Dick Gregory and the Old Reverse-Incentive Trick

We’ve blogged a few times about the clever use of what you might call reverse incentives — that is, turning someone else’s unwelcome behavior into a positive outcome for yourself. Planned Parenthood turned abortion protestors into a fund-raising scheme; a comedian used this same “pledge-a-picket” tactic against the Westboro Baptist Church.

I recently ran across an older example, from the groundbreaking comedian and activist Dick Gregory, probably still best known for his autobiography, called Nigger.

The book was co-written by Robert Lipsyte, a longtime Times sports-and-culture columnist whom I interviewed recently for an upcoming podcast about booing. In Lipsyte’s rousing, fascinating new memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, he writes about his collaboration with Gregory (whom he calls Greg), and the latter’s shrewd understanding of human nature, incentives, and hatred. Excerpts:

“Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’

“I said, ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’

“About then these three cousins come in, you know the ones I mean, Klu, Klucks, and Klan, and they say ‘Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re going to do to you.’ So I put down my knife and fork, and I picked up that chicken and I kissed it.”

Sometime early in the first Playboy show a heckler in the back yelled, “Nigger!” Greg said, “Say that again, please. My contract calls for fifty dollars every time that word is used.”

And:

Once we decided on the title, Nigger, he held his ground against the publishing house. I loved his dedication: “Dear Momma — Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”

And:

I enjoyed campaigning with him, especially when a street hustler would sidle up and ask what he could do to help. Greg would laugh and say, “Really be something else if the rumor got out that Mayor Daley’s precinct captains were paying $20 a vote this year, then, when they come around with the usual $2, folks be so mad they run him out of town.”

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  1. Cesar Wenzel - Brazil says:

    Dear Mr.Dubner

    Fantastic this Mr.Dick Gregory,next visit to USA certainlly I will buy his book,his sense of humor is simply wonderfull.Best wishes,

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  2. Mike B says:

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  3. Roger S says:

    I don’t care if he’s white, black, gold or scotch-plaid: this man has wit.

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  4. Swintah says:

    I’ve never heard of this man before, but love and admire his wit and courage – his book is now on my “to read” list!

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  5. Hilary Louise says:

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  6. Dave says:

    Very witty indeed. Too many people forget to approach life with a sense of humor and a grain of salt these days, taking everything so personally.

    I’ve never understood how a single word can be treated with such reverance and given so much power. The more society is essentially forced to say “the N-word” only serves to give it so much power even today… 50 years after the Martin Luther King Jr. era, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation the abolished slavery in the US… I would think the time has come where for the most part the average North American citizen does feel that we are all equal and acts that way, so we should collectively say enough is enough; “Nigger” is just a word and those who choose to use that word to spew hatred are far worse regarded than the people they are attempting to spew their hatred and ignorance against. Take back the power and throw off the shackles that society has let that word inspire to this day.

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  7. Christopher Johnson says:

    Robert Lipsyte came and spoke to my 8th grade English class in 1978. Our class had recently been assigned his novel “The Contender”, and by some stroke of luck one of our teachers knew him and got him to come talk to us. We were spellbound by his anecdotes and easy humor (well, at least I was).

    The experience represented two “firsts” for me. It was the first time I got to meet and speak with an author whose book I had just read, and it was the first time that I understood that sports stories are profound and thrilling — even for bookish types like me, who threw like a girl and didn’t get what the fuss was all about.

    I am eager to read his collaboration with Dick Gregory, and am looking forward to the podcast!

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  8. B dub says:

    Your comment contradicts itself: you seem to be complaining that the word is taboo, yet in your next to last sentence you yearn for a day when the word will be considered just a word, a taboo one! Congratulations, you’ve received exactly what you wanted: the N-word is taboo. As it should (always) be.

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