As a high school student, I began listening to the brilliant comedian Richard Pryor. His recent passing reminds me of how he shaped my political consciousness. With wisdom and wit, Pryor spoke to individual and social relations in the U.S. His special focus was on the color line, the main ingredient for America's class system.
Listening and re-listening to Pryor caused me, slowly but surely, to reflect critically on what I thought I knew about blacks and whites, and the over-all status quo. With each laugh, I grew more aware of the concept of race and class inequality. Insanity, I thought. Though dimly aware of it at the time, I was beginning to question what black author James Baldwin termed the "lie of whiteness."
What? Whiteness is a racial identity built upon negation.
One is white or believes in whiteness because s/he self-identifies as being non-black, non-brown, non-red, and/or non-yellow. This is not an affirmation of one's humanity but a declaration of one's un-humanity.
Here then, is what I understood to be a major social truth Pryor wrestled with in his performances. Maybe this is why when I finally saw him he smiled without a sign of it in his eyes.
It was a sight, I tell you. Did you see what I saw?
Pryor helped me to see what I had not seen, a nothingness of pigmentation for what it is. How?
Credit his power of superb observation. To that end, Pryor had some people who looked like me “but with greater authority, like the cops” down pat, versus the African Americans under them.
Consequently, Pryor's white and black, male and female, characters banged around my head. In 1974, the year I graduated from high school, Pryor was at the top of his craft.
Pryor's incisive routines from that year included "Black and white life styles", "Exorcist" and "Wino and junkie". They can be found on a recording that won him a Grammy.
Thanks for educating me in ways that my formal teachers never did or could, Richard Pryor. R.I.P.
Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive paper. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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