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.
World-changing catastrophes––like the earthquake that struck Mexico on September 7, and the back-to-back twin maelstroms, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, that rocked the United States this month––have a way of bringing to the surface humanity’s innate, but too often dormant, capacity for compassion. The life-and-death dilemmas they create strip us of the conditioned tendencies that cause people to fixate on superficial differences which encourage needless conflict rather than focus on shared commonalities that make community-building possible.
In their aftermath, we often see concrete demonstrations of exceptional considerations not only through the actions of celebrities like Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder who donate their time and talents to raise millions of dollar to support relief efforts. We also see it in the less glamorous actions performed by ordinary citizens contributing in whatever humble way they can.
Varieties of Angels and Monster Truck Drivers
On September 4, famed British author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, shared this quote by me on Twitter: “Varieties of angels, like varieties of love, are many” (Aberjhani). The quotation was posted along with a video, from AFP News Agency, in which the driver of a mega truck, a bearded white male, is seen wheeling his way through the flooded streets of Port Arthur, Texas, helping people cope with the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.
In this day and age of strained racial anxieties in America and around the world, many people would hesitate to associate the driver in the video with the concept of angelic behavior. As he admits himself, the gargantuan-wheeled trucks are something he and others usually utilize for fun in ways rarely considered heroic. However, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey provided an opportunity to employ the vehicles in a completely different and literally life-saving kind of way:
“You know,” he said, “we’ve had people trying to pay us, but we’re not taking any money. The hugs and the kisses, and watching a grown man cry when you come save him, it’s all worth it.”
Such is the kind of disposition that makes an everyday culture of compassion both credible and possible. Like the giant truck seen in the video, compassion equips us with the means to move past the destructive elements that prevent us from connecting with the potential for greater higher good residing within everyone.
That a global culture of compassion is needed now more than ever has become increasingly evident from by the nonstop talk of possible war between the U.S. and North Korea, and the string of terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere throughout the year 2017. The only thing standing in the way of citizens worldwide making it real is citizens worldwide making the choice to do so.
Most importantly, a true culture of compassion goes beyond basic acts of kindness to encompass mindful considerations of how everyday human activities, such as work, political engagement, social interactions, and economic enterprises either enhance or diminish the quality of human lives. In addition: it takes into account how our actions and aspirations impact the Earth’s ever-evolving biodiversity and general global environment.
One Good Quotation Deserves Another
Some have wondered what prompted celebrity author J.K. Rowling to use my specific quote and whether I had anything to do with the choice. My guess is her informed humane instincts were simply leaning in the same direction as the mega-truck driver’s in the video: toward compassion. It is not exactly something I could have influenced other than, like Rowling, by always striving to communicate something of value to humanity and hoping someone finds meaning in the attempt.
And in this case, thus far some 11,094 re-tweeters have found the shared words valuable and more than 37,970 Twittizens have expressed appreciation by clicking the like button. That being said, the quotation was particularly apt for this specific video because both negate assumptions and prejudices, and both propose exercising a more expanded form of awareness.
My response to Rowling’s tweet was also an acknowledgement of the Dalai Lama’s observation that “we all possess the seeds of love and compassion.” Whether we take time to cultivate their growth, however, tends to be another matter. And where that is concerned, the tweet with which I replied to Rowling was a quote by her: “It is our choices... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (J.K. Rowling).
We can choose to evoke the angels our better nature because doing so makes life more joyfully sustainable for humanity as a whole, or we can choose to demonize each other based on such superficial differences as nationalities, religion, or race for no beneficial reason whatsoever. When tempted to give in to the latter, it is worth remembering that catastrophic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires don’t ask for immigration papers, birth certificates, or bank account balances before bringing on the full unrelenting force of pure non-discriminating pain.
Poet-Author-Artist Aberjhani spend almost a decade writing his most recently-completed manuscript on culture, history, and race relations in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently at work on a play about attempts to change the name of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
A few years ago while writing my former National African-American Cultural Arts column for AXS Entertainment, certain bloggers in Hong Kong started referring me to as a writer of conscience and commitment. They saw in my work strong parallels between the mission French authors––like Simone De Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus-- who emerged during and after World War II, had assigned themselves, and that which I had adopted in a relatively more peaceful time.
The defining elements in each case were uncontrollable currents of history. They convinced us in our separate eras and geographical regions, and in our determination to secure democracy and advocate struggles against tyranny, that apathy was not an acceptable option. That sentiment is a principle driver behind what many now refer to as the resistance movement in the United States.
The Hong Kong bloggers seemed to also like the fact that I was committed not only to the pursuit of social justice but to creating poems with a more expansive #creative or #spiritual concerns. Some were moved enough to translate some of my haiku verse, like Angel of Earth Days and Seasons, into Hans Chinese.
