What can we learn from these black celebrities' lives?
By: Scott Woods
12 months ago
2017 has been a year of many firsts and lasts, but the word that comes to my mind foremost is “change.” You’d think we’d all be tired of hearing that word after eight years of Obama, but it’s only now, through the upheaval of a dissolving public discourse — not to mention the upheaval of whatever rock the literal Nazis have been hiding under — that I really feel the weight of change, and its cost. It’s as if America at large finally responded to Obama by saying, “Oh, you want to see change?” and then proceeded to flip every table in Washington D.C. not nailed to the floor.
How do we make our way through such a time of instability and uncertainty? One thing that can help is what people have done forever: consulting the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us.
In looking back over the list of famous people who passed away in 2017, I am drawn to the ones who look like me: the Fats Dominos and the Al Jarreaus and the Tamara Maddens. The list of black celebrities that passed away this year seems unusually long. After some significant blows in the previous year — Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gwen Ifill, Phife Dawg — it feels as if 2017 is going for volume: Prodigy, Robert Guillaume, Joni Sledge, Bunny Sigler, Junie Morrison, Mychael Knight… the list goes on.
With every day bringing a new battle for decency, common sense, and truth, the temptation is to wonder what the luminaries of our past would make of the world they have left behind. I’d like to take a different tack. Let’s consider what a few of these remarkable lives — four black celebrities we said goodbye to in 2017 — might tell us about how to navigate the increasingly combative and politically divided world we find ourselves living in.
SIMEON BOOKER (1918 – 2017)
Simeon Booker was a nose-to-the-grindstone journalist who used his craft to sharpen people’s awareness and push change in the early years of the civil rights era and for decades thereafter, reporting stories from the frontlines of racial inequity. In 1955, he convinced Emmett Till’s mother to allow him and a photographer to accompany her to the viewing of her son’s body. Booker then pressed Jet Magazine to publish the photos, adding necessary fuel to the early ignition of the burgeoning movement.
That journalistic act — revealing the complete, honest, horrifying image of the brutalized victim of a racist murder — very specifically continues to instruct activists and inform conversation on race today. This is what your country is capable of, the moment warns. And Booker made that happen. In a time when the debate over what constitutes fake news pours over the nation on a daily basis, Booker’s life reminds us that news has work to do beyond ratings and scintillation. Even if you believe that the job of the news is nothing more than to report facts, it’s still important to remember that there is a way and rhythm to that reporting that can inspire us to strive for our best selves as a nation.
Booker shows us that there is always a way to the truth — and that there’s power in wielding the truth bravely.
DELLA REESE (1931 – 2017)
When Della Reese passed away, America was split into two tribes: those who remember Della Reese for playing a warm and nurturing angel on the TV series “Touched By an Angel,” and those who remember Della Reese as a cursing and razor-wielding madame in the film “Harlem Nights.” (Anybody who doesn’t know her from one of these two sources is either a child or someone who should be checked going through airports.)
I have read numerous obituaries about Reese’s death. Most of them don’t even mention “Harlem Nights.” No surprise there. Beyond telling us about the majority audience for most media outlets, the absence of this credit speaks to the main reason why racism continues to plague our society: While we as a country love to play at diversity, we refuse to acknowledge the cultural gaps that undermine a genuine understanding of who we are as a people.
I don’t know a black person of any background or politic over a certain age who doesn’t know what I’m referencing when I say, “Oh, you want to hit people with garbage cans. Now I got to cut you.” Leaving “Harlem Nights” out of Reese’s life story doesn’t just fail to convey the breadth of her popularity. It fails to convey her. There was a Reese behind the angel, a hilarious multi-talented force of nature that came out of key African-American traditions — comedy, music and tastemaking — and to dismiss or be unaware of her most outstanding late-career portrayal is, again, telling. It’s like not knowing where she comes from at all, or that where she came from is still here.
Reese shows us that it is imperative to remember not what we want to, but what we must.
DICK GREGORY (1932 – 2017)
Then there’s comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who went to his grave telling America about itself.
Gregory didn’t just come from the black comic tradition, he pushed it forward: He pioneered black comedy into white spheres without the song and dance routine that had always accompanied it before. Gregory would be a legendary figure if we just stuck to his contributions to comedy — without him, you don’t get Cosby or Pryor, at least not the way we got them — but then, beyond the stage, he proceeded to turn his sharp eye and the power of his celebrity toward the civil rights struggle. Across generations, whether he was cracking jokes, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, or running for president of the United States, Dick Gregory gave the world exactly what it had coming.
You might not always agree with him — he never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like — but you always knew what he thought of you, and it didn’t matter if you were a politician, iconoclast or interviewer. Gregory was so hardcore that he’s one of only a handful of people to criticize the Honorable Elijah Muhammad to Malcolm X’s face.
If anyone ever embodied the importance of living as unapologetic a life as possible, particularly where the lives and care of others are concerned, it was Dick Gregory.
CHUCK BERRY (1926 – 2017)
Chuck Berry is more difficult to assess now as the year closes than he was when his death was announced in March. On the one hand, while he didn’t invent rock ’n’ roll, he absolutely shaped rock as we know it, from composition to melodic guitar to stage presence. When you consider how ubiquitous and influential music is — and how much of it has been informed for the last 60 years by his contributions alone — Berry’s legacy is ironclad. Without Chuck Berry, rock music does not look, sound, or inspire as we know it. And no small part of me wants to point out, again and forever, how black people have invented yet another thing that others claim for themselves.
On the other hand, Berry was not only unlikeable, but morally repugnant. He was arrested multiple times in his life under generally uncontested conditions, most notably involving women. In the era of Cosby, Confederate statues, and the burgeoning #MeToo movement, society is whiplashed by the struggle between the import of legacy versus justice on a daily basis. How we will navigate Berry — who made it under the wire before national conversations about sexual harassment and abuse gained critical populist traction — and his ilk beyond this moment will be telling.
What do we do with world-changing genius we cannot divorce from behavior we cannot abide? Is it a national conversation over values, or is it a million personal conversations that we have all suddenly become aware of and must learn to prioritize? What do we do with “Johnny B. Goode?” And what will the answers say about how America values women or victims or justice? There are more obvious targets than Berry right now — walking, breathing targets who, to date, have gone largely unpunished — but what will we do with the valid contributions of these people when they die? We could be using Berry to unravel that knot now.
Berry’s passing presents us with the challenge of determining how we shield and nurture the soul of our country through its least protected.
FROM 2017 TO THE FUTURE
All deaths offer us the chance to consider not only the import of the people we have lost, but the ways in which the interpretation of their legacies should instruct our future. This reading is only a meager slice from an already largely overlooked list of people whose absence has something to teach us — about not just the past in which they held court, but the stage we are setting, even now, for the future.
The past, in other words, is a guide. How will we choose to interpret it? That’s up to us.
Scott Woods is a librarian, writer, poet, and critic who runs one of the most successful poetry open mics in the Midwest. You can buy his books, Urban Contemporary History Month (2016) and We Over Here Now (2013), in all major online retail outlets. He last wrote for Legacy.com to pay tribute to the anniversary of Prince's passing.