A Nigger Un-Reconstructed: The Legacy of Richard Pryor

“Unreconstructed black men don’t have the manners of their reconstructed ‘Negro’ brethren, who are always trying to put a ‘civilized’ face on their blackness, especially in the company of white folks.” — Quincy Troupe

t face=”Verdana,Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif” size=1>”I think that niggers are the best of people who were slaves, and that’s how they got to be niggers ’cause they stole the cream-of-the-crop from Africa and brought them over here. And God, as they say, works in mysterious ways, so he made everybody a nigger…he brought us all over here — the best — the kings and queens, the princesses, the princes, put us all together and called us one tribe: Niggers.” — Richard Pryor, Wattstax (1973)

When Richard Pryor walked off the stage for the last time on December 10th he did so quietly, with little of the verve and brashness that defined so many of his groundbreaking moments as a storyteller, comedian, recording artist, and actor. For all the direct links made between the late Pryor and post-Civil Rights comedic icons like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock (both notably in their early 40s), “hip-hop generation jr.” has had little connection with Richard Pryor and his art. Pryor was a product of another era, but it was in the midst of that era that he redefined how America confronted the issue of race (and black masculinity), thereby paving the way for mainstream acceptance of hip-hop’s own irreverence and provocative nature.

Born in 1940 and raised in Peoria, IL, Pryor regularly discussed his early years growing up under the watchful eye of his grandmother, who owned a brothel in the city. Pryor’s parents, in fact, worked at the same brothel. Those days opened Pryor’s eyes to a world that was largely hidden from White America; a world premised on the realities of Jim Crow segregation and a world that had to remain behind the soiled veil of racism, if Black America was ever to achieve full participation in the so-called American Dream.

When Pryor began to work the chitlin’ circuit in the early ’60s and later the clubs of New York City’s Greenwich Village, he worked amongst a generation of black entertainers, who took seriously the charge of putting the “best face of the race” forward, as black political activists in the South sought to directly challenge the legalities of racial segregation. For many black performers, the point was to use their talents to appeal to the common humanity shared between blacks and their white audiences.

As Michael Eric Dyson suggests in his recent book Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind? (Basic Civitas Books, April 2005), no black entertainer did this more effectively during that era than Bill Cosby. For Pryor, Cosby became the template for his early success as a comedian. It was just the first example of Pryor’s ability of follow the money trail — a trait that would undermine him throughout his career — as he became little more than “Cosby, Jr.” when booked on television shows like The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show (Griffin takes great credit for helping to launch Pryor’s career).

But for all of those black performers who sought to make themselves palatable to whites, there were other examples of folk, who poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe describes as “unreconstructed”; folk who never sought to remix blackness for white comfort or consumption. While such “unreconstructed-ness” is largely a myth — we all capitulate to the so-called “white gaze” in one form of another to gain access to institutions we deem important to our well being — it helped create mythic icons, which became synonymous with not dancing the dance of racial ingratiation. Miles Davis is the most visible example of this.

But what Pryor understood perhaps better than anyone as the Civil Right Movement waned, was that the “unreconstructed” black was as much an insincere performance of blackness as the “ready for integration players” (to turn a phrase from that other black trickster from the era) . When Pryor put “little Cosby” to rest in the late ’60s — dramatically walking off stage muttering “what am I doing here?” — he did so because of those memories of the black underground in Peoria.

Pryor re-emerged in 1971 from a self-imposed period of isolation; hanging out in Berkeley, reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, and reflecting on his youth in Peoria. He did so as a social commentator, using his talents to speak to the realities of race in America and class within Black America. In his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (Pantheon, 1997), Pryor says “There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside my head, trying to be heard.”

The voices that Pryor heard in his head — the “niggers” in his head — were the same “niggers” that both the Civil Rights guard and the Black Power elite had a vested interest in killing-off (think about the Last Poets’ “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”). Pryor knew better; he had long known better. Those “niggers” were the salt of the earth and he suggested as much during the 1973 concert documentary Wattstax, where he describes “niggers” as the “best of people who were slaves.” In a collection of ground-breaking and award winning albums throughout the ’70s, including That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) and Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Pryor brought his “niggers” to life — and these were “niggers” unreconstructed with no allegiance to looking good for the race or for the cause.

