Dick Gregory gripped my long-extended hand after I successfully made my way into the background of a photo being taken of him, Ben Vereen, and Joe Morton, and started a conversation with me about self love, humanity, activism, and the amount of work left by the old folks for the children to complete. Dick closed our conversation with, “Brother, peace to you. Keep working.” We were there to watch Joe Morton unpack the life of Dick Gregory on stage in Turn Me Loose. I called my grandfather that night, listened to him tell me about how bad dinner was, then told him about the conversation I’d just had with the man who, in many ways, connected us.
George Walker, my grandfather, was a long time follower and admirer of Dick Gregory and made strong and quickly successful attempts at making me a fan and follower as well, repeating all of Dick’s early jokes to me like I wasn’t 12 years old and impressionable; like I wouldn’t show up in homeroom on Monday, repeating the same jokes to my friends and sometimes my teachers. I figured my grandfather loved him more for his romps around the Playboy Mansion during his nightclub comedy days and I loved him more for his activism. I hopped on my bike, rode as fast as I could through Charlottesville, Virginia until I reached the bookstore and I picked up “Nigger,” and the world changed. I found a Black man who decided he was free and found no other terms by which to live. He cursed out white folks for their oppression, and Black folks for their foolishness, and everybody else for whatever he saw fit. Those same folks laughed, but understood the seriousness of his tone. Dick was everything I wanted to be when I decided to become the class clown. His fearlessness in the face of white supremacy was everything I wanted when I picked up my first bullhorn at a rally in defense of Mumia and Black lives.
The news of Dick Gregory’s death came from the friend I let borrow my signed copy of “Nigger,” but never saw fit to return it. “Your guy is gone,” she said somberly, waiting to see how I’d take it. I flashed back to just a few months ago when I ran into Dick Gregory in Northwest D.C. while leaving one of my favorite Pho spots and he was leaving the health food store next door. I reminded him of our meeting in New York City. He remembered and I gave him the words I’d been carrying on my tongue, hoping for this chance encounter and the space to say them. “You said it would have been an honor to have died that night in Mississippi with Medgar,” I told him. “Forgive me, but we needed you, and I’m glad you didn’t?” We shook hands for the last time, he smiled, nodded, and simply said “right on, brother.” I drove to my grandfather’s home in Suitland, Maryland and for the first time in 23 years, we talked about Dick Gregory and laughed like it was 1994.
I hung up with my friend, pulled my notebooks from what looks like a hoarder’s closet, and searched for for the Dick Gregory quotes I began collecting while suffering through racism in Daytona Beach during undergrad. In an old, red, and partially bent moleskine, I found them, still as important:
“I am really enjoying the new Martin Luther King Jr. stamp. Just think about all those white bigots, licking the backside of a black man.”
“The United States is the most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet.”
“Just being a Negro doesn't qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine.”
“I would have painted the White House black. I would have!”
“White folks are the luckiest people: Finally a black president and he's a behaved one. Went to the best schools, best colleges, never raises his voice. I ran for president in 1968. I tell (audiences) if I won, I would have dug up the Rose Garden and planted watermelon!”
“Being white is a job in America. You take that away, you better get the soldiers out.”
“I would never teach a child of mine to be kind to a cop who would shoot you in the back of the head. I would never have that conversation because children don't hear what you mean, they hear what you say.”
“No being should be killed. No being should be unloved.”
“Civil Rights. What black folks are given in the U.S. on the installment plan, as in civil-rights bills. Not to be confused with human rights, which are the dignity, stature, humanity, respect, and freedom belonging to all people by right of their birth.”
“Dear Momma: Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word "nigger" again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Rightfully and honorably, Dick Gregory’s death is political. The first Black man to ever run for President of the United States while simultaneously refusing to play by the rules set by those who made a win impossible. He fought and revolted until the end. Evolution happened, and not once did it require blackface or a shuck or jive. In my review of Turn Me Loose, I closed with, “The name Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory will undoubtedly echo. And if I am fortunate to ever tell my own story, it will be known I walked amongst giants.”
Dick Gregory, it was an honor to have lived with you.
Darnell Lamont Walker, the man in the ugly suit with the sunny disposition, resides mostly in Johannesburg, South Africa after successfully escaping American tyranny. After a few degrees, years of Hollywood, a few awards, and too many cups of tequila, he’s focused on collecting and telling those stories around the world that would otherwise be carried into graves and urns. His in-laws never had children and his son is also a genius.