Nigger: An Autobiography

Nigger: An Autobiography

by Dick Gregory, Robert Lipsyte

Paperback

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Overview

Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s million-copy-plus bestselling memoir—now in trade paperback for the first time.

“Powerful and ugly and beautiful...a moving story of a man who deeply wants a world without malice and hate and is doing something about it.”—The New York Times

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, an incredibly honest and revealing memoir by one of the America's best-loved comedians and activists, Dick Gregory, was published. With a shocking title and breathtaking writing, Dick Gregory defined a genre and changed the way race was discussed in America.

Telling stories that range from his hardscrabble childhood in St. Louis to his pioneering early days as a comedian to his indefatigable activism alongside Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gregory's memoir riveted readers in the sixties. In the years and decades to come, the stories and lessons became more relevant than ever, and the book attained the status of a classic. The book has sold over a million copies and become core text about race relations and civil rights, continuing to inspire readers everywhere with Dick Gregory's incredible story about triumphing over racism and poverty to become an American legend.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593086148
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/11/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 57,472
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

A friend of luminaries including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, and the forebear of today's popular black comics, including Larry Wilmore, W. Kamau Bell, Dave Chappelle, and Trevor Noah, Dick Gregory was a provocative and incisive cultural force for more than 50 years. As an entertainer, he always kept it indisputably real about race issues in America, fearlessly lacing humor with hard truths. As a leading activist against injustice, he marched at Selma during the civil rights movement, organized student rallies to protest the Vietnam War; sat in at rallies for Native American and feminist rights; fought apartheid in South Africa; and participated in hunger strikes in support of Black Lives Matter. He died in 2017.

Read an Excerpt

I

 

It's a sad and beautiful feeling to walk home slow on Christmas Eve after you've been out hustling all day, shining shoes in the white taverns and going to the store for the neighbors and buying and stealing presents from the ten-cent store, and now it's dark and still along the street and your feet feel warm and sweaty inside your tennis sneakers even if the wind finds the holes in your mittens. The electric Santa Clauses wink at you from windows. You stop off at your best friend's house and look at his tree and give him a ball-point pen with his name on it. You reach into your shopping bag and give something to everybody there, even the ones you don't know. It doesn't matter that they don't have anything for you because it feels so good to be in a warm happy place where grownups are laughing. There are Daddies around. Your best friend's so happy and excited, standing there trying on all his new clothes. As you walk down the stairs you hear his mother say: "Boo, you forgot to say good-by to Richard, say good-by to Richard, Boo, and wish him a . . ."

 

Then you're out on the street again and some of the lights have gone out. You take the long way home, and Mister Ben, the grocer, says: "Merry Christmas, Richard," and you give him a present out of the shopping bag, and you smile at a wino and give him a nickel, and you even wave at Grimes, the mean cop. It's a good feeling. You don't want to get home too fast.

 

And then you hit North Taylor, your street, and something catches your eye and you lift your head up and it's there in your window. Can't believe it. You start running and the only thing in the whole world you're mad about is that you can't run fast enough. For the first time in a long while the cracked orange door says: "Come on in, little man, you're home now," and there's a wreath and lights in the window and a tree in the kitchen near the coal closet and you hug your Momma, her face hot from the stove. Oh, Momma, I'm so glad you did it like this because ours is new, just for us, everybody else's tree been up all week long for other people to see, and, Momma, ours is up just for us. Momma, oh, Momma, you did it again.

 

My beautiful Momma smiled at me like Miss America, and my brothers and sisters danced around that little kitchen with the round wooden table and the orange-crate chairs.

 

"Go get the vanilla, Richard," said Momma, "Presley, peel some sweet potatoes. Go get the bread out the oven, Dolores. You get away from that duckling, Garland. Ronald, oh, Ronald, you be good now, stand over there with Pauline. Oh, Richard, my little man, did you see the ham Miz White from the Eat Shop sent by, and the bag of nuts from Mister Myers and the turkey from Miz King, and wouldn't you know, Mister Ben, he . . ."

 

"Hey, Momma, I know some rich people don't got this much, a ham, and a turkey, Momma. . . ."

 

"The Lord, He's always looking out for my boys, Richard, and this ain't all, the white folks'll be by here tomorrow to bring us more things."

 

Momma was so happy that Christmas, all the food folks brought us and Mister Ben giving us more credit, and Momma even talked the electric man into turning the lights on again.

