Tyler Perry Studios Grand Opening Gala
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Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarrasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.

But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”

The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.

"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."

Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?

There are other reasons people criticize Tyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.

Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends, and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, it's in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.

With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit—even when the end result may not be to your taste.

When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken Sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.

And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.

“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame. 

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Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.

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Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele

How Ghostface Killah's 'Supreme Clientele' Breathed Life Back Into The Wu-Tang Clan

Twenty years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan found themselves at a crossroad. The collective out of Staten Island that spurred the resurgence of New York City hip-hop with their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and planted their flag atop the mountaintop again with their sophomore LP, Wu-Tang Forever, was on the brink of watching their dynasty crumble right before their eyes. Upon inking their deal with Loud Records as a group, the contract included a clause that allowed each individual member to release solo albums on competing labels. These groundbreaking terms resulted in a succession of classic albums from Wu, including Method Man's Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., GZA's Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah's Ironman, all of which were released within a two-year span. The commercial success of these albums establishing each member as individual stars, as well as Wu-Tang Forever's international acclaim, brought Wu-Mania to unprecedented heights, bringing RZA's five-year plan for supremacy to completion.

However, following Wu-Tang Forever, their hot streak began to simmer, as the second wave of solo albums from the crew brought back diminishing returns, commercially and otherwise. While RZA (Bobby Digital in Stereo), Inspectah Deck (Uncontrolled Substance), and U-God (Golden Arms Redemption) all unleashed their solo debuts, those releases, as well as sophomore efforts from Method Man (Tical 2000: Judgement Day), Raekwon (Immobilarity), GZA (Beneath the Surface) and Ol' Dirty Bastard (Nigga Please), were given underwhelming reviews and deemed disappointing in comparison to their previous work. And with a new class of stars like Jay-Z, DMX, Master P, Ja Rule, The Hot Boys and others backed by burgeoning movements of their own, the Wu's reign was threatened to end prematurely, their time as the undisputed top dogs in rap having passed them by. As whispers about the Wu's ability to return to form began to become a real question in rap circles, Ghostface Killah silenced that noise with his sophomore release, Supreme Clientele, an album that ushered the Wu sound into the new millennium and established him as one of the most captivating wordsmiths of all time.

Co-starring on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and earning a platinum plaque off the strength of his own 1996 solo debut, Ironman, Ghostface Killah had become a budding star. Initially donning a ski mask during live performances while on the run from the law, the Stapleton Projects native was a capable emcee, as evidenced by his appearances on 36 Chambers, but rough around the edges and seemingly lacked the commercial appeal of groupmates like Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. However, Ironman, which included the Mary J. Blige-assisted hit single "All That I Got is You," as well as the fan favorites "Daytona 500," "Winter Warz" and "Camay," was hailed as a quality body of work, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The following year, in the wake of Ironman's release, Ghostface Killah, a lifelong diabetic, made a trek to West Africa to seek out alternative healing methods to help cope with his bouts with high blood pressure.

In addition to the organic treatments he received, Ghostface, who was joined by RZA during his stay, also gained inspiration from the culture of Benin, where happiness was a way of life, in spite of the impoverished conditions its natives were subjected to. Years later, the rapper would touch on how his visit to Africa left a lasting impact, altering his view of the world around him and giving him a sense of spiritual clarity. “F**k all this Tommy Hilfiger, Polo…all this sh*t…they don’t give a f**k about none of that over there. Everything is the same,” he said. “But over here, everybody wanna be better than the next one…They might be f**ked up, money-wise, but trust me, them muthaf**kas is happy, man. Them ni**as in harmony ‘cause they got each other.” Upon his return stateside, GFK arrived with the lyrics for "Nutmeg," the first song written for his then-untitled sophomore album, as well several other songs that ultimately wound up on the album. However, in the midst of this burst of creativity, more pressing matters, of the legal variety, awaited him at home.

