In his lifetime, Dick Gregory (1932-2017) achieved the distinction of becoming a celebrated athlete, conscientious comic, civil rights leader, devoted (in his own singular way) family man, philanthropist, American icon, and author of more than a dozen books.Publisher Harper Collins released his most recent title, Defining Moments in Black History, Reading Between the Lies, on September 5, 2017. The event was a highly-significant one for a 21st-century America in which racial conflicts continue to fuel social and political division. It also represented the extension of a major literary legacy begun at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
‘For Black Folks and White Folks’
Gregory possessed an uncanny ability to transform the soul-crushing anguish of racism and poverty into healing inspiration. As rare as such a gift can be, it is on full display in his first triumphant publishing venture: the classic autobiography titled Nigger, (written with Robert Lipsyte).
My used paperback edition of the book was published in 1964 and has a cover price of $1.94. On its now-famous front is a beautiful black and white photograph of Gregory beside a red starburst with bold white text announcing in all caps: OVER ONE MILLION COPIES SOLD. The copy in my possession has been so thoroughly read and re-read by different people that the cover has started coming off and had to be reinforced with cellophane tape.
As impressive as the book’s 1 million-plus sales figures are, equally noteworthy is an observation shared by Gregory in its pages about the history and future of the struggle to which he would dedicate so much of his life:
“It started long before I came into it, and I may die before it’s over, but we’ll bust this thing and cut out this cancer. America will be as strong and beautiful as it should be, for black folks and white folks” (p. 209).
Few in 1964 would have imagined those words retaining the relevance which they have for more than half a century. Yet the #TakeAKnee and Black Lives Matter movements, both of which owe some ideological debt to the icon’s legacy, indicate they have never been more applicable. In addition, Mr. Gregory has indeed passed on while the struggle has not halted but intensified in ways unpredictable before the advent of social media.
On August 20, the day before the great eclipse of 2017, I learned that Gregory had died on the 19th at the age of 84. Prior to learning about his death, my plan for the day had been to spend some time constructing an outline for an article or an op-ed in response to suggestions the Confederate Monument in Savannah’s (Georgia, USA) Forsyth Park should be removed. But news of the great satirist’s demise prompted me once again to pick up his brilliant autobiography.
‘More Hope in Laughing’
In his own way, Richard Claxton Gregory, who was born on Columbus Day, was as politically dynamic as Malcolm X, as spiritually motivational as Martin Luther King Jr., and as socially revolutionary as Nelson Mandela. Yet his talent for coaxing laughter out of the most brutally inhumane situations set him apart as an astonishingly unique and painfully necessary individual.
He said his genius for employing comedy in the face of humor-less oppression derived from a lesson taught by Lucille Gregory (1909-1953) his mother, whom he saw cruelly beaten by Presley Gregory (b.?-1964) his father: “She taught us that man has two ways out in life—laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing” (p. 25).
In regard to the highly-controversial word chosen for the title of his autobiography, he examined it from many different angles and concluded it said more about people who used it to express hatred that it did about people who were targets of its use. He himself employed it in different situations, such as in 1963 during a protest demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi, when threatened by a white policeman: “Nigger, you want to go to jail?” (p. 172). By that time, when he was 30 years old, Gregory had already become one of the most successful comedians in America and responded to the policeman as follows:
His words represented more than just a furious retort. Gregory felt a deep compassion for humanity as a whole; one of his early mentors was the white Southern Illinois University track and field coach Leland “Doc” Lingle. Like many of the great civil rights activists of his time and now, he believed racism was at least as injurious to those who practiced it as it was to those dis-empowered by it.
In the universe as the comically-inclined author saw it, whether certain words cause an individual’s soul to bleed or help it to heal depends on the emotional intent expressed behind its use. Hatred can turn a beautiful poem into a curse. Love can transform an expletive into a benediction. Therefore, the same word which word which sustained an intense encounter between him and a policeman could make others smile: such as when reading this dedication to his mother:
“Dear Momma––Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Maintaining that fine-line balance between humor and rage never became easy. In light of the author’s commitment to eradicating social injustice, however, the ability to do so remained critical.
NEXT: Text and Meaning in Dick Gregory’s ‘Nigger’ part 2: Unyielding Commitment
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently working on a play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
here is within the human heart, I believe, a quality of intelligence that has been known to surpass that attributed to the human mind. The idea is one Muhammad Ali might have appreciated because in director Clare Lewins’ ten-star film documentary, I Am Ali, the fighter shares these words: “Man judges man’s actions. God judges man’s heart.”
