Dick Gregory, the comedic icon and warrior for social justice, became an ancestor on August 19, 2017. The 84-year-old legend was a gift to the world, and we will continue to drink from the wisdom he shared for generations to come. CASSIUS talked with Gregory’s youngest son, Yohance Maquebela, about his father’s life, legacy, and lasting impact on the world.
CASSIUS: What do you want people to remember about your father’s impact on the world?
YM: My father was so unlike many of his Civil Rights leader contemporaries: Malcolm, Martin, Medgar, Steve Biko, or even Bob Marley, in that they died at such young ages. The fact that he lived over twice as long as all of those individuals (and so many more) allowed him to have such a robust career; my father was never just one thing. He started off as a comedian, then quickly moved into activism, and from activism quickly moved into health and nutrition, and then quickly moved into business entrepreneurship. But every time he took on a new mantle in life he didn’t give up the old one, so even when he stopped performing in nightclubs, he continued to incorporate comedy into how how he translated his message to audiences whether it was college lectures, demonstrations, or protests; you name it. In the same way, everyone knows he could be doing a comedy show and he’ll start with, “Make sure you drinking eight glasses of water a day.” He was incorporating health and nutrition there. So honestly, there is no one takeaway. Probably with every interview I’ve said something different every time, but I think the overwhelming, fundamental component of my dad’s life that carried over from each of those endeavors was a core commitment– I’m talking about at the DNA level– commitment to human rights, social justice, and just universal peace and love. Everything he did was to advance humankind.
CASSIUS: Do you see traces of your father’s legacy of commitment in contemporary entertainers who level their fame for social justice?
YM: We see a lot of people who have potentially jeopardized lucrative careers for something that they believe in. Right now we see these protests in the NFL– people simply taking a knee and potentially impacting their livelihood. We’ve also seen Dave Chappelle who was a huge fan of my dad, and who spent much time learning from him and listening to him. We saw the bold move that he made when he stepped away from Chappelle’s Show, from a fifty million dollar contract. Trust me, my father applauded, would applaud , and had applauded those efforts. But these folks had already made millions. When my father broke the color barrier in comedy, when he performed on the Jack Paar show, he was at the infancy of his career. It was before he was a household national name, number one comedian in the country.
In going on the show (and subsequently booking Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Club), he became the first black comic to work white audiences. So you know the money that we see Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, and Chris Rock make… [my father’s career] was the impetus for that.
So we know that history, but what we don’t stop and think of is the fact that when that call came through to invite him there, it wasn’t inviting him to sit on the couch. It was inviting him just to perform like any other comedian. And up until that point any black entertainer or comic, you name it, could come on late-night TV and perform but they couldn’t sit down on the couch and have a conversation, like we see with Jay Leno or Trevor Noah or Jimmy Kimmel. And he said, “No.”
This is when my parents were surviving off of my mother’s salary as a secretary at the University of Chicago and my dad was changing my older sister’s diapers because he was lucky if he could make $50 a night for three nights a week performing at local comedy clubs. And he knew that by going on the Jack Paar show, his income would change from $50 to $150 a week to $5,000 a night in the 1950s. And still, he said “No.”
This is a man who didn’t come from wealth. He had no trust fund or family to fall back on. His papa truly was a rolling stone and his mother worked herself to death cleaning up white folks’ homes working 16 hours a day around the time he finished college. So he had no fall back. All he knew was poverty at that point and he still said “no” to the most powerful man in show business at that time.
What then happened was Jack Paar himself called back shortly after and said, “Dick, I heard you didn’t want to come on the show.” He said, “It’s not that I don’t want to come in the show but you don’t let a Black entertainer sit on the couch.” And at that point he said, “Okay come on. You can sit down. You can come on the show. We can sit down.”
That affected the entertainment industry to a point that… I don’t think most people really break it down and think what that means.
CASSIUS: When your father appeared on NewsOne Now last year, he warned us of the danger of a Trump presidency. Did he have hope that 45 would be impeached?
YM: He and I never spoke directly about impeachment, but one thing that my father talked about time and time and time again was never focusing on the low-hanging fruit. From before Trump even began to get in politics–I’m talking way back towards the start–probably in the early 1990s of his real estate career, he let the world know Trump was a fraud. Trump alleged to be a billionaire years before he was an actual billionaire and even today he inflates as wealth by about four times. So I say all that to say that his focus wasn’t on Trump. It never was at that low-hanging fruit. It was about those who are behind Trump and pulling the strings and have always pulled the strings.
My father was about exposing one conspiracy, not a theory, but one real conspiracy after another after another after another. And one day hopefully we as a nation and we as a worldwide citizenry will wake up so that we can respond in real-time and not have to wait until 20 years down the road when they finally admit what they did when the documents are available via the Freedom of Information Act.
CASSIUS: With all that he knew, and with every conspiracy he uncovered, how did your father maintain hope?
YM: What you have to do is involve yourself. If you just look at it at the intellectual level it’s easy to be overwhelmed and say there’s no hope. But when you’re involved at the ground level of these grassroots organizations of social justice causes… While progress is slow, there is progress. You know my father used to say, “Black History Month, as mad as we is [that] they give us one of the coldest months of the year missing all those days… but it started off as Negro History Week.”
Look at those pictures from Charlottesville and then go back and look at pictures from Selma or look at pictures from Birmingham. Even though those pictures from the 1960s were black and white, you can tell the huge color difference. In Charlottesville, the overwhelming majority of the people on the Left standing up to hatred and bigotry were white. okay? Now, does that mean that institutional racism is no longer there? No, but because of the tireless work of our civil rights leaders and pioneers there’s a new generation of young people that are not buying just that blanket level of bigotry that’s espoused like the Ku Klux Klan. Does that mean that we still don’t have to keep the fight up? Of course not! Of course we do! But there is progress being made and that’s something that he would talk about all the time.
Dick Gregory’s Celebration of Life will take place on Saturday, September 16 in Landover, Maryland. You can watch live via the CASSIUS Facebook page at 3pm. The Gregory family that has asked that in lieu of flowers, supporters purchase copies of Dick Gregory’s newest book “Defining Moments in Black History.”