When I was a boy in Baltimore i picked up a book called NIGGER by Dick Gregory. At the time there were riots in the city since King had been shot and I had been mugged a few times by kids from the very tough inner city school. Strife Strife Strife. My parents were big time Kennedy liberals from Virginia and my mom taught in the inner city schools and everything just seemed to be falling apart. Robert Kennedy's assassination, Kings, Wallace. The Vietnam war seemed to be the fire behind everything. And in the middle of all this on the paperback rack in the Enoch Pratt library was Dick Gregory's book, NIGGER. I checked the book out under a librarians horn rimmed stare.
I read NIGGER on our porch and on the roof of our house. I didn't want anyone to see the book because I was sure there would be punishment. NIGGER told of Dick Gregory's childhood in Chicago and his struggle to become a comic while enduring incredible racism. He was jailed, beaten, threatened, evicted, and all through it he just kept on going. By the end he was marching with King and others and then he wrote this book with the inscription to his mother that said if she heard this word again, then maybe they had published his book.
The thing that fascinated me about Dick Gregory's book, NIGGER, was the way he described his ordeal as a poor black boy in the ghetto. It was just so heartfelt and dead on in it's brutality. The way he shined shoes and got kicked in the mouth when he dared to look at a white woman. The countless times he was beaten by his mothers boyfriend Big Prez and the way he just kept on with his dream of becoming somebody. The way he started to use humor to his advantage and how he broke into show business against incredible odds. By the end of the book I understood (as much as a ten year old can) why he named the book NIGGER. He told the story of that word.
I had to special order Dick Gregory's book from the library to read it again. It seemed it was nowhere to be found. And when I picked up the book the librarian stared at me the same way. My wife and my kids stared at that title on our kitchen table. NIGGER. It seemed someone was shouting in the house. My wife turned the book over to it's less offensive back. I reread the book and tripped back to those hot Baltimore days and I was back there with Dick Gregory struggling in the ghetto again, driving through a snowstorm with his pregnant wife to get to a comedy club. Dick did his routine and was heckled many times during his show and then someone called him a NIGGER during his monologue. Gregory paused as the audience went quiet and turned and said, "did you hear that, that man? He just called me Roy Rodger's horse: TRIGGER! The audience broke up.
Even though Dick Gregory named his novel NIGGER, it seems we haven't learned a damn thing. We still have fools who think they know best about our past and want to do things like take the NIGGER out of Huckleberry Finn so high school students can read the book. I will say it was hard to find Dick Gregory's book, but I was glad to see no one had renamed the book, TRIGGER, so high school students could read it. The book stands as NIGGER. So it should.
Rocket Man should be out soon