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.
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
Compassion provides the means by which we walk a mile in each other’s shoes and learn to value our common humanity enough to invest in its immense potential. This is something many of us know very well, but which a lot of people choose to avoid for different reasons.
One motive behind the choice to sidestep this awareness is because when walking, or recognizing the value of, the path of another person’s life we sometimes discover tracks leading back to our own door. When such trails take us to the beginning of a joyful or healing experience in someone else’s life, it is easy to smile at the revelation and quietly celebrate the triumph.
But if they guide us to a point of disempowering trauma which our actions, words, or biases helped trigger in the existence of an individual or the collective being of a nation, acknowledging one’s role in the creation of their suffering can become more difficult. Apply this idea to a variety of scenarios and we begin to see why many might have a problem approaching situations from a perspective based on compassion:
Shaka Senghor and the Transformational Power of Compassion
A second reason someone might hesitate to embrace exercising compassion as a basic component of their daily practices is the perceived price we pay when holding ourselves accountable for causes as well as effects. That price may be viewed as an existential risk, or a stress-laden sacrifice that could comprise anything from hard-earned financial resources to time-consuming labor and fragile relationships.
Why? Because practicing compassion in the 21st century means going beyond logging accusations of social, political, or domestic injustices, and taking the additional step of volunteering ways to correct them. Holding oneself accountable for producing a healing or restorative effect upon deteriorating lives or conditions can be a difficult thing to do. And yes: a challenging sacrifice to make.
Settling into the Year 2017
As the world settles into 2017, opposition opposed to presidential administrations even before they get underway, war-hawks eager to assert dominance over distant lands, increasing disease, and expanding poverty provide many opportunities for modeling what President Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Taking the risks and confronting the agonies, however, is not something we do to proclaim ourselves as heroic or saintly. We do it in answer to the needs and demands of our times, following the examples set by so many before this present hour.
For men and women to comfortably adapt to a state of nihilistic indifference is to declare hope itself a sad delusion and compassion a spiritual fantasy. None of us are wealthy enough to pay such a fatal cost.
We declare a partnership in mindfulness with citizens of the global community because these words remain true: Compassion saves lives, builds communities, and restores nations by minimizing tendencies to glamorize hatred, and by maximizing the capacity for manifesting love. Compassion––keeps hope alive.
January 1, 2017
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
As much as we might talk about looking forward to the beginning of one year in order to forget about the atrocities accumulated during the previous 12 months, the truth is that all calendar years bring with them an arsenal of exploding curve balls. They are ready-made to fire off in our individual, or collective, directions at some point before the just-arrived year ends and totally demolish our carefully-designed plans and strategies.
I never expect anything less but am also inclined to hope for better. With all the awareness raised during the last several years to correct gun violence in American communities in general, and as a major cause of death among African Americans in particular, it was not unreasonable to think 2016 might show some significant improvements. It hasn’t.
Mounting death tolls in cities like Chicago and Savannah are one part of the reason 2016 has not proven any more promising than 2015. Accumulating deaths from excessive force used by police, as in the cases of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC, and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is another. Growing interest in Campaign Zero does offer a reason to believe in better possibilities but the best ideas are only as valuable as an individual’s or community’s willingness to commit real time and resources to its application.
At this point marking three-quarters of the way through the year 2016 and inching ever-closer to the election of a new president in the United States, I feel as if more than the usual number of curve balls have been blazing like meth-infused comets from corner to corner of the global community. From the refugee crisis and the never-ending heartbreak known as Syria to the political uncertainty presented by Brexit and the forthcoming presidential election in the United States, the word volatile seems a fairly good one to describe the current 2016 state of affairs.
The Job Facing Voters in 2016
Any number of political pundits have offered theories on why and how Donald Trump was able to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency. Most Americans know it came down to one thing: money.
In the U.S. and elsewhere overflows of cash, stock, and real estate often equate to political clout and social influence. Yet even with that awareness I was among those who found it incomprehensible that millions of people were supporting his bid for the highest office in the land and could actually put him there. What were/are they thinking? That he would revive his Apprentice reality show and invite them on as contestants?
A particularly scary moment came when Mr. Trump’s team received a suggestion that it adopt one of my quotes as a campaign slogan. How was that supposed to work? But whereas one political strategist proposed use of a certain quote to promote the Great Donald, cartoonist Vishavjit Singh adopted a different quote from my work to use in his #SendSikhNoteToTrump campaign. Funny how quotations lend themselves to different interpretations and applications.
And Then There’s Madame Secretary Clinton
Is Hillary Rodham Clinton necessarily a better candidate for the U.S. presidency than Donald Trump? Polls indicate many Americans feel she is the better available option but also imply the best possible choices are currently not on the ballots. Maybe that’s worth thinking about.
Maybe it is also worth considering that, at some point, history is bound to have its say regarding the matter of a woman president in America. How is that Germany, Great Britain (twice now), Australia, Brazil, Liberia, and any number of others all reached that point before the country so frequently proclaimed as the greatest democracy in the world?
Looking at her work as a first lady, senator, and secretary of state, it becomes hard to refute the proposal that Hillary Clinton truly is the better option. President Barack H. Obama spoke more than hyperbolically when he stated during the Democratic convention that her qualifications while running for the presidency surpassed those of both himself and former President Bill Clinton when they ran for the office.
In addition, I have long believed that in order for a democratic republic like the United Sates to have any true right to call itself a democracy, its leaders should reflect the diversity of the population. The glass ceiling blocking women’s path to the White House has to break sometime and right now would probably be an especially good one.
© September 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.