I saw Dick Gregory once, and I want to commemorate that occasion while he is still alive. I hope he reads this.
My mother did not tell me I was Jewish until I was 46 years old. I was not raised Jewish in any way. We ate pork and ham at home. I had never been inside a temple or synagogue. And yet I was thoroughly familiar with Jewish family life because I listened to the radio, especially the Jewish comedians like George Jessel (“Hello, Mama, this is Georgy”), Eddy Cantor, and Minerva Pius, who was Mrs. Nussbaum in Fred Allen’s Alley (“You were expecting maybe Greta Garfinkel?”). I don’t count Jack Benny; he was a comedian who happened to be Jewish, not a Jewish comedian. Gertrude Berg was not a comedian, but her portrayal of Jewish life in the soap opera The Goldbergs certainly had its effect. There were others whose names I have forgotten, but because of radio comedians I became thoroughly familiar with what English sounded like with a Yiddish accent. And long before I was 46 I was keenly aware both of antisemitism among the kids I went to school with and of the way in which Jewish comedians were gradually making Jews more familiar and hence more acceptable to goyim.
Now that I’ve introduced myself, let me set the stage. After the Civil War, the United States Army set up military installations throughout the western U.S. with the purpose of protecting settlers moving west from what we now know are Native Americans but were then called Indians. Many of the troops assigned to these forts were what were known as “buffalo soldiers” – freed slaves. After all, during the war the Union army had made use of “colored” troops – not, of course, integrated into white units, but as separate but equal units – and these soldiers had acquitted themselves well in battle. Around the outposts towns grew up, and as time went on some of them became almost civilized. The state college where I was teaching was located in such a town, and buffalo soldiers had served in the adjacent fort.
At some time in the late 1860s or early 70s, two of the buffalo soldiers misbehaved in such a way as to cause such grave indignation among the citizenry that the offending men were summarily hanged from a nearby railroad bridge. Someone photographed their dangling bodies; I have seen that picture.
From that day for a hundred years no African American was allowed to spend the night in that town. During the 1960s, when blacks were rioting in places like Detroit and East Los Angeles, the town’s residents said, proudly and smugly, “There’s no Negro problem here.”
Until the college football coach began recruiting black athletes for his team. This created tensions. I asked my barber if he would be willing to cut the hair of one of these football players. Of course, he said, he had nothing against such people, but executing the tonsorial art on kinky hair was a skill he had not mastered. It occurred to me silently that American Jews had gone through such discrimination – Groucho Marx had said, “I refuse to belong to any organization that would accept me” – but that their situation had been ameliorated by the popularity of Jewish comedians. I wished that there were Negro comedians who would do the same thing for their people that Jessel and Cantor had done for theirs.
The college where I taught sponsored an annual Artists and Lecture Series, featuring all sorts of traveling performers and speakers. I have seen The Mikado and Orpheus in the Underworld, I have heard Rafael Mendez and Mahalia Jackson and Harry Belafonte and Jane Fonda. The events were held in the basketball court, which had seats all around; for the A&L Series wooden folding chairs were set up on the floor. I have no accurate knowledge of the seating capacity, but the events always drew a large crowd from the college community, the ambient city, and numerous towns and villages all over the western half of the state. The audience was perhaps. five thousand people.
Having introduced myself and set the stage, it is time for the narration to begin.
One year in the 1960s one speaker on the A&L Series was Dick Gregory. I hadn’t heard of Dick Gregory; probably nobody else in the area had. But we all held season tickets, and the college contracted with a company that provided package deals. So dutifully we went, so as not to waste the money we had spent on our season tickets.
And the five thousand of us sat there in that basketball court, rocking with laughter as Dick Gregory explained to us how the world looked to a black comedian. We were mesmerized into seeing and understanding his point of view. “Think about it,” he kept telling us after describing the egregious acts of idiocy we had all been guilty of and making us laugh at our white selves. Yes! Yes! I kept saying to myself. This is what it will take to solve the race problem in the United States! If there come to be more black comedians like Dick Gregory, we white people will understand black people better and accept them as they are, just as Jessel and Cantor helped us accept Jews for what they are.
It hasn’t happened yet. But Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and a host of other African American comedians have helped to start bringing it about. They have accomplished at least as much as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. And Dick Gregory was, so far as I know, the first of them all.. Thank you, Dick Gregory.
A clip from a more recent appearance by Gregory: