Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies
By Dick Gregory
Amistad: An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory was a provocative, incisive, and comedic force to be reckoned with for over 50 years.
Gregory made his mark as a groundbreaking performer who used satire to reflect on racial issues in America, and dedicated most of his life to social activism.
In the 1960s, he organized student rallies and marched on Selma, and in recent times, went on hunger strikes to support Black Lives Matter.
Gregory passed away this past August 19 at the age of 84, and his death brought out a tremendous outpouring of support from admirers including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Ava DuVernay, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson took to social media to share memories and express gratitude for the inspiration they took from his trailblazing work.
“He taught us how to laugh,” Jackson said. “He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live. Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already.”
DuVernay said of Gregory, “You taught us and loved us. Thank you, Dick Gregory.”
The final words from Gregory are presented in Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies, as unapologetically candid and provocative as he was throughout his life.
In this collection of thoughtful, inspiring essays, Gregory charts the complex and often troubled obscure history of the African American experience.
Gregory starts from the beginning by exploring African ancestry and the Middle Passage, and takes us through both serious and funny aspects of African American life today. He also looks at cultural milestones such as the Harlem Renaissance, Sidney Poitier’s and Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar wins, and Billie Holliday releasing “Strange Fruit, as well as incisive takes on former President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, and President Donald Trump.
Gregory writes of Trump, “If you ever saw Donald Trump’s television shows you saw that he was brilliant. So, how did he get so stupid all at once? Something else you’ve got to wonder: if I went to apply for a job collecting garbage, they would ask me to bring in my last year’s tax returns. But Trump runs for president and he doesn’t bring his in, and y’all tolerate it? And now he’s won, and you can’t see where this is going?
“People have asked me what we do now that Trump is president. There’s nothing to do. It’s over. We’re in decline now. The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians – all of those empires fell. It’s our turn now. We didn’t see what was happening, and now it’s too late.
“We want to believe that everything was all right until the 2016 election, but it’s never been all right. Take the Electoral College. Most folks who vote don’t know that whoever wins the popular vote doesn’t necessarily win the election. Most people could vote for me or you – but if the voters are fool enough to do that, the government could bring out the military, and that would be the end of that. So, this is not a free, democratic society.”
Gregory gives his views of sports, and African American icons like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Tiger Woods.
On all sports, he writes, “When I look at baseball or football or basketball, I see slavery all over again. The black person out in the field with a football or basketball – that ball is the cotton. When you look at sports, who are the people they get to play them? Poor folks and more specifically, usually poor black folks. Meanwhile, the white boy is sitting on the bench with a clipboard trying to act intelligent. Nothing has changed since slavery; it’s just moved to a higher order.”
Gregory writes of Jackie Robinson, “In 1947, when Jackie Robinson went to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he became the first black player in Major League Baseball in modern times. Well, everybody knows that. But what people may not know is that he had to be more than just an athlete. That’s the only way he could have done what he did. The way he carried himself, talking the way every mother would like her son to talk – it was because he knew that when he was in public, he was all of us. With every play he made in the Major Leagues, he was representing black people. Most athletes today think it is all about them. Do you think Darryl Strawberry, Len Bias, Dennis Rodman, or Lamar Odom felt that they had a community to represent? Every time some racist called Jackie Robinson a n****r, and Jackie went on about his business like he hadn’t heard it, staying calm and keeping his dignity, he was representing black people – and he knew it. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel anything. But he had to hold those feelings inside himself in order to accomplish what he did as an athlete. And it was keeping them inside that finally killed him. The thing that let him succeed in the Majors was the thing that finally took him away. He held all that in so other blacks could come through behind him. What a hell of a price to pay. Today, black athletes are still called n****r or booed on the regular.”
Gregory writes of Tiger Woods, “Now, I don’t want to say every father should be out there pushing his kids to do music and sports while they’re still in diapers, but, man, look what it did for Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods.
