Fair. Balanced. American.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mark Anthony Neal

Professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University and one heck of a writer, responsible for that Teddy Pendergrass quote and this one on Richard Pryor:

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. [...]

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.


el blogador said...

I really want to see the Wattstax concert on the big screen.

Sini said...

It's really great. I saw it a few weeks ago.