Forty years ago this 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 18th 1977, and after prowling the stage for a few moments 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.
“You don’t want the police to kick your ass if you’re sucking the dick, and that’s fair,” Pryor continued. “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 to go on backstage, 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 assistance, 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. Nonplussed, 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.
However crude, Pryor’s reproach of Southern California’s gay community prophesied the tallest hurdle confronting progressives as they regroup to 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, and our own humanity, like never before.
Consider, as one visible example, the pronounced fissures that resurfaced in January when millions of dissidents, mostly women, marched on Washington DC and cities across the country to 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, Angelas People, as she nonchalantly sucked on a lollipop at the women’s rally at the nation’s capitol “white women voted for Trump.”
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. 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 40-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.
But while the comedic genius was spot-on in his critique of the gay community’s abandonment of the very allies who taught them how to stand up for themselves, righteous indignation does not a social movement make. It’s a numbers game, if nothing else. Afro pessimism may make perfect sense as a strategy for the nearly one billion Africans who live south of the Saharan desert, but blacks in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, the United States and elsewhere have no choice but to coalesce with working class allies whose struggles are similar to our own.
In other words, there is no Afro pessimistic strategy for coping with the health care crisis that ails the country, or rebuilding a hollowed-out, speculative economy that produces nothing of material value, or demolishing a dysfunctional, regressive tax system.
“The mass movement is the key to everything,” the intellectual CLR James once said, “thus it has always been and thus it shall always be.”
That said, it would be unwise for Africans in the Americas to dismiss the inevitable defection of allies from broad-based political and social movements. For myriad reasons I’ve never cottoned to the idea of reparations in the form of a cash payment, but maybe we can spark the fire this time with an eye on creating a network of African villages–Beloved Communities, utopian Bantustans, urban quilombos, however you want to think of it– within the American metropolis, a cityscape of transformative institutions–schools, media, workers’ collectives, credit unions, cooperatives, law-enforcement agencies and so on–that are deeded to the people and mandated to remain so for time immemorial.
Five hundred years after the African first stepped foot in the Americas, we are no better than guest workers, or sojourners, in the country of our birth. We need to carve out space solely for ourselves–maybe through tax-increment financing or empowerment zones– but we need help to do it. We’ve toiled in these fields for far too long without recompense.
And perhaps this is the best use of Afro pessimism in building a resistance movement. It can be a conversation starter, the tallying of a historical balance sheet in which Americans debts are so far in arrears, that blacks can no longer be made whole in a strictly material sense.
A spiritual reckoning is due.
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.”