A comic stands up to racism
One afternoon in New York City in the spring of 1964, I marched at the head of a small civil rights demonstration, one of the few white people in the group. I was carrying a watermelon. It was a Dick Gregory joke.
To say the least, not everyone liked that joke, but I thought it was hilarious, a jab by the hottest comedian in the country at one of the oldest racial stereotypes. Some of the black demonstrators in that little parade felt that Gregory’s version of guerrilla theater (in which I was a bit player) diminished the seriousness of the occasion -- and they said so. Some of the white bystanders had another opinion entirely. In words that couldn’t have been more blunt, they suggested I was a traitor to my race.
More than a half-century later, as Gregory’s jokes and accomplishments are being revisited, that watermelon bit still seems brilliantly mocking to me. Yet it is also quaint, almost antediluvian, symbolic of a once-thrilling sense of progress. The current struggle against racism faces an orchestrated resistance led from the White House. The racists on the twenty-first-century sidewalk are emboldened, having found a malicious leader impervious to comedy. Too many others realized too late that Donald Trump was no joke after all. And now they’re squabbling among themselves over such important but often diverting topics as cultural appropriation, white male privilege, and plain old bad taste -- instead of uniting to fight a truly dangerous enemy of equality and democracy.
Nigger, the title of the book Greg (as most of us called him then) and I wrote together in that distant year (and his autobiography), is even more controversial than it was then and so is my own race. People question the appropriateness -- even the right -- of a white man to write about, as well as with, a black man. The book, published in 1964, has never been out of print and this year, for the first time, a trade paperback has been issued along with an audio version. A documentary, a feature film, and a formal biography are on their way, much of it thanks to the energy generated by Greg’s son Christian, a Washington, D.C., chiropractor.
Greg, who died in 2017 at 84, is now gaining the full recognition he long deserved as a pioneer of political black comedy who sacrificed a superstar career on the ramparts of 1960s civil rights activism. In these last years, he’s risen into the pantheon of America’s most famous satirical commentators alongside Will Rogers and Mark Twain.
I met Greg on the evening of September 16, 1963. His publisher set up the appointment. He had signed a contract for a rats-to-riches autobiography to capitalize on his new fame as a comedian and then rejected every writer the publisher sent around. Nearing the bottom of the barrel, they came up with a 25-year-old New York Times sportswriter who, to be honest, was more interested in meeting this sudden sensation than actually writing a book involving the -- for me -- then-exotic worlds of comedy and racial politics.
When I arrived at his hotel suite that first time, Lillian, his wife, and Jim Sanders, his gag writer, told me he wasn’t seeing anyone. But young and full of myself, I just barged into his room. He was on his bed, curled in a fetal position, clothed only in his underwear, crying. I sat down and asked him what was wrong.
He slowly rolled over and glared at me. “Don’t you read the papers?”
“Sure,” I said. “I work for one.”
“Didn’t you read about the four little girls who were murdered yesterday in a Birmingham church?”
“That was terrible,” I said. “Now about this book...”
But he had rolled back, even as he continued to talk, this time to the wall: “How could the white man be so evil as to kill little girls who weren’t even demonstrating for their civil rights? You people are the racial cancer destroying America. You stunt the lives of children, break up families, you have the power to wound the innocent just by calling them ‘niggers.’”
Because I was a reporter, I began taking notes, but mostly I listened, fascinated. I was in the presence of a soul in rage and pain, hardly the cool 30-year-old hipster who had become the first black comedian to make it in major white nightclubs. His one-liners -- “’Leven months I sat-in at a restaurant, then they integrated and didn’t even have what I wanted” -- were already being repeated as social commentary, not to speak of uncomfortable truths in that world before social media. (“We won’t go to war in the Congo ‘cause we’re afraid our soldiers will bring back war brides.”) At $5,000 a week, he was then being hailed as the Jackie Robinson of topical comedy.
Late that night, I finally got up to leave and, to my surprise, he asked me to come back the next day so we could start writing the book.