When tapped and cultivated, or made a naturally dominant trait of an individual’s personality, the heart’s intelligence radiates a wise benevolence capable of assuming different powerful forms.
As fellow heavyweight champion and Christian minister George Foreman testified:
“Sometimes people come to me and say, ‘What do you think? Was Muhammad Ali the world’s greatest boxer?’ And I feel almost insulted because boxing was just something he did. I mean that’s no way to define Muhammad Ali. He was one of the greatest men to ever appear on the scene of the earth” (from I Am Ali, 2014).
When the radiance of the heart emanated through the person of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) he could easily, at different times, be defined in one of at least 10 different ways:
Of Saints and Athletes
On the iconic and controversial April 1968 cover of Esquire Magazine, the devout Muslim Ali duplicated the famous image of the Christian Saint Sebastian. Shot through with arrows for converting people to Christianity while enlisted as a Roman soldier, Sebastian (c. 256–c. 288 AD) was reportedly left for dead but miraculously recovered and confronted his would-be executioner. He was then then bludgeoned to death and in time adopted as a spiritual protector to call upon during plagues, and as a patron saint of warriors, individuals desiring a saintly death, and athletes.
As in the classic portraits of the martyred Saint Sebastian, the image of Muhammad Ali on the cover of Esquire shows him shot through with six bloody arrows. During the photo shoot, Ali identified the arrows as symbols of political figures whom he felt had positioned themselves to be his his “tormentors”: U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), Vietnam War Commanding Army General William Westmoreland (1941-2005), U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009), U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909-1994), political consultant Clark Clifford (1906-1998), and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978).
The specific names given the arrows could just as easily (or almost anyway) have been exchanged for the various social injustices which the garrulous gadfly witnessed and protested against: relentless racism, poverty, corporate colonialism, unnecessary war, class discrimination, and unequal education. The names could also have been switched out for any number of others who felt more threatened than charmed by the great man’s uncanny charisma.
A Curative Force of Genuine Love
It takes an oversized personality like his to absorb and survive the kind of social and political poisons designed precisely to destroy men such as Muhammad Ali.
It takes the most exceptional of hearts occupied by the rarest of souls to transform those toxins into a curative force of genuine love, one capable of healing and empowering multitudes just by being its beautiful shining courageous self.
5 June 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant.” –James Baldwin, from the essay Nothing Personal
Before there were human resource managers and action research teams counseling American corporations on the advantages of embracing diversity rather than vilifying it, there was author James Baldwin putting the theory to the test in acclaimed essays, novels, plays, short stories, poems, and dialogues. Social networkers in recent weeks have found occasion to quote those writings in regard to everything from a Palestinian state and gay marriage equality to Barack Obama’s presidency and the American identity.
It is true that he marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and shared podiums with Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, and other iconic figures of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It is also true that the author was something of a mentor to both the late Literarian Award-winner Maya Angelou and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Yet these biographical notes cannot fully account for the astonishing resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s legacy as observed in New York City and elsewhere via the ongoing Year of James Baldwin in honor of the 90th anniversary of his birth.
Baldwin understood that diversity was about more than racial dynamics or shifting cultural demographics. He knew that once society made its way past surface categorizations it would have to confront the more beguiling challenge of individuality dwelling beneath the surface of public demeanor. He was acutely aware of every American as a crucial stakeholder in the future of democracy, and just as aware of humanity’s need in general to liberate itself from the fear-driven inclination to oppress another for the sake of laying false claim to a doubly-false sense of “security.” What may provide greater insight on the resurgence of interest in his work and encourage reasons to host dialogues regarding the same on every educational level is the following:
The Year of James Baldwin Now in Full Classic Literary Swing
Members of New York City’s cultural arts community made a rare kind of decision earlier this year and the results of that decision continue to generate exceptional events and responses. They–– as in Columbia University School of the Arts, Harlem Stage, and New York Live Arts–– elected to observe The Year of James Baldwin from April 2014 until June 2015 in honor of the late iconoclastic African-American author’s 90th birthday August 2, 2014.
Long before he died on December 1, 1987, millions came to recognize the indelible mark of Baldwin’s impact on, and the incredible depth of his singular voice within American literature. He is in many ways more alive now than ever before, a statement that holds especially true when considering the events that have already been held to launch the year dedicated to him.
