I once interviewed author/comedian/activist Dick Gregory, who passed away yesterday at age 84, and can say that it took only a minute or two to know, or to be reminded, that I was talking with a stone cold genius -- and a misunderstood one at that.
His angle on almost every subject was completely original, his wit was fresh and irreverent and his ability to reach back into memory about his participation in iconic historical events was breathtaking. (For example, in making a linguistic point, he casually recounted a story about how he and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. faced down the notorious Al Lingo of the Alabama National Guard in '63.)
And politically correct he was not. When I spoke with him, he launched into a passionate defense of the word "nigger," which he has put in the title of at least two of his books.
In my interview, which I conducted one-on-one on September 8, 2005, he used the word thirteen times! But not for shock value, Rather, he used it to make penetrating and subtle points about erasing history and about that relatively recently-invented euphemism, "the n-word."
And his defense of the word is novel and persuasive. First, he notes that the "n-word" and "nigger" are two separate words with completely different etymologies and origins. The "n-word" he claims, was born in the mid-1990s, during the first O.J. Simpson trial. "Nigger," of course, has been around for centuries.
"The word is nigger, nigger, nigger," said Gregory in the interview. "And if that bothers any of you black folks, then you need to go pray, cause there's some nigger down inside of you. Because if I say, 'All you ho's in this room, stand up.' Anybody [who] gets upset is a ho, 'cause I didn't call your name."
Gregory then took pains to distinguish the "n-word" from "nigger." "The 'n-word' is an insult," said Gregory. "...When white America invented the 'n-word,' it was during the O.J. Simpson trial. And they changed [nigger] to the n-word. Can you imagine the Germans, when they got so upset with Hitler and what the Nazis did to the Jews, they changed the word swastika to the s-word and concentration camp to the c-word?"
Gregory warns about the dangers of erasing elements of the historical record of seminal events. For instance, Gregory was with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on June 11, 1963, at the moment when President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. And he wants the factual truth about that event preserved, with all its ugliness intact.
"I was standing with Dr. King one day," said Gregory. "We're all in line waiting for President Kennedy to sign an executive order at twelve noon. When that order was signed, he will federalize the National Guard. And we will go across. The head of the Alabama State Troopers, Al Lingo, looked at Dr. King, right in his face and said: 'Nigger, when that nigger-lovin' president signs this executive order and you walk across this line, I'll blow your nigger brain's out.'" "Now let me put it the way y'all want it today," continued Gregory. "[Lingo] looked at Dr. King and said, 'N-word, when that n-word-lovin' president signs this executive order and you walk across this line, I'll blow your n-word brains out.' See, y'all just destroyed history!"
As serious and thoughtful as Gregory was in this interview, he also showed his characteristic trenchant wit and humor. And like the stand-up comedian he has been for decades, he was downright funny ("Professor Irwin Corey is so old....that he needed a blood transfusion but they said they don't carry that type no more") and aphoristic ("My second language is profanity!").
And his insights were funny and knowing, as when he talked about gays in the church. "When I came up, the two strongest forces in the black church were women and the gays. And now the black church wants to make like: [aghast] 'The gays! Ohmygod! That's a violation of God!' [laughs] They were the choir director. They were the music director. They was the organ player. [laughs heartily]."
And like the long-time feminist he has been for decades, Gregory said: "Keep using the word nigger, but stop calling my sister a bitch."
A thoroughly original American voice that will be thoroughly missed.