It went badly from the beginning. He was sometimes an hour or more late for an interview session and when I complained, he’d say, “I can tell you been waitin’, baby, you sound colored.” He always called me “baby.” He couldn’t seem to remember my name. His diatribes against white America were based on strong arguments and solid facts, but they were hardly the human stuff of autobiography. I was fascinated. For me, it was an education, but I soon realized it was fruitless to continue.
So after about two weeks of sporadic sessions, on a day he showed up three hours late, I hit him with a prepared monologue. I told him that I didn’t need to put up with an irresponsible, selfish fool trying to hang me up in reverse prejudice. In fact, I declared pompously, the only thing I didn’t have against him was the color of his skin. I marched out to the elevator. He followed me and got in. On the way down he said, “Your name’s Bob Lipsyte, right?”
“Too late,” I replied.
He said he was going to have a sandwich at the hotel coffee shop. Would I join him? I figured I might as well get something out of all this.
While we ate, he kept repeating my name. When we finished, he said, “Let’s go back up. I think we’re ready to write a book. A real book, one they’re not expecting.”
And it was terrific. For the next few months, usually very early in the morning, after a club date, in a hotel room curtained against the dawn, he would lie in bed and take me into the pit of his St. Louis childhood. We cried and laughed about this skinny welfare case named Richard Claxton Gregory, born on Columbus Day, 1932, who fantasized that school closed in honor of his birthday. When he was hungry enough, he told me, he ate dirt. He started telling jokes to keep the bullies at bay. He talked about his “monster,” by which he meant that combination of ego and ambition that drove him to become a high-school and college track star and then a headliner on the honky-tonk “chittlin’ circuit” of black nightclubs.
The monster was ready on January 13, 1961, the night the Chicago Playboy Club called him as a last-minute replacement. And it was the same monster that refused to be sent home when the club manager panicked moments before Greg was to go on stage after realizing that the place was packed with white southern conventioneers. Greg thanked the first heckler for calling him “Trigger” -- he said he always admired Roy Rogers’ horse -- and he asked the second one to keep using that word because his contract stipulated $50 extra every time it was spoken. He killed that audience. Playboy owner Hugh Hefner was called out of bed for the second show and gave him a long-term contract.
The Monster Needed More
But success on stage wasn’t enough for the monster. Between club dates and appearances on TV’s top-rated The Tonight Show, where he successfully demanded to be the first black comic to sit on the couch beside, and actually talk to, late-night host Jack Paar, he ended segregation in a Maryland prison by refusing to perform unless black and white prisoners were in the same audience. He also helped free a falsely accused black man from a southern jail and he always made sure there were black waiters in the clubs in which he performed.
As his celebrity grew, any civil rights demonstration for which he was scheduled to show up could count on television news crews following him, which usually lessened the odds of police brutality against the demonstrators. So he began to believe it was his obligation to show up. So he started missing club dates and then began to lose them when bookers realized that the nightclub stage was not his priority.
By this time, we were well into writing the book, whose working title was Callus on My Soul. I thought it sounded too gospel-y, however, for a funny, gritty, remarkably candid personal story. At the time, though, neither of us could think of anything else.
Usually, after a club date and before we settled into our all-night taping sessions, we would have a post-midnight dinner, often with friends of his or other entertainers. Greg, a drinker and smoker who was overweight, would order huge amounts of food for everyone and taste everything. A childhood marked by hunger had left him with an obsession with food, which he talked about incessantly.
Late one night in Chicago, after a gig at the nightclub Mister Kelly’s, he began to riff about opening his own restaurant. It would be small and luxurious, only one sitting per table per night, five waiters, and an orchestra. The diners would deserve all this, because the name of the restaurant -- in neon on the door -- would be Nigger.
“Every white man in the South will be giving me free publicity,” he said, working himself up in his typical fashion. “We could bust that word. It wouldn’t have the power to hurt us anymore. Anytime anybody said, ‘Nigger,’ it would be about something really fine.”
I think that may have been how we got the idea for the title of his autobiography. So much for Callus on My Soul, which he used for a later memoir.
