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Editor's Choice: 'Defining Moments in Black History'

“Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies” by Dick Gregory

Amistad, 236 pages, $24.99

When Dick Gregory died Aug. 19 at the age of 84, he was still almost a month away from publication of this book. Had he lived and been vigorous enough to flog the book everywhere possible on the book hype tour, there is no question in my mind that this book would have been launched into serious American consciousness.

We’d have seen him venerated on all the talk shows that matter and some that don’t. He’d have been on “CBS Sunday Morning” and who knows what else.

It’s a milestone book--the final testament of a great American sensibility which was tragically orphaned by the author’s mortality just before publication. It’s a summing up and probably as welcome as any book Gregory ever wrote. He wasn’t just the first black comedian of them all but a man who, for the rest of his life, was a tireless activist and, as he puts it “let’s not forget, conspiracy theorist.” (Read him on Martin Luther King’s assassination.).

The truth about Gregory is even at the beginning, humor was just his way of being a razor-sharp social critic. His contemporary in black comedy, Godfrey Cambridge, was funnier. But Gregory took his American “otherness” into something that, at times, almost seemed to bid for sainthood.

So this challenging, hugely readable book is the Gregory’s--eye-view of Black America right up to “Black Lives Matter” and the film “Get Out.” The title word “black” is struck out to get across that black history is American history. He wants us to know that Nat Turner’s was not the only slave revolt and that Rosa Parks, when she wouldn’t give up her bus seat, had Emmett Till on her mind.

He said he’d place John Brown as Number One “if I had to make out a list of the fifty most important people who ever lived in the history of planet Earth” but that Abraham Lincoln “didn’t care one way or the other about black folks.”

Both Malcolm X and Richard Pryor, says Gregory, “had something in common. They were both so bashful they’d embarrass you. They’d pull their heads down; couldn’t look up at folks.” A landmark American book whose author, tragically, didn’t live to force us to admit it.


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