Monday, October 16, 2017

The Day I Was Dissed by Dick Gregory: Excerpts from my Washington University Memorial Tribute Speech


Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I told her: ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”
- Dick Gregory comedy routine at the Chicago Playboy Club, 1961


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.”-Dick Gregory from his blockbuster, best-selling book “Nigger” 1965



My Moma used to grab me and wash my face…America ain’t got no mama to wash her face…all we did was went from this filth we was in to putting on some new clothes and no one has said, ‘hey, somewhere we got to apologize.” 
-Dick Gregory State of Black America 2008




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I would like to thank Professor Jack Kirkland for inviting me to share a few remarks about this incredible inspirational human being. We’re here today to celebrate, to remember and honor the life and legacy of comedian, civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur, and all-around humanitarian, Richard Claxton Gregory, known world-wide simply as Dick Gregory.

We are here to pay tribute to a home-town hero’s incredible journey from a pioneering comedian who successfully crossed over to white audiences, to a civil rights activist who sacrificed a career of comedy for a lifetime of service for the oppressed and voiceless.  We’re here to remember the audacity of an entrepreneur who developed a multi-million-dollar industry based on a simple desire to help people live healthier, longer lives.

But, before we do this, I’d like to share a video of the last time I saw Dick Gregory in person. It was in 2014, during the protests in Ferguson, MO. Please bear with me, it’s not that long.

(Note: I wasn't able to show this video at the event, so I described it)



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Now I know a lot of you are asking, "err, Sylvester, why did you show that video? I mean the man literally dissed you, called your question ‘stupid’ and said you were wasting his time."

I get it. I showed it to emphasize a couple points. First and foremost, it’s not important what Dick thought of me that day, it’s what I think of him, what I’ve learned from him and what I hope to accomplish because of his influence.
Some of you may know that I am the founder of the Sweet Potato Project. Let me give you the one-minute spiel I teach my students: We recruit inner city youth to plant  sweet potatoes on vacant lots. We provide them with a 10-week summer job where they learn marketing, branding, sales, product development and more. At the end of the summer job, they turn their produce into products. At this time, the students sell sweet potato cookies. The whole idea is to show our kids how to become entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods.

It’s not important what Dick thought of me that day, it’s what I think of him, what I’ve learned from him and what I hope to accomplish because of his influence.

So, yeah, Dick hurt my feelings a little bit that day. But after really listening to his words, I had to put those feelings aside. I was reminded of the true essence of Dick Gregory’s words and their relevance to our modern times. It is my desire that this unflattering video will also underscore our responsibility to carry on, to live lives that reflect his passions. I’m hoping that we all walk out of here asking the “WWDD” question, not what would Jesus do but “what would Dick Do” in these challenging times.
 

I’m hoping that we all walk out of here asking the “WWDD” question, not what would Jesus do but “What Would Dick Do” in these challenging times? 

Right now, people mostly young people are protesting in the streets. No matter where you stand on “why” they're out there, we must force ourselves to focus on “who” is out there and what Dick told me in that video:
“Whenever you have explosions like this, I go. If I came here and my head was bleeding, you know something’s wrong, right? When you see people rioting, you know something’s wrong. It’s like hearing a baby cry and you go tell him to ‘shut up.’”

Dick Gregory, the activist, encouraged kids to get involved and engaged on social issues:

“I tell students they should be concerned that some of their classmates can’t walk down the streets in certain cities without the fear of being shot by both gang-bangers and misguided police officers.”
Today, there are those who have mastered the art of propaganda. When protesters say they're out there because black lives matter and they want cops to stop killing unarmed black men, women and children, the antagonists say they want to 'kill cops.' When people say they're 'taking the knee at football games to highlight police brutality, the propagandists say they're 'disrespecting the flag and our troops.' 
Whether we’re talking about police misconduct or challenging police brutality or judicial oppression, Dick, way back in 1961, worked hard to make sure the messages weren’t misconstrued  

“We’re not saying, ‘Let’s go downtown and take over City hall. We’re not saying, ‘Let’s stand on rooftops and throw bricks at the white folks. We’re not saying let’s get some butcher knives and some guns and make them pay for what they’ve done. We’re saying, ‘We want what you said belongs to us. You have a constitution. I’m a black man, and you made me sit down in a black school and take a test on the United States Constitution, a constitution that hasn’t worked for anyone but you. And you expect me to learn it from front to back. So I learned it. You made me stand up as a little kid and sing ‘God bless America,’ and ‘America the Beautiful,’ and all those songs the white kids were singing. I pledge Allegiance to the Flag. That’s all I’m asking for you today. Because for some reason God has put in your hands the salvation of not just America-the thing is bigger than just this country-but the salvation of the whole world…”


“We’re not saying, ‘Let’s go downtown and take over City hall. We’re not saying, ‘Let’s stand on rooftops and throw bricks at the white folks...I’m a black man, and you made me sit down in a black school and take a test on the United States Constitution, a constitution that hasn’t worked for anyone but you...We’re saying, ‘We want what you said belongs to us." - Dick Gregory, 1965  

Let us not tell the baby to 'shut up!' Let us stand with them. Dick said, “If the old folk rise up and say we’re not going to do this anymore, the children will do the same.”

