Forty years ago last fall, the late Richard Pryor took the stage at the Hollywood Bowl for a gay rights fundraiser and delivered what was perhaps the most incendiary monologue of a career that was both famously — and literally — combustible.
What the audience of 17,000 mostly gay, white men anticipated was to be regaled by the virtuoso in his prime. What they in fact got was a conflagration, as Pryor lit into the LGBT community for what he characterized as their indifference to African-Americans’ struggle.
Amazingly enough, it didn’t begin that way. As Scott Saul wrote in his 2015 book, Becoming Richard Pryor, the headliner ambled onto centerstage late on the evening of September 18, 1977, and after prowling the stage briefly like a caged big cat, he spoke, finally:
“I came here for human rights and I found out what it was really about was not getting caught with a dick in your mouth.” The crowd roared with laughter. Pryor continued:
You don’t want the police to kick your ass if you’re sucking the dick, and that’s fair. You’ve got the right to suck anything you want! I sucked one dick. Back in 1952. Sucked Wilbur Harp’s dick. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t deal with it. Had to leave it alone. It was beautiful because Wilbur has the best booty in the world. Now I’m saying booty to be nice. I’m talking about ass-hole. Wilbur had some good ass-hole. And Wilbur would give it up so good and put his thighs against your waist. That would make you come quick.”
The crowd erupted, half in delight, half in disbelief. “I was the only motherfucker that took Wilbur roses. Everybody else was bullshitting. I took Wilbur [the roses] and said, ‘Here, dear.’”
At this point, as Saul described the scene, Pryor paused, and the monologue took a sharp detour into some dark recess of the comedian’s mind. While waiting backstage to go on, Pryor had noticed how the white stagehands had ignored an all-black dance troupe known as the Lockers when the dancers asked for help adjusting the stage lights. And when they returned after what Pryor thought a spectacular performance — one dancer jumped over six chairs — the comedian watched incredulously as the show’s promoters did nothing to defend the Lockers who were dressed down by a fire marshal for detonating a small explosive as a special effect.
And then, an hour later, just before Pryor was scheduled to go on, the stagehands who earlier couldn’t be bothered by the Lockers’ appeal for help, suddenly leapt into action when two white ballet dancers asked for help with the very same light fixture.
By the time he reached the stage, Pryor — who it’s safe to assume had snorted, smoked or imbibed something of a chemical nature before going on that night — was fuming. As the crowd laughed at his recollections of Wilbur Harp, Pryor mumbled softly into the microphone, surveilling the sea of white faces, as though in a catatonic trance.
“How can faggots be racists?” he asked. “How can faggots be racists?”
And then, he exploded.
“I hope the police catch you motherfuckers and shoot your ass accidentally, because you motherfuckers ain’t helpin’ niggers at all.” The audience howled, but was clearly puzzled, Saul wrote. “When the niggers were burning down Watts, you motherfuckers were doing what you wanted on Hollywood Boulevard, didn’t give a shit about it.” By this point, some clarity had begun to wash over the audience and the laughter was beginning to turn to hissing, and boos.
Pryor continued, addressing a feminist movement defined largely by the concerns of white, suburban women. “Motherfuck women’s rights. The bitches don’t need no rights. What they need to do is pay the people on welfare.” Again, the crowd roared its disapproval. Pryor shot back with his own rage.
“Yeah, get mad. ’Cause you’re going to be madder than that when (police chief) Ed Davis catches you motherfuckers coming out of here in the lot.” By this point, all confusion on the part of the crowd had dissipated, with hecklers not just taunting Pryor but openly threatening to do him bodily-harm. Undaunted, Pryor pivoted on his heels, exhorted the enemy combatants to “kiss my happy, rich, Black ass,” and walked off the stage.
In the days that followed, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair magazine and the Hollywood media mostly excoriated the comedian as “rude,” deranged, and even homophobic. The first allegation is most certainly true, the second arguable, but the last, given his stunning public admission of his own same-sex experience with a lifelong friend, was way wide of the mark.
The splintering of the suffering
However crude, Pryor’s reproach of Southern California’s gay community prophesied the tallest hurdle confronting progressives as they prepare to assemble Saturday in the nation’s capital for the second consecutive Women’s March, as part of a grassroots attempt to regroup to effectively challenge a White House openly flirting with despotism.
If class solidarity has historically been the greatest strength of American liberalism, the tendency for progressive social movements to splinter along racial lines has been its most glaring weakness. Never has this cleavage been more evident than now, as a de-industrializing economy conspires with isolating technology and a quisling media to unplug Americans from each other like never before.
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Those fissures so far have stalled any mobilization of progressives in the year since millions of dissidents, mostly women, marched on Washington and cities across North America to protest the Trump administration.
