HE’S BEST KNOWN FOR HIS STANDUP ROUTINES AND PARTICIPATION IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, BUT THE BOOK ABOUT HIS EARLY LIFE IS A MASTERPIECE OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.
By Steve Silkin
Dick Gregory’s autobiography, “Nigger,” should be required reading. The pioneering standup comedian and civil rights activist, who died at 84 recently, created a masterpiece of humanism in recounting his youth on the outskirts of polite society, from his impoverished childhood, to his blossoming as a neighborhood wit, to his talent that allowed him to disarm the worst racists with an insult in the form a clever quip.
My friends and I have passed the book around for the last few years. I could speak about it for hours, and have done so with them. But I’ll step aside for a moment and let Gregory speak for himself, from his days as a shoeshine boy in Chicago taverns:
White and brown shoes. I didn’t want to get the brown polish on the white part so I put my other hand on the back of the white woman’s leg to steady myself. One of the white men jumped off his bar stool. “Get your dirty black hands off that white lady, you nigger bastard.” He kicked me right in the mouth. One of the other men came off his stool and grabbed the man who had kicked me.
“For Christ’s sake, he’s just a little kid.”
“Mind your goddamn business.”
WHOP! The fight was on.
The bartender jumped over the bar and grabbed me with one hand and my shoeshine box with the other. “Sorry boy, it’s not your fault, but I can’t have you around.”
Out on the sidewalk he gave me a five-dollar bill.
When I saw all the blood and pieces of tooth on my shirt I got scared. Momma would be real angry. So I went over to Boo’s house and spent the night. I told Boo that if I could get kicked in the mouth a couple of more times today, and get five dollars each time, man I’d be all right.
And here’s a dialog with a store clerk, after Gregory and his brother got a government check for a summer job that could have killed them: loading sandbags in stifling heat on a levee that broke and forced them to try to outrun the flood waters. They decided to shop at a department store for the first time:
What do you boys want?
What’s your head size?
You have to know.
I’ll try it on.
Like hell you will.
The book details Gregory’s advanced thinking on how to calibrate his standup jokes in way that describes black life to white audiences in terms they could accept. Hugh Hefner caught his act one night at the Playboy Club and realized he was a star.
Why did Gregory call his book “Nigger?” This is for you, ma, he wrote in the dedication to the woman who conquered poverty with love. She hated the word, he explained, so whenever she hears it up there, he tells her, “just know that they’re advertising my book.”