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.
here is within the human heart, I believe, a quality of intelligence that has been known to surpass that attributed to the human mind. The idea is one Muhammad Ali might have appreciated because in director Clare Lewins’ ten-star film documentary, I Am Ali, the fighter shares these words: “Man judges man’s actions. God judges man’s heart.”
When tapped and cultivated, or made a naturally dominant trait of an individual’s personality, the heart’s intelligence radiates a wise benevolence capable of assuming different powerful forms.
As fellow heavyweight champion and Christian minister George Foreman testified:
“Sometimes people come to me and say, ‘What do you think? Was Muhammad Ali the world’s greatest boxer?’ And I feel almost insulted because boxing was just something he did. I mean that’s no way to define Muhammad Ali. He was one of the greatest men to ever appear on the scene of the earth” (from I Am Ali, 2014).
When the radiance of the heart emanated through the person of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) he could easily, at different times, be defined in one of at least 10 different ways:
Of Saints and Athletes
On the iconic and controversial April 1968 cover of Esquire Magazine, the devout Muslim Ali duplicated the famous image of the Christian Saint Sebastian. Shot through with arrows for converting people to Christianity while enlisted as a Roman soldier, Sebastian (c. 256–c. 288 AD) was reportedly left for dead but miraculously recovered and confronted his would-be executioner. He was then then bludgeoned to death and in time adopted as a spiritual protector to call upon during plagues, and as a patron saint of warriors, individuals desiring a saintly death, and athletes.
As in the classic portraits of the martyred Saint Sebastian, the image of Muhammad Ali on the cover of Esquire shows him shot through with six bloody arrows. During the photo shoot, Ali identified the arrows as symbols of political figures whom he felt had positioned themselves to be his his “tormentors”: U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), Vietnam War Commanding Army General William Westmoreland (1941-2005), U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009), U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909-1994), political consultant Clark Clifford (1906-1998), and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978).
The specific names given the arrows could just as easily (or almost anyway) have been exchanged for the various social injustices which the garrulous gadfly witnessed and protested against: relentless racism, poverty, corporate colonialism, unnecessary war, class discrimination, and unequal education. The names could also have been switched out for any number of others who felt more threatened than charmed by the great man’s uncanny charisma.
A Curative Force of Genuine Love
It takes an oversized personality like his to absorb and survive the kind of social and political poisons designed precisely to destroy men such as Muhammad Ali.
It takes the most exceptional of hearts occupied by the rarest of souls to transform those toxins into a curative force of genuine love, one capable of healing and empowering multitudes just by being its beautiful shining courageous self.
5 June 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.