Let’s get this n*gger stuff out of the way right at the beginning. Dick Gregory walked on August 19 at age 84 and Indian country has lost a true friend. There is no way to sum up his life and times without that word but he absolutely despised the bowdlerization in common use, “the N word.”
“It should never be called the N-word,” he told National Public Radio. “You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?”
He preferred the word to be used precisely because of the ugly baggage it carries. He did not, however, capitalize it when he used it to title his autobiography. His preferences give his admirers a hard row to hoe—I got kicked off Daily Kos for using it in parallel with the R word, which is to me just as offensive. Gregory would agree. In this obituary, then, “n*gger” is used out of respect.
In his stage act, he used to say that when he was a kid, he thought his name was Nigger and Richard was a nickname his family called him at home. Indians will understand Gregory’s literary device of speaking collectively of his maternal ancestors as “Momma”:
You didn't die a slave for nothing, Momma. You brought us up. You and all those Negro mothers who gave their kids the strength to go on, to take that thimble to the well while the whites were taking buckets. Those of us who weren't destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we're ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. Nigger.
So it was that he dedicated his autobiography to his maternal ancestors:
Dear Momma—Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.
There wasn’t much funny about the civil rights movement. People died too often. But Dick Gregory did stand-up for a living, and he did not believe his profession excused him from a duty to do what he could. So, as college students were being beaten bloody, he would picture a conversation:
We don’t serve colored people here.
That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people.
He took to the college lecture circuit, where he would invite students appalled by the conditions on reservations to think about abolishing the BIA and splitting up the budget among the Indians it is supposed to serve. He would rail about the absurdity of “discovering” a land that was already occupied.
He was as if, he said, he and his wife were leaving the theater that evening and saw you driving a fine new car. He should say to his lady:
Well, Lillian, let’s discover it.
Then he would jerk right back to the reality overlooked by K-12 education and available in college only to those who seek it out:
When the cavalry won, it was a great victory, and when the Indians won it was a massacre.
Dick Gregory did more than pontificate about the raw deal the colonists served the Indians and he also did more than joke about it.
Along with Marlon Brando and other “outside agitators,” Gregory was arrested for participating in the fish-ins organized by the tribes in the Pacific Northwest to assert their treaty rights. He was not the only non-Indian to put his body on the line over the treaties, but he was the only one to go on a 45-day hunger strike to draw further attention to the treaty violations.
Suzan Shown Harjo remembered, and said so on her Facebook page:
Much sorrow that this great man has walked on. He and his wife put their lives at risk when they went to the heart of the fish wars in the Pacific Northwest and went to jail nearly 50 years ago, when anti-Indian/anti-treaty hate groups and the state of Washington were violating Native Nations treaty rights and beating up and jailing Native people for exercising their rights to fish….
The civil disobedience at lunch counters and on buses in the mainstream civil rights movement caused litigation in which the demonstrators prevailed. Similarly, the fish-ins led to litigation and the litigation led to the federal courts upholding treaty rights.
Gregory knew what he was facing. He had been beaten and thrown in jail by Birmingham, Alabama police in 1963 for “parading without a permit.” Two years later, he was shot in the leg trying to calm an angry mob during the Watts Riots.
On Native American issues, he was never finished. He kept us in his speeches and in his comedy. He visited Alcatraz during the occupation.
When the black power movement broke out, Gregory remained nonviolent but always the realist. He suggested that if we started a red power movement, “You just turn on your TV and there would be “some old Uncle Tom-Tom Indian,” claiming that the problem would be just those “Stokely Running Horses” and “Rap White Clouds.”
In 2014, in his 80s, Gregory traveled to Minnesota to join a protest against the name of the Washington football team. He told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “(Dan) Snyder is just a young, ignorant punk.”
“Why,” the Star-Tribune asked, “is it taking so long to get the team name changed?”
I just think the arrogance. You see, this has nothing to do with prejudice. It’s white supremacy and most folks don’t understand that, including white folks. And it works for them. This planet is 3 percent white people and 97 percent nonwhite, but the 3 percent control the whole planet. That’s through white supremacy.
I’ve always said if I ever took over the first thing I would do is make Negros apologize to white folks, ’cause [we ’re] mad at the wrong white folks. The white folks [we ’re] mad at couldn’t help us if they liked us. Who wants to live next to a Ku Klux Klansman?
And the real [white people] who are the problem, we don’t see — the Rockefellers, the Du Ponts. Ku Klux Klan [doesn ’t] determine public policy. My shame—I’m 82 years old—is when I was growing [up] nobody told me that the cowboy movies were insults. So I’d go to the cowboy movies and pull for the cowboys. I’d go to the African movies and pull for Tarzan.
I’m pretty sure those kinds of remarks were not what President Trump meant when he said we should ignore political correctness and say what we think. What do you expect of a black guy who calls his book nigger, gets arrested fishing with Indians, and calls the owner of the Washington football team young and ignorant?
Nobody ever mistook Dick Gregory for politically correct. He did like him some conspiracy theories and he had some strange ideas about nutrition, but he left the people and places he touched a lot better than he found them and he stood up for the Indigenous Peoples of this land every chance he got.
Dick Gregory leaves his wife of 58 years, Lillian, along with three sons, seven daughters, 16 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Gregory lived fully engaged in his times, and they were dangerous times. Thinking about his loss, it is hard to improve on the words of Suzan Shown Harjo:
Hero Gregory was a human being of genuine conscience and courage, as well as of good will and smart, good humor. His Family should know that he is greatly appreciated and well remembered in Indian country!