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.
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
Dance is a political strategy that says “yes” to life as opposed to the corporate and terroristic manipulations that so eagerly promote polarization and glorify violent entries into death. Simply put, that is one important reason David Bowie’s 1983 Let’s Dance video (directed by David Mallet) is one of my all-time favorites. Through its subtle acknowledgment of the plight of Aboriginals in Australia, the late great Bowie Jan 8, 1947 - Jan 10, 2016) made two very important statements:
The first statement is very similar to that made by Leonardo DiCaprio when accepting a 2016 Golden Globe Award for his performance in the movie Revenant. It is namely this: the lives of indigenous and “minority” people are something much more than hindrances to a given company’s or government’s preferred agenda. As such, colonizing them (something which can be done in many different ways: economically, politically, socially, etc) or marginalizing the same is not the “acceptable option” so many seem to believe it is.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Dance to the song they're playing on the radio
While colour lights up your face
Sway through the crowd to an empty space…
The second statement made through the video is that as tragically depressing as social injustice and its accompanying agonies can be they do not have to frame or define every moment of one’s existence. The physical and creative energies of dance can relieve the paralyzing tensions caused by systemic drudgery and replace it with a healing sense of inspired positive motivation.
To “put on your red shoes and dance the blues,” as Bowie suggests so compellingly, is one way of transforming sorrow into a temporary state of something close to bliss, and of reshaping subjugation into an exercise in transcendent advocacy. It is a bit of folk wisdom that people of African descent applied to superlative effect during the days of legal slavery in America.
Dancing Away the Blues
At the beginning of Let’s Dance, a young Aboriginal woman (Joelene King) steps into a beautiful pair of red shoes as her friends look on approvingly. Toward the video’s end, the shoes come to symbolize forces of oppression which threaten her native way of life as well humanity in general. So she takes them off and with her companion stomps on them and rejects what they now represent. The young woman and man (Terry Roberts) are last seen dancing atop a green shrub-covered cliff as images fade into gray contrasts between them, the city of Sydney, and open land.
Almost Like Russian Social Realism
Bowie himself stated his intentions in regard to the Let’s Dance video more bluntly. Speaking of both it and the video for China Girl, he pointed out the following in an interview with Kurt Loder for Rolling Stone Magazine:
"They're almost like Russian social realism, very naive. And the message that they have is very simple - it's wrong to be racist! ...I see no reason to f*ck about with that message, you see? I thought, 'Let's try to use the video format as a platform for some kind of social observation, and not just waste it on trotting out and trying to enhance the public image of the singer involved. I mean, these are little movies, and some movies can have a point, so why not try to make some point.” (David Bowie: Straight Time)
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.