Dick Gregory only ever wanted to be a comedian, says Jon Ronson in his podcast, Things Fell Apart. The black American was a stand-up sensation in the early 1960s – back when comedy was an almost entirely white world. Gregory had a white agent, a white manager and white lawyers. He played to white crowds. He couldn’t stand it. “My dad felt that it was not okay for him to be comfortable in his hotel room every night after a show and turn on the evening news and see his people being brutalised,” says Gregory’s son Christian.
So Gregory quit and devoted his life to the civil rights movement. When he published his memoir in 1964, the publishers thought it would be a jaunty look at history and comedy. Instead he wrote a scathing account of racism in America. The title was simply N*****. If it unsettled people, he didn’t mind, explains Christian. “His belief was, ‘This white system has called me this my whole life’.” Besides, Gregory had a sense that “this word was someday going to cause significant embarrassment to white people”.
He was right. In the 1970s the book was hotly contested by white Evangelicals in West Virginia, who didn’t want it taught in schools because it was too radical. In 2016 a black student at Seattle University organised protests when the dean offered it as extra reading, saying it was too insulting. Both examples illustrate the trouble with culture wars, says Ronson. We forget about nuance, intentions or ambiguity and instead focus on how things make us feel. It’s a shame. Gregory’s story “is too interesting to be relegated to the bleak world of the unambiguous”.
Listen to the full episode here.
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