Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Black Ministers

GREGORY: There was something inside of me that kept telling me, "This ain't right. This is not right."

BOND: Well, if it doesn't come from your mother, if your father's absent, where does that come from? Where do you get that? Where did you get the feeling that you can change things?

GREGORY: The school. The church.

BOND: Most people think they can't. Who -- did anybody ever say, or set an example?

GREGORY: Let me tell you two things and segue into what you said. So, now she's friendly ‘cause she's -- now she's my mother. And she says to me, "How come you don't want to say the blessing?" Nice, a friendly voice, not hostile.

BOND: Right.

GREGORY: I said, "Mom, I believe if I went to bed and didn't eat tonight, I don't believe I would die." I said, "Mom, I believe if I went to bed with no money tonight, I don't believe I would die. But if you held my nose and mouth for five minutes and I couldn't get no oxygen, I would die and you ain't never told me to thank God for oxygen." [So I resent it.] And from, all my life I've always said "thank you for the oxygen."

And then my wealth, my power to make money come from that date. Because I realized if oxygen is this important and there's a God that give me an abundance of it, the Ku Klux Klan, as evil as they are, don't get no less oxygen. The Pope, Mother Teresa, as nice as she was, don't get no more oxygen. And if 10,000 people walked in this room right now, me and you don't get no less oxygen. And if 40,000 walk out, we don't get no more oxygen. So I said, back then, "If God gives me something this valuable, then this other stuff, man, there's a reason I haven't got it." Now I didn't know it was racism, I didn't know it was the mindset.

Now let's go back to where'd I get this from.

BOND: Yeah.

GREGORY: Well, let me skip up. I called my wife one day from New York and said, "Babe, I'm getting on the plane. I'll be there." And my car's always parked at the airport in Boston, we live six to eight miles down the road. So I always call her when I get to the airport, "Hey babe, how you feel?" My daughter said, "Dad, Dad, hurry home, Yohance been in a bad accident; they don't expect him to live, and Ma's on the way to the hospital. She just left me here to tell you." So I heard her say they don't expect him to live.

And I hung the phone up, but while I'm hanging up I look down and I got on a pair of $22,000 boots. I've got a pair of socks on that cost $300. I've got a suit on that costs $22,000 -- oh no, $27,000. I got a shirt on, a white dress shirt, that cost $1,500. I got a tie that cost $750. I got a handkerchief in my lapel that cost $90. I got a belt on that cost $3,000. I got a pocketful of money and big credit cards, and I don't have nothing in my pocket and nothing on that can help that boy. And then as I was about ready to walk away from the phone, I thought about Reverend [James E.] Cook and the Antioch Baptist Church. He was dead then. He used to rip and run across the stage and yell and scream and sweat would come down. He had a hankie as big as a bedspread and when he got through with all of that, he stopped and he said, "When you try everything and it don't work, try God." That's -- I thought about that.

BOND: But before then you never thought about that, you never thought about God?

GREGORY: No, I thought about God, but I hadn't heard his voice saying, "Try God." I realized nothing I got -- see? Anybody, a whole lot of people be talking about God. Go to the Army and make the sign of the cross before you kill somebody, that ain't God. All these Christians love God, the Mafia, syndicate, scum of the earth. When these white folk decide to name them godfather, there are no Christians complain. Huh? Tell me about it.

And, so all at once now, I got to thinking about how'd I become a comic. St. Louis, Missouri? Man, there ain't no nightclubs. Only comics I heard was on the radio. Bob Hope, and I thought that stuff was silly. So then one day I had to do an interview and a guy asked me, "Where'd I learn from?" and it dawned on me -- the black minister. The black minister, fifty-two Sundays of the year. You don't get the same sermon. They so funny. I laugh, you know! They have you rolling, and nobody wrote it for them.

Okay, and then the black family, the old aunts come tell the same story every Christmas. And then I realize -- and then my school. People pulled you over, and they said, "I've been watching you."

And then also you must remember a thing called "joning" and "playing the dozens." And the dozens always was about your momma. Now the reason for that is, there was a time if a baby was born deformed, the woman always got blamed for it -- there was something wrong with the woman. Never the man. And so consequently, the dozens was about your momma, because if you was ugly, it had to be about your momma, never the father. Now here's where the dozens came about, the dozens -- If we go back to slavery, then remember the one white person who you were safe with was the white man that sold slaves, that was good white man. You know why? ‘Cause he couldn't bruise me no more then the Cadillac man can scratch a car if he got mad, ‘cause you ain't going to buy it. Okay, so my physical trauma came from the person who bought me. So now most white folks could not participate in slavery ‘cause they didn't have the money, so whenever a slave was born crippled or deformed, that one couldn't be sold, okay? So those poor white folks that couldn't afford slavery, they could come and buy a dozen of them. Now remember, a dozen of deformed, crippled Negroes, with that being blamed on the mother.

So that's where "playing the dozens" came from. "Man, your momma so ugly -- " It's never your daddy, and so everybody would jump on me about my momma. "Oh, your momma don't know where you daddy is, man." And then one day it dawned on me, "Man, you don't need to cry." So I'd see them coming and everything -- and Lord, it's funny now, except it ain't funny when it's about you.

BOND: Right.

GREGORY: So I would remember the things they said about me, and I would start saying them about them. "Man, your momma's legs are so skinny she ought to sue them for non-support." They'd been saying that about my legs, man.

BOND: Yeah.

GREGORY: And then all at once I realized that if I can get you to laugh -- I've got you. So all the way through high school, man, if there was a crowd out in the lobby, in the hallway, that was Brother Greg.