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Dick Gregory Took Us All on a Strange and Powerful Trip

Comedian, civil-rights activist, food guru, and conspiracy theorist made America a better, more-thoughtful place.

Djembayz, Wikimedia, Creative CommonsDjembayz, Wikimedia, Creative CommonsThe comedian and activist Dick Gregory has died at the age of 84. Talk about a career that's virtually impossible to categorize. From avant-garde joke teller to civil-rights figure to diet guru to conspiracy mongerer, he lived a full life that in many ways mirrors all the twists and turns of American life over the past 50 or 60 years. He was relentlessly pessimistic about the state of the country even as he inspired his audience to work for change. I found him interesting because he was always out there on the horizon, lighting a path—albeit often one not particularly grounded in facts—that many of us would be following down soon after.

Born in St. Louis in 1932, Gregory ran track for Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on a scholarship, got drafted, and eventually ended up in Chicago, where he became one of the hottest entertainers of the early 1960s. Hugh Hefner of Playboy, which was still headquartered in the Windy City, was a huge fan and helped to massively increase Gregory's audience. Like Lenny Bruce and other cutting-edge comics of the time, Gregory played with social conventions in a way that was both thrilling and nervous-making. "Segregation is not all bad," went a characteristic one-liner. "Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?" He was a regular presence at civil rights events during the '60s, ran for president, authored a popular natural-foods cookbook in 1974, Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin' with Mother Nature and helped popularize the idea of healthy fasting. "When I look at the obituaries," he once quipped, "I don't see no one but all you eaters."

He was a fixture on the college tour circuit by the 1980s, when I saw him perform at Rutgers, and his monologues were shot through with frankly insane conspiracy theories (I vaguely recall him claiming that the victims of the Atlanta child murders had been mutilated in a way that suggested a government cover-up). An immediate critic of the Warren Report on the JFK assassination, he dismissed official accounts of 9/11 as well, even declaring a liquid fast until the "true story" was made available. Unsurprisingly, he taped a long appearance with Alex Jones about 9/11.

In 1964 he published a memoir, co-authored by famed sportswriter and novelist Robert Lipsyte (Reason interview here), controversially titled Nigger. Gregory later said that he wished he'd chosen a different title, but he dedicated the volume to his mother with the note,

Dear Momma—

Wherever your are, if you ever hear the word "nigger" again, remember they are advertising my book.

The opening chapter of Nigger, in which Gregory chronicles a Christmas when his absent father ("a real Capone with the whores and the bitches") comes home and beats his wife, son, and mistress, is one of the most painful accounts of black rage that America has sadly produced. It stands with passages from Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin in its anger, empathy, and pain. For anyone interested in the black family and the way in which mother-son dynamics get forged in a culture of absentee fathers, Gregory's autobiography is invaluable. The book's documentation of segregation and its effects on American culture should be required reading for those of us who didn't live through that period or have forgotten its reality. His turn to conspiracist thinking allows insight into how minorities who have suffered systematically at the hands of a dominant culture search for meaning and understanding in a hostile world. Dave Chapelle's recent Netflix specials explicitly discuss this tendency among blacks, and it's a predilection that extends to other groups of people who feel marginalized. In Donald Trump's America, understanding the complaints (without necessarily endorsing them) of people who feel pushed to the fringe of society is more important than ever.

In 2010, I covered the "One Nation Rally for Jobs, Justice, and Education" that had been organized by Ed Schultz, then at MSNBC. The various luminaries on the main stage included Jesse Jackson, Charles Rangel, Al Sharpton, and Dick Gregory, who said that the United States was not in a better place than in 1968. His comments appear at 50 seconds and at the 4:25 mark.

Farewell, Dick Gregory. You made your country a more thoughtful place and a better one, even if you think we were going downhill your entire life.

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  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    Another comic following a similar circuitous path through social commentary and political activism/candidacy (although one could argue not as effectively as Dick Gregory) is Roseanne Barr.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I think she's underappreciated myself. And she had the unfortunate fate of being labeled "Crazy" which is a life-sentence with little chance of parole in the land of public opinion.

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    Let's be honest - at best, she was labeled "difficult" and at worst, a "b*tch". But then again, as Jerry Lewis so amply demonstrated in his lifetime, those who are groundbreaking and genius are often difficult to deal with.