“There were few political figures as deeply engaged and as capaciously soulful as James Baldwin, nor we’d like to insist, any as urgently pertinent to our own times,” noted curator Lawrence Weschler in the brochure for Live Ideas, James Baldwin This Time! He added the following:
“We agree with one of our Festival’s premier participants, the poet Nikky Finney, that James Baldwin may well have been one of ‘the most salient, sublime and consequential American writers of the twentieth century.’ And this is not just because he confronted truths about race and gender with a vividness and lucidity few before him had done, but because he always did so from the vantage of an American—not just a black man, not just a gay man, but an heir to the whole harrowing, horrible, magnificent American project, and a prophet as to what that project yet could become, and indeed has to become.”
Initial enthusiasm for The Year of James Baldwin has been backed up with many outstanding events launched during April. One of them was the premier of Patricia McGregor’s stage adaptation of Nothing Personal, based on photographer Richard Avedon’s (1923-2004) and Baldwin’s now classic 1964 work of quietly understated images and provocative text such as this:
“…Wherever love is found, it unfailingly makes itself felt in the individual, the personal authority of the individual. Judged by this standard, we are a loveless nation. The best that can be said is that some of us are struggling. And what we are struggling against is that death in the heart which leads not only to the shedding of blood, but which reduces human beings to corpses while they live.”
Another noted event was a “preview” of the multi-talented Carl Hancock Rux’s stage piece, Stranger on Earth (the title comes from a classic song by Dinah Washington). Featuring Rux and vocalist Marcelle Davies Lashley, the work imagines Baldwin and Washington in a powerful dialogue on race, music, and creative artists’ perceptions of the future of the world.
Among the most talked about events thus far has been a conversation focused on Baldwin’s still-controversial novel, Another Country, between the Academy-Award nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal and author Colm Toíbín held May 1at Columbia University’s Altshcul Auditorium. The year-long celebration also received substantial attention during the Harlem Book Festival held July 11-14 with important panel discussions on work by Baldwin held at both Columbia University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In addition to those already noted, numerous others have lent their celebrated voices in support of the event, including: choreographer Bill T. Jones, the dramatist Stew, poet Yusuf Komunyakaa, and authors Michelle Wallace, Walter Mosely, Jamaica Kincaid, ad Fran Lebowitz, just to name a few.
FOR MORE PLEASE READ: The Year of James Baldwin Now in full classic literary swing (part 2): Letter to James Baldwin
“When the soul looks out of its body, it should see only beauty in its path. These are the sights we must hold in mind, in order to move to a higher place.” --Yusef Lateef, from “A Syllogism”
How could I have known, as a nine-year-old child growing up in Savannah’s Hitch Village project, that Yusef Lateef was speaking light in the form of music directly to my soul through his saxophone and flute when I first heard his masterpiece of an album The Blue Yusef Lateef? I could not have imagined that years later, while seeking the timbres of my own creative voice out in the world, his would find me again. It happened this time as I sat in the window of a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, the haunting blues-heavy moans of “Juba Juba” swelling the room as the vision of a young black man looking up at stars through a jail cell hole-in-the-wall unfolded before me.
I do not recall what prompted my recollection of the song. It may have been because I was alone in the city and just as uncertain about my ability to survive there as I was certain I was not yet ready to leave. The more I heard it, the more the image of the boy in the jail cell came into focus. His thoughts became my thoughts. They communicated to me that his name was Juba and he was waiting for his dead father’s friend Elijah to come get him.
Between Juba’s words and the music that flowed with them, it was impossible to resist picking up a pen and notebook. Maybe I would create some lyrics to go with the moon-shredding laments on the track (provided I would later learn by the group known as The Sweet Inspirations). Once I started writing, I did not stop until the story later published as “I Can Hear Juba Moan,” in the book I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, was completed.
I did not, at that moment, even recall Dr. Lateef as the principal saxophonist for the song, only the chain-gang-like rhythm that waved back and forth between unholy anguish and calmly defiant determination. Some quick research at the San Francisco library provided the master musician’s identity but more decades would pass before I managed to find the album again during the mid-1990s, this time in the form a CD that I ordered through the multimedia store where I worked. As an adult, I was able to listen to The Blue Yusef Lateef in its entirety and appreciate the various production details and nuances of performance that had eluded me as a child. At the same, I was more amazed that ever that the music had embedded itself so permanently in my consciousness.
CLICK TO READ PART 2 HERE: Memory-Song Painted Gold: for the Blue Yusef Lateef (1920-2013) Part 2
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.