The Voice of D.C., Still Stirring It Up

By Lurma Rackley
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Washingtonians of a certain era knew Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene in his various life phases: as a raggedy kid who could "play the dozens" better than anyone in 1930s black Georgetown; as an often inebriated yet phenomenally funny young comedian at "picnics" in Wilmer's Park; as a rapping, rhyming emcee at Lorton Reformatory, where he served time for robbery; and finally as a legendary broadcaster who charted new territory in straight talk and community activism until his death in 1984 at age 53.

This week, moviegoers nationwide will be introduced to Petey's story in "Talk to Me," starring Don Cheadle. I got to know Petey while we worked on his memoir, "Laugh if You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny," which I published in 2004. To those of us who knew Petey, the movie will challenge our memories (was it really Petey who calmed the city during the 1968 riots?), will misrepresent facts (did he really bomb on "Johnny Carson"?) and will ignore Petey's ultimate triumphs and his return to the church.

But people will be talking about him, and for a man who enjoyed stirring controversy as a means to an end, that was always the bottom line. Petey would be delighted by the edgy panel discussions and debates the movie has ignited. He would also approve of the more than 200,000 hits that "How to Eat a Watermelon," his routine from the early 1980s, has received on YouTube, spiking arguments about the N-word among the Dave Chappelle generation.

What could be better for a man who said he lived to be the center of attention than to have the town abuzz the way it was when Petey reigned with his wild brand of broadcasting?

I first met Petey in the early 1970s when I was a reporter at the Washington Star. I was working on a feature about Dewey Hughes, who had become the public affairs director at the then white-owned WOL-AM radio station and who later managed Petey.

In late 1981, Petey asked me to help him tell his life story. I went to his home to record his memories a couple of Saturdays per month for about a year. I spent most of my time cracking up with laughter. He told me that he honed his rapping, rhyming and "joning" skills as a preschool kid dead set on taking the focus off his disadvantages. His father was in jail more often than he was at home, and his mother had her own brushes with the law. His beloved pipe-smoking grandmother Maggie Floyd, known as A'nt Pig, instilled in him a fortitude and an optimism that carried him through the worst of times in his personal life. From the age of 3, Petey heard A'nt Pig say: "Boy, I know your mouth is gone get you killed or get you rich one day. 'Cause you the talkingest damn boy I ever seen."

All that talking eventually landed him a job at WOL. But Petey was not a shock jock or even a deejay: He was a voice for the voiceless on his public affairs talk show on Sunday evenings. ("Talk to Me" skips over his nearly 30-year career as a community organizer for the anti-poverty group United Planning Organization.)

Petey used his on-air popularity to drive his success as a community organizer, and he used his success as an organizer to guide the unconventional themes for his talk shows. In his folksy way, he aimed to spur people to action, to force accountability, to demand a piece of the pie. "Y'all better stop eatin' them doughnuts and walking on the back of your shoes and get out here and register to vote if you want day care," he once told an audience, keeping it "real" in his unique way.

But even when he came across as crass on the air -- licking his fingers while eating soul food, burying his face in a slice of watermelon, accusing educated black people of being "mackacuckalackies" with no street smarts -- his provocation always had a point.

Take the "How to Eat a Watermelon" clip, a bit of vintage Petey. When I use it as a prop at readings for the book, some audience members laugh out loud; others titter nervously. Their discomfort would have tickled Petey, who loved to get a rise out of people he considered pretentious. Petey would have taken devilish glee in stoking today's debate over the use of the N-word, which he used liberally, like fellow comedians Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. "If a cracker ever called me a nigger, I'd bust a chair over his head," he told a newspaper in 1982, a quote that Cheadle repeats in the movie. "Now I realize that cracker can't hurt me as long as he doesn't touch me. So I'm very comfortable with both words."

Which brings us to the Hollywood version. Not surprisingly for a biopic, it leaves out much of Petey's story. Toward the end of his life, Petey began to step into his A'nt Pig's full vision for him. He stunned his friends in 1979 when he finally gave up binge drinking. In 1981, he was baptized by the United House of Prayer's Bishop Walter "Sweet Daddy" McCullough. His WDCA-TV talk show was picked up by the newly founded Black Entertainment Television channel, and he built a loyal national following. He was the host of two shows on gospel radio stations and he delivered the commencement address to the 1982 graduating class of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.

The movie tells a different story of how Petey's manager booked him on Johnny Carson's late-night show. This is one episode Petey did not talk about much. In the movie version, he storms off the stage because he thinks Carson's mostly white audience is laughing at him, not with him; in actuality, Petey told me that he had gotten drunk and didn't do the show.

The movie also overlooks the towering role that A'nt Pig played in Petey's life. Yet she was the person he most wanted to honor through his life story.

That story ended too soon. In mid-1983, as I was starting to transcribe my mountain of interview tapes, Petey was losing his battle with liver cancer. An estimated 20,000 people lined up for his wake on a cold night in January 1984, and 2,000 mourners packed the church for his funeral the next day, with hundreds more outside. Petey had become a Washington hero, respected by old and young, rich and poor, black and white, the powerful and the powerless.

It was a moving tribute to a brilliant life. And now, with the renewed focus on Petey, this zany character is still stirring it up.

Lurma Rackley is public relations director for the humanitarian organization CARE, based in Atlanta.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company