Charged with robbery, stemming from a 1995 incident outside of Manhattan nightclub Palladium, during which a valet attendant was allegedly assaulted and robbed of $3,000, Ghostface was facing the possibility of a prison sentence of five to fifteen years if convicted. Making matters worse, in December 1997, he was arrested in Harlem for weapons possession and wearing a bulletproof vest after being stopped by police for a traffic violation. Continuing to record amid the drama, Ghostface spent much of 1998 hunkering down in the studio recording material for Supreme Clientele, with a tentative release date slated for early in the following year. "Mighty Healthy," the first song liberated in support of Supreme Clientele, hit radio soon after, with the Mathematics-produced cut serving as a slice of the zany brand of rap GFK would be delivering soon enough. However, Ghostface's decision to take a plea deal in the 1995 robbery case in February 1999 resulted in the rapper receiving a sentence of six months in prison and five years probation, delaying the album indefinitely.

Released in May, after serving four months of his sentence, GFK got back to work, putting the finishing touches on the album in various studios in New York and Miami. RZA., who had taken a backseat in terms of his contribution to the production on Wu albums post-Wu-Tang Forever, worked closely alongside Ghostface in curating the sound and direction of the album, overseeing the mixing process and adding additional wrinkles to tracks supplied by other boardsmen. This proved to be a major selling point, as RZA's absence from Immobilarity, Raekwon's anticipated follow-up to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., was duly noted and attributed to the album’s failure to live up to its predecessor. With RZA in the fold and Ghostface as creatively invigorated as ever, Supreme Clientele was gearing up to be a seismic undertaking, with Ghostface positioned as the unlikely hero tasked with saving the day and restoring the rap world's faith in the power of the Wu.

On February 8, 2000, after a year's worth of anticipation, Supreme Clientele, the first Wu-Tang release of the new millennium, hit shelves. Executive produced by RZA and Ghostface Killah, the album includes tracks from a mix of producers, including known commodities like Carlos Broady, JuJu, Mathematics, and Inspectah Deck, as well as relative newcomers Black Moes-Art, The Blaquesmiths, Carlos Bess, Choo the Specializt, and Hassan. Appearances by Wu members Cappadonna, GZA, Masta Killa, Method Man, Raekwon, Redman, RZA, and U-God, as well as affiliates Redman, Solomon Childs, Chip Banks, Hell Razah, and Lord Superb helped add additional flavor to the proceedings.

Supreme Clientele begins with an intro sampling audio from the Marvel Super Heroes cartoon, which leads into dialogue lifted from the “Iron Man Theme” by Jack Urbont, a contrast from Ironman, which saw RZA incorporating samples from the blaxploitation film Education of Sonny Carson to compliment Ghost's rhyme spills. Known for his unconventional brand of lyricism, GFK stretched the limits of listeners' imaginations out of the gate with "Nutmeg," the first song on the album and one that finds the rapper stringing random words together with no regard for coherency.

"Scientific, my hand kissed it," he raps, before littering the Black Moes-Art produced track with enough slang and non sequiturs to make E-40 blush. Powered by an interpolation of "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers, the track is the perfect theme for a ghetto superhero tasked with demolishing sucker emcees with futuristic flows and kicking truth to the young black youth. Joined by RZA, who makes the first of multiple appearances on the project with a visceral verse of his own, Ghostface Killah marks his return with a big splash via "Nutmeg," one of the most inventive rap songs to come out of the Wu-Tang camp. After touching the sky, Tony Starks levels back to earth on "One," produced by Juju of the Beatnuts, who builds a drum loop atop elements lifted from “You Roam When You Don’t Get It At Home,” by The Sweet Inspirations." Rhyming "Ayo, the Devil planted fear inside the black babies/Fifty cent sodas in the hood, they going crazy," Ghost's observations of poverty and despair in the black community are sprinkled in between carefree stanzas, a reminder that for all of the colorful couplets, knowledge always reigns supreme in his chamber.

