“Mark Twain threw it up in the air and I grabbed it”

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nigger Shelley Fisher Fishkin‘s new book, The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, is surprisingly addictive, as noted below.  Though the essays are uneven (George Orwell’s essay is at once prescient and dated in its historical and cultural assessments, and I could have done without Erica Jong’s still-stuck-in-the-60s piece on “deliberate lewdness”), a quick perusal showed that Dick Gregory‘s short essay, taken from his 2000 “updated” memoir, Callus on My Soul, is still compelling and powerful.  Ironically, it’s one of the handful of essays written by someone who is not primarily a writer; though it lacks the timeless elegance of T.S. Eliot or Jorge Luis Borges, it has the immediacy of a punch. An excerpt:

“There have only been three geniuses in comedy: Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor.  Mark Twain was the only one of the three who came out of the madness unscathed.  Of course writing is different from standing flat-footed onstage.  But he was so far ahead of his time that he shouldn’t even be talked about on the same day as other people.  Look what he did with his brilliant satire.  For the first time in the history of literature a White man talked about a relationship between a Black man and a White boy.  Black men didn’t even have names; they were referred to as ‘nigger.’  Then he wrote about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 and talked about ‘Nigger Jim.’  Today some people are outraged by that book and they have banned it from many school districts.  That’s really a shame, because the truth is that Twain was the first writer to refer to us as someone other than a nigger.  He attached a name to nigger and made Jim human. …callus

When asked why he called his earlier, best-selling autobiography Nigger, Gregory answered in his foreword, “Whenever you hear the word Nigger, you’ll know they’re advertising my book” — relevant to the rest of the essay in Fishkin’s book, which continues:

“People were afraid to ask for my book, and bookstore owners were afraid to put it in their stores.  Some Black folks would go into a bookstore and say, ‘I want one of Dick Gregory’s what-you-call-it.’  They just couldn’t say the word. And White folks would say, ‘You named that book a title I just can’t say.’ Or they would complain, saying, ‘I just can’t stand the name of your new book.’ I didn’t hear White folks complaining about the word nigger when I was growing up.  I only heard them using it.  If they had complained about the word nigger in the past, there would not have been a need to name my book Nigger. Titling my book Nigger meant I was taking it back from White folks.  Mark Twain threw it up in the air and I grabbed it.”

An interesting postscript from Editor Shelley:  Dick Gregory’s essay is one of my favorites in the book. I only wish he hadn’t made the same mistake that Hemingway & Leslie Fiedler & Norman Mailer and others made of referring to Jim as “Nigger Jim.” Twain never did — and he never would have. Twain’s first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, was the first to refer to Jim this way, and others followed suit. But any reader can see for herself that in the novel, Twain never refers to Jim by that name. — Shelley Fisher Fishkin


One Response to ““Mark Twain threw it up in the air and I grabbed it””

  1. Shelley Fisher Fishkin Says:

    Dick Gregory’s essay is one of my favorites in the book. I only wish he hadn’t made the same mistake that Hemingway & Leslie Fiedler & Norman Mailer and others made of referring to Jim as “Nigger Jim.” Twain never did — and he never would have. Twain’s first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, was the first to refer to Jim this way, and others followed suit. But any reader can see for herself that in the novel, Twain never refers to Jim by that name.

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