KENDI: Dick Gregory’s Birthday and the Social Power of Black Comedians.

Kendi K.
Oct 12, 2020 - 12:19

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I have been watching stand up comedy since I was far too young to be watching stand up comedy. 

My dad grew up listening to the tapes of Richard Pryor and later Eddie Murphy, and so did I. On long car trips, we’d pick a comedy album, old or new, Black or white, clean or just explicit enough to where my mom would click her tongue at the cuss words but ultimately let it pass and listen for hours. It wasn’t until I was older and actually began to understand the nuance of the jokes being told that I realized the level of intelligence it took to be a good comedian. 

While a lot of comedy is lighthearted-Seinfeld-style, “What’s up with airplane food?” type of jokes, a lot more of it’s not. Many of the comedians I listened to were talking about political issues and deeply rooted systemic inequality, and I didn’t even realize it. 

They were giving radical political speeches disguised by the jokes weaved in between.

Dick Gregory was my first example of this. 

Born on Oct 12, 1932, Gregory grew up a Black man in racially segregated America, facing all the obstacles and injustices one can imagine. He was able to find humor under some of the darkest circumstances this country has ever seen. 

Like many Black artists at the time, Dick recognized the fact that while Black people were invited into white spaces to perform on their stages, they could not sit in the same audiences or drink from the same bars. Dick was an activist both on and off the stage, advocating for issues of civil rights, animal rights (he was a devout vegan) and he labeled himself a proud feminist far before it was mainstream. 

But he used his time on stage to speak directly to white people about the racism they perpetuated, bringing racial politics to the forefront of his comedy routines. 

He had the ability to intentionally educate his audiences without them even realizing it. 

This is the way of so many brilliant stand up comedians. 

The genre of modern political satire that is now utilized by pretty much every late-night talk show in America was born from comedians like Dick Gregory. To find humor in complicated issues like gun violence, police brutality, systematic oppression and so many others that plague America, one must first have a deep understanding of them. To then deliver this knowledge in a way that is humorous without being damaging takes careful consideration and well thought out writing.

It’s no easy feat.

That’s why comedians are often some of the most intelligent people you’ll ever know. 

In Dave Chappelle’s heartbreakingly brilliant piece “8:46”, he delivers a raw yet poignant response to gross displays of police violence against Black and Brown people. He focuses in on the murder of George Floyd, who was choked to death for exactly for 8 minutes and 46 seconds by officer Derek Chauvin. 

“This man [Chauvin] kneeled on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds. Can you imagine that? This kid knew he was going to die. He called for his mother” Dave emphasizes, “What are you signifying? That you can kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds and feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of god. That’s what’s happening right now”

Now more than ever, the public is turning to comedians like Dave Chappelle or Trevor Noah on The Daily Show to find what is true. Many of us trust their words more than the news, which seems to be skewed by political agendas and capitalist pushes for profit.

The top comment on Dave Chappelle’s video “8:46” reads “It’s reached a time where we listen to comedians and laugh at politicians”. 

For me and the 36,000 people who gave the comment a thumbs up, this is the terrifying truth.

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