If I'm a half of a percent African-American, that's not going to change how I am in the world."
But his daughters, ages 3 and 6, are mixed race, and will have a different experience, Bell and his wife say. "The thing in this moment that causes me to want to do this is for our daughters, so they can know all that's available to know," Bell says. "And I'm excited to see this all laid out on paper so I can show it to my dad and my aunt, Jackie. So they can see it for real because it's clear that even their knowledge is a little bit diffuse."
CNN followed along with the comedian and host of "United Shades of America" as he and his parents traced their lineage back multiple generations -- something many African Americans aren't able to do since slavery robbed them of the documentation -- such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and deeds to land -- needed to do so.
The result of this journey is "Finding Kamau," a three-part video series you can watch here on CNN.com. Below, the Bells talk more about their decision, the fear that can come with digging into one's past, and what they hope their daughters will take away from it all.
CNN: What made you guys want to invest and go on this journey? Was it a joint decision?
Melissa Bell: Definitely a joint decision, as are most things in this arrangement. And this seems like such a cool way to really dive a lot deeper into where the family comes from and into Kamau's family's history ... I feel like if the knowledge is available, why wouldn't we, right?
Kamau Bell: Yeah ... for me, I remember this conversation, (and) I feel like we talked about this at some point and your response was, you know, the girls should know where they come from. For me, the thing in this moment that causes me to want to do this is for our daughters, so they can know all that's available to know.
I mean, anything is possible; there could be some sort of, "Oh, my God, we live across the street from my long lost (relative)!" Or, "You're related to ..." or "there's this crazy story about ..." like, all that's possible. But I've heard so many people who say their identity is caught up in what they think they are and then when they find out what they are, things start to fall apart. And I just feel like maybe for fear of things falling apart I've never looked into it.
MB: Is that something that you have a fear of?
KB: I don't really have a fear because, you know, if I'm a half of a percent African American, that's not gonna change how I am in the world. I don't think black people are gonna be like, "He's not one of us anymore." But I think some people get caught up in that (and) I do think that seeing people get caught up in that has led me to be like, "Ah, I already know who I am."
I have grown up knowing something about (my family) history. Not that far back, but enough to know on my dad's side, the Bell family line starts from Francis Bell [...] and a guy who owned enslaved people. I think a lot of black people maybe can't even get back that far.
And my mom, you know, I've never been back to her family places, but they're all in the South. And she would tell me about her grandparents who believed they're Cherokee.
MB: And that's something you've always mentioned, sort of casually, like as a narrative that goes through your mom's side of the family that I'm curious about. I get the sense that you're curious about it.
KB: That's the thing I'm the most curious about. Just because every black person apparently thinks they're Cherokee, so I'm curious to go, "Am I actually one of the black people who has Cherokee in them?" (Laughs) And if not, no big deal. I'll be fine.
KB: What if I'm 100% black? (Laughs) That'd be amazing. Like, if it somehow worked out that you only got the black DNA from all your relatives.
MB: Is that possible? Does that scientifically work?
KB: I don't know ... But if I was 100% black I would change my bio, my Twitter profile.
MB: It would suddenly be your calling card.
KB: I would change everything. "One hundred percent black: I am actually from Wakanda."
CNN: You guys both have talked openly about having mixed race children. Is that part of this investigation, in terms of their awareness of something like that?
KB: Let's say, for example, I'm 1% black. It doesn't matter to how I've lived my life and how I will continue to live my life because mixed race is also a visible identity. It's an identity that people see. People look at our daughters and can see that they are this thing that we've called mixed race. So no matter how black I am, nobody looks at me and goes, "Oh. (Laughs) Look at his hair ..."
MB: ... "He's got a lot of stuff going on."
KB: Yeah, so I think being mixed race is a visible identity. Whatever my DNA says -- I'm certainly of mixed race heritage, I believe -- it is not the same as being what we call in this country mixed race.
And our daughters are definitely visibly mixed race, and at the same time, we also tell them they're black, even though Juno at this stage is probably going to be able to get some white people secrets because she'll probably be able to be in the rooms. (Laughs)
MB: Yeah, I think Kamau and I are both aware that our daughters being mixed race means that their experience in the world is going to be significantly different from ours and something we've talked about is taking a lot of our cues from them in terms of how they identify. I think it is interesting to consider how, like, sort of, flushing out the mixed race nature of (Kamau's) heritage may play into the ways that they see themselves in the world.
Right now it is very black and white -- the three of them are black people and I'm a white person; they are mixed race and we are not. And that's not necessarily how it is. We have a three-year-old and a six-year-old, so that's the terms that they can understand. But I imagine as they get older, when we have teenaged daughters instead, it's going to be a lot more nuanced and complicated for them, and I think having this knowledge may round out how they see themselves in the world.
KB: I feel like in their lifetime, there's probably going to be some new word that accounts for people who are actively being a part of multiple cultures.
Because as much as I have mixed race heritage, on Saint Patrick's Day, I don't feel some sort of like, "Well, I know I have Irish slaver in me, so let me go drink some green beer." I don't have that.
But (our daughter) Sami and her friends are actively participating in multiple cultures and races. The thing that I've been so impressed by with Sami and (our daughter) Juno is that their capacity to understand this stuff is way bigger than we think.