  • RockLibertyWarrior||

    My little sister used to be a waitress at the restaurant that Roseanne frequented, my sister said she could be joking and laughing one minute but turn into a absolute bitch the next minute. My sis said she was crazy and that Roseanne's agent had to calm her down a couple of times when she felt like her order got screwed up and she would throw a tantrum, that is if her agent was with her at the time.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    "The various luminaries on the main stage included Jesse Jackson, Charles Rangel, Al Sharpton...."
    Barf.

    These three people are personally responsible for profiting off keeping black people out of the free market and servitude to the US government for decades. Who would anybody listen to anything they have to say?

  • Domestic Dissident||

    These are Gillespie's heroes.

    The man is a cultural Marxist in every fiber of his being, with a mindset permanently stuck in the sixties and the belief that America is hopelessly racist.

  • South African||

    It's fascinating because he actually had the opportunity to call them anything, and he chose "luminaries".

  • Teddy Pump||

    LUDICROUS!!!!

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Oy vey. If Nick Gillespie is a cultural Marxist what am I? I voted for Dick for president back in 68 on the way to Vietnam. Like a lot of standups, right and left, Dick thought he was funny because he was smart, though in fact he was funny because he was funny. And the more he thought the less funny he became. I wasn't impressed by any of Dick's "theories", but "Nigger"--the best parts, at least--is definitely worth reading, as is "Blue Chip Nigger", by the late Roger Wilkins. People often write very well about their childhoods. When they become adults, well, they have lots of scores to settle. Dick Gregory was perhaps the first black comedian with the nerve and ability to sell himself as intelligent rather than "colorful", "lovable", or a buffoon. That took a lot of doing back in the day, and Dick did it.

  • South African||

    " If Nick Gillespie is a cultural Marxist what am I?"

    The punchline to a bad old joke.

  • Alex Jones, Infowars.com||

    Gob bless you, Domestic Dissident, for your courageous defense of our glorious white race, from those who to enslave US - progtards, fucking niggers and cocksucking faggots.
    ,

    with a mindset permanently stuck in the sixties

    Yes! He the scumbag 1960s were THEIR century. Hail the God-ordained purity of the EIGHTEEN sixties.

    and the belief that America is hopelessly racist.

    America is GLORIOUSLY racist, as we showed in Charlottesville. And GUARANTEED more violence, mayhem and murder in defense of our Holy Cause. Hallelujah, brother of the skin.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    Oh fuck off Mary Stack.

  • Alex Jones, Infowars.com||

    Actually, I'm Tony
    Or Hihn. We're all a vast conspiracy against you.
    Hiding under your bed with all THOSE monsters.

    Just joking. Sorry if I upset you, but my praise is sincere, for your daring defense of our glorious race.
    Hugz, brother,

  • Domestic Dissident||

    Actually you probably are Michael Hihn, our nocturnal lunatic.

  • Teddy Pump||

    "There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs."

    "I am afraid that there is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don't want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public.
    -Booker T. Washington, "My Larger Education", 1911

  • shortviking||

    I feel slightly guilty that I had never even heard of this guy before today.

  • South African||

    If you say so.

    I haven't been conditioned to give a shit about race baiters like you apparently have.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Eh, he evicted himself from mainstream awareness a long time ago. If you didn't know him in, say, 1980, you weren't aware of him enough to recognize his name when it popped up in the news from time to time.

  • AlmightyJB||

    See if you can find a video clip. I bet you know he is even if you didn't recall the name.

  • Alex Jones, Infowars.com||

    No, he was a typical uppity nigger. Only progs like Nick even smiled at his "humor."
    I'm glad he's dead. One less mongrel.

  • GILMORE™||

    Gillespie:

    The opening chapter of Nigger, in which Gregory chronicles a Christmas when his absent father ...comes home and beats his wife, son, and mistress, is one of the most painful accounts of black rage that America has sadly produced..... For anyone interested in the black family and the way in which mother-son dynamics get forged in a culture of absentee fathers, Gregory's autobiography is invaluable.

    Nods knowingly. Deep stuff. Checks Gregory's wiki entry:

    Gregory met his wife Lillian Smith[22] at an African-American club; they married in 1959. They had eleven children .... He has been criticized for being an absent father. In a 2000 interview with The Boston Globe, Gregory was quoted as saying, "People ask me about being a father and not being there. I say, 'Jack the Ripper had a father. Hitler had a father. Don't talk to me about family.'"[10]

    lol

  • GILMORE™||

    Gillespie:

    His turn to conspiracist thinking allows insight into how minorities who have suffered systematically at the hands of a dominant culture search for meaning and understanding in a hostile world

    wiki:

