Dick Gregory: God’s Own Troublemaker


Although given short shrift in most accounts of the African experience on these shores, the tradition of the black comedian-activist is traceable to the early slavery era, when nighttime storytellers used satire as a temporary relief from captivity.

It would be another three-hundred-plus years before black comedy would arise from the societal catacombs and be recognized (along with jazz and blues) as a unique artistic genre. But once established, African American comedians were by the late 1930s appearing in black-owned jazz clubs - even as the vast majority of managers and agents were still white.

Fast forward two decades as African American comedians were joining black musicians on the storied Chitlin’ Circuit — the series of black nightclubs and theatres that produced a who’s who of the some of the nation’s best musical and comedic talents.

Among the circuit riders was the poor, smart and socially-minded young satirist who would become the first African American stand-up comic to bridge the color gap, Richard “Dick” Gregory.

Gregory died in late August, but not before casting the mold for politically-minded comedians intent on using their craft as a platform for change.

Gregory was 28 when his lackluster career was elevated by an unlikely fan, the late Hugh Hefner. After catching Gregory’s act in a nightclub, Hefner invited him to fill in for another comedian (the wacky Irwin Corey) at the multi-millionaire’s tony Playboy Club Chicago.

The audience that night was composed of white business leaders from the South, yet Gregory connected without resorting to black stereotypes or what a reported referred to as “buffoonery” per some African American comics.

His performance that night earned him a longer engagement at the club, which in turn landed him more stands in large, predominantly white venues. From there Gregory recorded his first comedy album, and remained in demand until his activism, speaking and writing took precedence.

From the 1960s forward, Gregory was active in scores of causes, took junkets to visit foreign leaders, opposed wars, went on hunger strikes and made a 1968 presidential run as a write-in candidate. He was arrested multiple times while protesting, and played a part in helping solve the 1964 murders of three young activists. And he stopped smoking and drinking in the 70s, becoming a vegetarian and promoter of healthy eating.

Neglecting his career eventually left Gregory near-broke. When asked about his finances he replied that he’d found something that fulfilled him more than comedy. But he and his large family endured hardship as a result.

The constant for Gregory was his faith. Possessed of some patently unorthodox views (including conspiracy theories) Gregory’s God was his ever-present, creative playmate and co-conspirator for justice.

His books are interwoven with theological as well as political interpretations of the events of his life and world — views that best come into focus in the plainly titled, “Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, With Commentary” — Gregory’s 1974 liberation theology-style take on selections from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

In Gregory’s unadorned epistemology, God is on the side of the poor and the broken. And we’re called upon to choose which team we want to play on.

It should be remembered that Dick Gregory was a complex, sometimes bizarre man — a black Jeremiah who believed Truman signed a treaty with space aliens. (Look it up.)

But however history ultimately takes his measure, let it be said of him he made us laugh. Then he made us think.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2017


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