 

"Hey, Momma, look here, got a present for Daddy. A cigarette lighter, Momma, there's even a place to scratch a name on it."

 

"What you scratch on it, Richard, Big Pres or Daddy?"

 

"Nothing, Momma. Might have to give Daddy's present to old Mister White from the Eat Shop again."

 

She turned away and when she turned back her eyes were wet. Then she smiled her Miss America smile and grabbed my shoulder. "Richard, my little man, if I show you something, you won't tell nobody, will you?"

 

"What is it, Momma?"

 

"I got something for you."

 

"Oh, Momma, you forgot, everything's under the tree."

 

"This is something special, just for you, Richard."

 

"Thanks, Momma, oh, thanks, how'd you know I wanted a wallet, Momma, a real wallet like men have?"

 

Momma always gave each of us something special like that, something personal that wasn't under the tree, something we weren't supposed to tell the other kids about. It always came out, though. Garland and I'd be fighting and one of us would say, "Momma likes me better than you, look what she gave me," and we both found out the other got a secret present, too.

 

But I loved that wallet. First thing I did was fill out the address card. If I got hit by a car someone would know who I am. Then I put my dollars in it, just like men do. Ran outside that night and got on a streetcar and pulled out my wallet and handed the conductor a dollar.

 

"Got anything smaller, boy?"

 

"Sure, Mister," I said and I pulled out my wallet again and took a dime out of the coin purse and snapped it shut and put the dollar back in the long pocket and closed the wallet and slipped it into my back pocket. Did the same thing on the way back home.

 

Did we eat that night! It seemed like all the days we went without food, no bread for the baloney and no baloney for the bread, all the times in the summer when there was no sugar for the Kool-Aid and no lemon for the lemonade and no ice at all were wiped away. Man, we're all right.

 

After dinner I went out the back door and looked at the sky and told God how nobody ever ate like we ate that night, macaroni and cheese and ham and turkey and the old duckling's cooking in the oven for tomorrow. There's even whiskey, Momma said, for people who come by. Thanks, God, Momma's so happy and even the rats and roaches didn't come out tonight and the wind isn't blowing through the cracks.

 

How'd you know I wanted a wallet, God? I wonder if all the rich people who get mink coats and electric trains got that one little thing nobody knew they wanted. You know, God, I'm kinda glad you were born in a manger. I wonder, God, if they had let Mary in the first place she stopped at, would you have remembered tonight? Oh, God, I'm scared. I wish I could die right now with the feeling I have because I know Momma's going to make me mad and I'm going to make her mad, and me and Presley's gonna fight. . . .

 

"Richard, you get in here and put your coat on. Get in here or I'll whip you."

 

See what I mean, God, there she goes already and I'm not even cold, I'm all wrapped up in You.

 

"What's wrong, Richard? Why you look so strange?"

 

"You wouldn't understand, Momma."

 

"I would, Richard, you tell me."

 

"Well, I came out to pray, Momma, way out here so they wouldn't hear me and laugh at me and call me a sissy. God's a good God, ain't He, Momma?"

 

"Yes, Richard."

 

"Momma, if I tell you something, would you laugh at me, would you say I'm crazy, would you say I was lying? Momma?"

 

"What is it, Richard?"

 

"I heard Him talk to me, Momma."

 

She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me against her. "He talks to people, Richard, some people that are real special and good like you. Do me a favor, Richard?"

 

"Sure, Momma."

 

"Next time you talk to Him, ask Him to send Daddy home."

 

"Let me stay up and look out the window with you, Momma."

 

"Everybody's in bed, Richard."

 

"All my life, Momma, I wanted to stay up with you on Christmas Eve and look out that window with you, Momma. I won't laugh at you."

 

"What you mean, Richard?"

 

"You're waiting on him, ain't you? I know, Momma, every Christmas Eve you take a bath and put on that perfume and those clothes from the rich white folks and get down there on your knees in front of that window looking for Daddy."

 

"Richard, you better get on to bed."

 

"I know, Momma, that whiskey ain't for people coming by, that's for Daddy."

 

"Richard, you go on to bed and when he gets here I'll wake you up."

 

"No, Momma, I want to sit up with you . . . Momma?"

 

"Yes, Richard?"

 

"I shoulda got a present for Mister White, 'cause I know Daddy's coming to get his this year."