Then along came 2017 and the current debate over what to do or what not to do about Confederate Monuments in America’s public spaces. Amazingly enough, I knew nothing about the one in Forsyth Park in my hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA), while growing up in the city. An informed awareness of what it represents came only after becoming a veteran of a kind myself.
Invitation to a Different Perspective
I first began giving serious thought to the implications of its gargantuan presence in such a public space after author George Dawes Green made reference to it in the inscription he included when autographing for me a copy of his novel, The Caveman’s Valentine. Later, when writing about reinterpretations of urban slavery in Savannah for Connect Savannah, the weekly entertainment news magazine, I delved more deeply into the subject. And then of course went to a completely different level while working on the Civil War Savannah Book Series project.
Consequently: the outlook and proposals expressed in my article, “Re-envisioning the Confederate Monument as a Portrait of Diversity”, is very different from what many are voicing about the subject. But I invite you to check it out along with the comments that follow by CLICKING RIGHT HERE.
Aberjhani's most-recently completed work is a book nonfiction on the cultural arts, race relations, and history in Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently at work on a play about how history and social movements such as the effort to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge intersect with family dynamics.
Quotation Art on birth , rebirth, and poetry: “Born once of flesh, then again of fire, I was reborn a third time to the sound of my name humming haikus in heaven’s mouth.” Text and Self-portrait art by Aberjhani–– (from The River of Winged Dreams) copyright 2017 (Postered Poetics by Aberjhani @ Bright Skylark Literary Productions 2017)
The diamonds referenced in the above title symbolize two concrete objectives as well as the more metaphysically metaphorical interpretations some might glean from it.
The first among the two material objectives is an examination of themes, meanings, and historical events that have provided some degree of context for my life up until this point. These are the subject of my current 4--part blog series on Charter for Compassion titled: Notes on Compassion in the Summer of a Life Infused with Democratic Vistas and Creative Resistance. So far we are up to part 3 and you can check them out by clicking the images in this post.
The second objective is a serious consideration of creative projects recently-completed and others just getting underway. Of these, the most immediate is a book of creative nonfiction on cultural arts, history, and race relations within Savannah, Georgia (USA).
This is one of those books which had to be lived before it could be written. And I admit the living was not always easy but I celebrate having come this far to share the tales told in its pages.
Additional components of the second wave of planned goals include: ongoing development of the Chromatic Poetics art project; and––a big drum-roll here—completion of at least one of the two plays currently sitting on my desk waiting for characters to take the stage.
For those who wonder why or how it is the engine room of my creative output remains so productive, the answer is more simple than complex. When looking at everything going on socially, politically, spiritually, economically, and otherwise-ly in our extraordinary world, it becomes impossible for me not to contribute in some way to the many dialogues that could make a powerful positive difference.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. His many honors include the Choice Academic Title of the Year Award, the Notable Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Journalist Award, and Poet of the Year Award. He is currently completing final edits on a work of creative nonfiction about the cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
For the part 1 introduction to this blog on artwork which has recently become available please check it out right here. Part 2 begins right here right now:
Beauty of the World's Fountains
Fountains are among the most admired ornamental man-made structures because they combine the artistic beauty of refined sculpture with the precision of engineering and architecture. Celebrated examples can be found all over the world, including Savannah, Georgia. One of the city's most famous is the subject of two new Postered Chromatic Poetics images. Below is the accompanying text for the art and although I like both very much, I confess to being particularly pleased by the results achieved with Champagne Twilight:
Sepia Afternoon: Forsyth Park Fountain in Savannah, Georgia (USA)
A solitary figure stops in front the Forsyth Park Fountain to enjoy one of the city of Savannah's most popular and majestic attractions.
Ever since the days following the American Civil War, the fountain has been a favorite location for residents and visitors alike to take photographs. During the war, the park was known as the South Common military encampment where prisoners of war, a hospital, and poor house were maintained.
The fountain's spraying water is dyed green every year in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. In this image, late afternoon sunlight on a hot summer day creates an amber sepia haze that colors the air and water, slightly clarified and enhanced by digital filter.
Champagne Twilight: Forsyth Park Fountain in Savannah, Georgia (USA)
The elegantly-sculpted Forsyth Park Fountain, also referred to as the Versailles Fountain, dates back to the 1850s when model for it was derived from French-styled designs of the period. Along with the Confederate Monument, this is one of the primary centerpieces of Forsyth Park. The present-day fountain is the result of many renovations over the past century and a half, including a complete restoration in 1988.
A robed woman adorns the top of the fountain as water birds and tritons (or mermen) spout water below. In addition to benches that allow passersby to sit and enjoy the view, the fountain is surrounded by moss-covered oaks, palm trees, magnolias, and elms.
Prior to becoming known as Forsyth Park, the location during the Civil War was the South Common military encampment where POWS and a hospital were maintained.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. His many honors include the Choice Academic Title of the Year Award, the Notable Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Journalist, and Poet of the Year. He is currently completing final edits on a work of creative nonfiction about the cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.