Touching on his constant run-ins with the law on "Saturday Nite," Pretty Tone goes rogue on "Ghost Deini," which accounts for one of the most sobering salvos on the tracklist. Written in Miami, on the beach during a torrential downpour, "Ghost Deini'' finds its host passing down jewels while raging against the machine, proclaiming, "It's me against housing" atop a murky backdrop, courtesy of The Blaquesmiths. In addition to GFK's recollection of high-stakes jewelry heists, "Ghost Deini" is notable for guest star Superb's endearing performance, which finds the American Cream Team member mourning a fallen comrade and attempting to make sense of the madness of the world around him during a drunken rage. Raekwon doesn't join Ghostface for the whole ride this time around, but makes good use of his airtime on "Apollo Kids," the first of The Chef's pair of contributions to Supreme Clientele. Produced by Haas G of the U.M.C.'s, "Apollo Kids" finds Tony Starks comparing his rhyme style to baked ziti and scraping more food for thought on the plate to enhance our sonic palette. The second single released from the album was a moderate hit, peaking at No. 32 on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart, and is notable for its accompanying video, which see Ghostface rocking mink coats and barking rhymes while eating a golden ice cream cone in all his splendor.

Dialogue from Kung-Fu flick Shaolin Rescuers sets the tone for "Mighty Healthy," a standout offering that reasserts Ghostface and his fellow Wu Gambinos' dominance over the rap landscape. Boasting "The world can't touch Ghost, purple tape, Rae co-host" and anointing himself as the rap game's version of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, his mettle under pressure in the face of doubter's of his crew's staying power is unwavering, as evidenced by his virtuoso performance on this Mathematics-produced outing. Supreme Clientele finds Ghostface flying solo on more occasions than not, but the moments that do include costars double as some of the most riveting moments on the album. The tension between Bad Boy Records and Wu-Tang now in the distant past, Hitman Carlos "6 July" Broady constructs a soulful composition in "We Made It," which features Superb, Hell Razah of Sunz of Man, and Chip Banks, who passed away shortly after the album's release. Future Theodore Unit rapper Solomon Childs pops up for an impressive appearance alongside Ghost and RZA on "Stroke of Death," a brain-melting cut that constitutes as cosmic slop at its finest. However, the most potent collaborative efforts on the tracklist find the Wally Champ locking in his Wu brethren, as Method Man, Redman and Capadonna collide on the raucous number "Buck 50," and "Wu Banga 101," which pairs him with GZA, Raekwon, Cappadonna and Masta Killa.

As engaging a storyteller as any artist next to Slick Rick, Ghostface Killah spins plenty a tale on Supreme Clientele, the most lucid being "Malcolm." Produced by Choo, the song, which begins with dialogue from Malcolm X's "After the Bombing" speech plastered atop a sample hijacked from "Going In Circles" by Isaac Hayes, blurs the lines between fiction and reality and touches on an alleged incident between Ghostface Killah's entourage and Ma$e, which reportedly left the Harlem World rapper with a broken jaw, during the second verse. Painting a vivid picture of the scene in painstaking detail, GFK brushes with broad strokes, the outcome being a cinematic offering that leaves you doubling back for more and covering your tracks any tidbits missed. In an era where contrived club bangers were standard fare, Ghostface throws his hat into the ring, albeit orgnaically, with "Cherchez La Ghost," a catchy mid-tempo ditty that reworks the '70s hit “Cherchez La Femme” by Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Featuring U-God, who delivers one of the most popular performances of his career, "Cherchez La Ghost" saw Pretty Toney beckoning the ladies to the dance-floor and was a breakout single, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot Rap Songs chart, his best showing as a soloist at that point in time.

In the wake of its release, Supreme Clientele garnered stellar reviews, with fans, critics, and even fellow rappers pegging it as a resurrection of sorts for the Wu-Tang Clan. Peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 with 134,000 copies sold in its first week, Supreme Clientele was certified gold within two months of its release, further cementing Ghostface as one of the most consistently viable members of the Wu. Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and RZA were initially predicted to lead the Wu-Tang Clan to the promised land, however, Ghostface Killah put the crew from Shaolin on his back at a time when many had begun to count them out, a feat that afforded him a newfound level of cache and respect as one of the leaders of the Wu in the eyes of the people. Controversy surrounding the album's creation occurred in 2004, when Superb claimed to have written Supreme Clientele in its entirety, which Ghostface Killah vehemently denied.

