He didn’t answer my questions, but it was still an amazing interview. When you interview Dick Gregory, all you need do is sit back and watch.
Gregory died Aug. 19 at 84. He was an instigating trailblazer. Gregory exploded America’s entertainment culture, evolving from a provocative stand-up comedian to an unrepentant crusader for racial and social justice, and to a healthy living devotee. He was hysterically funny in his humor and deadly serious in his causes.
As Gregory often said, he was a comedian who was black, not a black comedian. I cherished his outspoken insistence that America must confront race, aptly writing a best-selling autobiography titled “Nigger.”
We last talked in 2009, when I “interviewed” him for a program sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival.
My reams of research sat idle as he pontificated and philosophized for 70 minutes. He didn’t need my questions.
Swiveling in his chair, his finger provoking the air. Always his sartorial best, sporting a natty pinstripe suit, weathered face, framed in his snow-white beard, animated with mischief. His long and winding comedic commentary reflected on everything from his beloved wife Lillian to Michael Jackson, Mark Twain, Queen Elizabeth, capital punishment, the Emancipation Proclamation and his love for reading (he spent $1,000 a week on newspapers). The racially mixed crowd hung on every syllable.
There was his 1967 write-in run for mayor against Richard J. “Boss” Daley. Gregory, who lived in Chicago back then, picketed Daley’s Bridgeport home and City Hall. That place was a “snake pit,” Gregory once said. And Daley was the “snake.”
“I had white cops that didn’t even like me, that was comin’ to tell me, you know, ‘you could die,’ ” he told me.
“You’d have to go back to the early days of the Roman Empire to find someone more powerful.”
Daley was “worried about” voters in Hyde Park and Kenwood. “Educated group. Money group. And they know how to write in.”
He paused for the laughter. “If I’d had won, I would have asked for a recount.”
I asked Gregory whether the election of President Barack Obama had ushered in a “post-racial era.”
America’s pernicious race problem was not Obama’s to solve, Gregory scoffed. “He’s not qualified to fix that. In America, we look for the cheap way out.”
There are no short cuts. Gregory grew up miserably poor in St. Louis, and rose to great fame, but never forgot he was black. He never hid from racism or injustice.
“You keep lyin’ and covering up stuff,’ he declared. Instead, “let ‘em know, we don’t like what’s goin’ on!”
Gregory let them know since the 1950s, when he was a pioneering track star at Southern Illinois University. He later moved to Chicago to try comedy.
He toiled for years in low-paying gigs in black clubs, the “chitlin’ circuit.” In 1961, Hugh Hefner called. The Playboy Club, a premier venue, needed a fill-in that night.
Gregory had to borrow bus fare to get there. The place was packed with white businessmen visiting from the South. They were not pleased to see a black face.
He laid it on them. There was the one about the time he walked into a restaurant in the South. The waitress told him, “We don’t serve colored people here.” Gregory replied, “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Gregory was fried chicken for the soul.
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