“Tiger’s daddy – who, by the way, was the funniest dude I’ve ever met, man – he started teaching him when Tiger was a little bitty tot. He told me about Tiger: ‘God owed me that little punk, with all them other triflin’ childen He gave me. I deserved Tiger.’
“The world had never seen a golfer like Tiger Woods before. Tiger was born in late 1975, started playing golf before he could talk, turned pro at twenty, and won the Masters Tournament in 1997. Walked away with almost half a million dollars.
“And he wasn’t half done yet. Look at what this young brother went on to do. What Joe Louis and Muhammed Ali were to boxing, what Langston Hughes was to poetry; what Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and Charlie Parker were to jazz; what Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson were to baseball – this man was to golf. He won the Masters three more times, won the U.S. Open three times, won the British Open three times, won the PGA Championship four times, and in 2001 he had all four of those championships at the same time. He became PGA Player of the Year almost more times than you can count, he got paid to do so many commercials you couldn’t turn on your TV or open a magazine without seeing his mug, and in 2009 he became the first athlete to top a billion dollars in earnings. No wonder white supremacy put that man in their sights.
“What was almost more amazing than all that: he got black folks interested in golf. Televised golf started at noon on Sunday, and black folks started going to the 7:00 a.m. church service so they could be home and cooking and ready to look at their boy. The earlier services grew so fast that nobody could believe it. They didn’t have money for all the early services they needed to folks could get home on time. So, they keep having seven o’clock, eight o’clock, ten o’clock services. (Old black people know that God’s at only the eleven o’clock service.) Black women loved Tiger, because he was the successful son they’d never had…
“He didn’t know that the white folks coming to see him play in the majors didn’t love him – he didn’t know that until he had to get out of golf for a while, and the ticket sales went down 50 percent, because 50 percent of them were hoping to see him get beaten. But when you think people love you, and you ignore all the stuff that’s happening. You miss what’s really going on.”
On Bill Cosby in a section titled The Cosby Show, Gregory writes, “I mean the Cosby ‘show’ in more ways than one. When the show I Spy hit TV in 1965, it was the first time in the history of this planet that a black man could stop, pull out a gun, and shoot. And he could shoot a white man. I had never seen that. Neither had anybody else. Everybody had seen white boys do it – all you had to do was turn on a TV, day or night, and see that – but a black man! People saw that and said, ‘Man! What is this?’ Before that, black folks had to wrap their guns in twelve towels and put them under the car seat. That’s why they couldn’t shoot nobody but other black people; because by the time you finished unwrapping all that stuff, those white boys you were mad at were gone. But that was the whole thing about I Spy: it was comical because Cosby was a funny guy, but it was powerful, too. And, it couldn’t have worked the same way with two black men, because when you saw Cosby and Robert Culp together, you saw they were equals. They were government agents, traveling all over the world. They posed as a tennis player and his trainer, but they were packing heat, and they could use it.
“Only thing about it was: wherever they went, Culp always got the girl. That’s why Cosby told his stand-up audience one time, ‘I want to film I Spy in Africa. Bob Culp wouldn’t get the girl then!’ That cracked me up.
“The Cosby Show debuted on NBC in 1994. Went to number one. Bill Cosby played a doctor named Huxtable. You ever heard of anybody named that? I didn’t think so. But the name doesn’t threaten white folks; that’s the whole reason behind it. Until we can see through the BS, we will keep going down the wrong trail. Why wouldn’t you think white folks loved him already? Little white children riding on his back eating Jell-O, eating tapioca out of his ears.
“Another thing about The Cosby Show: You’ve got a dark-skinned man and his darker-skinned wife, and one of their five children looks practically white, and another one looks even whiter than her. Tell me what that’s about.”
Gregory’s goal throughout his career was to make audiences not only laugh but think hard about race relations in America.
This work is the culmination of a truly important legacy from one of our most indispensable contemporary voices.
It is an essential, no-holds-barred history lesson that is sure to provoke as much as entertain.