    Gregory announced a hunger strike on September 10, 2010, saying [he] doubted the official U.S. report about the attacks on September 11, 2001. "One thing I know is that the official government story of those events, as well as what took place that day at the Pentagon, is just that, a story. This story is not the truth, but far from it. I was born on October 12, 1932. I am announcing today that I will be consuming only liquids beginning Sunday until my eightieth birthday in 2012 and until the real truth of what truly happened on that day emerges and is publicly known."[38]

    (raises fist) "The white man made you do it!"

    lest anyone get the wrong impression, I'm probably the only one here who owns more than a couple of Dick Gregory records*. He was a funny dude

    (i don't actually know how many i have; i just saw three last time i was moving stuff around)

  • AlmightyJB||

    Unfortunately social commentary is out and political hackery is in.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I like Chappelle. I'll have to look for those documentaries on Netflix.

  • AlmightyJB||

    "In Donald Trump's America"

    Yes, I really miss Obama's America when Blacks had full employment, top notch schools, and never had to worry about police brutality. I sure do miss those post racism days. I'm not really seeing that much change outside of the imaginations of TDS sufferers.

  • Teddy Pump||

    HAHAHA!!!!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Jerry Lewis dead at 91.Couldn't stand his comedy myself, wondered if that was related to not liking French culture snobs. Did the French love him because it fit their notions of what all Americans were like?

  • GILMORE™||

    Did the French love him because it fit their notions of what all Americans were like?

    No, because his version of slapstick / pantomime-style physical comedy was closer to what the French think "comedy" is.

    American humor is actually closer to the british idea, which is dry, deadpan delivery of witticisms. The French like clowns.

    (*the very-good movie "Ridicule" explores a different aspect of french humor, which is more 'insult' based: biting, synical, sardonic snark, used to undermine an opponent)

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I liked his slapstick. I hated that damned whiny kid voice he tried to peddle.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, that kind of ruins most of what he did for me.

  • Michael Hihn||

    American humor is actually closer to the british idea, which is dry, deadpan delivery of witticisms.

    Like Benny Hill, Mrs, Brown, Brooks Atkinson, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers!

  • Crusty Juggler||

  • South African||

    Suck his dick while you're at it Gillespie.

  • Alex Jones, Infowars.com||

    Thanks, South African. I've admired your work here. And your cleverness. Nobody could possibly accuse "South African:" of being a fellow defender of our glorious white race. (wink)

    And I will never forget the joy you provided, by sucking my own dick to three shattering organisms in only 30 minutes of nonstop sucking. And for laughing at my brilliant pun, "I am coming for YOU!"

  • Cyto||

    An obituary is traditionally a place to say something nice about a person, so I get the instinct to say Gregory made America a better place.

    My experience was somewhat different. My experience of Dick Gregory the comedian and Dick Gregory the social commentator was so radically different, I thought they were two different people. My first reaction to seeing him on some late-night news show (probably Nightline) was "wow, that racist guy looks a lot like that comedian".

    I didn't follow his work or study him, so my impressions are just superficial, based on the bits I remember. In that limited world, he seemed to be someone hell-bent on making the world a worse place. When the world was trying to come together and wipe a way racial divisions, he kept playing the role of champion of racial division.

    I always supposed he had his reasons, growing up in the time he did. But this embrace of various conspiracy theories makes me think that perhaps he just had a kink in his think that lead him to believe "they are out to get me" in most generic situations - for any "they" there might happen to be. I suppose that is better than the hate-filled racism that seemed to fuel his public appearances on the topic.

    I can't presume to judge the totality of his impact, but for my part, living a life that depended on the end of racial animus, his hectoring certainly didn't feel like it was making the world a better place. Quite the opposite.

  • Ron||

    never heard of him till today so not influential after all

  • BearOdinson||

    You made your country a more thoughtful place and a better one, even if you think we were going downhill your entire life.

    He was a funny comedian, and challenged a lot of racial orthodoxy at the time. Then he went crazy. That is it. Why do people like Gillespie feel the need to throw all kinds of effusive praise where none is warranted.

    Seriously, after about the early 1970s, what exactly did he do that made our country more thoughtful and better? Endorsing conspiracy theories and peddling the same BS that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do?

  • Michael Hihn||

    Nor in your tribe. Kick the shit out of him. Your right of free speech.
    He, being black, had no free speech.

    Nick's only error may have been assuming the younger toddlers here knew what an influence Gregory had,
    He didn't suffer today's compulsion for conformity. For rebels that alone is enough, the defiant refusal to be manipulated .... which will never be grasped by the wusses.

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