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Richard's Gone, But His Art Lives On



Anybody who was a fan couldn't have been surprised by news of legendary comic Richard Pryor's death today from a heart attack.

Indeed, if anything, we should be surprised he lived this long.

I guess I'm also surprised that it wasn't one of his many overdoses, an angry ex-wife, a freebasing accident or some random nastiness which took his life. Pryor, who would survive the kind of addictions and personal troubles which buried lesser men, was felled by the consequences of the one foe he couldn't overcome: multiple schlerosis. (See his official site, with its horribly ironic lead graphic, here)

For me, the fabulously self-destructive Pryor was always a bittersweet symbol of black pride and creativity. His comedy, rooted in the rhythms of the street and based on characters at the heart of black America -- the swaggering preacher, the know-it-all oldster Mudbone, the impossibly confident wino, the jive talking neighborhood dude -- gave us a voice back when we most needed one.

My earliest memory of Pryor's comedy was a family Christmas gathering many years ago. My mother and her siblings wound up behind a locked door at my grandmother's house -- the smell of mary jane and muffled snippets of his comedy routines seeping under the threshhold. Even then, consuming Pryor's comedy was a communal event for black folks, who had never seen a comic talk about the reality of black life in such a visceral, funny way.

Later, I would get my own copy of That Nigger's Crazy, playing the 8-track tape at low volume
so my mom wouldn't know how hip I was. I didn't have a father at home, but I saw all my friends' dads in Pryor's recollection about how his father demanded he "have his ass home by 'eleben.'

It remains a shame that so many young comics have taken Pryor's example as an excuse to sling profanities at a crowd. Because no matter how blue his routines got, Pryor was usually reaching for a more creative truth. The moment he declared, after a trip to Africa, that he didn't see any more niggers and would stop using the word -- was almost as powerful as the instant he decided to stop being a Bill Cosby clone early in his career and start telling the truth onstage.

When I teach courses about the image of black people on TV through history, I talk about the Supernegro image in the '60s exemplified in characters played by Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll -- near-perfect black folks who earned props from the white world by being far more talented, accomplished or attractive than any white people in their orbit (see this Wikipedia entry on another black character archetype, the Magical Negro).

For a time, Pryor tried to fit that mold as a comic. But it wasn't until he dropped all that pretense and showed the gritty, profane source of his creative spirit (mirroring the turn toward realistic portrayals of black folks on ghetto-coms such as Good Times) that he did his best work.

A few cool quotes:
"I went to Zimbabwe...I know how white people feel in America now, relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren't coming after me!"

"White people be going, 'Why do you hold on to your ...things?' 'Cause you took everything else muthaf

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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