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.
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
“If the idea of loving those whom you have been taught to recognize as your enemies is too overwhelming, consider more deeply the observation that we are all much more alike than we are unalike.” ©2015 quote and art by Aberjhani (from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays) Art inspired by original sculpture by Marie Uchytilováe
After learning about the amazing works of the late sculptor Marie Uchytilová (1924-1989), especially her masterpiece “The Memorial to the Children of Lidice," it became easy to see why a growing number of people are inspired by her. Yet she should be much better known and more celebrated than she is at this time.
Is the lack of recognition of her powerful creative contributions to humanity because of her gender, or due to her national origin of Czechoslovakia? Or might it be because humanity is still committing in so many different ways the atrocity she documented through her great historical work? Whatever the reason may be, the overwhelming evidence of the artist’s singular accomplishment speaks for itself. The minimal credit allotted her implies a case of guerrilla decontextualization by omission.
The “Memorial to the Children of Lidice” is also sometimes referred to as the “Memorial to Children Victims of War.” On days such as the United Nations’ Human Rights Day, or Day to End Racism, or World Peace Day, it can be difficult to think of such children. They’re the ones who never lived long enough to fight for their rights. They never got to present humanity with whatever unique gifts of creative vision, persuasive leadership, social influence, or scientific aptitude they may have possessed.
What can be most difficult, when thinking of them, is that we have made such little progress since the horrendous massacre (part of an act of retaliation ordered by Adolph Hitler) that occurred on June 10, 1942, in the Czech Republic village of Lidice, not so very far northwest of Prague. That massacre which “The Memorial to the Children of Lidice" documents so hauntingly.
One of the great miracles of those who sacrifice everything––as Marie Uchytilová did––for the sake of creating an enduring masterwork of consciousness-raising art is that their voices always manage to reach hearts eager to hear what they have to say. What Uchytilová’s voice had to say to this author’s heart inspired the creation of the quotation artwork posted with this essay.
Someone might very well rummage through hidden details of her life and come up with reasons to challenge my assertion that the gifted sculptress deserves greater acknowledgement than has been granted. I would, then, still have to contend that while one might choose to dismiss her, it is hardly possible to imagine ignoring the intensified brilliance of the souls of 82 children emanating from the bronze splendor of her tribute to them.
© Human Rights Day 2015
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.