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.
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
PLEASE NOTE: This book review is an extended version of the one previously published on Goodreads:
When I first learned the author of Already Here, the Matter of Love, had used quotes from my work in her new book, I thought for some reason that the entire project would be a collection of quotations by diverse individuals. I was definitely mistaken.
Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by her choice to use the quote in the Postered Poetics art graphic above. It is from the poem “Angel of Healing: for the Living, the Dying, and the Praying.” The poem contains a number of haikus which readers seem fond of sharing on social media but this one is generally ignored and I sometimes if I possibly overreached with the imagery, which is in fact intended to encourage the kind of awakening discussed in the subject of this review.
Revising Your Habitual Life MO
Already Here is a passionately-considered and beautifully-presented work on staking your claim to joy and sanity in a world where so many are now convinced that the opposite must necessarily be the norm. From the book’s very first pages, Kelly Corbet invites her readers to “Think Again” and cautions them that, “What you’re about to catch a glimpse of will probably not match your habitual life MO.” Why does that turn out to be a good thing? Because the habitual life MO for so many of us denizens of Earth within these early years of the 21st century is one defined by war, terrorism, poverty, domestic violence, xenophobia, disease, and other atrocities that do not have to exist.
Imagine if we chose as eagerly to cultivate practices which increase the presence of Love and Joy in the world as we do to engage actions which hasten the destruction of our fellow human beings. That is within realm of possibility for everyone. Corbet is too wise a writer to promise a cure for all of humanity’s current failings. But she happily offers an important contribution to the body of literature illustrating ways to position ourselves to experience as great a sense of delight in our lives as we do sorrow or tragedy. For starters, she suggests the following 4 points as the “foundational essence” of Already Here:
Different wise souls have shared similar insights but when confronted by overwhelming chaos in the world (consider the gun violence crisis, the apparent total absence of ethics in various industries, mass kidnappings and epidemic rapes in different countries, etc.) many find themselves without the strength of any meaningful convictions. Then someone comes along to stoke the flames of forgotten wisdom and bit by bit we start to find our way back to more humane frames of mind.
If the author did nothing more than spout wishful generalizations throughout the pages of Already Here there would be little reason to take the book seriously. As it is, however, she backs up her core principles with rigorous (and yet somehow playful) examinations of language, philosophical ponderings strengthened by scientific reasoning, and short exercises intended to increase your capacity for experiencing a deeper sense of delight through everyday living.
On the Orlando Massacre and One Pet Peeve
I received a copy of Already Here (beautifully autographed with hand-scripted calligraphy) just a few days before the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. While meditating upon the painful senselessness of the killings, I couldn’t help wondering if the shooter might not have made a profoundly different choice if he had taken time to tap into an innate sense of thrilling wonder within his own being instead of building up deadly rage against others based on imagined slights or rejections. Certainly he––and far too many like him––would have discovered more reasons to simply enjoy sharing the available music than latching onto delusional motives to end the lives of 49 people who had never caused him harm.
My primary criticism of Already Here, the Matter of Love, is that it deserves a good index but has none at all. That does not make reading the book or taking useful advantage of its exercises any less gratifying. It would simply provide a helpful tool for scholars and researchers looking to quickly locate specific exercises or key references.
Among those references is the highly-intriguing selection of authors quoted throughout the text. These include: Simone De Beauvoir, Pierre Theilhard de Chardin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Einstein, Kahlil Gibran, Vincent Van Gogh, Dr. Amit Goswami, William James, Kabir, John Lennon, C.S. Lewis, Nelson Mandela, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mother Theresa, Walt Whitman, Marianne Williamson, Pharrell Williams, and quite a few more.
Despite any purported shortcomings, there are those who may be inclined to describe Already Here as an instant modern classic of its kind. They just might be right in that assessment.
© July 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Astonished might be the best word to describe my response to the extraordinary gif featuring the reportedly blind Native American George RedHawk’s amazing animation of Polish artist Tomasz Alen Kopera’s 2014 oil on canvas titled “S14.” That it had been posted by the TedX Colombo chapter along with the following quote from The River of Winged Dreams doubled the intensity of my surprise:
Hearts rebuilt from hope resurrect dreams killed by hate.
The image of the flame-breathing eagle (or possibly hawk?) atop the head of a man appeared to me like an angel of the more fiercely hybrid variety described in traditional texts of the King James Bible. I was struck by the parallel that the TedX Colombo group drew between it and the quote. And then the sense it made not only became very clear but reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s famous lines:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
Hope in this New Year 2016, after the carnage and heartbreaks that have dogged humanity since 9/11, cannot make a difference in the form of nothing more than passive contemplation. It has to exercise strength in the manner described by Charter for Compassion as compassionate action. But before anything else can be employed to make a meaningful difference, hope itself has to remain intact within the hearts and souls of individuals.
The word hope (or a form of it) appears some 29 times in The River of Winged Dreams and 39 times in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry. On this first day of the year 2016 I find myself invoking the word not so much for myself––though there are many reasons I probably should––as for all those who may have reached a point where they feel there is no such thing as hope. Or if there is, that it is meaningless in the face of calamities currently overrunning humanity. Those who believe that to be the case are at liberty to give it meaning of significant applicable substance.
Consider, for example, the millions of refugees whose determination has gone beyond redefining their individual lives to changing the course of history itself. Think of the wrongly-imprisoned men and women whose faith saw them through years of agonizing injustice and whose examples of forgiveness inspire so many others. Witness those whose struggle to breathe the toxic air of outrageously polluted cities have turned their desperation into rallying cries for nations to take definitive action to correct the extreme destructiveness of climate change.
The Bridge of Silver Wings
The short excerpt below is from the introductory essay “Deliverance in Action” which was first published in The Bridge of Silver Wings poetry collection and later included as part of The River of Winged Dreams. It is shared at this time with the hope that humanity in 2016 can reverse the deadly trends of the past and create new life-sustaining legacies truly worth celebrating:
The truth is we do not always know how we go from falling off the edge of one cliff to running with determination beside the ledge of another. The Bridge of Silver Wings is what I’ve come to call the unknowable unquantifiable process of deliverance in action.
Is the happiness that everyone wishes each other at the beginning of a New Year possible? It certainly would not seem to be for the millions around the world who find their very existence threatened by potential immediate deletion with every second that passes. The good news on this day and every day of the year is that those conditions do not have to remain the same.
© New Year Day 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.