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.
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.
Anyone in the habit of keeping journals––as I have been for many years––has probably noticed the advantage they provide when the need arises to confirm specific incidents or meetings from the past. Writers of memoir, biography, and autobiography in particular can appreciate such leverage.
The habit of journaling becomes especially useful when looking back and discovering that you were part of an extraordinary occasion, or associated with an exceptional individual, that you somehow failed to recognize for their greater value. It was only after Time placed within your hands the proper tools of knowledge and perspective that you could recognize the experience for the individual nugget of golden significance that it was. The possibility of claiming such overlooked treasures the first time around is only one reason to consider making it a habit to recognize the innate potential for beauty and worth inherent in all things.
Connections Known, Unknown, & Rediscovered
As wisely as most of us guard against over-sharing on the internet, there are some ways––literally and figuratively––it functions as a supplemental journal of our lives. Celebrities who have seen extremely private photographs suddenly made public can testify to why that is not always a good thing. Researchers who have needed to identify leads to critical hypotheses proposing connections between seemingly unrelated elements can demonstrate why and how it can be.
I had given little thought to either prospect until receiving an inforapid infographic illustrating different facets of my literary connections. Most of what it shows has long been a matter of public record and knowledge. What, however, caught me by surprise were the associations it identified from my time at the New College of California in San Francisco.
Although it is a great honor to see my name beside that of such superb modern talents as the author of The Opening of the Field, Robert Duncan, and Black Mountain Poets founder Robert Creeley, the one name I would have expected to see was not there. That would have been educator and poet Duncan McNaughton, who established the school’s Poetics Program and with whom (as pointed out in my recently-updated literary profile) I actually studied. Yet, ironically, the New College of California poets identified to represent a legitimate substantial line of influence on the evolution of my literary aesthetics.
I say more in the pages of a current book in progress about important lessons learned from McNaughton after making my way to class following eight full hours at work, but for now I will focus on the dynamics of reclaiming contexts and meanings. Since I was only one of many that McNaughton taught at New College, it is unlikely that he would remember me as well as I remember him. Still, while revisiting this period in my life to complete the noted work in progress, I have been greatly inspired to read online about his more recent literary activities and publications.
Seeing someone who served as your mentor decades ago continuing to burn his literary candles at both ends in 2015 has a way of obliterating any excuses you might want to latch onto for not completing challenging work. In this case, I was particularly intrigued when I came across a piece titled “Rewilding Poetry,” by Canadian poet Sharon Thesen, in which she discusses an aspect of McNaughton’s poetics that runs parallel to recent observations of my own:
“What San Francisco poet Duncan McNaughton referred to as ‘sweetness of heart’ strikes me as a possibly interesting move toward a re-wilding that I believe is constantly trying to take place anyway. Sweetness of heart, McNaughton says, is ‘what is really common to our desirous souls, the quality which overcomes all barriers in order to circulate anew the heart’s creative feeling among men and women, who have more than enough reason to despair.’ To radically expand the field of feeling seems an unintended ongoing work of any poetic practice of the wild.” –– (Sharon Thesen, Rewilding Poetry, 2015 Cascadia Poetry Festival)
The term “rewilding poetry” was new to me until I read Thesen’s essay (she actually expresses a preference for the phrase “re-worlding poetry”). However, the essence of the concept is one I began contemplating after the late Ja A. Jahannes edited and published Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry.
Jahannes looked to a strategy of demographic inclusiveness to practice rewilding poetry after noting, like Amiri Baraka before him, the sterility some would impose upon contemporary poetry through an institutionalization characterized by elitist exclusion. Impressive intellects, and sometimes even seductively beautiful minds, may still be found periodically within such superbly-positioned chambers but any “sweetness of heart” tends to be less readily available.
An Exercise in Mindfulness
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.