"As long as the
colored man look to white folks to put a crown on what he say....
as long as he looks to white people for approval... then he ain't
never gonna find out who he is and what he's about" – August
If Helen of Troy is "the face that launched
a thousand ships," then Richard Pryor is the voice that launched
a thousand comedians and artists of every hue. He not only made
people laugh, but he inspired others to make people laugh. However, Rich's greatest contribution to society at large
and the Black community in particular, was his courage to address
societal ills with his unique brand of humor and insight, without
apology or regret.
Even when his routine was generously sprinkled with
"Nigger" and "bitch," he was laying down a vocabulary
of empowerment. A lexicon that minimized the impact of white oppression
and contextualized the struggle. Rich made it clear, he made it
real and his humor made it bearable. Rich took the dialogue of the
street corner, the barbershop, the Black church, the Black family
and the Black community and aimed it at mainstream America with
laser-like focus – revealing white America's true thoughts and intentions
about race and racism without even trying to. That was the true
social genius of Richard Pryor. He was the incidental activist,
the disaffected philosopher. He concerned himself first and foremost
with answering the question: Is it funny? All else, in regard to
his craft, was secondary. However, the fact that his humor was steeped
in social significance, tells us volumes about the man. Rich was
also the first male comedian, Black, white or otherwise, who gave
a real voice to women in his comedy. In Pryor's routines, women
gave every bit as good as they got. For all the rants about his
self-indulgences, addictions and misogynistic leanings, his humor
was a shining example of equality in a society rife with inequities.
Rich understood human nature and tendencies. He was
one of America's foremost social critics (something he has never
truly been given credit for). Rich's satirical insights kept the
issues of race relations and racism front and center when the Civil
Rights movement had begun to lose its steam. In the face of Nixon-repression
and the conservative backlash, he was to the Black community what
musicals were to Depression-era white America – he kept us singing,
believing and hoping. He was the Harlem Renaissance resurrected,
telling our own stories on our own terms.
In his tour de force, Which Way Is Up, Richard
weaved together issues such as internalized oppression, institutional
and systemic racism, worker's rights and feminism in one seamless,
comedic (yet thought provoking) tapestry. At the end of the movie,
homeless, jobless, without family or friends, the hero finds his
dignity and himself – only Richard Pryor could give such an ending
any semblance of poise. But then again, that was quintessential
Pryor. Letting the chips fall where they might, showing every facet
of the experience, warts and all. No other actor or comedian has
surpassed or even equaled that performance. Richard Pryor, in many
ways, was a prophet. He told the truth about white folks, black
folks, men, women and most importantly…himself.
In my internet search of articles that referenced
Richard Pryor and his work, I came across Answers.com (http://www.answers.com/topic/richard-pryor).
In their very brief summary of the man and his work, they stated
that he was best known as "the comedian who set himself on
fire while freebasing cocaine." Such a slap in the face, such
a total disregard for the profundity of an individual's work, would
usually elicit some anger, but here's the punch line: Rich would
have genuinely laughed at this. Did Answers.com think that somehow
we would forget about Rich's indiscretions? There was never a chance
of that happening because Rich himself wouldn't let us forget. He
opened wide the front door (and the bedroom door as well), pulled
back the curtains and raised the shade in the house where his demons,
vices and transgressions lived. Rich, without fail, beat everyone
to the punch and initiated the dialogue about his own shortcomings.
He was enigmatic in the sense that he gave us as Black folk the
confidence to be vulnerable – in other words, human. It was like
he was saying: "They ain't no better than us, so don't be afraid
to be flawed. Don't be afraid to be imperfect"
Rich's death caused me to reflect on what is missing
from the current debates about supposed Black anti-intellectualism,
the supposed lack of Black initiative and the denouncement of the
Hip-Hop generation. In his comedic riffs and social commentary,
the Black community did not escape his sometimes scathing insights
and yet he was never condemned of "sellin' out" or "airing
our collective dirty laundry". And one has to ask, Why not?
Simply put, his declarations were free of the animus of the Cosby's
and other Black elites who attack the Black poor and Black youth;
his indictments were liberated from the arrogance of the McWhorters
and Condoleezzas who continually minimize the role that race and
racism play in the affairs of Black folk. He told us the truth like
a loyal friend and not as a venomous and jilted ex-lover
with an axe to grind. Rich was humble, he never failed to see himself
through the same lens he saw everything and everyone else. It was
this quality that caused the Black community not to excuse his offenses,
but to give our full understanding to them and him.
Historically, isn't that same understanding that we
have accorded our geniuses? Did the madness of Mozart make people
forget his mastery of music? Did the insanity of Van Gogh, make
the brilliance of his art null and void? Was Hemingway's work silenced
because of the manifestations of a tortured and troubled soul? So
why should we be any less celebratory of a man who did so much to
affirm and legitimize the Black American experience?
Richard Pryor's mortal frame has fallen, never to rise
again, but what he has left behind will continue to endure as long
as the Black community and America exists. Goodnight, goodbye and
most importantly and sincerely, thank you Rich.
Rhymes is the Director of Race Relations and Advocacy of the YWCA
of Greater Pittsburgh. He can be reached at [email protected].