ONE OF THE few things I remember vividly about being in the 8th grade in 1975 was a class art project. Everybody had to design a cardboard record album cover -- album covers were certainly high art at the time -- that the teacher later displayed on shelves that lined the walls of our classroom.
The project that leaped out at me was one student’s rendition of Richard Pryor’s record, “That Nigger’s Crazy.” It was painted somewhat crudely in bright orange, with a rough portrait of Pryor pointing a finger (or a gun?) at his head, and it startled me because of its language and because of the fact that it was the only non-music album up there.
But it also looked comfortable among the many concept albums on the wall, including Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic” and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” because “That Nigger’s Crazy,” like most other Pryor works, was a concept album, a distinct narrative that happened to draw on real-life characters instead of metaphorical “Brown Dirt Cowboys” or “Thin White Dukes” to illuminate many facets of a single grand story.
And though, at 13, I didn’t understand Pryor’s full impact, I nonetheless felt a vague pride that Pryor was out there painting the story of black people, our people, in entirely new comic shades: self-doubt, self-loathing, pain, uncertainty, despair. With his foul-mouthed, unsentimental winos and junkies, he was adding a whole new dimension of ambiguity that we typically hid behind grins or double entendres or stoicism rooted in suffering and slavery and in never getting enough.
No more. Pryor put everything out in the open, and not with disdain or regret but with a kind of wonder at the revelation of it all. Not everyone black liked what they heard, but there was no question that in describing our smallest, most common tableaux so faithfully, on his own terms, he was deepening our story. He was making it grand.
Pryor did this, paradoxically, by being himself. Sounds simple, but in the black performance tradition, it hardly existed. Black performers, comedians especially, had not previously portrayed individuals but had acted as symbols of what the public wanted or expected black people to be. For whites, that meant they were strictly entertainers -- the merrier the better -- and for blacks always eager for escapism, it often meant that too.
Pryor eliminated all the cultural schizophrenia by turning things around and demanding that everybody accept him -- the first black antihero. Of course, all blacks were antiheroic by definition and social position, but it was Pryor who elevated that position into something tragicomic and meaningful, something as improbably poetic and resonant as T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.
PRYOR ONSTAGE (and frequently in life) was a man fighting the world and losing, a man without particularly good looks or snappy comebacks or the traditional carapace of black cool developed by bebop jazzmen and inherited by comics such as Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and, later, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. Pryor rocked the comedy world by being plenty angry, but he also was hapless, at sea.
Yet he was no fool. He was an observer above all else, a performer much less concerned with his own image -- another black first -- than with the accuracy of the images he wrought of other black folk and of other folk as well.
He was our Chaplin, the comic who could first unite us in laughter at his own physicality, then unite us in recognition of ourselves. Some of these selves were none too flattering -- Pryor’s approximation of clueless white people was flat-out wicked -- but they were rendered with enough empathy in the end to keep us looking into the mirror and acknowledging the truths there. We were all part of Pryor’s story, and we wanted to see where we fit in.
But like many other black trailblazers, Pryor started a revolution that he didn’t quite live himself. Other writers have pointed out that for all the success it afforded him, Hollywood was much more enamored of Pryor’s comedy than his pathos; for whatever reason, he never developed opportunities for dramatic or reflective film roles that seemed a natural progression for storytelling stand-ups such as Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo.
Ultimately, Pryor had to rely on comedy to contain all that he had to say, including this lament by the distraught wino about the young junkie: “He used to be a genius. Now he can’t remember who he is.” Let us hope that the devastating, but humanizing, lessons of Richard Pryor are never forgotten.