Sunday, August 27, 2017

Another America: Remembering Dick Gregory 1932-2017

I arrived home this past week from a short holiday in Florida to the sad news that activist and comedian Dick Gregory had gone to spirit at the age of 84. Although in recent years, Gregory existed more on the periphery of mainstream culture, a barely remembered figure of an earlier era of Civil Rights reforms and anti-war ferment, he was nevertheless still being sought out by eager young videographers who'd visit his home as if on a pilgrimage. With the goal of consulting with a famous relic of another America, they sought him out for help in making sense of the current one. But often the Gregory you'd find on YouTube of their quests from those endless sojourns was a ranting hermit caught up in Truther campaigns who saw conspiracies in everything including "faked" moon landings, 9/11, Prince's death (which he believed was murder), the Rodney King beating tapes (the C.I.A. and the Australian "secret police" were behind the people who filmed it), Bill Cosby being framed for sexual assault because he was attempting to buy a major media company, etc. Yet Dick Gregory's flights of fantasy, often painfully funny to watch (especially since his proteges didn't possess his knowledge and experience of history), did little to diminish his authenticity as a powerful advocate for justice. Whatever outlandish tale Gregory would tell those budding militants, he seemed to speak for the idea of a country that they felt was in jeopardy of disappearing, and it was that very notion of a nation, containing a citizenry that he was once a prominent part of, that these willing apprentices appeared to see rapidly vanishing before their eyes. The fact that Gregory died as white supremacists and American Nazis marched freely and candidly in Charlottesville makes their view even more vividly painful to consider.

Given current events in Trump's America, it's damn near impossible to recognize that other country now. When Gregory was first making history in the sixties and seventies, there was an authentic sense of a world at stake, ready to grab, one to be transformed. In that time, Gregory set out to prove that people weren't so much shaped by history as on the precipice of making it. Whether as a stand-up comedian who Hugh Hefner first booked at the Playboy Club in 1961, or in his landmark appearance as the first African-American to sit on the couch to be interviewed by Jack Paar on The Tonight Show, or on the marches with Martin Luther King Jr., culminating in 1968 when he made himself a write-in candidate for President of the United States, Gregory continued to make history and keep another America visible. Students on campus at the time weren't looking for "safe spaces," either; they were going into danger zones to assert that America had promises that demanded to be kept. Gregory was there, too, on those front lines, and with a comic zeal that carried with it a political bite that opened up America to its failings. But he also reminded everyone in his barbed routines that pessimism towards the political process and solipsism solved nothing. (When Gregory first spoke out against racial segregation, he turned it into a crackling joke."Segregation is not all bad," he told one nightclub audience. "Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?") He daringly titled his dynamic 1964 autobiography, co-written with Robert Lipsyte, Nigger, and dedicated it to his late mother: "Dear momma, wherever you are, if ever you hear the word 'nigger' again, remember they are advertising my book."

Gregory combined humour and activism as an incendiary form of absurdism where the audience could find the release of laughter while also recognizing the injustice and pain resting at the heart of the joke. He actually accomplished what many felt Lenny Bruce had been doing:  producing satire that stripped American culture of its puritan hypocrisies. But Bruce was far less political in his goals and chose instead to shock audiences with his performer's fervour. (Gregory invited Bruce to march in the South, but Bruce refused, explaining in a routine, "I think people would think I was exploiting the issue for my own dues. Anyway, the marches are sloppy, people shoving back and forth, Al Hibbler and Ray Charles walking into people . . . ") Gregory became especially active in the march on Selma in October, 1963, where he spoke for two hours on a public platform on the importance of the voter registration drive. Along with his push for racial integration, his activism went beyond marches and into full political participation in the system. The year before he ran for president, he first took on Chicago mayor Richard Daley in a race for that office in 1967. When he eventually ran for president, he ended up garnering close to 49,000 votes for the Freedom and Peace Party, an accomplishment that landed him on the winning president's master list of political opponents. He invoked even more controversy when he had currency printed with his own image on it – and not as a publicity stunt. Many of these bills ended up circulating, which led to Gregory's coming close to being charged with committing a federal crime. But he joked that no one would arrest him since "everyone knows a black man will never be on a U.S. bill." 

Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King Jr.

As we passed into Richard Nixon's seventies, Gregory remained a force, but sometimes joking that he wouldn't care to see anyone else as president but Nixon: "Now you see white people hurting that never known hurt before." But was his remark a glib retort to the failures of the previous decade? I doubt it. Perhaps he began to believe that his cutting idealism, which didn't bring the country a sense of fulfillment, was due to larger forces working against the nation. It's here that his embracing of conspiracy theories took hold, beginning with the biggest, where he became an outspoken critic of the Warren Commission's findings on the assassination of JFK. In 1975, he appeared along with assassination researcher Robert J. Groden on Geraldo Rivera's late-night talk show, Goodnight America, to premiere the Abraham Zapruder film of the murder. It was the first time the public had ever seen the movie and it carried the palpable shock of entering a time warp. Many that evening came to believe after witnessing the shooting that Kennedy's responses to being hit by the bullets finally proved there was more than one shooter. Although Gregory would insist to his dying day that Kennedy's assassination was no accident, even claiming to one contemporary amateur sleuth that there were foretelling clues hidden on an American dollar bill, his embrace of early Truther zealotry was not born of the same narcissism that fuels those on the fringes today. Like many at the time, Gregory began to believe that there were invisible forces subjugating those without access to power. Activists on the left like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein also like to conveniently divide the world into the powerful and the powerless as a means to define in the simplest terms possible the nature of injustice while evading the actual truth, which is often much more complex (and takes us into the pathologies of nations as much as into their social inequities). But Gregory's passionate embrace of some of those same partisan simplicities was likely fueled by a need to answer for an America passing into darkness. Under those circumstances, there may have been some perverse comfort in believing that unseen conspiratorial forces, the kind that steal your country, are responsible, rather than tragic events that emerge from a commingling of circumstance, accident, and the inevitable appearance of loners who pass into our world and inexplicably change our history. 

