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.
Trends in demographic shifts, progressive grass roots movements aimed at correcting blatant social injustices, and social media have had transformative effects that strongly encourage revisiting and reflecting on images of Black men's realities in 2017. The prototypes identified in "The Many Ways of Looking at Black Man" are still important. They have, however, expanded considerably.
Signs of Our Changing 2017 Times
Both before and during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s gifted African-American actors and performers like Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson at times left the States to find outlets for their talents where they could work without the hindrances of extreme racism. In 2017, that scenario has reversed as performers of African descent from countries outside the U.S. make their way to Hollywood, Broadway, and central strongholds of hip-hop to reap the financial rewards of professional gains made during Blacks' historic struggles for equality.
When giving interviews about his 2013 Academy-award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen Afro-Britain noted he was able to adapt Solomon Northup’s book for the screen as successfully as he did because of the Transatlantic slave trade common to the history of Black people on different continents in the western hemisphere. That simple acknowledgment underscored an aspect of African American men’s' identity often overlooked: that African Americans are also members of the African Diaspora, or, if you will, African Diasporans. Despite the United Nations-endorsed 2011 International Year of People of African Descent, the profound implications and potential of the McQueen's observation is routinely overlooked.
In addition to McQueen, actors David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, DelRoy Lindo Del, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are only a handful of British actors of African descent whose artistry has been employed to dramatize interpretations of African-American men's lives. Such interpretations have ranged from Elba's portrayal of druglord Russell “Stringer” Bell to Oyelowo's acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.
Echo Kellum's recurring role as Curtis Holt, a gay Black man married to a Latino on the hit television show ARROW, reflects an aspect of one population subgroup which many in the larger community still have extreme difficulty accepting. Yet, so far as popular television series go, Jesse L. Martin's role as Joe West in The Flash is no less a challenge to stereotypes and assumptions. As the Black adoptive father of a White son––Barry Allen (a.ka The Flash, a.k.a. actor Grant Gustin) who is involved in a romantic relationship with West's biological daughter Iris (Candice Patton )––his is a comic-book world where race is defined not so much by color as by those who have super powers and those who do not.
The Obama Legacy Effect
In his farewell addess, President Barack Obama quoted the late great novelist Harper Lee in which her character Atticus Finch states the following in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Finch's words may contain the wisdom necessary to help members of an increasingly diverse democracy better support one another as Americans rather than continually battle each other as cultural and political separatists. The president also wisely pointed out the need for African Americans to recognize the value of adopting the following practice:
"...Tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change...." (Barack Obama)
Mr. Obama's commentaries on race and the American identity over the past nearly 10 years have not brought about an end to racial divisiveness or violence in the country. But they have played a major role in helping to decrease the magnitude of assumptions and racial bias that seemingly prompt the dismissal of Black folks' lives. His two-term presidency has allowed Americans and citizens of the global community to experience a black man as a "leader of the free world." That singular comprehensive achievement surpasses any categorical way of looking at African-American men that would have been considered possible in 1997.
If, however, someone did feel inspired to duplicate "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" with fresh 2017 faces, it would be easy enough to do with another seven individuals such as: Chance the Rapper, Colson Whitehead, T.D. Jakes, Semaj Clark, Jay Z, Michael B. Jordan, and Tyler Perry. Their celebrity or non-celebrity status would not really comprise the core issue. The main point would be a definitive demonstration that as catastrophic as violence and oppression have been in our lives, they have not and will not erase the most beautiful and essential truths represented by our stories and realities.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
In the debate over the potential repeal of the American Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, mainstream media commentators commonly refer to the law as President Barack Obama’s “signature achievement.” Whether you describe that tendency as guerrilla decontextualization or simple disrespect, it mostly adds up to a miscalculation of the assessment of President Obama’s impact on American and world history.
Said assessment is one which historians will be determining for decades, but for now, by way of introducing the 3 poems that will soon follow, it is enough to note that the American Care Act is only one of many key achievements spearheaded by Mr. Obama on behalf of his American constituents and his fellow leaders in the global community. How is it commentators so easily overlook the fact that under his leadership a downward spiraling recession which nearly brought the country to its red, white and blue knees was effectively strategically reversed, dropping unemployment figures from double digits to when he took office to the current figure below 5 percent? How can they so casually forget that his accomplishments earned him the Nobel Prize for Peace?