So, let us challenge police who are intent on criminalizing and intimidating our youth and anyone who stands with them. Like Dick said, let us endure the explosion with them, let us demand that they not be treated as anarchists, or terrorists. Let us acknowledge that these courageous, bodacious young people feel they can make a difference. Let us find ways to embolden them and help them channel their creativity and passions into and beyond the protests. Let us find ways to empower them in their own communities and hold them accountable for the progressive change they seek.
Now, I wasn’t planning to talk with Dick about my project that day because, in all honesty, we talked about it a year before in Washington D.C. when we were both being interviewed for a documentary on Dr. Bill Cosby.
Now, I totally understand that Dick didn’t remember me or the project but he did ask me what I was doing to help black kids.
When I did,  he pushed back saying, “You need to talk to somebody who doesn’t know that, because I didn’t. I ain’t never heard of you. There are people who live here who don’t know ya’ll doing that!”

The push-back was justified. There are many, many people who've never heard of the Sweet Potato Project. I'm working on that. But, in retrospect Dick showed me he has the desires of young folk and entrepreneurism, as a salvation for our many, many ills, at heart.

Yes, my desire is to put some of the thousands of vacant lots in St. Louis into the hands of young folk, like the Black Lives Matter group, churches and community organizations. My desire is to have a collective of low-income youth and adults owning land, growing food and creating an economic, food-based engine in North St. Louis. But we do have to challenge the powers-that-be, forcing them to understand that people are just as worthy of an investment as fortune 500 companies and the already rich developers.

One of Dick Gregory’s goals was to improve the life expectancy of African Americans, which he believed was being hindered by poor nutrition. He was an avid advocate of healthy eating as well as a vegan-living. He created the “Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet”—a meal replacement powder to help with weight loss. According to Black Enterprise in 1989, Gregory, at one point, averaged a revenue of $30,000 per day just from Slim-Safe sales alone.

Dick once said, the whole country is set up for entrepreneurship.” In order to reach Americans, he said, we have to do it with glamour. “I want to glamorize health and nutrition the same way we have glamorized athletics and sports. We have to make teenagers just as excited about drinking juice as they are about buying a pair of Michael Jordan’s tennis shoes.”

I share his sentiments. We have to glamorize the idea of young people as entrepreneurs, as stewards of economic change in our neighborhoods. The Bohemian diet serves as a model of what we can do to empower individuals and neighborhoods.
I ran across a Youtube video titled Dick Gregory: Advice to Black Youth where Mr. Gregory stressed the importance of entrepreneurism among our youth. This is what he said:
“I would say to young folk, ‘don’t be in a state of denial of the racism and sexism but don’t that block you. I would also like young black folk to understand that about 80% of all employment happens through small businesses. I would say, we will never catch up with white America until we get into business. We will never survive as a group until we have communities, not neighborhoods but communities that control the police, the banks and control of the flow of money.  I have no problem when I go into a Jewish neighborhood and the shop -owners are Jewish, are an Italian neighborhood and the shop owners are Italian. I have a problem when I come into a black neighborhood and the shop owners are not me.”

Ladies and gentlemen, every now and then the universe, God or a higher power will toss down the gauntlet of change before us. It will demand that those of us who stand for justice, dignity and humanity make our voices heard. Each of us must search our souls and find a way to fight back. We have to stand before the Almighty and say “here I am Lord, send me, send me.”

"I would say, we will never catch up with white America until we get into business. We will never survive as a group until we have communities, not neighborhoods but communities that control the police, the banks and control of the flow of money."-Dick Gregory -"Advice to Black Youth"  

On his own life and legacy, Dick said:

“We thought I was going to be a great athlete, and we were wrong, and I thought I was going to be a great entertainer, and that wasn't it either. I'm going to be an American Citizen. First class.”  
How do we all strive to be “First-Class American citizens? My way, if you will, is the Sweet Potato Project. But how should you honor the legacy of this great, brave, bodacious American icon? How can we all grasp and utilize the WWDD mantra?
I believe Dick’s son, Yohance Maqubela, gave a wonderful example in a recent interview I read in the Economist when he said:

“Every sacrifice that my father made whether it was financial in stepping away from the comedy and entertainment to support civil rights, whether it was in the business world where he was one of the leading entrepreneurs in the area of health and nutrition and not compromising his values. He did so much work in the Black community because he realized that you can’t help somebody else until you are whole and healthy yourself.


“So, if you’ve ever been moved, touched, or motivated by the words of Dick Gregory, by the writing of Dick Gregory, by the albums of Dick Gregory, by the videos of Dick Gregory and you want to honor him, please take action. Please go forward in the areas that my father stood for and represented." 

 

“So, if you’ve ever been moved, touched, or motivated by the words of Dick Gregory, by the writing of Dick Gregory, by the albums of Dick Gregory, by the videos of Dick Gregory and you want to honor him, please take action. Please go forward in the areas that my father stood for and represented. Whether it’s being a part of the national Black Lives Matter movement or volunteering your time at a local school or soup kitchen, just be involved. Continue that legacy which is lifting the human spirit and the human condition, and that’s how you honor my father.”  

Thank you very much.

-End of Speech-



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