Route 66

Dick Gregory: Race, Comedy, and Justice




ChicagoHumanities • Jan 26, 2010 • Its hard to predict whether Dick Gregory will be most celebrated as a path-breaking comedian or a trailblazing civil rights activist. Its impossible to imagine the history of either movement without him—or without his unique blending of the two. In the early 1960s, he became one of the first black comedians to perform before integrated audiences. In 1967, he ran for mayor of Chicago against Richard J. Daley, and a year later for president as the Freedom and Peace Party candidate. The author of and contributor to many politically charged books, Gregory is still a staunch, wry political voice across a range of issues as varied as nutrition, social justice, and the environment. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington interviews the provocative and always unpredictable Gregory.

{my notes & transcript}

mostly, right now, transcribing Gregory's comments on UCLA brain scan study.

{0:03:08}

Sometimes you just kinda forget… you take it for granted… and I don't know why most Americans have not been able to see that the whole rhythm has changed. You all be playing games talking about the young folks this, and talk about young folks that. I was at a conference at the other day talking about the young boys with their pants hanging down… And so my reaction is simple: That's cool, but why is this a priority? Hitler never wore his pants down… The problem is is when you try, because your spirit is not there, to identify wrong by the way it look then you're in trouble. Instead of saying, "Wait, I don't qualify to analyze this, but let's see if we can find somebody".

If you ever bit your tongue you know how bad that hurts. These white children go stick their tongue out and run five spools through it and they're not taking painkiller, and you all so arrogant and on the crazy side of nothing locked up with greed and you don't even know what that mean. Anytime your young folks start inflicting pain on theyself — then you better watch it. If you go back and check and find out why the Chinese hate the Japanese it's because the invasion in 1933… so you can laugh at these children if you want…

{0:08:34}

LW: So you also ran for president long before a certain gentleman who now occupies the White House.

Matter of fact, until he ran I was the only African-American to run for president… [audience reacts] wait… did y'all come to hear me or to hear you? Shirley Chisholm… Al Sharpton, and all the others… they ran in the primary. I ran on a write-in candidate and had Obama not won the primary then up until this day I would still be the only black, in the history of America, to run for president of the United States.

That's why you got to be careful with perception. Now I had been — you know, I never realized how lucky white folks are. I mean, when you finally get a African-American as your president — he's a nice polite one. Went to Harvard. Ahead of his class. See, what you all really needed was a brother like me.

{Gregory talks about what he'd do as president and what his cabinet would look like}

{0:11:58}

LW: How's Obama doing? …what we really want to talk to you tonight about is race…

…I couldn't rate him… First, he's an illegitimate president… Well, Bush scared white folks so bad they forgot they wasn't supposed to vote for a Negro.

LW: So he slid in there.

And they were nice and they were humble and they was polite. But now they're not scared no more and now he's catching hell. "Where you been? How come you took the plane to go—". You know, that kind of thing.

LW: They suddenly remembered he's black.

But, the whole bit is: I wouldn't try to grade him I'd give him an incomplete because when he came in the house was on fire [women from audience: Amen, Amen; clapping]. And there are certain things that he had to do. Like the banks…

Jesse James didn't like [?] banks. But the perception of banks around the world, you didn't walk in and say that, now we put them in jail later, but you had to— What's your name brother? [man from audience: "Paul"] [Gregory, softly] The real one? …I thought I heard something… [Paul: the earthly one]. The earthly one. Paul, if they brought me into the hospital and I'd been wounded and bleeding and fractured skull and broken ribs, and while the whole team is working on me if my heart stops you got to stop everything and fix this [Gregory points to his heart]. Well, that's what happened with him… He had to [Gregory hits his palms on the table] fix. And it was so much. That's why I would give him an incomplete. And if I had to grade him I'd give him an A+. [clapping]

LW: One of the things… a lot of people think that he's helped fix is race relations… in this post-racial society…

No. That's like saying he's got to be president in my brain tumor. He's not qualified to fix that.

LW: His election didn't do it?

In America we look for the cheap way out. Ok? He's not qualified— [Gregory starts looking in a folder he brought with him] let me see if I have it here. And this is kinda, well maybe I didn't bring it. But I have the research out of UCLA, right? And, they did a brain scan, on black folks and white folks.

LW: You know, this man reads — you spend a thousand dollars a week, right? — on research. He reads everything.

Well, I get a thousand dollars worth, I don't pay them all the time.

LW: Even on the Internet you getting it free.

I don't do no computer stuff. I patterned my life after Queen Elizabeth, when she learns how to type I'm gonna learn how to type.