 

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Happy 20th to One of Creations !!! Blessed Hip Hop and the World with This Gem .... food for thought # 20thanniversary #supremeclientele #wutangforever #ghostfacekillah #wutang #wutangclan #tonystarks @rza @methodmanofficial @raekwon @mathematicswu @redmangilla @officialcappadonna @s_childs @ins_tagrams @ugod_zilla @therealgza @mastakillamusic

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"'Perb (Superb) is Rae's (Raekwon) man," Ghost later explained in an interview with Rhapsody Music. "He been in the studio a few times while we're doing shit. He ain't write shit. All 'Perb contributed was a couple of lines that you could put in the air. When we write, we all do that. ‘Say this one right here" or "Put this one right here.’ We all catch lines with each other 'cause you in the studio. You got niggas around you that write. Even if he did write a verse, he could never make an album of mine. He couldn't make an album, you feel me? I made Supreme Clientele what it is. Those are my stories, based around what they're based upon. It's me. I can't see what songs 'Perb wrote. He ain't write ‘Mighty Healthy’ or ‘One’ or ‘Apollo Kids’ or ‘Cherchez LaGhost’ or ‘Saturday Nite’ or ‘Malcolm.’” While Superb has never backed down from those claims, Ghostface's output following the release of Supreme Clientele, which includes close to a dozen solo studio albums and multiple collaborative albums, and the quality his music has sustained casts a heavy cloud of doubt over the validity of those allegations.

Ghostface Killah went on to release multiple albums that are considered classics in their own right, but Supreme Clientele remains the crown jewel of his solo career and one of the most brilliant rap releases of all time. Influencing the likes of Kanye West, who initially honed in on his sample-driven sound in hopes of working with GFK after hearing his work on the album. While those tracks ultimately wound up in the hands of Jay-Z and were included on The Blueprint and elsewhere, Kanye's affinity for Ghostface and Supreme Clientele is well-known, with Yeezy sampling "Mighty Healthy" in 2012 on his song "New God Flow," which included an appearance by GFK himself. Even more recently, Griselda/Shady Records rapper Westside Gunn has sung the album's praises, titling his own 2018 mixtape Supreme Blientele in honor of the original. With 20 years having passed since it first touched down, Supreme Clientele's place among the holy grail of rap albums is secure as ever and serves as a friendly reminder that while ebbs and flows come and go, the Wu-Tang Clan is indeed forever.

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Civil rights leader Rosa Parks (left) attends a rally for 1984 US Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in Detroit.
Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Rosa Parks, The Unsung Hero Of Black Wellness

Black icons are often revered as strong, resilient and steadfast and no one fits the profile like civil rights icon Rosa Parks. On what would've been her 107th birthday, those words are still fitting, but others come to mind thanks to Parks' little-known relationship with mindfulness.

Recently, an exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., showcased the civil rights icon in a new light. Presented in Dec. 2019, "Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words" featured Parks' poetic and touching writing and her love for healthy practices like yoga and meditation. The photos circulated on social media showed Parks breaking out a few yoga moves while preparing for a speaking engagement in March 1973.

One photo showed Parks in Dhanurasana, better known as the Bow Pose. As a backend stretch, the move helps the entire body and revive the Throat Chakra (Vishuddha), Heart Chakra (Anahata/chest), Solar Plexus (Manipura/upper abdomen area), Sacral Chakra (Swadisthana/lower abdomen) and Root Chakra (Muladhara/base of the spine).

Another photo seems to be her starter pose which resembles Virasana, better known as the Hero Pose.

How fitting is that?

 

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The Hero Pose helps ignite the Sacral and Root Chakras. It isn't known if Parks participated in modern yoga, but she was health-conscious due to issues with her heart. Because Parks was such an avid writer, she had notes on her yoga poses which look like reminders on how to relax her spine.

Penned on a sheet from the Ohio Black Women's Leadership Caucus, the notes were taken on January 8, 1981, proving how dedicated she was on her wellness journey. The exhibition also notes how she added Buddhist mediation to her prayers (she was a lifelong member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) and became a vegetarian in her senior years.

In the 2015 book Auntie Rosa by Parks’ niece Sheila McCauley Keys and writer Eddie B. Allen Jr., it was mentioned that she was a big fan of reusing plastic bags, foil, paper bags, and glass jars in order avoid waste and coins. This was also connected to her love for writing. If you haven't noticed, Parks would write on anything, including a pharmacy bag. She penned manuscript notes on it that would eventually appear in her 1994 book, Quiet Strength.

