[8 November 2013]
“Excerpted from Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, by David Henry and Joe Henry. Copyright © 2013 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Berkeley in 1971 wasn’t Hollywood. There, Richard had been too black. It wasn’t even Greenwich Village where a no doubt well-intentioned comedy writer had counseled him, “Don’t mention the fact that you’re a nigger. Don’t go into such bad taste.” Here, militant black men were arming themselves, taking it to the streets, excoriating him for his show biz ambitions and exhorting him to be black above all else.
One day he bought a pawnshop trumpet and started blowing it on a street corner outside an Italian restaurant. “Only I didn’t know how to play,” he said. “Not a fucking note. But I blew the motherfucker as if the shrill, discordant sounds that went screaming into the darkness would let everyone know how unhappy I felt inside.”
His performances in Berkeley clubs could be just as bizarre. Some nights, he went onstage and did nothing but make strange animal noises.
Other nights I repeated a single word like “bitch” or “motherfucker,” but gave it fifty-seven different inflections. Each outing was like playing jazz, searching for that one perfect note that would carry me into a higher state of bliss. I never thought about what I was going to do until I did it.
In Berkeley he might find an audience for that sort of thing, but, whatever it was, it wasn’t stand-up comedy.
And then, one night, he stepped onstage and tried it with the word “nigger.” Just flat-out said it, like a man committing himself to a 12-step program.
“Hello. My name is Richard Pryor. I’m a nigger.”
He said it again.
“A nigger. “
Again and again. Just that one word, over and over, he recalled, “like a preacher singing hallelujah.” It gave him strength, he said. It robbed the word of its wretchedness and made him feel free.
“What we both like about the word,” writes Paul Mooney, “is that it demonstrates a simple truth. White people cannot say it in front of black people without declaring themselves to be racist. …we are saying something that white people can’t. It’s forbidden to them but allowed to us. Ain’t too many things like that. It’s liberating.”
Flip Wilson had a similar awakening, sparked by a white friend who told him, “Look, I think you’ve got a lot to express. But you’re inhibiting yourself… well, because you’re a nigger. Now that’s a word I don’t use, but I want you to understand. I think black people are too self-conscious about having been slaves. All nationalities have been slaves, and nobody has come back faster than you people. I’m amazed at black people, yet they spend all that time feeling sorry for themselves. The point is, it’s over. It’s over! Damn what anybody thinks of you. Say what you have to say and help open up somebody else’s eyes.”
That, Wilson said, is when he realized how interesting being black is. “Niggers is fun!” he would say.
Not everyone felt the euphoria. Some were mortified, accusing Richard of self-hatred and “running down the race,” as if that word, in his hands, had the power to un-do the decades of racial progress. What rankled others was the way he took the folkloric language of the street corners, neighborhood bars, barbershops, and pool halls and paraded it out on a public stage before mixed audiences. Authors John A. and Dennis A. Williams, authors of If I Stop I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, described the reaction as “like hearing a language that might be spoken only at home being shouted through the streets.”
Jabari Asim, author of The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why, similarly observed that Pryor had “devised a new style that was raw, obscene, and often delivered while its creator seemed to teeter on the verge of weeping or violence… To blacks with middle-class sensibilities… he was as embarrassing as he was funny, like a witty but uncontrollable cousin who you just knew was going to act up in front of audiences.”
It didn’t help that white commentators were nearly universal in lauding his new raw and racial style. Mark Jacobson declared Richard’s use of the N-word a “masterstroke.”
“When Pryor says it, it means something different,” Time magazine insisted.
Depending on his inflection, or even the tilt of his mouth, it can mean simply black. Or it can mean a hip black, wise in the ways of the street. Occasionally nigger can even mean white in Pryor’s reverse English lexicon. However he defines it, Pryor is certain of one thing. He is proudly assertively a nigger, the first comedian to speak in the raw, brutal, but wildly hilarious language of the street.
Today, forty-some years after his N-word epiphany, audiences and middle American hip-hop listeners are well versed in the N-word’s variant spellings and nuanced meanings. In commentaries penned by scolds and advocates alike, the N-word’s prevalence in contemporary popular culture is traced back to Richard Pryor.
Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy sets the stage in his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word:
While the hip comedians of the 1950s and 1960s—Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell, Mort Sahl, Godfrey Cambridge, Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx—told sexually risqué or politically barbed jokes, nigger for the most part remained off-limits.
All that changed with the emergence of Richard Pryor.
