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.
The United Nations may have officially tagged 2017 as The Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the Chinese dubbed it Year of the Fire Rooster, but I am inclined at this point to declare it: Year of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
Sounds a little awkward I know. However, it is fairly accurate and the poetic quality lends to the description an aspect of hopefulness as opposed to a smell of certifiable doom.
The tones of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices range from the humanely compassionate and passionately engaged to the apathetically detached and dangerously dictatorial. They include, but certainly are not limited to, the following:
Add to the above chorus Native Americans and committed environmentalists taking a stand against the on-again Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, women across the globe convinced they have been cheated of their time to shine in history, and Millennials struggling to find the right balance between trust placed in technology and the flaring passions of their innate humanity.
In truth, members of any number of various demographic groups who thought they had gained solid social and political ground on which to stand for the rest of their lives during former U.S. president Barack Obama's administration are now screaming "Oh hell no!" as the new commander-in-chief --doing exactly as he promised to when campaigning for the job--steers America toward the far right.
Allowing Ourselves to Hear Each Other
Probably the biggest mistake anyone can make when wishing for his or her voice to be heard and respected is to ignore the voices of everyone else. That observation helped drive the launch and growth of the Creative Thinkers International (CTI) online community 10 years ago.
The sharing of visions and voices for the purpose of inspiring unity in a world turned morbidly cynical by 9/11 was what made the community possible and drove it to thrive for nearly a decade. At a time when hatred threatened to permanently erase the potential for any meaningful cooperation between cross-cultural populations, Creative Thinkers International demonstrated the exact opposite: unity in the name of shared humanity.
The glorification of hatred is predicated on a foundation of fear-induced ignorance venomous to haters and those they believe they hate. Without awareness of root causes inflating their fears, prejudices, and destructive actions, it is easy for someone such as an alt-right terrorist, or a jihadist more faithful to a love of violence than love for Allah, to misinterpret aggravated frustrations as saintly devotion. Given the chance to do so, their own hearts can provide the insight necessary to correct themselves.
For Creative Thinkers International in 2007, allowing ourselves to hear each other and work together to identify the common ground on which we could build trust and cooperation was a matter of working to either: 1) sustain humanity; or 2) watch it simultaneously implode and explode. It is not so different at this 2017 moment in history when words like "polarization," "fake news," and "alternative facts" shape stories heard, viewed, and read every day.
Most people understand achieving unification is more complicated than sticking labels on entire populations and trusting in bias or bigotry to solve the world's most existential dilemmas. Many, however, do not bother to consult any kind of discerning social or political analyses of the turmoil raging around them like the very real tornadoes that slammed New Orleans East on February 7, 2017 (twelve years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused historical damage from which the city is still recovering). To them it is a simple matter of opposing dichotomies: good versus evil, white versus black, the past versus the future, the aged versus youth, East/West, Christian/Muslim, nationalism/globalism, and so on.
What does it take for us to hear each other clearly enough to not only respect what is being said but understand that often the concerns of one group or individual mirror those of "the other." How do we recognize and remove the most unyielding roadblocks to harmonious coexistence between nations and communities?
We begin by acknowledging the reality of the need to do so. We begin by setting aside denials of truth blazing like wildfires right in front of our faces.
In addition, for example, to xenophobia and cultural bias, we know the so-called wealth gap and insufficient education all fall in the same category of oppressive strategies that do not work. We know also that a predatory instinct prompts some power-brokers to use divisiveness as a tool to manipulate social unrest for personal financial benefit. That is a sadly-cruel non-alternative fact we are able to improve with the kind of empowered consciousness represented by the 2017 Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
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.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.