“We need to continue the struggle to realize our goal of equality," her notes read. "The dream of which Dr. King spoke—one that should be held by all—has yet to be realized. So the movement continues.”

Wellness has made its way to the forefront as of late with increasing conversations around black mental health. Recent studies have shown how Black Americans have now endured a new kind of trauma by way of police killings. Sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, it was discovered that police killings of unarmed Black Americans have increased paranoia, anxiety and for some, depression in Black Americans. In 2018, there were over 6.8 million Black Americans with a diagnosable mental illness. As we continue to break stigmas around black mental health, it's sweet to know that one of America's most important trailblazers was doing the same in her own special way.

Check out the photos and notes from the "Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words" exhibit here.

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Photo of Richard Pryor, circa 1970.
Michael Ochs Archives

We Owe Richard Pryor A Conversation

There’s been a lot of talk about Black comedy over the last couple of years; about impact, talent, and value. Mo’nique sued Netflix, while Kevin Hart lost his long-coveted Oscar hosting gig and turned his road to redemption into a Netflix check. Tiffany Haddish has faced accusations of nae nae’ing her way to the top too quickly, Dave Chappelle made a long-awaited return to the screen with his most controversial special yet, and Eddie Murphy began a comeback as well. There’s a lot of chatter about who’s worth what, who’s done what, who’s earned what, who owes whom what, and what exactly the role of a comedian is in responsible social discourse. But in all this chatter, there is one unnamed career that shadows the rest: none of these ni**as would have jobs without Richard Pryor, and we don’t talk about him nearly enough.

I understand why Pryor isn’t mentioned in current conversation often; at this point, he’s a grandfather of comedy. He’s the second generation of Black celebrity comedians, the first generation of integrated entertainment, and the first-ever winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He passed away 14 years ago, and he would have been 79 on December 1. He missed the opportunity for his interviews to go viral, for Jerry Seinfeld to talk to him about his craft on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which I highly recommend everyone watch, even if you just watch the episodes with Black comics), and God forbid, for Vlad to somehow yoke him up for a chat. Two recent specials, ABC’s The Last Days of Richard Pryor, and The Paramount Network’s I Am Richard Pryor Uncensored (2019) serve to finally place Pryor in the GOAT conversations, where he belongs. As a kid who grew up with mainstream, movie star Pryor -- post-set-himself-on-fire-freebasing Pryor -- I didn’t have a full understanding of his career evolution; the steps that had gotten him to that point. But now, as comedians and social commentators navigate the #MeToo movement, “Cancel Culture,” the absurd political landscape, and this faux post-racial, talking-about-racism-is-racist climate, it’s easier to see Pryor’s impact on modern comedy. His boldness in subject choices, his brilliance in translating them to a wide audience, and his struggle to find his place in a time when Black comedy was still fighting to be authentic in the white-controlled entertainment space still resonate today.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III is overdue for a proper celebration. He was acutely aware throughout his career that he was undervalued and underutilized, and it pissed him off.  So, consider this a “Give Pryor his Things” primer; these are the reasons we owe him more credit and acknowledgment as a comic great and a game-changer.

His Talent Was Versatile AF

As a kid growing up in brothels, around situations that were too grown even for some adults, Pryor developed and adaptability that included a gift for performance and entertainment of any kind. Magic tricks, half-playing some instruments, acting, and singing, which he played around with early in his career. He may not have been as good as Jamie Foxx, but he was at least as good as Eddie (no shade).

When Pryor filled out his discharge papers from the army, he listed his occupation as “actor,” even though he was on his way back to Peoria to work in a plant. Richard wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and creative, and was always frustrated that he wasn’t.

In the below clip from Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Pryor took 12 seconds of silence and packed it with years of pain. Over-the-top acting is easy. Doing a lot with a little is talent.

“(After) Lady Sings the Blues, I should have been one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood,” Pryor lamented in his autobiography. “There was talk of an Oscar nomination in the press. People knew that I’d co-written (Mel Brook’s) Blazing Saddles, one of the funniest pictures ever. I had ideas and talent. I deserved the type of multi-picture deal that... Spike Lee and Robert Townsend would get fifteen years later.”

