“When Great Trees Fall:” Dick Gregory

At the very moment I heard the announcement that Dick Gregory had died, I immediately conjured in my mind a poem, “When Great Trees Fall,” by Maya Angelou. Specifically, I thought of the lines that read,

And when great souls die after a period peace blooms slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be, Be one. Be better. For they existed.

Because Richard Claxton Gregory existed, we all are better for what he taught us over his long historic career as a civil rights icon, social theorist and Socratic Gadfly, who challenged people and events when others dared not to do so.

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Dick Gregory as a young man in Pasadena, California involved in the social revolution of the 1960’s. He came to the city to address the NAACP and I was one of the host for his stay. I recall that instead of going out to a fancy restaurant, Mr. Gregory wanted a home cook meal that included a pot of chitterlings (that was before he had made the conversion in his eating habits). I remember he advised us young activists that we must make a commitment and once that was done, let nothing stand in our way to achieve our goal. He insisted that our goal should in some way benefit our people, as we struggled to fight off the awful system of bigotry and segregation that was choking the life right out of us.

This great hero of the Black race lived by his beliefs. He gave up a very potentially lucrative career as a comedian, in order to get involved in the protest movement in the South. Over the years, as I observed Bill Cosby’s career catapult to the top with I Spy and The Bill Cosby Show, I thought of Mr. Gregory’s sacrifice for the cause, and he rightfully could have taken that same route, but refused to play the role in order to satisfy the guilty conscience of white America. He chose to prick that conscience whenever the occasion arose, instead of pacifying the men who ran the system that oppressed his people.

I recall that while teaching a Black Social Movements Course at the Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, California while attending the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies and Black Politics at Indiana University while working on my Doctorate Degree, there was one recording I always played for my classes. It was a recorded tape of a speech that Mr. Gregory made to students right after the Kent States shooting in 1970. He was extremely critical of the Vietnam War and explained to the white students, that because they dared to challenge the power of the national government they were the new targets for abuse. According to Mr. Gregory they had become the new n___rs. He also talked of the arrogance of a race of people, who claim that they discovered a country that was already occupied. And just like their assumption of ownership over the land, they made the erroneous claim over the bodies of more than four million African Americans.

I again had the opportunity to communicate with Mr. Gregory in August 1978, when on Women’s Equality Day, he marched with one-hundred thousand women campaigning for a ratification deadline extension for the Equal Rights Amendment. Senator Birch Bayh (D. Indiana) was one of the primary sponsors of the amendment and as his Legislative Aide, I was involved. Along with Gloria Steinem and other leading proponents of the amendment, Mr. Gregory met with the Senator to discuss strategy. Ultimately the amendment failed to get ratified in the states. But Dick Gregory remained a strong proponent of equal rights for all people.

Dick Gregory used the analogy of a turtle as a comparison of the kind of individual he was and felt all others should emulate. He explained that a turtle was soft on the inside, hard on the outside and willing to stick its neck out. That is precisely how this great man lived his life and as a result of his 84 years we are all better off because he existed.


A Fine Event

One of the finest events that I have attended in many years was the National Book Club Conference in Atlanta, Georgia the weekend of July 28 to 30. This year marked the 15th Annual Conference where some of the best authors of both fiction and non-fiction mingled with the finest and best collection of book club readers in the country. The idea of bringing the writers and readers together for a weekend of what the founder calls “Literary Bliss” was the brainchild of Curtis Bunn, an accomplished writer with six novels and a seventh one due out in October of this year.

From the moment I entered the fabulous Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead, I knew I was in for a wonderful treat. Curtis kicked the conference off with a breakfast featuring Jan Hargrave as the guest speaker, a professional lecturer and author who teaches how one’s body communicates to the world around it. After the breakfast, the over seven-hundred book club attendees began to peruse the various sessions. They could visit the “Featured Authors” sessions in which the writers would read from one of their works, of course with the intent to get the attendees to purchase their book as an individual or possibly recommend it to their book club as a future read.

It was a very eclectic group of authors, and you had your choice of listening to various artists read from their novels or non-fiction works as well as poetry. Curtis aims to please and tries to make sure he fills all his attendees’ appetites for the kind of works that excite them and leaves them wanting more.

Even though I had the great privilege to be listed as a “Featured Author” (and I have written a number of books in my lifetime), my workshop was rather unique because my emphasis was on introducing the book clubs to a new and exciting publishing company, JAED Publications, a company that I serve as the Executive Literary Editor. I shared with the book clubs the concept that we have a need for a nexus connecting writer, publisher and reader within the African American paradigm. I was not there to criticize majority publishing companies, but just to let the ladies of keen literary discernment (I don’t believe there was one male book club there) know that three very dynamic Black women and one man (yes, it is sister dominated), have put their resources into a company open to writers of all ages. One of the company’s more dynamic, young authors, LaKendra Ford, joined me at the podium and shared with the attendees the theme and plot of her first novel to be released later in the year under the JAED label.

There were three key events of the conference. The first occurred Saturday afternoon when Michael Eric Dyson received the coveted Terrie M. Williams Inspiration award. The second, later that evening, when the featured authors “walked the red carpet.” As one of the authors, I felt it an honor walking down the red carpet and into the Windsor Ballroom for dinner. The third took place right after dinner, when Iyanla Vanzant received the Walter Mosley Author of Distinction Award. She then gave a rousing speech that electrified the room with encouraging words about our race, history and culture.

For all the “nay sayers” out there (where is Bill O’Reilly?) who view the incessant killings in the Black community and declare our culture is dead, should have been there that weekend. And they should have been there Saturday night when the “sisters of the race,” dressed in their finest, strolled in majestic fashion into the ballroom in overwhelming numbers, and let the world know that our culture is alive and well. Literature is the foundation of all cultures and literature was the subject for everyone in attendance. It was Literary Bliss and it can only get better. My hat is off to Curtis, who has accomplished something many might argue would be impossible to do, and that is to bring together that many African American readers under one roof. He proved that if you do put that fifty-dollar bill in the middle of the book, it will definitely come up missing if done around these sisters.

If you happen to read this post and belong to a book club, you must contact Curtis immediately and make your reservation for next year. I’ll be on the phone to him tomorrow. I just want to be there and be reminded of James Brown’s famous words to song, “Say it Loud. I’m Black and I’m Proud.”