A New York Times Review of the Book “The Essential Dick Gregory”

From a New York Times review by Dwight Garner of the book edited by Christian Gregory titled “The Essential Dick Gregory”:

By the time I was old enough to know who Dick Gregory was, in the early 1980s, he was on the downslope of his career. He’d left stand-up comedy, where he’d been a pioneer. His work during the civil rights era — he marched in Selma, and had been close to Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. — was behind him too.

Gregory (1932-2017) had become a gadfly, an energized outlier. He flirted with fringes. He got into health fads and numerology; he embraced conspiracy theories; he long-haul jogged like a proto-Forrest Gump; he mounted quixotic campaigns for public office. The reins of authority had slipped through his hands. He was hard to take entirely seriously; he seemed like yesterday’s man.

This was youthful ignorance. It took me a decade to catch up with his 1964 memoir, which is titled after a racial epithet and swims with intellectual voracity and banked anger. You know it’s going to be good from its opening note to his mother. He tells her that whenever someone says the N-word again, “remember they are advertising my book.”

A more recent reminder of his wit, and his nerve, is Andre Gaines’s documentary, “The One and Only Dick Gregory” (2021), which is impossible to recommend highly enough, especially its first hour.

Watching it, you mentally draw a line from Gregory’s stand-up to Dave Chappelle’s. Gregory was cool onstage, with his stool and his cigarette, but there was a light in his eyes. You sensed an imaginary tail flicking left and right.

I’d looked forward to “The Essential Dick Gregory,” a new collection of his writing. Gregory wrote a lot of books — memoirs, political primers, joke books, diet guides, collections of his speeches — and most are out of print.

There’s rich material in these books. In “Dick Gregory’s Political Primer” (1972), for example, he presents an excellent questionnaire for candidates. I wish I could print the whole thing, but here’s a sample:

4
What political promises have you made to obtain campaign funding?

5
Define statesman.

6
Define politician.

7
In 25 words or less, indicate the differences, if any, between the two. To which category do you belong?

All barriers were, to him, betrayals. His 1965 book “What’s Happening?” includes a photograph of Gregory in football pads alongside the caption: “Football is my favorite sport, the only sport in the world where a Negro can chase a white man and 40,000 people stand up and cheer.”

It’s past time for someone to collect the best of this material in one volume. “The Essential Dick Gregory” is, sadly, not that book. It’s a grab bag of mostly unpublished material, interviews and speeches and talks, with a few book excerpts. A big part of Gregory’s humor was in his delivery, and on the page he’s shorn of that.

All barriers were, to him, betrayals. His 1965 book “What’s Happening?” includes a photograph of Gregory in football pads alongside the caption: “Football is my favorite sport, the only sport in the world where a Negro can chase a white man and 40,000 people stand up and cheer.”

It’s past time for someone to collect the best of this material in one volume. “The Essential Dick Gregory” is, sadly, not that book. It’s a grab bag of mostly unpublished material, interviews and speeches and talks, with a few book excerpts. A big part of Gregory’s humor was in his delivery, and on the page he’s shorn of that.

Some of this stuff is first rate, such as transcripts of Gregory’s interviews with Robert Lipsyte, who co-wrote the 1964 memoir, and the text of his final nightclub performance in 1973.

Some is dreck. There’s a 1975 television interview with Geraldo Rivera about conspiracy theories around John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for example, and there are other interviews that roll, intellectually, off the table, that capture Gregory saying things like, “There are nine planets in the universe, and we have nine holes in our bodies, so I believe we are all small replicas of the universe.”

This isn’t a terrible book, in other words, but it can seem like the equivalent of putting some computer cords, an iPod, an early Macintosh instruction manual and a mouse in a box and calling it “The Essential Steve Jobs.”

Gregory, the Lipsyte material reminds us, grew up poor in St. Louis, with an absent father who would return home long enough to beat Gregory’s mother. He was picked on in school until he learned he was funny, and then he had people laughing with him instead of at him.

He became good at running track and says that changed his life. It gave him discipline, and time to think. He attended Southern Illinois University and spent time in the Army, where he won talent shows.

He worked in Chicago nightclubs before landing a prized and well-paid spot at the Playboy Club. He could light up a frosty room, exiting the stage, as Variety used to put it, to “heavy mitt.” He was the first Black comedian to sit on the couch of the “Tonight” show, with Jack Paar. Black comics previously were asked to leave after their sets.

He learned to be prepared for anything onstage. When he was heckled with a slur one night, he turned and deadpanned, “Did you hear what that guy just called me? Roy Rogers’s horse ‘Trigger’!” He added: “My contract reads that every time I hear that word, I get $50 more a night. So would everybody in the room stand up and yell it?” This book has a lot of laughs like that one, laughs that stick in the throat.

Two high points of this collection are Gregory’s 1963 speeches in Birmingham, where he spent four days in jail, and in Selma, where his pregnant wife was jailed. He reminds you of the indispensability of wit to understanding.

He works the crowd, mixing topical humor — he worries for future Black astronauts because there’s “no dehydrated pigs’ feet” — with intense feeling. About white Southerners, he said in Selma, “We fought wars with him, we helped him plant his crop and we raised his kids, that’s right, and he went so stone crazy he’s tear-gassing ours.”

He added: “See, we don’t have to be violent. We have the three most violent things a man could ever use on our side. We have truth, we have justice and we have the United States Constitution. With those three things, you can’t lose.”

He made a habit of independent thought. In one of this book’s later interviews, with a Seventh-day Adventist magazine, Gregory advocates a raw food diet and does a strafing run over soul food.

Some run around saying, “I’m into soul food, baby. Whitey can’t cook.” Whitey don’t want no soul food! Anybody can cook that old grease that we be cooking! But do you realize two out of every three Black folks in this country have a serious problem with high blood pressure, sugar diabetes, hypertension; and we’re sitting here eating all that old crazy stuff saying, “Yeah, man, I bet white folk can’t eat like this.” Any old fool can cook cornbread. White folk raised the hogs and the chickens, and you expect they can’t cook them if they wanted to? Anybody can cook a chicken. A chicken can cook itself!

At his best, with all that outraged intelligence, he was like a driver shooting a series of red lights.

Decades later, Gregory’s political advice still resonates. “Every time we go to the polls, we end up voting for the lesser of two evils,” he told an audience at U.C.L.A. in 1972. “Try that for 100 years. One day you end up with the evil of the evils.”

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His most recent book is “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany.”

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