Richard Pryor was appearing at Georgia Tech along with Earth, Wind and Fire the night before my 1974 high school graduation. I was sixteen and not of age to defy my father who like Richard’s old man, often warned, “Have your ass home by 11.” Still, I jumped into my soon to be sister-in-law’s brown 72 Ford Pinto and a girl I was sweet on and away the three of us went to Atlanta some 200 miles away.
I returned home the next morning just in time to change clothes and load up in the family Pontiac to go to graduation. Needless to say, my dad, as Richard’s old man would have done, went upside my head as I eased into the car. I would have been disappointed if he had not given me that open hand slap to the back of the head. It was the cost of finding out what happens after 11:30.
A friend recently gave me the box set of Pryor’s work although I already had every single album from the day they hit the street. Many of us have tried to mimic various Mudbone’s lines like “Miss Rudolph, Miss Rudolph can you do something about the monkey?” or preach from the “Book of Wonder, Chapter Innervisions.” Those who have listened to Pryor generally have a favorite bit or character that they’ll try to do. But whenever I think of him it’s in Georgia accepting a joint from someone in the crowd, taking a couple of puffs and walking across stage to pass it on. Then on to his impression of “Tricky Dick” in jail. Pryor, with his ass pointed up in the air as to get the business, informing the world what could have happen to Richard Nixon if he really ended up in a real jail. Of course the punchline is Nixon’s own words, “Let me make this perfectly clear.”
NBC’s Dick Ebersol upon hearing of Pryor’s death said that the comedian was “fearless and he had a conscious.” I agree with the conscious part of that characterization but I don’t see Richard as particularly fearless. He had all kinds of fears that he openly shared with us. His comedy was rooted in his and our fears. And, he dealt with those fears in some fucked up ways just like the rest of us. To confront fear isn’t fearlessness, it’s courage.
Richard could separate the bullshit from what is real and true. Consciousness, not to be confused with “false consciousness,” is seeing things in the proper context or confronting the pretext of a situation or condition. False consciousness is what society erects to keep us in line. Pryor’s comedy confronted false consciousness or as the old folk used to call it “taking the thorn out your eye.”
Pryor, wittingly or not, challenged some of the stereotypes and taboos that accompanied “black consciousness.” Back in the day as the societal desegregation we see today was first emerging, marrying a white woman was a very scandalous thing on both the black and white sides of the street. It’s still kind of taboo although politically incorrect to express out loud. Richard crossed the line and then proceeded to tell us what was different and not so different about black and white women. And the lesson Richard left us with after taking us through his various relationships was that women were not mindless possessions totally under the control of men. In Pryor’s world men were usually not in control.
Richard made it okay for black men to admit to having oral sex and not all having big dicks. And, If you didn’t know what it felt like to be high or that drugs would screw your life up, Richard talked about his addiction.
Richard was a mirror. And at the end of most of his stories was the lesson that most often the stereotypes we define ourselves by are usually both wrong and contrived to allow someone or something to keep their boot on your neck or to protect someone’s interest other than yours.
Bill Cosby quipped, “I wish that every new and young comedian would understand what Richard was about and not confuse his genius with his language usage.” Cosby is wrong. Richard genius was his use of language. Pryor was the anti-Cosby. Where as Cosby used language to sugar coat reality and to lull people into unconditional, unconscious acceptance, Richard painted reality as it is–hard, messy, crazy, hot, sick, good, bad. A wino can be a repulsive, beautiful being. He could be pissy. He could be your dad or uncle. He could be beat down or just not give a fuck and that wine gave him the cover to say what ever the fuck he wanted to say. And sometimes you let the drunk ass wino say some shit for you. That’s what Mudbone did for us. He said shit we were afraid to say.
Pryor changed on his use of the word nigger but it did not erase his role in leading the charge to sap the hurting power from the word. And what is wrong with taking away the power of a word to make you do something stupid or to give an asshole power over you? Or, giving blacks the power to use something that’s off limits to whites–to where they now have to refer to it as “the N-word?”
Richard might have tried to put the genie back in the bottle but it is no coincidence that he would have an album entitled “That Nigger’s Crazy.” The crazy nigger could say things that would get a sane person killed. We called it “playing crazy.” On the other hand, every so often a crazy nigger would emerge that had to be killed. At first the white folk might try to blunt the truth of what a truth teller was saying by warning the locals, “Don’t listen to that boy, he’s crazy.” Othertimes it was the black folk trying to protect a truth teller calming the man with, “don’t pay him no mind, that nigga boy is crazy.”
There maybe an heir to Pryor out there, but nobody has been crowned yet. Dave Chappell is the closest contemporary comedian to Pryor stylistically but his “Black Bush” doesn’t even come close to Pryor helping to image what some would consider justice–Nixon getting fucked. (Remember the poster “Dick Nixon before he dicks you!”). For my sensibilities “Black Bush” trying to pass off pound cake as “yellow cake” doesn’t have the bite as say painting a picture of George Bush, Dick Chaney, Condi Rice and the rest of that evil crew attempting to negotiate their way thru a prison system with the torture regiment that they put in place.
Richard Pryor made a lot of things clear for us. We cheered when he told the world what most blacks already knew–that the ‘justice’ in the American justice system –was “just us.” It still is “just us.”
Pryor’s mark is far greater than simply giving life and voice to winos, prostitutes, pimps and other assorted characters. Pryor reminded us that the only difference between the whores on Park Avenue and those on any other avenue is location. And, more often than not, there is no line between the sacred and profane or between beauty and ugliness.
We love you brother. Now go “rub a little sunshine on your face.”
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org