There’s little doubt though, that Pryor also saw “niggers” through the lens of a society that freely denied blacks humanity and forced them to the margins of civil society to scuffle and hustle for whatever semblance of a life they could create. Indeed, his own life as a child bore witness to that reality. His suggestion that niggers function as a “tribe” (Wattstax) points to Pryor’s ultimate belief that there was potential power in those tightly-knit, spatially-challenged, and sparsely-resourced “nigger” enclaves.

Though many cite Richard Pryor Live in Concert, his 1979 film, as the apex of his creative talents, I’d like to highlight an earlier moment in Pryor’s career that speaks to his genius as a comic and social critic and the very limits of that genius. Pryor was asked to host an episode of Saturday Night Live in the show’s debut season. In what has become one of the show’s most classic moments, Pryor and Chevy Chase did a parody of a job interview. As the interviewer, Chase engages Pryor in a name association exercise, which quickly devolves into a name-calling exchange where Pryor responds to Chase’s invocation of the word “nigger!” with the threat “Deeeeeead honkey!”

The sketch could easily be viewed as evidence of the new found freedoms experienced by blacks in the post-Civil Rights era — racial epithets against blacks forcibly challenged by violent threats — but the end-game of the exchange was that Pryor’s character was offered a job and salary that made him the “highest paid janitor” in America. Here the writers at Saturday Night Live tap into the burgeoning anxieties about Affirmative Action — anxieties premised, in part, on the belief that blacks were being unfairly rewarded because of the bully-pulpit that charges of racism afforded them.

As the Reagan era dawned and Pryor desired a wider audience, his brilliant Bicentennial Nigger (1976) becomes one of that last examples of Pryor pursuing the kinds of social justice concerns in his comedy that had marked his transformation earlier in the decade of the ’70s. The biting commentary of his albums would never translate to his film roles (Blue Collar might be the exception) or his television appearances. Indeed when Pryor aborted The Richard Pryor Show (1977) after only shooting four episodes (he was contracted to do 10) he told the show’s writing staff, “You know something? I don’t want to be on TV. I’m in a trap. I can’t do this — there ain’t no art.” (reported in Newsweek 3 October, 1977).

In truth Pryor was dealing with an on-going drug addiction that would have near tragic implications in 1980, when the comic was burned in an “accident” while freebasing. (Pryor referred to the accident as an attempt at suicide). Pryor’s social commentary allowed him to assuage the pain of his upbringing in Peoria and when that avenue was no longer available to him he chose the rewards of mainstream success. Unfortunately for Pryor the fame and wealth that his cross-over status afforded him did not bring the peace that he so desired.

Bicentennial Nigger was released he same year that Pryor appeared in Silver Streak with Gene Wilder (one of their many cinematic collaborations). Though Pryor had earned critical acclaim for his role as “Piano Man” in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and had star turns in black-themed films like Car Wash, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (about the Negro baseball leagues), and Uptown Saturday Night (his Sharp Eye Washington steals the movie), and would later star in a film about black stock car driver Wendell Scott (Greased Lighting), Silver Streak marked his first major attempt to cross-over to the white mainstream. By the time Pryor starred in the film version of Neil Simon’s California Suite (garnering a higher salary than his mentor Cosby, who was also in the film), he had become the black-face of cross-over possibilities.

His status as the quintessential black cross-over star was cemented with the Sidney Poitier-directed Stir Crazy (1980), also starring Wilder, which grossed more than $100 million. But Pryor’s willingness to submit himself to the paper chase had notable impact on the cutting-edge personas that he crafted on his albums and stand-up performances. As Ed Guerrero notes in Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Temple University Press, 1993), “The usual consumer-spectator refused to accept Pryor on his own self-defined cinematic terms, which always involved an exploration and sharp articulation of the bittersweet ironies of racial injustice and black life in America. The market audience supported only Pryor’s roles as a comic foil or scene stealer, cast in films with a white lead.”

