Over the last several days and through Monday afternoon, I’ve watched with amazement as millions of Americans got caught up in “eclipse mania” — rushing to obtain those special glasses, securing a spot from which they could witness the solar eclipse and participating in clearly absurd notions about how this rare, celestial phenomenon would impact their lives.
In truth, I too initially considered joining in the hubbub, forgoing more important tasks so I could one day brag about being among the number of those who observed the miracles of the universe at one of D.C.’s most coveted locations — the National Air and Space Museum.
But after remembering that the legendary civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory had died over the weekend, I decided to focus on the life-changing words he shared with me several times during my decades-long career as a journalist for the Black press which continues today.
We first swapped pleasantries when I was a beat reporter in Chicago, very early in my career, after being assigned to sit with him at the conclusion of a comedy show in which he starred that would later be edited and televised on HBO.
The weather was horrendous as a winter storm had taken control of the Windy City, dumping several feet of snow on the city and making travel all but impossible. I wanted to impress Gregory, so I opened my queries by asking him how he got started in the comedy world. Holding nothing back, he exploded in a round of expletives that almost knocked me out of my seat.
In summary, he advised me to refrain from wasting time seeking information that I could easily obtain by simply doing my job — researching my subject like any competent reporter would have done. He continued: “Ask me about things that no one has ever explored so your story becomes the one to which all others must refer.” It was a lesson that I would never forget and a methodology which I would employ during every subsequent interview.
Many years later, while speaking with both Gregory and the son of Dr. M.L. King, Jr., Martin III, Gregory helped me to understand why King’s sacrifice and lessons remain such an integral part of our country’s centuries-old quest to eliminate that which has been America’s greatest obstacle in realizing what King routinely referred to as the “Beloved Community” — racism.
I thought I understood the relevance of King, particularly because I had earlier completed advanced studies in theology, ethics and philosophy at two highly-esteemed institutions. Gregory showed me that I still had more to learn. But he did not speak to me in a condescending manner. He did not degrade me. He did not embarrass me nor did he belittle the beliefs I had developed after years of intellectual pursuit.
Gregory spoke to me lovingly, as a Black elder would to a young warrior attempting to walk in the footsteps and shadows of the ancestors. Sometime later, I realized that I had been allowed to sit at the feet of a teacher empowered by God — one who willingly blessed me with both his time and his talents.
So, as millions focused on the solar eclipse this week, I had other things more important on my mind — lessons and insights that could help bring about the beginning of the Beloved Community and the end of man-made conflagrations based on the petty, inconsequential differences of race, class, religion and gender that mankind has allowed to separate, rather than unite, those who inhabit planet Earth.
Bless you Dick Gregory. And thank you for your obedience to the Spirit.