For the culture. We have heard that in 2017 mostly regarding Migos’ popular last album title, but I want to put those words in a different frame of reference. We lost a legend on August 19th, 2017. Richard Claxton Gregory, left us after 84 years on this planet. Better known as Dick Gregory, this is a man that never seemed like he would never die. He was timeless. I was watching a video where he was joking with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about not serving his 180 days in prison for protesting without a permit because Dr. King “only got 5 days, and he started it!” It blew my mind to see Dick Gregory causing the man behind “I Have A Dream”, Martin Luther King Jr. break out in uncontrollable laughter.

Alpha men. Dick Gregory + Dr. King

At that moment for me, I understood something. This man was more than I could ever understand him to be. If I was talking about rap music, it’d try to compare it to this. As a former high school teacher, I would talk to my students about the career and future legacy of Jay-Z. From Reasonable Doubt to 4:44, I’ve seen a man be consistently the best rapper (in my opinion) for the span of 19 years. From the quality of music to the brand that Jay created, I revere this man highly. When I talked to my students and other younger people, I wasn’t met with the same excitement. They were like, “Oh yeah. He’s ok” or “I respect his career. I just can’t get into his stuff.” As much as I wanted to say, “Nigga, is you crazy?”, I got it. It was just…before their time.
I have seen people in line to see Dick Gregory multiple times in Chicago, and Los Angeles. They were coming to see a man sit down in a chair, and talk about whatever the hell was on his mind and take his damn time doing it. I had friends who were performing on the show, so I could watch these shows for free. But I watched people spend their hard-earned money to not only watch Dick Gregory perform, but pay money to get things signed, and wait in a long ass line to do so. Just to speak to this man, or get a picture with him. I saw a man with an autographed copy of one of Dick’s books. He was older. If I had to guess, I would say he was in his late 50s/early 60s. I politely asked how much it cost to get the book signed, and I was surprised by the price. There was a look on my face like, “Damn, that’s a lot of money.” With no hesitation, this man responded by saying, “Man. That’s Dick Gregory!” Like, “How dare you NOT know about why I’m paying so much for this?”

“I told my mama when racist say “nigger” they’re just advertising my book.”

I had to check myself. Mostly because I was uninformed. Me not knowing about Gregory’s book “Nigger” was my student having no idea that Shawn Carter created a classic on Sept 11th called “The Blueprint.” I had to do my research on why these people were coming in droves to see this man. My earliest reference to Dick Gregory was a joke in the movie “House Party” about an overweight black man was drinking a “Dick Gregory.” I didn’t know what the hell that meant. I didn’t know that his weight had ballooned up to 350 pounds and he created a Bahamian diet to combat his health problems caused by obesity and smoking cigarettes. As a comic, our lifestyles can be toxic. Late nights. Fast food. High stress. To help address these health issues, while creating you’re his own health brand is nothing short of genius.
It is one thing to say things on stage as a comic that we feel are funny. It’s a whole different story to infuse truth about social injustice and health awareness. Many successful comics take the Michael Jordan approach and don’t really touch subjects because they don’t want to mess their money up. That wasn’t Dick Gregory. The head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tried to “neutralize” him because “Gregory has traveled all over the country preaching black nationalist extremism, hatred, and violence.” That didn’t tone down his comedy. Even until his death, he never held back his tongue. I tell people to go check out his YouTube “takes” on topics ranging from Bill Cosby’s rape allegations, to America after Donald Trump has been elected president.

Dick Gregory, with his Alpha brothers. top, seventh from left

Dick Gregory was a blueprint for comics about how to efficiently use your platform in stand-up comedy. I recently found out that he was also a member of my frat, Alpha Phi Alpha, Fraternity Incorporated. Alpha can’t take credit for all the greatness that is Dick Gregory, but I’m sure it helped shape that responsibility of delivering knowledge to service the African-American community. As an Alpha man, I couldn’t help but smile seeing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laughing with Dick Gregory knowing that they both were committed to those jewels of our fraternity. He was a renaissance man in terms of how people perceived Black comedy and black comics. He wasn’t with the “shuck and jive” that many of our comedic predecessors felt they had to do to make a decent living. He took his talents to comedy clubs as well as collegiate lecture halls. Dick Gregory is a treasure. We lost a great one. From that loss, I have vowed to use my voice to speak the truth that I believe in on as many platforms as possible. On stage. Social media. In person. That’s the least I can do. Rest in peace, brother.

Dave Helem (center) was initiated through the Alpha Rho chapter of Alpha phi Alpha. Also pictured is Chinedu Unaka and comedy producer Nichelle Murdock at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.