In Praise of Dick Gregory


Last December, in response to the wave of student protests about racial injustice on campus, some of which advanced demands that could threaten academic freedom, I published an essay “On Student Academic Freedom.”  In that essay, I wrote that student protesters

have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others even as they respond to deeper offenses against their own dignity. They may demonstrate indifference to the rights of others, as protesters everywhere always have. But, in doing so, they will learn. And that, it seems to me, is the essential point. Student academic freedom, in the final analysis, is about the freedom to learn. And learning is impossible without error. . .

A good example of such a mistake, I think, was the demand raised recently by minority students at Matteo Ricci College of Seattle University that a dean be dismissed because she had recommended that a student read comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s memoir, which he had provocatively titled NiggerNow Gregory himself has responded with a brilliant essay that calmly and thoughtfully teaches — while not at all hectoring — these students and, indeed, all of us.  “I am not offended by Dean Kelly’s use of the word ‘nigger,’” he writes.

In fact, I am pleased that she has the foresight to want to give these young men and women the knowledge, insight and experience of a civil rights activist that might just help them understand life a little better. I am disappointed that they seemed to have stopped at the title instead of opening the book and reading its contents. . . .

I have read the students’ list of demands, which include issues such as “Classrooms which encourage healthy academic discourse.” That includes fostering dissent, analyzing diverse narratives, discussing the intention of others and dealing with microaggressions. Classrooms must also provide space to discuss how books from previous generations may be problematic yet remain very much connected to modern-day issues. . . .

I do not presume to know more than professional educators. Yet it appears to me that Dean Kelly was encouraging healthy academic discourse. I ask the students to ask themselves if they objectively considered Dean Kelly’s real intentions and if they themselves are willing to engage in academic discourse. This seems like an issue that is bigger than one dean. It also seems that if both sides were to have meaningful discussions, they would find common ground.

But, please, read the entire piece; it’s not long, but it’s important.  As one commenter, amidst a slew of praise from many, put it, “It would have been so easy for an author, especially one with Dick Gregory’s credentials, to have scolded the protestors. Instead he educates.”  And that’s how to respond to student protests that may be ill-conceived, if well-intentioned.

Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory

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