There were pain and earnest vulnerability just beneath the surface of a lot of Pryor’s roles, like the titular character of The Wiz. His brilliance was the ability to let just enough of it through to make his characters real. He even held his own next to Cicely Tyson in Bustin’ Loose, a comedy about a bunch of ragtag Philly foster kids, a bougie social worker and a grumpy bus driver, which in retrospect had some heavy moments.

Had his height come a decade later, or had he been healthy longer, maybe Richard would finally have had the chance to show the full range of his ability.

He Was Woke, Early

When Pryor first started in comedy, he wanted to be one of the few who could do TV shows and white clubs – that was the money route. So he did a clean-cut act, borrowing his style heavily from non-threatening favorite Bill Cosby.

But there was none of him in the act; none of his life, none of his childhood growing up in Peoria, Ill. in brothels with prostitutes, gangsters, and hustlers. His star ascended, but he felt lost, creatively. In 1970, burnt out by the excess of LA and facing a failed marriage, he moved to Berkeley, Calif. There, in the epicenter of counterculture, Pryor experienced an awakening. In his autobiography, Pryor Convictions, Richard calls his period in Berkley “the freest time of my life…a circus of exciting, extreme, colorful, militant ideas. Drugs. Hippies. Black Panthers. Antiwar protests. Experimentation... I was like a lightning rod.” He spent time with Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, mingled with Black artists and intellectuals, read Malcolm X speeches, listened to Marvin Gaye, worked on his act, worked on himself (but still did coke), and by the time he went back to LA, “I understood myself…I knew what I had to do. I had to go back and tell the truth.”  Pryor started putting real rap about the world he came from and life as a Black person in America into his act. Live and Smokin’ (1971) was full of material he’d worked on in Berkeley, but the audience was expecting the old, more whitewashed Pryor. It’s an awkward routine to watch unless you keep in mind that you’re watching a career evolve in real-time.

He started moving into more of a conscious space. When we think of Black comedic activists, Dick Gregory is the first name on the list. But Gregory was older and of a different ilk than Pryor and Paul Moony – The Civil Rights Movement vs the Black Power Movement. Richard had activism in his heart, and he felt a responsibility for telling “the truth,” but he didn’t want the responsibility beyond the stage.

After the enormous success of Pryor’s Grammy-winning albums,1974’s That Ni**er’s Crazy (we’ll get to that in a bit,) and 1975’s Was it Something I Said?, NBC nervously gave him a sketch comedy show. The Richard Pryor Show (1977) was the 20+ year precursor to Chapelle’s Show, and like Chapelle featured Pryor’s creative partner Paul Mooney as a writer and cast member, along with future comedic stars Jim Belushi, Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, and Sandra Bernhard, but Pryor’s form of social commentary was too real for early ‘70s prime time television.

And like Dave, Richard dipped because network brass was pressuring him with censorship, rewrites, and notes. In his case, however, it happened much sooner (and without the show garnering nearly as much fanfare). “The things that I have to do in order to be on (television) just destroy me too much,” Pryor shared with Rolling Stone three years earlier. “It’s really weird, like they make me feel like thanking them for letting me degrade myself.” Pryor shut down the show after just four episodes.

He Normalized Using "Ni**a" For Entertainment...

For better or worse, everyone who wants to blame rappers for “ni**a” being used so much in the mainstream needs to start with the original rappers: comedians. Specifically, Richard, who titled his third comedy album “That Nigger’s Crazy.”

Richard decided to reclaim the word while in Berkeley: “I repeated the most offensive, humiliating, disgraceful, distasteful, ugly and nasty word ever used in the context of Black people,” he said in Pryor Convictions. “I decided to make it my own…I decided to take the sting out of it.” In fact, if Pryor had a calling card, besides cocaine (and I think he’d be perfectly okay with me saying that,) it’s the word “ni**er.” He brought it out of the chitlin’ circuit and Black-only clubs and back rooms and onto The Dinah Shore Show and into illustrious award forums. “Saying it changed me,” he explained. “It gave me strength, let me rise above sh*t.”

