Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The betrayal of Richard Pryor's legacy

His death marks the passing of a fiery, authentic black American political generation
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The Independent Online

It was hard to like this performer who was often gratuitously obscene and confrontational, sometimes simply for shock value. He was a drug addict, a man of destructive excess and obviously a lover from hell, in and out of bruising (mainly for the women) marriages and relationships. His children couldn't have had much ordinary peace in their lives with a dad who was perpetually high on substances, politics and a flaming sense of injustice. But many of us international anti-racists found him awesome; this angry black man who could never be bought off with the spoils of success, who got more, not less, incensed as he became popular and rich.

He was born in a bordello run by his grandmother. His mother, described by Pryor as both a prostitute and the seedy joint's book-keeper, abandoned her son when he was 10. Thereafter life was a run across hurdles, expulsions from school, endless betrayals, including by Catholic priests. He could have ended up yet another black ghetto man in a pitiless US penitentiary, but he turned his rage into stage protest, into devastating entertainment.

His acid tongue lashed and unsettled the biggest, most powerful and most awfully complacent nation on earth, and yet also made it laugh recklessly. In 1998, he became the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for humour, and the judges recognised both Twain and Pryor "spoke the truth", however outrageous'

His death marks, perhaps, the final stage of the passing of a fiery, authentic black American political generation. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were seen off by bullets a long time ago, but their legacy survived in indefatigable civil rights fighters who carried on the struggle for real equality and for the rights of the dispossessed round the world.

They have overseen some progress, but also much decline in the lot and hopes of the descendants of slaves who are still among the most disadvantaged of Americans. The black underclass has only grown, and racism against these generationally deprived citizens gets worse under the Republicans. Determined African Americans did get the institutions to open their doors and change the colour of power. But entrysim itself is proving to be a disillusioning achievement, a reason to feel more shame than pride for African-Americans and those of us inspired by their long, embattled journey.

Even Martin Luther King would not have dreamt that a day would come when two black Americans would end up being key confidantes of a Republican president, holding in their greedy hands the fates of millions of people. He must be praying for their souls, these makers and excusers of illegal wars. By now Pryor will, I imagine, have started up his own rant against Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. I would pay a thousand pounds for a ticket at the afterlife show.

We have entered an era of indefensible co-option, when most top black Americans neither dare nor care to rebel against the state the way Pryor or James Baldwin or Angela Davies once did. Condoleezza Rice, a name created by her mother, Angelina Rice, from the Italian musical description con dolcezza, meaning "sweetly", has deftly re-written and re-named torture to make it more palatable to pesky human rights campaigners. She likes low heels and smart, but sober, suits, keeps two mirrors on her desk to check the back as well as the front of her hair.

Millions of Black Americans believe they have arrived when they see Rice strutting prettily. They see the ultimate triumph over adversity - the daughter of conservative teachers in Birmingham, Alabama, who flourished and learnt to play the piano in spite of racial segregation and the terrible times when dogs were set on blacks, Ku Klux Klan terrorism, the murder of four young girls blown up in a church. These enthusiasts - and they have their equivalents in this country too - believe all black success should be unequivocally welcomed, and that black or Asian individuals who make it deserve only respect and protection from criticism.

I recently had a minor falling out over this with Dianne Abbot, whose radicalism and political guts I admire hugely. I suggested that it was a marvel to witness her ease with the urbane right-wingers Michael Portillo and Andrew Neil on the BBC's Political Show. She was infuriated with my "snide comments" about a fellow black woman. She herself, she hissed, would never stoop so low. Well, sorry, I cannot buy into this life-time immunity scheme. Black and Asian people in public life should not be unjustly castigated or judged by unrealistically high standards. We are human, individuals and flawed. But it is also wrong to demand nothing but exaltation just because we have had to beat down discrimination.

In the US, similar conflicts arise daily as a minority of Americans of colour come out against their own and the country which has made them. Randall Robinson is an African-American writer who has been called a black Noam Chomsky. In his book, Quitting America, a masterpiece which deserves to be read widely, he takes on his "race-crazed" nation and the co-opted blacks who bought into Bush's Iraq adventure.

The crime writer Walter Moseley has been similarly enraged by the new politics of black American nationalism. Only two per cent of African-Americans today support the foreign policies of the Bush administration. But Alabama's well-groomed daughter, Condi Rice, ignores them to please her masters in the White House and the Pentagon.

Richard Pryor was once as obliging as Rice, too. For years he played the funny, willing "nigger" on the comedy circuit, never upsetting the people who could either make him big or break him. Then, in 1967 at the Alladin Hotel in Las Vegas, with Dean Martin in the audience, he had an epiphany: "I looked around and thought - what the fuck am I doing here?" and he walked off the stage to find himself and the fearless, ultimately deeply moral voice he was to develop.

Perhaps the day will come when Powell, Rice and other black Bush people will ask themselves the same question and walk off the world stage. But I fear not. With the death of Pryor, that courageous self-knowledge has passed on.