July 8, 1979 was my 16th birthday. One of the presents I received was a cassette of Bicentennial Nigger by Richard Pryor. I’d asked for it. My high school classmates had said it was funny, and of course the name is cool.
Is it funny? It’s hilarious. I played it so many times that I inadvertently memorized it. In the next few years, I’d enjoy finding everything he made before Bicentennial Nigger, and buying each new album after Bicentennial Nigger. As luck would have it, I memorized them as well. I had the entire Richard Pryor catalog in my brain.
1981 through 1983, I attended a predominately black college in a ghetto of Tampa, Florida. I learned a lot about myself, since I’d always thought of myself as an enlightened whitey.
I don’t remember the details, but presumably somebody said something that reminded me of a bit by Richard Pryor, and I repeated it. I love Richard’s insight and humor, and I’ve been known to share it when it’s appropriate.
And so it begins.
Picture half a dozen black teenagers piling onto a city bus and taking over the back rows. We like the back of the bus, okay? More room. Now picture them saying things to the little white boy like “Do the dearly departed” or “Do the goodnight kiss.” The goodnight kiss was their favorite.
“Wake up your mamma too.”
I recited every one they asked for, over and over again, before class or after class or between classes or in public or wherever, using Richard’s brilliant comic timing and in a fair approximation of his voice. I did say nigger, same as I did every other word Richard used. It was okay with my classmates. My friends.
Richard’s material means a lot to me. It always did. But for those two special years, he took on an additional meaning in my life. Without my college life, I wouldn’t have the sense and sensitivity to relate to people of various and sundry races the way that I do. It’s an ability that served me well in college, while managing hog farms that employed only Mexicans and Hondurans, and in China. Thanks, Rich.
This is an excerpt from Who Moved My Rice?