 

 

There were a lot of things I wanted to tell Momma that night while we sat and waited for Daddy, while we prayed on our knees, and dozed and hugged each other against the cold and jumped up like jacks every time we heard a noise on the street. But I never did. Sometimes I think she knew anyway.

 

I wanted to say to her, Momma, you remember that day I came home and told you I was at Doctor Jackson's house? And how he liked me, Momma, and told me I'd be a good doctor? How he's going to help me learn to read, and how he told me when it gets too cold to study in my house I could come by his house? Remember that, Momma? It was a lie. I played all that day in a vacant lot.

 

I guess she knew. She never pressed me for names when I told her about all the people who liked me, all the people I created in my mind, people to help poor folks. I couldn't believe God had made a world and hadn't put none of those people in it.

 

I made up a schoolteacher that loved me, that taught me to read. A teacher that didn't put me in the idiot's seat or talk about you and your kind. She didn't yell at me when I came to school with my homework all wrinkled and damp. She understood when I told her it was too cold to study in the kitchen so I did my homework under the covers with a flashlight. Then I fell asleep. And one of the other five kids in bed must have peed on it.

 

I'd go out and sweat and make five dollars. And I'd come home and say, Momma, Mister Green told me to bring this to you. Told me he liked you. Told me he wished he could raise his kids the way you're raising us. That wasn't true, Momma.

 

Remember all those birthday parties I went to, Momma? Used to steal things from the ten-cent store and give the best presents. I'd come home and tell you how we played pillow kiss and post office and pin the tail on the donkey and how everybody liked me? That was a lie, Momma. One girl cried and ran away when she threw the pillow and it hit me. She opened her eyes and saw she was supposed to kiss me and she cried and ran away.

 

And on my birthday, Momma, when I came home with that shopping bag full of presents and told you the kids in my class loved me so much they all got me things? That wasn't true. I stole all those little things from the ten-cent store and wrapped them up and put a different kid's name on each one.

 

"Oh, Richard, if he don't show up this time . . ."

 

"He's comin', Momma, it's like you said. He got held up in traffic, the trains were full."

 

"You know, Richard, your Daddy's a cook, he has to work on Christmas."

 

"He'll be here, Momma, you go put those clothes back on."

 

 

Remember when those people came by and told you how dirty we were, how they didn't want us playing with their kids or coming into their houses? They said we smelled so bad. I was six then, and Presley was almost eight. You cried all night, Momma, and then you told us to stay home until you could get us some new clothes. And you went and hid all the clothes we had. Momma, it was summertime and we couldn't just lay there, crying and watching out the window at the kids play running tag, and rip and run, and get called in for their naps, and get called in for their dinners. And we looked all over for our clothes, down in the basement, in the coal closet, under the stove, and we couldn't find them. And then we went through your things, Momma, and put on the dresses you never wore, the dresses the rich white folks gave you. And then we went outside to play. The people laughed at us when we went outside in your dresses, pointed and slapped their legs. We never played so good as we played that summer, with all those people watching us. When we came off the porch those Negro doctors and lawyers and teachers waiting to get into WhiteÕs Eat Shop across the street would nudge each other and turn their heads. And when the streetcar stopped on the corner, right in front of our house, the people would lean out the windows and stare. Presley and I would wave at them. We did it all that summer, and after a while nobody bothered us. Everybody got to know that the Gregory boys didn't have clothes so they wore their mother's dresses. We just made sure we were home before you got there, Momma.

 

"How do I look, Richard?"

 

"You look okay, Momma."

 

"These are the best pair of shoes I got, Miz Wallace gave me them, but they're summer shoes."

 

"What you mean, summer shoes? Those are the black and white ones I like so much, the ones you never wear. I didn't know they were summer shoes."

 

"You never see folks wear white shoes in the wintertime."

 

"People dye them, Momma. I'll dye them for you so you can put them on and Daddy can see you."

 

"Oh, Richard, there won't be time, they got to dry."

 

"Don't worry, Momma, you burn the dye and it dries right while you wear it."

 

I've dyed a lot of shoes, Momma, down on my hands and knees in the taverns, dyeing shoes and shining shoes. I never told you too much about the things I did and the things I saw. Momma, remember the time I came home with my teeth knocked in and my lip all cut? Told you I tripped downstairs. Momma, I got kicked. Right in the face.

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