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Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Another great emancipator from Illinois

Richard Pryor 1940-2005

We hesitate to acknowledge the truly magnificent on a blog because it subjects them to the cloying, self-sucking puerility through which people on blogs treat matters of intellect and taste. Most bloggers operate under the delusion that their endorsements or condemnations of a work of art or an artist matter. Nothing records the decline of American culture into infantile egocentrism and gratification and the failure of education to teach the art of genuine discernment like blogs. We risk exposing Richard Pryor to stupidity and disrespect by writing about him on a web log, but he dealt with those aspects of humankind all his life and transcended them.

Two people who made lasting contributions to America died over the weekend. Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy. Both were writers who scripted their own public performances, Richard Pryor's in entertainment and Eugene McCarthy's in politics. Both were men of genius and genuine wit.

Richard Pryor was born and raised in Peoria. He was brought up in a whorehouse run by his grandmother. His mother was an erstwhile prostitute and his father an erstwhile pimp. This circumstance may be acknowledged in honkeyland by a great clattering of clucking tongues, but it demonstrates the etymology of the word motherfucker.

Peoria was a squalid town. Illinois of the 1940s and 1950s was full of squalid industrial towns where factory workers lived under a film of grime and soot as they led lives from factory, to cottage, to gin mill. Companies like Caterpillar, which regards its employees as brute sources of labor without rights, dominated the town. Few black people found employment in the factories. The employers preferred white niggers on their production lines. Black people had to find ways to survive and support families, and prostitution was one of them.

The term motherfucker applies to this situation. It comes out of a ritualized insult contest known to blacks at "counting the dozens." It refers to the patrons of women who supported their families in part by prostitution. It has nothing to do with incest. It imparts a certain diffident aspect of a fact of black life. A child may not appreciate those men who are fucking his or her mother, but they put food on the table. Frank McCourt gives another take on this circumstance in Angela's Ashes. The word motherfucker at once acknowledges a great indignity imposed by poverty and the determination to survive in circumstances of degradation and denial. It is at once tragic and funny as self-parody when used by black people.

Richard Pryor knew profoundly what the word means and the weight of history that it carries. The word informs the comic routines and comic characters that he created. Motherfucker and nigger are terms for the situations that formed the boundaries of life for people like Richard Pryor as he grew up. He used those terms in satiric humor which broke through those boundaries.

One of most powerful works in popular culture to lend some shattering blows to America's racism is Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Richard Pryor was a co-writer of the film. In the original proposal for the film submitted to prospective investors, Pryor was slated for the role played by Cleavon Little. Investors thought he was too black and raw to risk putting in that part. Although he did not get the part, Pryor's writing pervades the film. The blunt language in satiric context that characterizes his comedic art is abundantly apparent in the film.

A classic moment of Pryor's repertoire came when he and Chevy Chase were doing a word association routine on Saturday Night Live:

Chase: Tell me your first reaction to these words. Ok. "Porch Monkey."

Pryor: "Honkey."

Chase: "Junglebunny."

Pryor: "Honkey Honkey."

Chase: "Nigger."

Pryor: "Dead Honkey."

Pryor was a force in emancipating many people from the chains of ignorance and racism that reached past slavery to hold people in social and cultural bondage. He gave blacks a way to appreciate their culture and he disabused many honkeys of theirs.

His work, after being sidelined by Multiple Sclerosis for the last 20s, underscores what the Katrina aftermath is all about. And Pine Ridge. His death produces retrospectives of his work, which causes alarm at the kind of things that America has become.

When can America become what America can become? In word or two: dead honkey.

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