To Be Equal #78
August 23, 2017
DICK GREGORY PIONEERED USING COMEDY AS A WEAPON AGAINST RACISM
“His comedy, one of the many weapons in his arsenal, was one way that he fought for justice. Dick Gregory has passed away at a time when America is reverting to the country he fought so desperately to change. It makes the need more urgent for more people to hold up the mirror to society as he did, to hit us with the funniest, most infuriating look at the bitter truth of injustice.” – comedian Ron Wood, Jr.
In the days following the sickening neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, the nation grappled with the best way to confront hostile demonstrations of white supremacy.
Eyes turned to Wunsiedel, Germany, where neo-Nazis had long been attracted to the gravesite of Hitler deputy Rudolph Hess. In 2014, the townspeople took to mocking the demonstrators with silly slogans and rainbow confetti, raising money for anti-racism causes. But the tactic of using humor to confront racism was pioneered decades earlier, by a man I was privileged to call my friend: Dick Gregory, who died last week at the age of 84.
Many of his sharpest, funniest observations were mentioned in the obituaries and tributes that followed his passing. The one I’ve seen most frequently was his response to a waitress telling him “We don’t serve colored people in here.” “That’s okay,” he would say, “I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” What most obituaries omitted was the line that followed: “About that time, three cousins came in. You know the ones I mean Ku, Klux and Klan. They said, ‘Boy, we're giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.’ So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, ‘Line up, boys!’"
And therein lies the power of using humor to diffuse racism. When racists are spoiling for a fight, nothing takes the wind out of their sails more effectively than exposing them as fools.
Even as he mocked the threat of open violence, he also tweaked the subtle bigotry that often poses as tolerance. “In the South,” he said, “they don’t mind how close I get, as long as I don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t mind how big I get, as long as I don’t get too close.”
As an outspoken and often defiant political activist, Gregory often lost jobs because of the stands he took. But he always said, “If you’re willing to give your life for a cause, what’s a few dollars?”
These days, taking a stand for social justice or lending support to a political candidate can be as easy as hitting the “send” button on a cellphone. But in 1994, during my first campaign for New Orleans Mayor, Gregory joined me in the trenches, walking for miles through city neighborhoods, knocking on doors and visiting community centers. I will always be grateful for his friendship and support.
“I chose to be an agitator,” he said. “The next time you put your underwear in the washing machine, take the agitator out, and all you’re going to end up with are some dirty, wet drawers.”
As we mourn his loss, I think of what he would have said about his own death: “You got to die of something because if you die of nothing, they won't pay your insurance.”
78TBE 8/23/17 ▪ 120 Wall Street ▪ New York, NY 10005 ▪ (212) 558-5300 ▪ WWW.NUL.ORG