I still remember the first time I saw Dick Gregory speak. When I was 16, Gregory was invited to address a group of students at my high school. Now this is the thing; Gregory was speaking to us on either a Friday night or Saturday night, which aren't usually good times to ask teenagers to attend a lecture. Matter of fact, I don't know if there exists any day that teenagers would agree is an excellent time to be attending a lecture. As a rule, lectures and teenagers don't mix unless the speaker is younger than 20.
Quiet as it's kept, lectures aren't usually considered the entertainment of choice for adults either, but the kids don’t need to know about that until they grow up. For now, let's let them keep believing that we adults are intellectually curious types hungering passionately for information about the world in which we all live.
So anyway, there we all were in the school's assembly hall waiting for this guy named Dick Gregory to begin his talk. Gregory started out as a student athlete, became a comedian, turned social activist and then became an entrepreneur with the Bahamian Diet. Most of us knew at least a little bit about him, or had maybe read his autobiography, Nigger, but other than that we didn't know what to expect. For the black students, who were by far in the minority at this place, most of us went just because it was a brother who was giving the talk and we'd line up to hear just about anybody black. For all practical purposes, Dick Gregory was a long-awaited messenger who we just knew would finally balance out our prep school experience and would speak in a language we could appreciate and understand.
At this point it would be great if I could tell you everything he said, and maybe even recall some quotes, but that speech was given close to 30 years ago and I’m not even going to try and pretend to act like my memory works that well. What I can say for sure, though, is that Gregory spoke for more than three hours straight to an assembly hall crowded with teenagers, both black and white, and hardly anyone left. Those who were younger and were required to check in to their dormitories earlier were given permission to check in late, and virtually all of them took advantage of the extended privilege.
We were mesmerized. For those three hours plus, Dick Gregory stood alone on a stage with nothing more than a microphone and talked to a group of kids about topical issues, social responsibility, what it must feel like to be black on a predominantly white campus (yes, I do remember that part), why that was no excuse to be screwing around and a host of other subjects.
But the way Gregory kept us enthralled was the way he managed to mix outrageous humor with extremely serious topics that made us think. One minute we’d be laughing so hard we were crying, then suddenly it was as if he had slapped each one of us across the face before tossing a barrel of ice water over our heads.
It was the humor that opened our minds, that kept us attentive and awake so that we could receive what Gregory really wanted us to hear. What’s more, he never spoke to us as if we were just kids, but spoke as if we were people who mattered and were smart enough to comprehend important issues that our teachers never would have tried to introduce in the classroom. In fact, I recall some of those teachers shifting about uneasily near the entry doors as if their underwear had suddenly shrunk five or six sizes. They tried to play it off, but it was pretty obvious — and fun to watch.
See, that’s the thing about Dick Gregory. Even as he approaches 70 years of age and has cancer, he still has the ability to make you laugh whether you want to or not, and then to take advantage of the opening that laughter always affords and force-feed your psyche with a smorgasbord of radical thought before you get the chance to put the filter back on. By the time you've regained your cool, you've already been changed and aren't quite sure what to do with this added responsibility of more information than you’d prefer to be carrying around. This is the kind of information that convicts deep down because it forces you to confront yourself and what you need to do to make the world a better place.
In some ways Dick Gregory reminds me of St. John the Baptist. No, really, I’m serious. St. John, some said, was a little crazy and made folks more scared than they wanted to admit because he refused to let them off easy. St. John wouldn't let anyone look away from the scars that characterized the human condition and he refused to be quiet in the face of ugliness. St. John the Baptist was truth walking, and truth is often hard to handle. Truth forces you to either take a stand or slink away. But even as you’re slinking you'll feel the hot breath spilling onto the back of your neck from the New and Informed You who now feels compelled to do something about this mess.
Dick Gregory will be speaking 4 p.m. Sunday at the Holiday Inn Southfield (call 313-792-2837). True to his nature, he refuses to slow down and he refuses to accept the power of disease over his body. Why should he? After all, disease ain't nothin' but a word, and Dick Gregory has been a master of words all his life.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]