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Cultural Theft

How Whites Are Stealing Richard Pryor’s Legacy

by CECIL BROWN

“Everything therefore becomes a STOCK, a fund of supply, ready and waiting,”

—Martin Heidegger.

“They kill us by rejecting us.”

—Richard Pryor, (to the author, in the Forum Cafe, Berkeley, 1971)

Often, while I was writing my book on Richard Pryor, I would have the humiliating experience of publishers asking me to assist white authors on their books about Richard Pryor, while rejecting my own.

I received the following email from  two authors who wanted me to help them on their book about Richard Pryor.

Dear Mr. Brown

My brother Joe and I are writing a book for Algonquin Press to be titled Furious Cool: A Life of Richard Pryor.

Our aim is to produce a lively and wide-ranging cultural biography that examines Mr. Pryor’s life and times through the social and artistic forces that influenced and gave shape to his genius—not just a parade of the usual Hollywood suspects offering up tributes or dishing dirt.

As you’ve already guessed, we’d very much like to speak with you.

All best,

D.H.

This was a typical request. I had gotten from several more from other whites who wanted to write a book about Pryor.  Did it ever occur to them that I am a writer, too? That I knew Richard for over thirty years. Wrote scripts for him. Hung out with him all the time over many years.

Recently, I was in a bio-documentary, Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic (Showtime), which was produced and directed by nice people–nice white people. There are several new biographies of the comedian–all by white authors.

The selling of the Richard Pryor Stock is a struggle between the Old School Publishers and the new Digital Publishing. Each of these entities are represented by an emblematic writer, not unlike the Red Cross Knight in the Faerie Queene, with a banner to represent their patron. Just as Chuck Adam and  his white brothers represent Algonquin Press, so Hilton Als, who cashes in on the Pryor Stock with alarming regularity, represents the New Yorker. They all have their fingers in the Pryor Stock.

Just as the East Coast is represented by the New Yorker, so the West Coast is represented by the McSweeney’s publishers.  They published  Hilton Als, new book, White Girls, in which he asserts that Pryor is “a self loathing” misogynist.

If he knew Richard, as I did, he wouldn’t be able to buy and sell that brand of Pryor Stock.  On the contrary,  this  particular stock sells as long as you don’t let anybody know that there is another view of Richard. My view of Richard is in competition with those publishers who are selling a white encapsulation of Black Comedy.

Then there are the white academic writers.  In the English department at UC Berkeley, when I mentioned my book on Richard, nearly everybody in the department exclaims, “Oh Professor So and So is writing a bio of Richard Pryor.”

When I first met Richard in Berkeley, back in 1970, I was teaching in the English department at U C, and nobody in that department would go near Richard Pryor. Now, some fifty years later, it is so chic to say I know you know somebody white who is writing a book about him!

What they don’t tell you about Professor So and So is that he is always imploring me with his whiney voice to: Tell Me About Richard Pryor?  What they don’t tell you is that Professor So and So has a book contract on Richard Pryor with a major publisher and he has fellowship from Stanford University in the Digital Humanities to study Richard Pryor’s data. Like the popular press, Professor So and So is capitalizing on the Pryor Stock.

White scholars are mostly interested in the Pryor Stock for career advancement.  For example, a few years back, a graduate student would write a Ph. D dissertation on Richard Pryor,  and get it published, and when the book came out, was rewarded a job teaching in the Black Studies Department at Harvard University.

What makes all of these books unreadable is the fact that the authors are trying to explain somebody without knowing the person.  In one sense, they don’t need to know him. Not knowing Richard is a plus, because all white editors seems to be of the opinion that a white person’s view of Black Culture ignores authenticity.  In the new age of Digital journalism, authenticity is a liability.

Whenever I encounter one of these “Pryor Scholars,” I just imagine Richard in a room with them — and immediately I will burst into laughter. What was Richard Pryor like? They ask. I say: He was the kind of person who would despise you.

