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Dick Gregory riffs:‘Defining Moments in Black History’

Jim Higgins
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Fairly and with a touch of humor, the late Dick Gregory describes himself and his purpose in the opening pages of his new book:

“People call me an activist, social critic, comedian, and, let’s not forget, conspiracy theorist. In this book, I have combined all of these talents to allow us to look at American history differently.”

Gregory died Aug. 19 of heart failure at age 84. “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies,” completed before his death, is not as definitive as the title suggests, at least not by the standards of footnoted history. But it is a fair representation of Gregory’s passion for social justice and disdain for white supremacy obvious and subtle.

Your mileage may vary on “Defining Moments” depending on how much you already know about these subjects and what you may have learned — or not — in school. I found some of Gregory’s writing on earlier American history to be the book’s most compelling. After a crisp account of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, Gregory reminds us that there were other slave rebellions, too. “A whole lot of black folks resisted slavery,” he concludes. “The revolts I’m telling you about — these are just the ones somebody saw fit to write down. Nobody knows how many more there were.”

Gregory lavishes praise on John Brown, the legendary Harpers Ferry raider: “John Brown was a white man, but he may have been the best friend black folks ever had. He believed that slavery was straight up evil, and he didn’t want to hear about peaceful opposition to slavery — he knew it would take action to get rid of that mess.”

He restores vigor to Frederick Douglass, citing an 1852 speech Douglass gave, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”: “To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

As a boy, Gregory threw bricks at “those little black jockeys — you know, the ones you see holding lanterns on white folks’ lawns.” Realizing real jockeys rarely held lanterns, he probes the history of those lawn statues, which leads him to the story of Jocko Graves, a free black teenager too young to fight in George Washington’s army, but able to help in other ways. In the story Gregory repeats, Jocko freezes to death holding a lantern on lookout duty protecting revolutionaries.

David Pilgrim explores the many explanations for the black lawn figure in an annotated article published by Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia: Gregory’s retelling fits his public role as a griot, preserving and passing on oral traditions.

Also, he reminds us that George Washington Carver wasn’t just a guy who figured out things to do with peanuts, he was a scientist who promoted the practice of crop rotation, which Gregory argues saved the depleted soil of the South.

Gregory’s reflections on cultural and sports figures are more perfunctory, though he gets off a zinger occasionally. He calls a scene in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” where Huck and Jim go fishing “the first time in America you had a normal conversation between a black man and a white man.”

Then there are Gregory’s conspiracy theories, often hedged in the factually elusive ways made famous by talk radio: Presidents Kennedy (whom he dislikes) and Lincoln (whom he downgrades as a friend of black people) were killed for crossing big banks on monetary policy. “Be careful with what you let into your mind,” Gregory writes in a different context, but that advice occasionally applies to his work, too.

‘Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies’

Amistad, by Dick Gregory