“I didn’t want to be a part of the march if it was going to be a white woman’s kumbaya march,” Jo Ann Hardesty, the president of the Portland NAACP chapter told a reporter for the Willamette Week. “Don’t forget,” read a sign held by an African-American woman, Angela People, as she nonchalantly sucked on a lollipop at the women’s rally at the nation’s capitol, “white women voted for Trump.”
Afro-Pessimism through the era of “progress”
The tension has come to be known in recent years as Afro-Pessimism, and indeed it has gained a certain cachet both in academic circles and among the Black Lives Matter generation, reared on a steady diet of videotaped police terror, shrinking job and educational opportunities, and a duopolistic political system that is, on its best day, wholly indifferent to black suffering. On its most molecular level, Afro-Pessimism is the understanding — as the late, great historian John Henrik-Clarke posited — that the descendants of Africa have “no friends nowhere,” a precept that is hardly new and, in fact, was learned tragically, and to great dramatic effect, by Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son.
Wright aimed his pen at the Communists who had joined with African-Americans to energize the transformative labor movements of the New Deal era, only to retreat to the comfortable confines of white privilege when blacks tried to expand the battleground from the factory floor to the voting booth. By putting the LGBT community on notice, Pryor’s Hollywood Bowl monologue bookends Wright’s foreshadowing of the fly-in-the-ointment just as the formula for modern liberalism was being finalized.
Alternately, Pryor’s critique was a petition for divorce, citing the irreconcilable differences that resulted from the 1 percent’s 70-year counteroffensive to drive a wedge between liberal allies. That campaign escalated sharply beginning in 1969 with the Nixon Administration’s Southern Strategy; J. Edgar Hoover’s pogrom against dissidents; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s infamous blueprint for combating progressive orthodoxy; and the media’s constant drumbeat depicting black savagery, as exemplified by Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry franchise, or the Washington Post’s fictional profile of a black 8-year-old heroin addict. By the time Pryor took the stage at the Hollywood Bowl, the liberal body politic in the U.S. lay mortally wounded on the operating table, its most vital arteries irrevocably severed and bleeding out.
The contradictions have only deepened in the years since, with blacks losing virtually all of the economic ground we’d gained in the postwar years, and then some. Born the same year that Wright published Native Son, Pryor came of age in a country that was, however tentatively, finding its Blues — be it the Beat Poets discovering their artistic voice in the music of Charlie Parker, or poor white Chicagoans from the foothills of Appalachia identifying common ground with the Black Panthers. Pryor himself was known for his collaborations and close friendships with Gene Wilder, Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams, and proposed marriage to his white girlfriend only days after the Hollywood debacle.
Afro-Pessimism doesn’t provide a treatment plan, or an organizing strategy, but rather serves as a diagnosis of what fundamentally ails the African in the Americas. “Afro-pessimism is primarily concerned with the question ‘what does it mean to suffer?’” said Frank Wilderson, a best-selling author and professor of African-American studies at the University of California at Irvine, who is widely considered the father of the discipline:
Marx assumes the essential oppressed unit in any society is the worker, and radical feminism posits that women suffer because they are, in fact, women. But Marxism and theories of feminist subjugation have an inadequate analysis of violence and are concerned chiefly with exploitation and alienation.
Neither addresses the essential nature of black subjugation, which is murder.”
Anecdotally, the principle that undergirds Afro-pessimism seems to be spreading like wildfire, particularly among black youths who’ve come of age in an era when societal indifference to the desecration of the black body is broadcast on YouTube, Facebook Live and Instagram. Wilderson travels the world explaining Afro-pessimism, which has especially taken hold among the Black Lives Matter crowd, and the ideology has begun to inform college debate competitions, film studies, and hip-hop:
What we’re seeing is that the world secures its rights and privileges through this ritualistic violence against black people. It is through our reproduction of the idea of a slave that we come to understand freedom. Violence against black people is absolutely necessary to build a sense of community and assure the psychic health of everybody else.”
“The point for me,” said one 41-year-old African-American who works in Silicon Valley and wanted to be identified only as “Shaka,” “is that black people in America can trust no one but each other. This world means us harm and nobody has our back; you’d have to be a fool to believe otherwise.”
Midway through Pryor’s stemwinder at the Hollywood Bowl, he digressed from any pretense of comedy for a moment, and made clear the true intent of his appearance that night. With a pained expression on his face, he momentarily transformed the auditorium into a church, the stage into a pulpit, and, as though pleading the blood, he testified.
“I wanted to test you,’ he said, his face disfigured in some amalgam of sorrow and rage, “to your motherfuckin’ soul.”
Top Photo | Skylar Barrett walks alone with an American flag in the middle of the street during a march through the Buckhead neighborhood against the recent police shootings of African-Americans on July 11, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP/David Goldman)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”