Book review: The Essential Dick Gregory, edited by Christian Gregory

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The many accolades that one might assign to Dick Gregory — pioneering comedian, best-selling author, civil rights activist, even health guru — are more reductive than the man he was.

Sure, his appearance on “The Jack Paar Show” in 1961 was a breakthrough for Black entertainers on American television; his work for social justice, which began when he was in high school in the 1940s, helped break down barriers; and his books, more than a dozen, sold millions of copies. Gregory was passionate, effusive, unfiltered. Even in his later years, he seemed to never turn down an opportunity to grab the mic and offer his frank appraisals. (“Anytime you vote for the lesser of two evils, you’re evil yourself,” he said in a 2016 comment about Donald Trump. “That’s how Hitler came to power.”) Gregory spent nearly 60 years in public life, touring until his death in 2017 at age 84. He was, pardon the cliche, larger than life.

For Gregory’s son Christian, curating the material that would help shape his father’s legacy was a daunting task. His new book, “The Essential Dick Gregory,” is a fine beginning: It captures aspects of Gregory’s prolific output — primarily in interviews, speeches and outtakes from conversations that were in his autobiography — not available elsewhere. The book could be described as a collection of the icon’s mixtapes and B-sides, and as with such compilations, there are some gems in the miscellany.

Broken into three sections — “The Body (1932-1960),” “The Mind (1961-1970)” and “The Spirit (1971-2017)” — the book loosely maps Gregory’s pre-public life, the apex of his career. as a stand-up comedian, and his long period as a human rights activist and humorist. The nearly 30 essays all feature editorial notes from Christian Gregory (Dick Gregory’s eldest son and a chiropractor). In the opening section, Dick Gregory recalls becoming an “accidental activist,” this after several encounters in which he had little choice but to draw a line in the sand, or step across someone else’s line, such as when he helped integrate high school sports. in his hometown, St. Louis.

One day with Dick Gregory made me know he was truly one of a kind

In one instance as a college student, Gregory pushed against the segregation-era practice of forcing Black customers to sit in the balconies of theaters, separated from Whites on the ground floor. While Gregory admits the joyousness of community that the Black audience members in the balcony cultivated (and the same could be said about the back of the bus), he jokes that on another occasion, when at the theater with a date, his impetus was less about challenging the racial status quo and more about the fact he didn’t want to go to the balcony because “I’m so busy thinking I don’t want to run across that other girl.” Such occasions became a pattern in Gregory’s life and career — turning the inconveniences of everyday life into moments of social justice.

Drawn largely from interview tapes of what would eventually make up Gregory’s 1964 memoir, the opening section feels perfunctory.

In comparison, “The Mind” captures Gregory at the peak of his comedic power, and in the midst of historic social and political change in the United States. Gregory recalls being on the ground in Jackson, Miss., only days before the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers (“That same telephone at his house that he used to call me, now someone’s on that same phone telling me, yes, Medgar was killed”).

In another instance he recounts the first meeting Malcolm X: “The phone rings [stern voice] ‘Dick Gregory? This is Brother Malcolm. I want to know when you’re coming to the mosque?'” While many remember Malcolm X as a militant public adversary of white supremacy, Gregory remembers him as “sweet and bashful, a kind man and a good humored man and someone who would be embarrassed if he could hear us talking about him in this way now.”

Gregory was, of course, a product of the times that produced him, so accordingly some of the insights throughout “The Essential Dick Gregory” might not hold up to contemporary scrutiny. For example, Christian Gregory prefaces his father’s 1971 Ebony magazine editorial on birth control with the reminder to readers that “Dick Gregory had never been afraid to ruffle feathers and counter conventional thinking.”

One can only wonder how he would have weighed in on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wadegiven his belief — long held among some Black citizens — that birth control was little more than a backdoor attempt at Black genocide.

Yet the sharpness of Gregory’s wit still finds the funny in the absurd: “I’m one Black cat who’s going to have all the kids he wants.” (Gregory’s wife, Lillian, gave birth to 11 children.) “White folks can have their birth control. … I’ve never trusted anything white folks tried to give us with the word ‘control’ in it.”

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“The Essential Dick Gregory” is not a comprehensive look at Dick Gregory, but it offers a useful bookend to a public figure who wielded humor with vigor and an astuteness to the American condition perhaps matched only by Mark Twain.

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American studies at Duke University and the author of several books, including “Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive.”

The Essential Dick Gregory

Edited by Christian Gregory

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