Fairly and with a touch of humor, the late Dick Gregory describes himself and his purpose in the opening pages of his new book:
“People call me an activist, social critic, comedian, and, let’s not forget, conspiracy theorist. In this book, I have combined all of these talents to allow us to look at American history differently.”
Gregory died Aug. 19 of heart failure at age 84. “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies,” completed before his death, is not as definitive as the title suggests, at least not by the standards of footnoted history. But it is a fair representation of Gregory’s passion for social justice and disdain for white supremacy obvious and subtle.
Your mileage may vary on “Defining Moments” depending on how much you already know about these subjects and what you may have learned in school. I found some of Gregory’s writing on earlier American history to be the book’s most compelling elements. After a crisp account of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, Gregory reminds us (more bluntly than I’m putting it), that there were other slave rebellions, too. “A whole lot of black folks resisted slavery,” he concludes. “The revolts I’m telling you about – these are just the ones somebody saw fit to write down. Nobody knows how many more there were.”
Gregory lavishes praise on John Brown, the legendary Harpers Ferry raider: “John Brown was a white man, but he may have been the best friend black folks ever had. He believed that slavery was straight up evil, and he didn’t want to hear about peaceful opposition to slavery – he knew it would take action to get rid of that mess.”
He restores outspoken vigor to Frederick Douglass, citing a speech Douglass gave in 1852 titled “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”: “To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”
As a boy, Gregory threw bricks at “those little black jockeys – you know, the ones you see holding lanterns on white folks’ lawns.” He investigates the history of those lawn statues, which leads him to the story of Jocko Graves, a free black teenager who froze to death while holding a lantern on lookout duty to protect George Washington’s revolutionaries.
This is a compelling story which may or may not be literally true. David Pilgrim explores the multiple explanations offered for the black lawn figure in an annotated article published by Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Gregory’s retelling fits his public role as a griot, preserving and passing on oral traditions.
Gregory’s reflections on cultural and sports figures are more perfunctory, though even here he gets off a zinger occasionally. He calls a scene in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” where Huck and Jim go fishing “the first time in America you had a normal conversation between a black man and a white man.”
Then there are Gregory’s conspiracy theories, often hedged in the factually elusive ways made famous by talk radio: Presidents Kennedy (whom he dislikes) and Lincoln (whom he downgrades as a friend of black people) were killed for crossing big banks on monetary policy; white supremacy killed Bill Cosby’s son when Cosby was negotiating to buy NBC; white supremacists derailed Tiger Woods before he could reach Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record. “Be careful with what you let into your mind,” Gregory writes in a different context, but that advice occasionally applies to his work, too.
“Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies”
By Dick Gregory
Amistad, 256 pages