Activist/artist Dick Gregory recently died. Columbus Day in October would have been his eighty-fifth birthday. For many years, I thought of Gregory primarily as an activist. He was in short film clips that I showed my students about civil rights campaigns like Birmingham in 1963. Then when I moved to the New York City area, I had the fortunate opportunity to see him perform comedy live. Seeing his show was a turning point in my life as a writer and educator.
He’s never been like any other comic, or rather no other comics have ever been like him. First, he walked on the stage with a pile of reading material: newspapers folded to specific pages, jumbled with a couple of magazines, and maybe a book. Some folks in the audience were puzzled. I thought, “Here’s a man who stays informed!” Then when I read his book Callus on My Soul, he emphasized that he read for several hours every day. This was the backbone of his comic material and his critique of American culture.
His wit could be scorching but, especially when I saw him live, he struck me as someone with a great deal of love for humanity. He spent his life trying to raise the consciousness of Americans to improve this society: through his civil rights activism, through his wellness and nutrition work, through his writing (check out the classic autobiography Nigger), and through his comedy (Live at the Village Gate is a favorite from 1970).
It was special to see the love, almost reverence, that the audience offered him when he performed. Here was a man who was held in high esteem. Because of the depth of his love, he could give voice to some hard truths. Maybe that is the difference between being just a leader and being a truly heroic figure. His jokes were not always easy to hear because they were carriers for snippets of searing truths. But they always reached the ear, and pricked the soul, of the listener because they were so skillfully wrapped with humor.
It was the close of the show that I will never forget. He stood up and collected his reading material, carefully putting it back under his arm in exactly the way he had entered. Then he paused and looked directly at the audience. Imagine a warehouse that is dark and crawling with filthy rats and mice, he said. If you turn on a single light in that place, the vermin immediately scurry away. He urged the crowd: “Go and be part of the light.” Then he turned and walked offstage.
As he demonstrated personally, there is no better way to spend a lifetime: Use your talents to bring the light. Whatever you do, do it well and for the service of others. After seeing him perform, I went home and wrote on a piece of paper: “Be part of the light” and hung it on the back of the door to my apartment. Every time I go into the world, I try to remember his admonition. Thank you, Dick Gregory.
“Dear Momma – Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.” -Dick Gregory