In the aftermath of his accident in 1980 and needing to meet medical expenses and the like, Pryor often sought roles on the basis of the payday. For example, when asked about why he chose his brief role in Superman III, Pryor responded “It really was the $4 million”. Pryor’s salary for the film was unprecedented for a black actor and highlighted the value that Hollywood placed on his cross-over power. This would be one of Pryor’s last great paydays as the very black cross-over strategy that he took advantage of was very quickly being used to push a 20-something Eddie Murphy as the “new Richard Pryor”. One of the measurements of how fast Pryor was descending was his experience with his production company, Indigo. Columbia pictures gave Pryor’s company $40 million and the ability to greenlight the film, but after a year of internal struggles with the company’s staff (including actor and former NFL great Jim Brown, who helped nurse Pryor back to health after his near fatal “accident”), Pryor returned the money.

Excepting those who were fortunate enough to hear Pryor’s albums on their parents’ record players in the ’70s, many within the hip-hop generation were unfortunately introduced to Pryor via dismal vehicles such as Brewster’s Millions (1985) and Critical Condition (1987). When Pryor and Redd Foxx paired opposite Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights (1989), one could already see the early ravages of multiple sclerosis on Pryor — he was a shell of himself. Pryor’s semi-autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (arguably one of his better films) was lost on a generation of folk who were not privy to the context that made Pryor’s earlier work so compelling.

And yet Pryor was one of the critical forces that allowed for the mainstreaming of hip-hop in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Pryor made explicitly public the dark, funky, bittersweet, and beautiful realities of black life behind the color line, and offended a great many black folk who wanted those realities to remain out-of-sight from the white gaze. Pryor wasn’t simply airing the proverbial “dirty laundry”, but like Langston Hughes before him — The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) being fine examples — he celebrated the full, diverse and vibrant humanity of black folk, particularly the “niggers”.

Much has been made in recent years about Pryor’s very public censure of himself, for his long time use of the world “nigger”. As Pryor recalled in his concert film Here and Now (1983) and later shared with audiences of Essence Magazine in 1984, he was traveling throughout the continent of Africa and a voice inside him asked “Do you see any niggers?” and he had to come to terms with the fact that he didn’t see any. Pryor’s repudiation of the word “nigger” has been invoked numerous times to sanction hip-hop culture’s liberal use of the word and most recently in critiques of Aaron McGruder’s television series The Boondocks. As award-winning journalist Leonard Pitts wrote a few years ago, “we’ve become entirely too casual, too gratuitous, with this instrument of disparagement” (Denver Post 26 March, 1998).

When Pryor made his claim about the word’s use (and we have no knowledge about whether he used the word in his private life) he was paying penance for a wide range of behaviors and trying to get back in the good graces of the American public. But I’d like to also suggest that Pryor’s rejection of “nigger” was also about finally putting to bed a particular paradigm of American race relations that no longer functioned in the post-Civil Rights/Reagan-era. Indeed, he was paying penance for the ‘sin’ of making White America uncomfortable with the issue of race (much like we’ve seen with Muhammad Ali over the last decade).

The “nigga” that found his redemption via 808 machines of the ’80s had nothing to do with the world that Pryor had navigated and eventually lost part of his soul to. In truth, Richard Pryor had little to offer the hip-hop generation — his peers were men who pitched Jello and Bahamian diets and this is not to disparage any of them, but simply a reminder that the world had changed and it would be the Chris Rocks, Robin Harrises (really a transitional figure) and Dave Chappelles of the world who would best capture the sad, tragicomic realities of the hip-hop generation.

Richard Pryor was much more complex than the profanity that garnered him an audience and a devoted following. For Pryor a word like “nigger” was not profane — it was born out of the realities of race in America and he always acknowledged the humanity of those “niggers” by allowing them to speak freely back to the world via his stand-up comedy. The lives “niggers” were forced to live were profane — not the word used to describe them.

If there’s a lesson to be learned by the hip-hop generation, it’s not that we should put our “niggas” away in the closet, but that we should be clear that with each invocation of the “niggas” that we are shedding light on the humanity of those folks who still live a reality defined by the dirty, nasty business of race, gender, and poverty in the United States. Richard Pryor was a “nigger” unreconstructed, and for that we are thankful.

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A long-time contributor to PopMatters, Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including the recent New Black Man (Routledge, 2005). Neal is currently working on a collection of essays titled Thug Nigga Intellectual (New York University Press). He teaches African-American Studies at Duke University