That he became the United States’ first African-American president at the age of 47 is possibly less remarkable than the full two terms during which one generation was born, and another grew into maturity living without the assumption that a black American president––this one accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters–– was by default an anomaly. The observation is more than just the most commanding fact to cite for Black History Month every year from this point onward. It is one of the most compelling arguments for ramping up improved lessons worldwide in diversity, cultural literacy, and peaceful coexistence.
Add to the above the skillful application of leadership principles employed by Mr. Obama to repair diplomatic abroad and whether storms of race-fueled violence at home. Look closely at the risks he took in effort to achieve a diverse workforce with appointments of women, gays, Latinos, Asians, and African Americans to influential offices. And although he obviously boasted a bit when it came to his role as Commander-in-Chief, he was amazingly effective in his position as Chief Comforter following some of the most horrendous natural and man-inflicted disasters in history.
Of the poems below, the first was written to commemorate Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election to the presidency. The second and third were written as it became apparent that his presidency was going to meet with serious oppositions of every kind: political, racial, personal, military, betrays, and more. Each of the poems are available in the pages of The River of Winged Dreams.
Hope and Audacity Revisited
The poem titled “There Upon a Bough of Hope and Audacity” was first published in The Savannah Herald after Barack Obama’s first election to the U.S. presidency. Ironically enough, the poem proposed that Mr. Obama was not to be compared to the great Abraham Lincoln, and yet one of the more noted responses to his re-election in 2012 was a challenge much like one Mr. Lincoln faced a century and a half ago. It was the challenge, whether symbolic or literal, of a growing call for different states to secede from the U.S. President Obama’s re-election was by no means a given. The battle to win was as epic a political struggle as America has ever seen, but U.S. citizens in the end made their choice clear:
Angel of Hope’s Persistent Flight
“To continue one’s journey in the darkness with one’s footsteps guided by the illumination of remembered radiance is to know courage of a peculiar kind––the courage to demand that light continue to be light even in the surrounding darkness.”
Wreaths of nuclear ash
decorate civilian hearts
with unresolved blood.
Greed, crowned emperor,
rules the earth with cold disdain
for harmony’s path.
War poisons the land
like diseased minds downloaded
into bowls of tears.
Chaos, loving none
so much as itself, slurps and
spits dead souls like bones.
What is belief now?
What is faith that will not die?
What news from heaven?
In midnight’s orchard
rose’s blossom the secrets
that heal daylight’s wounds.
Beats of broken hearts
flow waves of revelation––
open gates to strength.
Cradled in scorched arms,
a soldier’s moon keeps its vows––
shines persistent hope.
This love that God is
curves in figure eights greater
than both time and space.
Death wins nothing here,
gnawing wings that amputate––
then spread, lift up, fly.
(from The River of Winged Dreams)
“It was a savage scene, and we stayed there for a long time, watching life feed on itself, the silence interrupted only by the crack of bone or the rush of wind, or the hard thump of a vulture’s wings as it strained to lift itself into the current, until it finally found the higher air and those long and graceful wings became motionless and still like the rest.”
––Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father
What once was blood streaks
your face with indigo tears
and lush midnight tunes.
Holding silver hands,
you compose a Tao of art
that heals broken wings.
Lips glow violet,
open to reveal tongues bright
with pearl metaphors.
A speckled halo
handcuffs the world’s best liars
to soft dark passions.
Music’s sweet labors
give birth to a springtime rush
of sighs rippling dreams.
Out of your mouth rhymes
blossom like warm paradigms
already in flight.
Golden, your songs,
and noble; spinning stars on
their axis of love.
On faith’s battered back
calm eyes etch prayers that cool
a nation’s hot rage.
Inside these scarred hearts
genius flows incandescent
waves of truth made real.
Hope drowned in shadows
emerges fiercely splendid––
(The River of Winged Dreams)
From the History Channel: “The 44th President: In His Own Words”
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a collection of nonfiction narratives on the cultural arts, history, race relations, literature, and social and political conditions in Savannah, Georgia (USA).
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
© 9 January, 2017
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.