{Gregory puts down folder & riffs on QE, but brings up UCLA study later}

{0:16:42}

And so it's that whole piece of what we tolerate, and God has kinda blessed us, because the only thing that makes us a little safe… We haven't had them do to us what they did in Germany with Hitler …is we don't have an honest demi-god in America. Hitler was always crazy, but he was honest. He told what he was going to do, he wasn't stealing money and all that. And so consequently when we stop being frightened and stop being afraid, and then, but you see, we sit here and know that the Wall Street boys determine what legislation and you don't say a damn thing about it, at all. We take stuff off of them we wouldn't take off of each other. But that's ok.

{0:45:51}

How come coming out the closet is good for everybody except me? We going to put nigger in the — America is mature enough to deal with that filty word [nigger]. It didn't come from another planet, it was created right here, by home-grown American boys. Let me tell you something, when I was growing up as a child there was a lot of people scared of their headaches, they didn't want to get checked because they might find out it was a brain tumor. Well you keep lying and covering up stuff, and you'll die just like them old folks died that didn't want to hear the truth.

Somewhere, you women didn't get to be pilots and presidents all these many— cause you hid the fact. You let em know! [slams table] We don't like what's going on! And when I think about …If I was a white woman I would just tear up the 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment gave black ex-slave men the right to vote, and you didn't get it 'til 1920. And you came over on the boat with the boy.

And so when you stop and think about, you know, no you can never be a nigger just 'cause somebody— Alright, let me put it this way: you're a billionaire! Now go to Neiman Marcus and run up your account. Just cause I call you a billionaire don't make you one. And the problem that bothers me, that anything negative you called you can take that, but if I call you a billionaire, "oh, you must be crazy". …That's why I have a problem when you hide anything, huh? We are where we are now in America — we're a better nation now than we was before the King and the Civil Rights movement because we was hiding it. And now we got to get to the point — The paper I was looking for was this. They'll probably punch it up on the Internet.

UCLA psychiatrist department did a huge piece where they put a brain scan on a hundred white folks. And it showed up on a huge screen, the brain, and they had all the segments: happiness, sadness, fear, fright. And the hundred white folks they showed them pictures of their family — it's already been prearranged — pictures of their family, pictures of where they grew up, pictures of folks they knew when they were little children, and you could see this lovely, quiet transility. Then they showed them a picture of a black man and 63% of 'em, fear damn near jumped through their skull and they're not aware of this. Now put that on hold. They took a hundred black folks, hooked them up, did the same thing, showed them a picture of a black man — 64% of 'em reacted the same way. You don't qualify to change this if you don't know what go on in the human body. We played long enough on this emotional crap. Now let's sit down and bring in some honest folk — not some old people that, not one of those trick scientist.

I'm in Budapest not too long ago and they're talking about climate change, and all these brilliant people standing up and they saying well, this scientist say this and this scientist say not. So I just got down in my ghetto drag. I don't know nothin' about climate change, all I know is this: I know that there's glaciers been there for a million years, they're melting. Case over.

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African Americans and Caucasians Have Similar Emotional Brain Activity When Seeing African Americans, UCLA Psychologists Find
By Stuart Wolpert May 09, 2005

African Americans and Caucasians viewing African American faces display extremely similar changes in the activity of brain structures that respond to emotional events, a new UCLA study finds.

The changes occur in the amygdala, a region of the brain that serves as an "alarm" to activate a cascade of other biological systems to protect the body in times of danger, said Matthew D. Lieberman, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study.

The findings will be published May 8 in the online version of Nature Neuroscience [Supplementary Note], and later in the print version [located PDF here].

Five out of eight African Americans (63 percent) responded with significantly more amygdala activity when presented with expressionless photographs of African Americans than when they were shown expressionless photographs of Caucasians, Lieberman and his colleagues found. Seven of 11 Caucasians (64 percent) in the study also responded with greater activity in the amygdala when viewing the African American photographs. —more»

An fMRI investigation of race-related amygdala activity in African-American and Caucasian-American individuals
Matthew D Lieberman, Ahmad Hariri, Johanna M Jarcho, Naomi I Eisenberger & Susan Y Bookheimer

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to examine the nature of amygdala sensitivity to race. Both African-American and Caucasian-American individuals showed greater amygdala activity to African-American targets than to Caucasian-American targets, suggesting that race-related amygdala activity may result from cultural learning rather than from the novelty of other races. Additionally, verbal encoding of African-American targets produced significantly less amygdala activity than perceptual encoding of African-American targets.