One of the things about reaching a certain age in life (polite way of saying getting old) is you regularly receive word that people who have been part of the fabric of your life have passed on. Last Saturday, August 19, national media informed us that Brother Dick Gregory had joined the ancestors.
Too many young people have no idea why the world would pause to note the passing of this particular brother. This is a negative consequence of the rapid and radical economic and cultural change in American life. In spite of Facebook, Twitter and Google, we seem to be ignorant of everything.
I'm going retro to become that old man telling a story about how a man he met a long time ago changed the trajectory of his life.
It was 1968 or ‘69, the height of anti-Vietnam War movement and the Black Student Movement. The Black Panther Party, led by Bobby Seal and Huey P. Newton, had formally merged with Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book was required reading. The revolution was inevitable and eminent!
It was in that turbulence that I first encountered Dick Gregory at Forest Park Community College in a windowless, overcrowded, overheated room talking to maybe 75-100 would-be revolutionary black college students. I went thinking I was going to get the usual fire-and-brimstone storm-the-Bastille and slay-The-Beast speech (that's what I came for). Instead, I got a lesson on education and life that became a North Star that has guided me for the last 50 years.
It's been 50 years and I only heard him speak these words one time, but they remain etched in my memory; I still remember them verbatim, like it was yesterday. He spoke about why we were at a university and what was the purpose of education. I'll summarize it like this: The purpose of an education is not to learn how to make a living, rather it's to learn how to live a life.
He had several memorable analogies that illustrated the point he was making, but it's the sage advice that he closed with that's been my guide from that day to this. I quote: “If you learn how to live, making a living will be the easiest thing you ever have to do. Bar none!”
This advice has not only became my personal value system for my education, but it is the foundation of how I think about my role as a member of the State Board of Education.
I've met many smart men during the course of my life, but Dick Gregory was more than smart – he was wise. Every encounter with him, no matter how brief, make you smarter and better. He had the serenity and power that come from connection with higher truths. Like all pursuers of higher truths, he had abandoned the pursuit of commercial success that's the shiny object of today's shallow American culture.
You see, before there was Bill, Richard, Eddie, Chris or Dave, there was Dick Gregory. What you now take for granted, he made possible. He was the black comedian who took black humor mainstream and national. At the height of his success, he turned down the keys to the kingdom to fight for you before your parents knew you were coming.
So, my young brothers and sisters, that's who Dick Gregory is (I purposely didn't say was). As we prepare to celebrate the homegoing of an extraordinary man who had a life exceptionally well-lived, I give to you the gift he gave to me. Embrace it, cause like the old folks would say, he ain't go tell you nothing wrong.
Mike Jones, who has held senior policy positions in St. Louis city and county government, serves on the St. Louis American editorial board and the State Board of Education.