It’s not that Richard was the first comedian to embrace the N-word. Dick Gregory hoped to de-claw the slur in 1964 when he titled his memoir Nigger, though Gregory’s use of the word had nowhere near the impact that Pryor’s would. Gregory’s was a powerful and influential book, but as Woody Guthrie said when asked about the success of his 1943 memoir, Bound for Glory, no book, no matter how good, could ever get a hall full of people shouting and stomping and clapping along the way his songs could. Richard served the word up live, playing off the highly charged reactions of integrated audiences. Some nights the crowds were hostile, sometimes jubilant, sometimes chilly, but never lukewarm. Richard’s move was a spontaneous one, hatched in the moment, with no thought of the outcome. Inspired by the black poets’ use of vernacular rhythms and street language, and the Panthers’ insistence on being authentically and unapologetically black, he seized the word with the same heedless urgency the French dramatist Antonin Artaud had demanded of creators in his time, “like a victim burning at the stake, signaling through the flames.”
Lenny Bruce, in his own way, got there ahead of Gregory, once pausing between nightclub bits to ask, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” He filled the stunned silence that followed saying, “I know that one nigger who works here—I see him back there. Oh, there’s two niggers, customers, and, uh, aha! Between those niggers sits one kike—man, thank God for the kike! Uh, two kikes. That’s three niggers, two kikes, and one spic. One spic—two, three spics. One mick. One mick, one spic, one hick, thick, funky, spunky boogey.” He went on like an auctioneer, tallying up the kikes, spics, guineas, greaseballs, Yids, boogies, and Polacks before he got to his point. “The point? That the word’s suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, ‘Tonight I’d like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,’ and he yelled ‘niggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggernigger’ at every nigger he saw, ‘boogeyboogeyboogeyboogeyboogey, niggerniggerniggernigger’ till nigger didn’t mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning—you’d never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school.”
Richard knew it would take more than familiarity or frequency of use to scrub that particular word of its hateful and bloody history. Sure, if you say almost any word enough times in a row like that and the sheer monotony of repetition will drain it of its sense and meaning. But not nigger. It just digs in deeper. “That word,” Dave Chappelle would attest, “is a doozy.”
It all came back to what Malcolm X had said when a “’token-integrated’ black Ph.D. associate professor” stood up during a question-and-answer period to challenge his characterization of white attitudes, accusing Malcolm of being a “divisive demagogue” and practicing reverse racism. Finally, Malcolm asked the professor if he knew what whites called black people with Ph.Ds.
“He said something like, ‘I believe that I happen not to be aware of that’—you know, one of these ultra-proper-talking Negroes.
“And,” Malcolm said, “I laid the word down on him, loud: Nigger!”
That was it. No matter what Richard or any other black person at that time might achieve, no matter how much white people might praise or pay him, Richard Pryor knew that, behind his back, he would always be a nigger.
In the spring of 1972, when Richard returned to Los Angeles from Berkeley, he came back inspired to speak truth to black audiences, using the raw language of the streets. He embraced “nigger” as an empowering term of endearment, and spoke with startling candor about things many people at that time were uncomfortable admitting even to themselves: his homosexual experiences, masturbation, racial anger, his physical abuse of women, drug addiction, feelings of self-loathing, and the guilt he felt as a conflicted champion of black pride who also had an irresistible lust for white women.
I’m nervous up here. I ain’t had no cocaine all day. I love cocaine.
People don’t talk about nothin’ real, like jackin’ off. A lot of people didn’t jack off. I did! I used to jack off so much I knew pussy couldn’t be as good as my hand.
You go out with a white woman and sisters look at you like you killed your mama.
You can’t talk about fucking in America, right? People say you’re dirty. But if you talk about killing somebody, that’s cool. I don’t understand it myself. I’d rather come. I’ve had money and never felt as good as I felt when I come. Nothing else matters when you’re gettin’ the nut. Especially if it’s a girl.
Never fuck a faggot, ‘cause they will lie. They always say, “I won’t tell.” They lie. They can’t wait till you finish fucking them. (miming telephone) “Well, guess who was here, honey. Girl, looka here, the nigger got more bitch in him than me.”
And the punch line? There wasn’t one. He wasn’t telling jokes, he was telling the truth:
“Ya’ll act like you ain’t never sucked a dick or something. Ya’ll be, (white voice) ‘No siree, bob, never touched a penis in our life, we’re real men.’ I sucked a dick. You can get a habit from sucking dick. Become a dick junkie. You can only do it maybe three times. You do it more than that you get a habit.
It slipped the noose of anything that would have previously passed for nightclub comedy.
To his amazement, audiences of all races loved it—and loved him for it.