Ode to Richard Pryor
by Dr. Edward Rhymes
"As long as the colored man look to white folks to put a crown on what
he say.... as long as he looks to white people for approval... then he
ain't never gonna find out who he is and what he's about" – August Wilson Jr.
If Helen of Troy is "the face that launched a thousand ships," then
Richard Pryor is the voice that launched a thousand comedians and
artists of every hue. He not only made people laugh, but he inspired others to
make people laugh. However, Rich's greatest contribution to society at
large and the Black community in particular, was his courage to address
societal ills with his unique brand of humor and insight, without
apology or regret.
Click here for printer friendly version of Pryor cartoon. Even when his routine was generously sprinkled with "Nigger" and "bitch," he was laying down a vocabulary of empowerment. A lexicon that minimized the impact of white oppression and contextualized the struggle. Rich made it clear, he made it real and his humor made it bearable. Rich took the dialogue of the street corner, the barbershop, the Black church, the Black family and the Black community and aimed it at mainstream America with laser-like focus – revealing white America's true thoughts and intentions about race and racism without even trying to.
That was the true social genius of Richard Pryor. He was the incidental activist, the disaffected philosopher. He concerned himself first and foremost with answering the question: Is it funny? All else, in regard to his craft, was secondary. However, the fact that his humor was steeped in social significance, tells us volumes about the man. Rich was also the first
male comedian, Black, white or otherwise, who gave a real voice to
women in his comedy. In Pryor's routines, women gave every bit as good as
they got. For all the rants about his self-indulgences, addictions and
misogynistic leanings, his humor was a shining example of equality in a
society rife with inequities.
Rich understood human nature and tendencies. He was one of America's
foremost social critics (something he has never truly been given credit
for). Rich's satirical insights kept the issues of race relations and
racism front and center when the Civil Rights movement had begun to
lose its steam. In the face of Nixon-repression and the conservative
backlash, he was to the Black community what musicals were to Depression-era white America – he kept us singing, believing and hoping. He was the Harlem Renaissance resurrected, telling our own stories on our own terms.
In his tour de force, Which Way Is Up, Richard weaved together issues
such as internalized oppression, institutional and systemic racism, worker's rights and feminism in one seamless, comedic (yet thought provoking) tapestry. At the end of the movie, homeless, jobless, without family or friends, the hero finds his dignity and himself – only Richard Pryor could give such an ending any semblance of poise. But then again, that was quintessential Pryor. Letting the chips fall where they might, showing every facet of the experience, warts and all. No other actor or comedian has surpassed or even equaled that performance. Richard Pryor,
in many ways, was a prophet. He told the truth about white folks, black
folks, men, women and most importantly…himself.
In my internet search of articles that referenced Richard Pryor and his
work, I came across Answers.com (http://www.answers.com/topic/richard-pryor). In their very brief
summary of the man and his work, they stated that he was best known as "the comedian who set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine." Such a slap
in the face, such a total disregard for the profundity of an
individual's work, would usually elicit some anger, but here's the punch line: Rich would have genuinely laughed at this. Did Answers.com think that
somehow we would forget about Rich's indiscretions? There was never a chance of that happening because Rich himself wouldn't let us forget. He opened wide the front door (and the bedroom door as well), pulled back the
curtains and raised the shade in the house where his demons, vices and
transgressions lived. Rich, without fail, beat everyone to the punch
and initiated the dialogue about his own shortcomings. He was enigmatic in
the sense that he gave us as Black folk the confidence to be vulnerable
in other words, human. It was like he was saying: "They ain't no better
than us, so don't be afraid to be flawed. Don't be afraid to be
imperfect" Rich's death caused me to reflect on what is missing from the current debates about supposed Black anti-intellectualism, the supposed lack of Black initiative and the denouncement of the Hip-Hop generation. In his
comedic riffs and social commentary, the Black community did not escape
his sometimes scathing insights and yet he was never condemned of
"sellin' out" or "airing our collective dirty laundry".
And one has to ask, Why not? Simply put, his declarations were free of the animus of the Cosby's and other Black elites who attack the Black poor and Black youth; his indictments were liberated from the arrogance of the McWhorters and Condoleezzas who continually minimize the role that race and racism play in the affairs of Black folk. He told us the truth like a loyal friend
and not as a venomous and jilted ex-lover with an axe to grind. Rich
was humble, he never failed to see himself through the same lens he saw
everything and everyone else. It was this quality that caused the Black
community not to excuse his offenses, but to give our full
understanding to them and him.
Historically, isn't that same understanding that we have accorded our
geniuses? Did the madness of Mozart make people forget his mastery of
music? Did the insanity of Van Gogh, make the brilliance of his art null
and void? Was Hemingway's work silenced because of the manifestations
of a tortured and troubled soul? So why should we be any less celebratory
of a man who did so much to affirm and legitimize the Black American
Richard Pryor's mortal frame has fallen, never to rise again, but what
he has left behind will continue to endure as long as the Black community
and America exists. Goodnight, goodbye and most importantly and
sincerely, thank you Rich. Edward Rhymes is the Director of Race Relations and Advocacy of the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.