The publisher, Dutton, was not amused, but Greg stood his ground. He threatened to take the book back and they were, in the end, somewhat mollified by his dedication:
“Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
In those years when, of course, it seemed inconceivable that a black president, no less a first lady, would ever grace the White House, he would make endless jokes about that title: “Sent a copy of my book to President Johnson. About time there’s a nigger in the White House... Lady Bird Johnson’s been reading my book at night, so now she goes to bed with a nigger.”
The White Interpreter
In 1964, when the book was done and off to the publisher, I finally asked him the obvious question: Why, in the world, had he chosen me, a white man, to help him tell the story of his life? His response was quick and straightforward and surprised me. He had picked me, he said, partially because I seemed so open and interested in his story, not one that I might want to tell, but above all because I was white. Black folks, he assured me, would understand his life. They had already lived it. White folks, on the other hand, needed an interpreter, someone who could make sure the story was told in ways they could relate to.
I’ve held on to that explanation through 55 years of self-questioning and, of course, questions from others. Sometimes, I’ve thought about that watermelon, too. I wish, back then, I had asked Greg exactly what he had in mind besides a racial joke in which I was proud to participate, even if there was a hint of mockery (of me) and humiliation in it. Didn’t whites deserve it? Beyond that, wasn’t carrying the watermelon a symbolic way of sharing a terrible burden that had been the essence of this country since the first enslaved black set foot on these shores so many hundreds of years ago? Wasn’t it, at that far more hopeful moment, a way of reminding white people that we -- and the history that went with us -- were all in this together, even as racists tried (as they and President Trump still do) to divide us?
The book was published in 1964 to good reviews even as Greg’s career as a stand-up comic was swirling down the drain. His TV and nightclub income dropped -- he lost a reported $100,000 in bookings in 1964, a fortune then, and twice as much in 1965 -- because he so often left those bookings in the dust, rushing off at the last moment to one dangerous place after another with the Huntley-Brinkley Report news crew close behind. He was accused of doing it all for publicity, even after being badly beaten in Birmingham, Alabama, and shot in the leg while trying to calm a crowd during the riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965.
The comedic path Greg blazed would be followed by Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Chris Rock, even as the civil rights movement settled into its endless, grinding struggle. Our book kept selling but obviously never came close to busting that word, our title, which has become a kind of Tourette’s tic for rappers and basketball players (often modified as "nigga"). Greg and I agreed that the politically correct alternative, “the n-word,” seemed both coy and somehow even more objectionable in its implication that the original is really just too powerful to say aloud.
Sometime in the late 1970s, he and I began to see less and less of each other as his food obsession took a sharp turn into non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarianism, and frequent fasting. He was constantly on the road. His true home, his son Christian once told me, was an airport terminal. He became a fervent advocate of proper nutrition, which, he insisted, was the foundation on which battles against racism could be fought. Only healthy people, he would say, have the strength to make substantive change. Then that sly, conspiratorial smile of his would break out on his face and he’d ask: How come the government spends so much time and money regulating vitamins without ever banning cigarettes?
Two years ago, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I stood before two audiences in two days, one made up of mostly middle-aged African-Americans who wanted to share memories of Greg, the other mostly African-American teen-agers hosting a 50th birthday party for The Contender, a young adult novel with a black teenage protagonist that I wrote back in 1967 and which they had read in school. I never mentioned the watermelon to either audience, but in both cases that moment and the melon weighed on my mind. I still felt haunted by that symbol of American racial hell and the unresolved question: What did it really mean then? What does it really mean now?
Without prompting, I told the older crowd how we had come up with the title of that book and why Greg picked a white man to tell his story. There was a lot of nodding and murmurs of assent in the audience. They understood. I hadn’t ever been appropriating his story. I had been helping to explain it to an often-clueless white readership.
Emboldened, the next day I posed a question to the kids. How did they feel about a white guy writing a novel about a black kid? They looked confused. They had loved the book, they said, related to the characters, what did it matter? One boy said that their teachers told them they could write about anything they wanted, including aliens from outer space.
I have to admit I was touched because I instantly knew that Greg would have dug that answer. Time to put the watermelon down, I thought, cut it up, and share it.
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