Maybe that was why, while pushing Washington to examine JFK's murder, he was also curious about the fringe terrorist movements that grew out of the sixties like the Weathermen, and even later, the Simbionese Liberation Army (SLA), who kidnapped Patty Hearst. When I first met Dick Gregory in 1974, I was just beginning Sheridan College as a film student in Media Arts. One of my colleagues, Richard Kerr, had learned that Gregory would be speaking in Toronto in the Yorkville district where Anne Kalsø had her Earth Shoe emporium. Richard was invited to videotape Gregory's appearance on this new Sony portable recorder and he asked me if I wanted to interview him since I was more familiar with his work. Having never done an interview in my life, and shy about the possibility, I was hesitant. But since I was quite familiar with him, both with his comedy and activism, I decided to take the opportunity. The political scene which was then consumed by Nixon's resignation and his pardon after Watergate seemed to dominate the air. While much of the specific content of our talk has now faded, the intensity of its dynamic hasn't. As we talked, Gregory continually made Richard and me aware of the power of the camera and what it said about the control of information we were recording. When I asked him about his thoughts about Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon, he replied, "When the sheriff breaks the law, what do you think the deputy is going to do?" When the SLA came up, he deferred to forces within the CIA as the true culprits and claimed that founder Donald DeFreeze (a.k.a. General Field Marshal Cinque) was a government informer. He also asserted that when DeFreeze was killed in the shootout with police in Los Angeles his headless body was delivered for funeral proceedings to his mother, suggesting that the delivered corpse wasn't even DeFreeze. To confuse matters further, he went on to tell me that it couldn't even be his real name: "What black mother would have a son named DeFreeze?" Yet despite his lapses in reality, my very first professional interview was a baptism by fire where the conversation was less a standard Q & A than a dialogue requiring my full and equal participation. Any questions of objectivity were always being challenged by Gregory. Many years later, with those challenges in mind, Kerr would include choice excerpts from that interview in his poignant and politically vibrant 1988 experimental film about democracy in America, The Last Days of Contrition.

As the eighties and nineties proceeded, Dick Gregory continued to march for justice. He stormed the Capitol Building with women who led the National ERA March for Ratification and Extension on Women's Equality Day in 1978, as well as speaking out with the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Having long embraced hunger strikes as part of his arsenal, he also protested the hostage crises in Tehran where he travelled in 1980 to help negotiate their release. A bout of cancer in 1999 led him into becoming an entrepreneur for various health remedies – even becoming a vegetarian and showing up on television infomercials with his "Bahamian Diet Nutritional Drink" to help those who were struggling with obesity. But his efforts never seemed self-serving, despite his appearances on after-hours television where TV preachers and other hucksters dominated the airwaves. By the time YouTube became a vivid part of social media in the post-9/11 culture, Gregory found a niche from which he could address any subject that consumed his interest. When Barack Obama actually became the first African-American president, Gregory was quick to warn that the nation's racial differences had not fully healed. "They get a behaved Negro," Gregory told Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club back in 2016. “He don’t raise his voice. He ain’t never called them a honky. You understand what I’m saying? Can you imagine how lucky they are?” If he'd won in 1968, Gregory said he would have been anything but polite. When asked about the first thing he would have done, he answered, "I would have dug up that Rose Garden and plant me a watermelon patch. And it would be no more state dinners, but watermelon lunches. We’d eat watermelon and spit the seeds on Pennsylvania Avenue.” How Gregory's style of guerrilla theatre would have gone down today is highly debatable, but his response reveals a man unafraid by the America he confronted. When later asked about the possibility of Donald Trump's becoming president, he became more cryptic. All he could say was that anything was possible because "we don't run nothing."

That tone could easily suggest for some a state of despair in the face of Trump, but that would hardly apply to Dick Gregory. America could never disappear in Gregory's mind because liberation was always its goal. "When George Washington was fighting the British, it wasn't so he could build a college. It's liberate," Gregory once told Ray Suarez at AlJazeera. "So all the black folks you see in America have never been liberated...We talk as a group of people that's educated but not liberated. George Washington didn't have any educated people with him. The song don't say, 'Give me education or give me death,' it say, 'Give me liberty or give me death.'" In the price of a liberty still to come, Gregory retained a strong belief in a universal God whose will in creating the universe couldn't be breached no matter how long mankind danced around their follies and avoided the true taste of liberation.  

As Dick Gregory now passes into history, President Donald Trump is making history trying to erase the eight years of the first African-American president as if he had never existed. In the face of this, it's hard to imagine what Gregory would have said about Charlottesville had he lived to comment on it, but to his last breath he was never without a view that caught you up short because no matter how condemning he could be towards the racism and injustices of America, he never lost sight of another America that was the bedrock of his activism. There was a calm in him that seemed to suggest that America would survive Donald Trump because the issues of America would always require a reminding voice to put the country in full perspective of its aims. That's why Gregory didn't limit his critical barbs to white racism only. When he got angry at Don Cheadle for his compromising portrait of Miles Davis in Miles Ahead, by introducing a pathetic action plot that skirted Davis's indelible impact on jazz, or chastised Cedric the Entertainer for insulting Rosa Parks in Barbershop, he was unequivocal and as clear as a bell. He was fond of saying before every concert appearance, "I thank God that we have all arrived here safely today, and I pray to God that your return and my return will be equally as safe." In light of the fractious country he's left behind, I wish his journey today to also be a peaceful one.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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