Calluses on our souls
Gaby Rubin reviews 'Nigger - an autobiography' by Dick Gregory with Robert Lipsyte (Plume 2019, pp235, £19.79)
A short while ago, at the CPGB’s Online Communist Forum, there was a discussion of books which had been banned in the US. I remembered this particular one, which caused controversy when first published in 1964, and I could not remember why it was considered so dangerous. In 2016 it caused controversy again when a staff member at a Jesuit college in the US suggested a student read it, and students called for the staff member to be fired for “daring” to give a black student a book with such an inflammatory title!
Well, I found out why it was ‘dangerous’ - and I do not think it was because of the title. No government in its right mind would want people to read about poverty so dire that black children wore their mother’s second-hand clothes (given to her by her white employer) so they could go out to play, while she was working for “the Man”.
This is an angry book, but also a redemptive one. Dick Gregory describes a life of abject poverty and degradation, from which he emerged to become a leading civil rights figure.
Richard Clasdon Gregory was born in 1932. His father, called ‘Big Pres’, was absent, so he was brought up by his mother alone. He begins the book with a paragraph: “Dear Momma - Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.” This defines his style - a combination of serious message with wry and sometimes extremely funny language.
Dick Gregory (never Richard) was hustling from the time he was six - shining shoes, carrying and fetching for shop-owners, often stealing food when he could not bring anything home to his mother for dinner. The first chapter by itself is enough to make the reader both weep and be furiously angry.
Life was not easy for him as a child. He describes once shining the shoes of a white woman. He inadvertently touched her actual foot and a white man sitting near her kicked him in the teeth, shouting: “Get your dirty little black hands off that white lady, you nigger bastard.” A fight started. The bartender got Dick out and gave him five dollars, apologising. Dick’s response to one of his friends was: “If I could get kicked in the mouth a couple of more times today, and get five dollars each time, man, we’d be all right.”
Everyone in the neighbourhood knew that the family was fatherless. Because of this, they were on ‘relief’ - a much lower form of the benefit system we have in Britain. His mother worked illegally for a white woman several days a week, but did not make enough, even with relief money, to have electricity, gas or hot water. Later Dick describes a visit from a “worthy” churchwoman who brought food, including a large turkey - but the family could not accept it, even though they needed the food, because they had no way of cooking the turkey.
“Momma” taught him that smiling was better than crying, and so he developed an outward happy demeanour. He was small and apt to be bullied, so he made people laugh in the hope they would like him instead of beating him up. He describes his early life without self-pity, but also writes: “I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that” (p31).
He describes the humiliation of school. He was slow, could not read well and could not do homework because they had no lights after dark. At school he was always sitting in the seat with a chalk circle around it, because he was considered a troublemaker. His teacher, in a bid to teach him a lesson, described to the entire class the fact that he had no father and was poor.
The worst part of chapter 1 is when Dick (still a child) describes the one time his father came home. He began to drink the whisky “Momma” always kept for him, and in two succinct pages Dick describes the beating his father gave his mother that night: “He beat her all through the house, every room, swinging his belt and whopping her with his hand and cussing her and kicking her and knocking her down and telling her about his women” (p21). Like many downtrodden women, “Momma” could only apologise for her past ‘wrongdoings’ and tell her husband that, yes, “It’s all my fault” (p22).
Later, Big Pres apologised to her, kissed her, told her he would change, etc, etc - the usual plaint cry from a slightly sober man who will never actually change. Dick went into the kitchen and got a large kitchen knife. He says: “I knew how to cut ... Swung right at his head, everything I had, I swung for every kid in the whole world who hated his no-good Daddy” (p23). His life would have been very different, had he succeeded. But his mother stopped him, and his father left. He did not see him again until many years later, when Dick was famous.
After this frightening and enraging first chapter, Dick describes how he slowly - very slowly - rose out of poverty. He went into high school and joined the running team - so that he could take a shower every day. Running became his salvation, eventually, through high school and college. But he also worked his way through - especially during the war, when black workers were paid the same as white.
An accident at his place of work left him in the street, unable to move. A white woman - someone obviously very well known - took him to the white hospital, after an altercation with a policeman:
“Where are you taking him, officer?”
“To the nigger hospital.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Officer gives the name of the hospital.
“That’s too far. I’m taking him to the (white hospital).”