The most incredible, and also most infuriating thing about Pryor’s “Ni**ers vs The Police” bit from this album is that he could walk on a stage today (whatever day you’re reading this), and it would still work, because it’s still true. Forty years later.

But He Was Also One Of The First To Say He Would Stop Saying It

In 1979, Pryor went to Kenya, his first time in South Africa, and similar to all our friends and cousins who just came back from the Year of Return (I’m still salty), he had a cultural epiphany. In his 1981 special Live From the Sunset Strip, his first after his accident, he declared he wasn’t using “ni**a” in his material anymore (but I’m pretty sure he did in Harlem Nights. I think there a “Ni**a” quota per comedian in Harlem Nights. I’m gonna check.).

He Created The Live Stand-Up Film

Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979) was the first stand-up comedy movie. Not the first stand-up act that was taped or broadcast, but the first stand-up that was shot and edited with the intent to release it as a motion picture. Without Live in Concert, there’s no Delirious, there’s no You So Crazy, there’s Bigger & Blacker, there’s no Kings of Comedy.

It’s considered the bible for stand-up comedy. In an interview about his own legendary stand-up film, Delirious, Eddie Murphy praised the standard: “If you’re studying the art form…if you want to be a stand-up comic, you want to see what the art form is,” he told interviewer Byron Allen, “you take Richard’s In Concert... that’s the single greatest stand-up performance ever captured on film.”

The genius and tragedy of Pryor’s material is realizing just how much of his bits came from his real life, and how unfunny the real-life situation was. Pryor was indeed arrested for assault at his house in 1978 after his wife tried to leave him (because he was high, drunk and abusive), and he shot up her car so she couldn’t. He’d be “canceled” today. But through his combination of physical comedy, warmth, and openness, he channeled it into one of his most memorable bits.

Also covered in Live in Concert: police using attack dogs and putting Black people in chokeholds (Time also named the live concert one of their Top 25 Movies on Race), rescue animals who’ve been abused, his father dying while having sex with an 18-year-old, and what it feels like to have a heart attack. And the crowd is rolling. That’s Richard.

He Felt Under-appreciated

Despite his childhood, circumstantial and systematic odds, and his own self-sabotage, Pryor was the highest-earning Black actor in Hollywood by 1983, paving the way for Eddie Murphy’s rock star-level superstardom behind him. But what conversations with those who knew him, interview clips and his own autobiography reveal is a soul that was never completely settled or content. Pryor knew exactly how brilliant he was; he compared himself to friend Miles Davis (Robin Williams compared him to Miles’ protégé John Coltrane), and it pulled at him to not be recognized as such.

He admitted in an interview with Barbara Walters around 1979, “I’m angry because I’m talented. There’s nobody I’ve ever met in the business of comedy who’s any more brilliant than me, and I will never get the recognition for the talent in my lifetime.” When she asked him why not, he answered simply, “Because there’s one bad seed in America. It works for economic reasons. It’s called Racism. Racism keeps a lot of talented human beings underground.”

This anger was never far from him. In 1974, Rolling Stone reporter David Felton wrote about Pryor breaking down in quiet tears, unable to fully articulate his frustration at not being appreciated. It was the cause of his consistent drug use, and his eventual freebase episode (or suicide attempt, if you believe Richard’s later interviews). And the reason why, even after surviving damn near burning himself alive, Richard often appeared to not give a damn about the success other comics would kill for. In this infamous interview on the set of 1980’s Stir Crazy, Pryor is clearly high, and clearly over all pretense of professionalism. “They’re paying me a million and a half dollars! I didn’t earn it. I don’t even know what a million dollars is.”

Richard Pryor was complex, unpredictable, and generally what we would have called in my day “off the chain.” He was self-destructive, violent and paranoid, but also warm, relatable and genius. These dichotomies came together to produce the seemingly effortless characters and story-weaving style Richard bequeathed to comedy. As race and popular culture professor Dr. Todd Boyd explained in “The Last Days of Richard Pryor,” “Hoes, pimps, drugs, poverty, racism -- Richard took all that dark sh*t, and made it light.” So the next time you evaluate Kevin Hart’s impact vs Mo’nique’s earning potential vs Dave Chapelle’s realness vs Eddie Murphy's talent, keep in mind that Richard made it all possible.

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