The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics III
Dick Gregory passed away at the age of 84 on August 19 in Washington, DC. I never had the good fortune to meet him; now, in retrospect, I wish I had taken the trouble to seek him out. But why do I even characterize it as “trouble”? Somehow I am, in such situations, always reminded of what Ezra Pound purportedly told T S Eliot when the latter had first come to meet the older poet, ‘You have an obligation to meet the great men of your times.” Or at least that is my recollection of how one of my teachers, Professor Hugh Kenner, narrated the meeting between the two poets.
I first heard of Dick Gregory, effectively the first black man to break the racial barrier at comedy clubs, in the early 1980s. The “Troubles”, as they were called, in Northern Ireland were at their height; and among those whose names was constantly in the news was Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on the 66th day of a hunger strike in protest against prison conditions in Her Majesty’s Prisons and in quest of the recognition that as a political prisoner he could not be treated as a common criminal. Bobby Sands, of course, never recognized the legitimacy of the division of Ireland and the English occupation of Northern Ireland.
It is around this time that there was in the American press frequent mention of Dick Gregory, who, it turns out, engaged frequently in political fasts. Much like Gandhi, Gregory disavowed the word ‘hunger strike’; he would have understood hunger striking as something rather different from fasting, which, whatever its political implications, was also seen as a form of spiritual, moral, and bodily cleansing. This distinction is scarcely understood, and almost never acknowledged in public commentary; it is also, not surprisingly, lost on the writer of Gregory’s obituary in the New York Times, who has this to say: “There seemed few causes he would not embrace. He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hungers strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.”
Francis Watson once described Gandhi as “Master of the Fast”. Whether the same can be said of Dick Gregory I do not know. When Gandhi fasted in the public domain, it was an event. George Orwell was not the only to marvel at the fact that when Gandhi fasted, the entire country appeared to come to a standstill. Gregory’s fasts were noted, sometimes barely so. There are reports in the American media, from time to time, of “hunger strikes” waged by political prisoners, immigrants detailed in unhealthy conditions, and political activists. In the American political landscape, however, it has been largely activist priests (such as the Berrigan brothers) from the Catholic Church, social workers such as the remarkable Dorothy Day (who was born into a nominally Christian, or rather Episcopalian, family before converting to Catholicism), or political activists and labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez, who took recourse to fasting.
Much has been made, justly, of Gregory’s extraordinary gift for political humor and his indefatigable fight to secure the rights not just of African Americans but all those who have suffered injustice. I shall turn to this shortly; but, perhaps even more arrestingly, what is nearly singular about Dick Gregory is that he is quite likely the only major African American figure from the period of the civil rights movement and beyond who recognized fasting as part of the arsenal of nonviolent resistance. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, James Lawson, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, among others, African Americans offered concerted nonviolent resistance; and so, as a matter of course, they filled the jails, led boycotts, took part in strikes, used the power of the word, and shamed, or tried to shame, their oppressors into relinquishing their privileges, listening to their conscience, and accepting the black person on an equal footing. But American Civil Rights leaders never fasted; indeed, fasting was never part of their political lexicon. One could say, without implying any moral import, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the most well-known face of the movement, even had a weakness for food.
Dick Gregory was thus virtually alone among the most recognized African American political activists who took recourse to fasting. His resort to fasting made him publicly known; however, fasting remained fundamentally alien to American political traditions, except, as I have noted, among those who took their inspiration from the Catholic tradition. One hopes that Gregory’s unique place in the American political tradition, at least in this respect, will receive much greater recognition in the years ahead.
Gregory’s obituaries, notably in the New York Times, the Guardian (London), and the Washington Post, certainly do justice to his gift with words, his incisive political humor and wit, and the resilience that carried Gregory through hard times, from his birth under conditions of poverty to the fact that his increasing activism came at a steep price for himself and his family. The articles detail at some length how he came to conquer the comedy club scene, particularly after a break at Chicago’s Playboy Club in January 1961, and this at a time when black comedians were shut out of the lucrative club scene. This history, therefore, need not be rehearsed. But what stands out is the fact that, unlike modern-day comedians, whose routines are not merely laced with obscenities but are deadeningly juvenile and colossally repetitive, Dick Gregory throughout remained politically engaging and inventive. On the subject of segregation, who else but Dick Gregory could say this: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?” Even as he joined others in the classic demonstrations and marches that came to signify the Civil Rights movement, he retained a certain perspective that one might expect from a more distant observer. Thus, as a way of suggesting that outcomes were unpredictable, however keen and meticulous the planning, Gregory once remarked: “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”
So rich a life, so much to write about. He had his weaknesses, among them a penchant for conspiracy theories. One can forgive this weakness in any person of African descent, whether in Africa, Haiti, the US, the British Caribbean, or elsewhere; the whole world must seem at times to them to have conspired against them. And yet Gregory was magnificently funny. One only hopes that his life will not be reduced to another morality tale about ‘an American life’ and the ‘greatness of America’. A careless reading of his life might suggest precisely this. “Where else in the world but America”, he remarked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week for just talking about it?” Oh, yes, I can hear all those who can’t detect the obvious note of humor screeching about the great singularity of ‘the American dream’. One might point to Gregory’s scathing indictment in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, of the United States as the “most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet.” But this dénouement would be less characteristic of Dick Gregory than his response to being honored with the key to the city of St. Louis by its mayor and then being denied a hotel room in his hometown: “They gave me the key to the city and then they changed all the locks.”