I spent an evening with the comedian/activist years ago when I was writing for The Guardian newspaper. Gregory died three days back. What he said then is so pertinent, tragically, to America today. Nothing changes!
WE’RE NIGGER ALL, MAN.
The thin cop is looking worried. He keeps adjusting his glasses as he hovers behind Dick Gregory’sbroad back at the post Frost on Friday studio party. A plump Zapata-moustached producer hovers behind the cop. Dick stops talking to find out what is happening. ‘Evening sir, local police. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave by the back as we’ve had word some blokes are coming to have a rumble with you.’ The producer relaxes as Dick nods, unsmiling, and says he’ll leave. David ambles over, anaemic with make-up, to arrange for the next show. ‘You were lovely Dick, really lovely. Now tomorrow...’ Ten minutes later, the cops have multiplied to three and all are nervous.
David disappears and Dick wishes goodbye to Malcolm X and an entourage of flowing robed black men. You go down with him to the waiting car, flanked by cops, feeling very much like a train robber or a presidential candidate. A cop opens the door and says ‘Sorry sir but...’ Dick pats him and says “ Yeah man. You’re just doin’ your jobs.’ His wife sits beside him.
Dick Gregory has changed since you last saw him. Two years back he was an American comic, dressed in an expensive suit spieling prussic acid satire for the late show. Two years! He’s done some suffering. A couple of spells in goal, a couple of fasts, a couple of “whuppings” by cops. Now he’s dressed in very casual clothes and has a beard. He’s grown too, and you watched it happening. From comic to semi-statesman for Black America. He has...dignity in him and he’s more relaxed, as though he knows what he wants and where he’s going. ‘You do a load of thinking in goal man. A load of it...’
The driver wants to know if violence is the only answer. ‘Violence is no asnwer man but it’s the only way you got when you’ve examined every legal and moral ground on the subject,’ Dick says, ‘and get no where.’ He’s a non-violent man so you want to know what he’s going to tell the ghetto. ‘I’ll tell him my way of life and let him choose. But if the cat decided to get a gun...’ he looks out of the window. The driver’s been waiting to ask him about Tariq Ali, the British leftist. ‘Yeah. I dig him. He’d leading a revolution in this country and what they don’t understand is that they think they’re dealing ith a bunch of hoolgans. It’s the same back home.’
Either Chicago or the driver makes him slump deeper into his seat. He tells his wife he’s tired and gets back to Chicago. ‘It didn’t surprise me. The syndicate has killed over 1,000 people there. In 1896, 2,000 draft resisters were gunned down in...’ He asks his wife, she shakes her head. ‘’...somewhere of Michigan Avenue. And you’re asking me to be surprised by Chicago. One cat told me it was becoming a poh-lice state. He’s wrong. It is a poh-lice state and it only proved a beautiful point to every black cat in Amrica. That him and the young white cat better get together fast. And the white cat knows it now.’
There’s a crowd waiting for his midnight show at the Arts Laboroatory. They sit him atop a piano and listen. He philosophises on America and answers questions. There’s less bitterness and just an.... immense sadness. His humour is gentler now and there’s no talk of hte. He’s a change from the passionate rhetoric of Jimmy Baldwin and the hysteria of Sammy Davis. It’s a calm man talking to a crowd of young people... a few black.... and a lot of white. The tragedy is that they are the young and already understand. The only elder is a sun-tanned sporty type who wants to know why there are no great black swimmers.
“You can’t blame the cops for what happened in Chicago. They were just doing their job ... protecting the system. They’re like my mom. She’d whup me if I didn’t behave myself. She was tryin’ to keep me in the system. And the cop is the keeper of the hosue and he’s doing his best. Sure he gets scared. The administration offers him $20,000 if he dies ....” He shrugs. His chain-smoked, two-hour monologue is given in a total silence. He’s done a lot of reading in gaol too for historical facts shore his philosophy. “When Rap (Brown) says get a gun .... he’s not being original. What do you think Paul Revere said when he saw the British coming? America needs a nigger. We’ve only made the scene lately. Before that the Southern red–neck had the Jew for his nigger and even then you had to tell the dumb bastard what a Jew was. Now he’s got me ... and you can see me comin’ from three blocks away. There are other niggers in America. You found them in Chicago. The hippies and the yippies ... and the cops. We’re niggers all, man. The hippies and yippies are trying to break out of the system and work their way down, we’re trying to break in and work up. And when we meet ... American will die. It will die in eighteen months. I don’t give my country more time than that. She’s reached the point of no return. Britan stole enough wisdom from all them countries she colonised and may ... may save herself. But America is too dumb and too stupid.”
He stops talking, and the room is quiet. The questions, American and British accented, only want to know how to be saved. “You young are the only ones’s who can save the world. Either the Government deals with you ... or you with the Government. Yours is a moral revolution, not a political one.” When questioned he mentions his write-in presidential efforts. “All I will do is try to tie a tourniquet.” You spot his wife at the other end sitting with the impassivity of a Masai warrior’s woman watching the lion hunt and the inevitable end. The black men in the audience ask no questions and sit silent as if ... as if they already know the answers and need no more telling. You leave at 3.30 with a non hippy-yippy white American. He’d never liked Gregory before. Now he’s enthusiastic. He’s going to write him in and get his friends to do the same. “Wouldn’t it be great,” you naively say. “If he became President with all the hippy, yippy and black votes? He laughs. “Man, if they thought he had a one per cent chance of making it they’d wipe him out as they did the others. They’d get him in thirty seconds even if it meant dropping an H-bomb on him.” You bow to a 21-year old infected with the frightening fatalism of America. “In fact,” he adds, “Gregory is already a dead man. It’s only time now.“