Still, I was curious about the Algonquin Press enterprise.  What kind of editor was it who would assign two white men to write about Pryor, while rejecting my proposal to write about him?  I knew, ahead of time, that my agent Sterling Lord–Sterling himself!– had sent him my proposal to do a book  on Richard Pryor for the Algonquin editor.

I emailed the would-be authors back and asked them for their editor’s name.  They were nice enough to tell me that their publisher was Algonquin and the editor was one Chuck Adams.

I called up Mr. Adams at the publishing house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  When I got him on the phone, he was polite and said he could understand how I would not want to tell them my story brownpryorwhen I am writing my own book on Pryor.

As it turned out, I was giving a talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in a few weeks. I asked him if he would meet with me. He said he would.

I arrived in Chapel Hill, and gave my lecture on the oral poet George Horton to a large group, and went to meet the Algonquin editor Chuck Adams.

I met him in  a small village outside Chapel Hill. We sat down and faced each other. Middle-aged, with graying hairlines, if I remember correctly, Mr. Adams was congenial,  pleasant and polite, as Southerners generally are. I knew he was from up North, but he had been down South so long that he had adopted their ways.

Being a Southerner myself, I found myself being equally pleasant and polite.

“They asked me to tell them what I know about Richard,” I told him, referring to the email his clients had sent me . “I didn’t like that.”

“I can understand why that would be upsetting,” he said, or words to that effect.

“Why would you assign them a book contract over a black writer?” I asked.

“Of course race has nothing to do with it,” he said–or something to that effect.

It was difficult to publish black authors, he said.  The Algonquin Press tried it with a book, a novel, a few years back and got poor results both economically and culturally.

“I have to love a book,” he told me.  Did he really love Richard Pryor or did he see that he could make some money out of a book on him?

Sitting there talking to him, I realized what an idiot I was!  Whatever gave me the notion that an Algonquian Book editor could ever understand the plight of most oppressed people?  It was certainly clear to me that he did not understand Richard Pryor.

Like most white people in publishing, Chuck Adams is a nice enough person. I think he is probably an honest man.  But what I began to realize was that the System he is working in is biased against black people. It is a system that allows him to think nothing of hiring two white men to write a book on Richard, even though they didn’t know him and never even met him.

I began to realize, too, that it was not me, the Black Man, who is so objectionable, but it is my Story. It’s the fact that Black Culture (here symbolized by Richard Pryor Stock) is big business in publishing and media.  The Richard Pryor story is worth selling, but not for Black writers.

I realized, also, that Chuck was not Paula Deen.  But both he and Paula Deen belong to a system that appropriates, as it were,  from Black Culture and its people.

I sat there politely, and it began to drizzle in the puddles near our outdoor table at the shopping mall. How could I expect the editor to understand what it was like to be a black writer?  He was more sympathetic to what it was for the two white men to be writers than he was to me.

I grew up in North Carolina, and was faced with Jim Crow and “White Only” signs in daily life in Wilmington.  In 1960, I walked across the UNC campus facing the angry stares of the students.  Some things had changed, since then , because now 50 years later,  I  have just given a lecture at that very same university and was treated with great respect.

Yet there were certain things that never seem to change.  This is the Emperor’s New Clothes, the “innocence” that whites portray about their not being aware of exploiting black culture. Certainly, this editor could see the value of assigning a book on Richard to somebody who was a scholar and who knew Pryor. Yet he signed up two white men to write about Pryor. The publishing system is not interested in a Black man’s writing career, but in the extension of white literate power.

He realized that his company could see a certain amount of Richard Pryor Stock, no matter what. It didn’t matter that it was not authentic. All that mattered was that it was so much Stock (in the Heidegger sense). It was a Stock that they could merchandise and sell.

“Technology operates as disposing,” Heidegger wrote, “not poiesis.  Disposing reveals things as things which are completely available.“

The new productions of Richard Pryor Stock certainly makes Pryor available.

“Entities are disclosed as fully available for use, extraction,  manipulation,”  the German philosopher explained,  “Everything therefore becomes Stock, a fund or supply, ready and waiting. In the technological age, stock is taken simply as ‘what is real.’”

