The same reasons that convinced me to give PT Armstrong's Looking Back and Dreaming Forward a four-star rating might prompt others to give it five. Some might settle for three. But here's the way I see it: the first three stars are for the rarity of the book's content. This isn't just another memoir. It's more like a flesh and blood time capsule filled with reports from America's past about issues the country (and the world) is dealing with in 2019, like the challenges of adjusting to increasing diverse populations and managing the awkwardness of inter-generational interactions in various venues.
The fourth star is for the fact that Mr. Armstrong was 91 years young when he released this book at the end of 2018 and is currently looking forward to turning 92 years old on St. Patrick's Day, 2019. What the age factor means in this case is that as an African-American man born in rural Texas in 1927, the military veteran had to survive quite a bit before he could even think about publishing a book, his third, at the age of 91. A lot of the memories through which he had to navigate to tell his stories are the kind many Black men his age, he tells us, do not enjoy recalling or discussing.
Powerful Authorial Voice
One of the most fascinating things about the five stories in Armstrong's volume is his authorial voice. The author realizes he is addressing a digital-age audience which might not immediately, necessarily, understand him as someone whose worldview and mindset were forged during a very different era. Bearing that in mind, he kicks off this unusual collection with the controversially-titled essay, "When I Was A Negro." In it, he explains, "I hope it will be clear that I am not writing out of anger but sharing the truth as I have lived it." He further acknowledges, "There are a lot of books out now about what people are calling 'the New Jim Crow.' Well I grew up during the old Jim Crow in a segregated society that was very strict so I have some perspectives and insights people might find useful." In other words, as the title of his book indicates, he is more interested in learning from past mistakes in order to help fellow citizens move forward than he is in dwelling on past injustices for the sake of wallowing in self-pity or stirring up feelings of guilt.
Moreover, his meditations are surprisingly much more inclusive than many might assume. As with classic autobiographies and memoirs by such authors as Maya Angelou and James Weldon Johnson, Armstrong does make some hard unflinching observations when it comes to topics like the history of slavery, racial segregation in Texas and his adopted home of Savannah, Georgia, and the historic bias against interracial relationships. However, he goes a big step further in "Bloodlines: Interview with Miss Pilgrim Cottonwood."
An actual interview, "Bloodlines" tells the story of a Native American Hopi woman whose tri-racial ancestry included Natives, Whites, and Blacks. It is a rare authentic document of its kind. Constructed from an interview which Armstrong conducted in 1966 when his subject was 66 years old, the author presents her dialect as she spoke it. Cottonwood is candid about both her struggles to survive and the heartbreak over losing the love of her life. Particularly significant is her account of relationships between African Americans and members of her tribe during and after slavery.
In "A Place for Old Black Men" Armstrong writes with moving poignancy about the paradoxes of aging in a society that continues to advance technologically but appears to regress when it comes to issues of social justice. At the same time, in "Back to My Roots" and "My Trip to Africa" he rejoices in the discovery of his cultural inheritance and celebrates the potential which he believes the future holds for everyone.
To read part 1 of this article please CLICK HERE. Part 2 begins now:
One measure of Dick Gregory’s commitment to eradicating the blight of racial injustice from America’s potential democratic paradise was a marked willingness to risk nearly everything he valued in pursuit of it. Prospective employers and audiences alike could easily turn their backs on a comedian specializing in his brand of in-your-face political satire, not to mention “blackball” someone increasingly identified with freedom marchers.
In fact, the political component expressed in the pages of Nigger was not something in which publisher E.P Dutton, according to Gregory, was interested at all. As explained in conversation with the late Dr. Marable Manning (1950-2011, author of the biography Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention) just before receiving the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute's 2006 Paul Robeson "Here I Stand" award, the publisher expected the comic to deliver a manuscript showcasing his ethnic “wit and wisdom” with minimal focus on the racial realities of the time. What they wanted, essentially, was a joke book which left no room for expansions of consciousness.
However, having already received an advance of $200,000 for the proposed work, Gregory opted to partner with white author Robert Lipsyte to produce a book which could simultaneously: 1) help raise people’s awareness about the effects of racial disparity in the United States; 2) share humor based on the human condition as he lived it; and 3) inspire participation in the Civil Rights Movement. This unexpected gamble at first stunned both the publisher and the public but ultimately yielded across-the-board rewards for all stakeholders involved.
Partners in the Struggle
Further evidence of the humanitarian’s unyielding commitment came early on when he insisted on sharing his battle for civil and human rights with his beloved wife, Lillian. Living with that decision proved difficult more than once. As her husband, for example, struggled to observe principles of nonviolent conflict resolution while policemen in the South spat in his face and white supremacists tossed a grenade into a church where he gathered with other activists, Lillian found herself alone when their infant son, Richard Jr., died.
Sometime later, she took Gregory’s place on the front lines of a protest in Selma, Alabama. There, she was arrested and spent a week in jail while pregnant with twins.
Over the years, as their family continued to grow and racial oppression remained a deadly reality, the activist-entertainer made it clear to his children that their personal time and enjoyments as a family would have to come second to the demands of “the movement.” It was the same kind of bitter, but possibly unavoidable, pill of historical destiny which the children of other iconic leaders (again, consider King and Malcolm X) had to swallow.
People who laughed at Gregory’s famously racially-tinged monologues, as well as protesters who marched alongside him at various rallies around the country (through the South, yes, but also in Chicago, Washington, DC, and elsewhere) recognized within his personality characteristics associated with prophets.
That specific aspect of his demeanor is particularly noticeable in chapter seven of Nigger . The section contains a transcript of his response to a startling discovery. Preparing to address activists gathered in a church in Selma to coordinate the registration of Black voters, Gregory observed that the front row of the church had been “filled that night with policemen pretending to be newspaper reporters and taking notes” (p. 200). Rather than becoming dismayed or frightened, he used this development to address the infiltrators directly:
“…What do you think would happen to Christ tonight if He arrived in this town a black man and wanted to register to vote on Monday? What do you think would happen? Would you be there? You would? Then how come you’re not out there with these kids, because He said that whatever happens to the least, happens to us all… Let’s analyze the situation…” (p. 202).