Two reasons Dick Gregory cleared his schedule to deliver the keynote address at the opening ceremony of the St. Louis County Library's Black History Month celebration: First, natch, St. Louis is his hometown. Second, "when I was a little boy," he says, "people like me couldn't go to the library."
People like Gregory -- who grew up to become a world-famous comedian/author/ social activist/nutrition guru -- were the city's most impoverished African-American citizens. (As he's stated in his books, he shared a bed with five siblings and often went so hungry that he ate paste.) It's fitting, then, that the theme of this year's Black History Month celebration at the library is "Dream Weavers: And Still We Rise!"
Fitting, but not fluff: Gregory promises a relentless talk on police brutality (in his opinion, "the number-one issue for blacks today") and modern-day health concerns for African-Americans, a topic on which he can rattle off startling statistics like an obsessed Oliver Stone: "Eighty-seven percent of people on kidney dialysis in America are black, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the American population. Black men make up 83 percent of prostate-cancer cases in this country. Black women are 90 percent more likely to develop thyroid tumors than white women. You know why that is? The beauty parlors. Beauty parlors are listed as second only to nuclear-waste facilities in the chemical dangers they pose -- and you need a lot more chemicals to straighten out nappy hair than you do blond hair."
Gregory will also be signing copies of his second autobiography, Callus on My Soul. Though his first installment became an instant bestseller -- thanks in large part to its incendiary name, Nigger: An Autobiography -- a follow-up was due to "address the progress we've made, like Colin Powell and St. Louis' black mayors." Gregory says he's prouder of Callus because, "unlike when I was writing Nigger, I wasn't downing a fifth of scotch and four packs of cigarettes a day when I wrote this one."