“That’s not for niggers, lady. You better mind your own business.”
“Officer, do you know who I am?”
“Some nigger-lover, who ...”
The lady said her name and the cop’s mouth dropped open and he took a step backward.
“I have your badge number and you can consider yourself fired” (p75).
In the ‘white hospital’ he was given stitches and a “beautiful white bandage. Nobody in my neighbourhood had ever had such a beautiful white bandage” (p75) - not from the hospital for blacks.
When he was discharged, though, his white saviour had gone, and no-one said anything about coming back to have the stitches taken out. He took them out himself - “one by one, with a needle and scissors. It wasn’t that hard” (p76).
His first foray into demonstrations came when he discovered that all-negro track meets were never listed in the scholastic record book - only those for white athletes. Dick Gregory organised a march. He was not sure if it was because of this, but, the following semester, the track meets were integrated. Because of these meets, he could go to university, during which time his mother died. One of the saddest paragraphs of the book was this:
I went out into the backyard and looked up at the sky and said: “I’m sorry, Momma - sorry I was embarrassed because we were on relief; sorry I was ashamed of you because you weren’t dressed the way other kids’ mothers were dressed; sorry you had to die before I realised what a great lady you were (p96).
He then describes how he decided to become an MC and a comedian. He developed his humour, and decided deliberately to assail the racism inherent in the US:
They asked me to buy a lifetime membership in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People]. I told them I’d pay a week at a time. Hell of a thing to buy a lifetime membership, wake up one morning and find the country’s been integrated (p144).
He learned how to deal with hecklers. One night someone in the audience called him “Nigger”. The atmosphere was electric, with the white audience waiting with bated breath for a major fight. Dick Gregory paused for some strategic seconds and said:
You know, my contract reads that every time I hear that word, I get 50 dollars a night. I’m only making 10 dollars a night, and I’d like to put the owner out of business. Would everybody in the room please stand up and yell ‘Nigger’? (p147).
He, and the club, were saved.
Slowly he became famous - on television, in major stage shows, even in prisons. In Maryland he insisted the inmates be integrated. The warden resisted. Dick Gregory went on stage and said:
I tell you, I enjoy entertaining you fellows, but I have a problem ... I’ve never worked before a segregated audience before and I don’t intend to. Now, if you fellows want one hell of a show, I want to see you switch those seats (p162).
A moment of silence and all of a sudden five white inmates jumped up and picked up an elderly black inmate who could not walk, and placed him in the best seat in the centre of the front row. And Dick Gregory says to the white guys: “I dig integration, but I still don’t know if I’d give up that good seat.” Everyone is laughing now and the show goes on.
He goes on to describe how he joined the civil rights movement. He was a famous comedian now, and married with children, but he knew he would be a target wherever he was. Although afraid he might be killed, he joined Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Richard Pryor and others. He remembered president Franklin D Roosevelt saying people had nothing to fear but fear itself. Dick Gregory’s response? “Bullshit.”
He marched, was beaten by cops, who called him “nigger”, and was jailed for a short time. He embraced King’s passive resistance movement (although he was not so sure about its effectiveness). On one march the police knocked down a 98-year-old woman. She looked up at him from the gutter and said: “Don’t let them make you mad, honey. They ain’t after me: it’s you they after” (p187). In a crowded jail cell in Mississippi he spied a four-year-old child! Dick Gregory asked him what he was there for, and the child replied “Teedom” (p192). He could not even say the word he was accused of fighting for, but he was in jail for advocating it.
Dick Gregory was not a revolutionary and certainly not a communist. But he was an individual who spent his life fighting a system that had tried to destroy him and failed. He was active until he died in his 80s, involved in the movement for the Equal Rights Amendment. He died in 2017, and a documentary film, The one and only Dick Gregory, was made about him in 2021.
He ends the book on a high note - not that the fight was won. He knew it would be a long hard struggle, but that it was still going on, even after the bombings, the murders, the beatings. He finishes as he began, “talking” to his mother:
You didn’t die a slave for nothing, Momma ... You and all those negro mothers who gave their kids the strength to go on ... Those of us who weren’t destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls ... When we’re through, Momma, there won’t be any niggers any more (p223).
Yes, I can certainly understand why this book was so controversial. So if you would like to read something that makes you cry, laugh and feel good for being involved in the struggle, this is the one!