He is fasting again.
This time he will have nothing but fruit juice until all the nuclear reactors are shut down. He interrupts the steady flame of his intensity with a smoky smile. "I have a feeling it's going to be a long time before I see solid food again. But by the time I'm down to 70 pounds, people will start thinking about what I'm talking about."
Right now there are about 127 pounds attached to Dick Gregory's long frame and the cream-colored suit fits him well. He greets his well-wishers in the Harambee House Hotel with quiet benevolence. It is the morning after his speech at Howard University, one of the first of the fall speaking season, and he was up at four that morning to run and pray.
His voice continues like rain on the roof as he talks of conspiracies and the King James Bible, of racism and sexism and future and past, and he seems at times to be talking from a long way away. He seems to be talking from deep in the eye of his own hurricane.
"I just want to work on all my hang-ups," he says in that deep and deeply earnest quiet voice, in the rare moments when he will talk of himself and not the things that must be done, that should be done. "The system brought the animal out in me. I want to bring my spirituality out. I want to get myself straight even if the system isn't changed."
He talks of Richard Pryor, Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, the men he considers the three greatest comedians. "But look at what happened to Lenny," he says. "He had to destroy himself in the process of being great. It is, says Dick Gregory looking back, "very ungodly to be famous."
Dick Gregory is famous still. Not the way he was in the '60s when he traded in his success as a college track star to become the brilliant young black comedian, one of the first and still one of the few to reach a popular success with a white audience by turning their racism around on themselves and making them laugh at the same time they acknowledge the accuracy of the barbs.
The political satire never left him, but the quest for popular success grew less intense as more of his time was devoted to fasting and protesting war and hunger and racism, the kind of issues that brought thousands to green grassy spaces, to march down long boulevards.
Now Gregory runs less traveled roads, where humor finds it hard to follow.
He has spent, he says, hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing leads and theories on the Kennedy and King assassinations. Long fingers beckon attention to other facts caught in the web. He mentions the allegations that White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan used cocaine at Studio 54. "Consider the implications of this," he imagines. "Suppose that place was under the control of the CIA. Think of all the powerful and famous people who go there. There would be a lot that they could use against them. Sometimes they have to prove who the boss is.
"A lot of strange things go on," Dick Gregory says.
There are only distant echoes of the early angry humor in the finely spun theories, but the importance of his comedy to him is affirmed, even if his relation to it is left ambiguous. "All of my identity" is wrapped around comedy, he says, but the "demand for being funny is not in my subconscious mind the way it was when I was doing nightclubs." Gregory rarely appears in nightclubs now, having decided about six years ago that there was implicit hypocrisy in appearing in places that serve liquor when he was advising college kids not to touch the stuff. He does about 300 college speaking engagements a year. "I can be funny if I want to then, but I don't feel like I have to all the time."
Still a small bouquet is tossed to the memory of what it was like when he began, and where it might have gone."If I was doing it every night now, I would be fantastic," he says. "Back then my comedy was so far ahead."
Right now he is busy "rooting out" racism and sexism. He will not let his 10 children read the King James version of the Bible; he finds it sexist. He won't let them watch TV or go to a film. "They see 'Superman,' what's that going to make them think about white men and their powers?
Recently Gregory and five of his children were arrested together with 61 others on an 80-mile march from Atlanta to Reidsville, Ga. in protest of a capital punishment case being tried there. They were met by a burning cross. "It was the first time my children had seen such a thing. They didn't know what to make of it. They didn't know if it was for toasting marshmallows or what."
The story is told in explanation of why he is hopeful, despite the time gone by, the passions banked, the little that has changed. "Two generations ago, when black folk had nothing to do but tell ghost stories and talk about the bad things white people have done to them: That's where the fear got ingrained. I think that's disappearing now."
He believes in greatness and in discipline and his analogies still ricochet off any odd corner of the imagination that comes to mind. "It's like in high school -- you know the way all them girls who thought they was cute really was cute? Well, you look at all the people who led the great revolutions, they weren't poor and uneducated, they were really great."
Gregory is off to catch a plane to his home town, St. Louis, back to catch an opera and to sit under a tree for a day and think about absolutely nothing. Then it is off to California, and then to Chicago for a health-food convention and off into the '80s, dismissing disheartened questions about the future with a smile. "You have to know when you're doing the planting and when you're doing the harvesting. Maybe we haven't even planted yet. Maybe so far, all we've done is clear the field."