Richard has been turned into so much Stock! It is a question of cultural theft.  As Heidegger knew, publishers turn Pryor  Stock into cash to help keep a dying publishing giant  afloat.  Editors, critics, reviewers are all a part of this charade.

From the book’s publication, this opens the door for the authors to go into the film business.  As a friend of mine explained, “They plan to make a film,” as if one couldn’t figure that out.  The print publishers are trying to bridge themselves between the old mechanical method of producing books and the new, electronic way of producing them. The black “subject-matter” is just such a bridge from one technology to another one. Once the transformation has been achieved, the “subject matter” is so much debris floating under the bridge.

When I got back to Berkeley after my North Carolina trip,  I realized that this was the same case with my friends in Liberal Berkeley, where only a few of my friends reached out to help me find a publisher.

Since I knew Richard, it is easy for me to see where the misconception of Richard Pryor begins. If you don’t know somebody, you have to probe other people. In Hilton Als’s case, he had a problem asking another black man.  He could have as easily called me up as he did Richard’s ex-wife, a white woman who has an unusually envious and bitter attitude toward Richard Pryor the person and the artist.

White editors, it seems,  maintain a post-modern attitude toward exploitation of Black Culture in general, adhering to the ideology that has it that Whites are objective, and Blacks are too close to the source. This ideology is fake because it discredits  authenticity. In order to exploit the Richard Pryor Stock, only whites seem to be allowed to have book contracts.

If the freelance publisher and writer can escape the break boundary (McLuhan’s term), then he is confronted by the “Reviewers.”  Who will review your book becomes the political movement of the mechanical publishers versus the electronic media.

The reviewers at the major  newspapers punish the indie writers by refusing to assign their books for review.

Mel Watkins, a black reviewer of the New York Times, was assigned the book written by the brothers to review.  But when I submitted my book to him, it was rejected. Why? Because the unfair advantage that the white authors have is that their editor is white and the New Yorker is white. To add more insult, the New York Times editor choose a black reviewer for the white man’s book on Richard.  Furthermore, if Mr. Watkins reviews this book for the Times, if he dares mention my book, his review will be rejected.

Forget the fact that I  might know the subject better than their contracted authors. Forget that you might have written a small bit of the truth. Forget how long it took me to write it. Forget how  many publishers turned me down. Forget how many agents lied to me. Forget feeling like Solomon in Twelve Years A Slave when he has been betrayed by white men who took his money because he believed in freedom. Forget  charging white publishers with  discrimination. Everybody knows that white editors don’t discriminate!

Do whites see it?  No. No more than the Emperor could see his nakedness. Not even the part about honesty and integrity in a publishing  system that eliminates black people?  When Marshal McLuhan wanted to show that people are numbed by the invention of something new he used the parable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” where the new clothes stand for a new perception.

For the Digital stock on Pryor’s hometown? Why? Because it is hip to take advantage of Black Culture that is caught between, according to McLuhan, a dying literate culture and the emerging electric culture.

“At precisely the time when white younger generation is retribalizing and generalizing,” he told a Playboy interviewer,  “the Black man is under tremendous social and economic pressure to go in the direction: to detribalize and specialize, to tear out their tribal roots when the rest of society is rediscovering theirs.”

Richard knew this and taught it to those of us who were close to him.  He saw how Whites teach our culture and yet deny us that same  opportunity.  They take all the jobs in academia that relate to our culture.  They teach with impunity that Whites are the owners and masters of Black Culture.

The consensus among white publishing is that of the way Hollywood treated Jewish writers in the movie Gentleman’s Agreement. Just as the title implies, it is an agreement that is not put into words, but is given with a non-verbal gesture, a wink.

There are virtually no Black publishers.  Black editors have no clout, no teeth. When the white publisher publishes a book on black comedy, it is reviewed in the New York Times.  The publishing use Black people to spread the life about Richard Pryor, just as they used Black slave drivers to keep the slaves in control.

Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.