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April 1996
The Satya Interview: A Word with Dick Gregory

By Rynn Berry


Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Dick Gregory has been a humorist and social activist for over 30 years. In the mid-1960s, he scored his first triumph as a comedian, satirizing race relations before frozen food executives from the Deep South at the Chicago Playboy Club. It was the first time that a Black comedian had dared to defy the convention that race-relations was a taboo subject for humor in big-time night clubs. A protégé and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gregory continues the legacy of non-violence. He protested the Vietnam War by fasting for two years on fruit juice. During the fast he got many letters from school children saying that they were praying for the war to end so that Gregory could eat solid food again, rather than uncooked fruit! Gregory and his wife Lilian have raised their 10 children as fruitarians. None has ever tasted — or has expressed any desire to taste — cooked food.

Once obese himself (he tipped the scales at 288 pounds), Gregory has recently launched a national anti-obesity campaign. Satya caught up with Gregory as he was performing his Off-Broadway, one-man show Dick Gregory Live.

Q: I understand that you’re a fruitarian.
A: The great thing is that it goes in and out of the upper and lower colon in 22 minutes, so that in 44 minutes you get the benefits of it; whereas, with anything else, it takes four hours in the upper colon, four hours in the lower colon, and it takes approximately eight hours plus to digest it. One day when we really research it, we’ll find out how much of our energy is depleted through eating the wrong foods.

Q: So you’re a 100% raw foodist?
A: My whole thing is that when you cook anything or freeze anything, you destroy the nutrients in it. If you serve a child raw fruit and vegetables without salad dressing, they’ll go for the fruit, and they’ll never eat anything but fruit. Salad dressing covers up the flavor of vegetables. But you need salad dressing to slip the vegetables past your tastebuds. That’s why there’s a trillion dollar industry in salad dressings.

Q: With fruit on the other hand, you don’t need flavor enhancers or dressings to sneak it past your tastebuds?
A: Absolutely.

Q: How did you become a rawfoodist?
A: I just figured it out. If you put one hand in boiling water, and you put your other hand in the deep freeze and leave it there overnight, neither one of those hands will be any good: it must do the same thing to food. Freezing and cooking food destroys the nutrients in it. When you get to the point where you stop eating for taste and start eating for nutrition, you’ll start to feel a lot better.

Q: Did Gandhi influence you in your decision to become a vegetarian?
A: No, when I became vegetarian, I didn’t know that Gandhi was a vegetarian. Ninety-nine percent of people know that Gandhi fasted, but they don’t know he was a vegetarian. I knew that he prayed and he fasted, but I didn’t know he was a vegetarian until I got into it. When I got through checking out Gandhi, I realized that Gandhi never fasted over 13 days in his life. Gandhi influenced me through Dr. Martin Luther King, and the idea of peaceful resistance.

Q: Do you use fasting as a political tool?
A: I think it’s a violation to use it for that purpose. I use it for spiritual cleansing and to help me attain the higher consciousness. When you use fasting for political ends, you violate the universal order. But occasionally I use it for that because fasting is one of the greatest weapons in the arsenal of non-violent resistance. I use it to make a point: in America, we lose more people from over-eating than from under-eating. So anytime you go on a fast, even people who resent what you’re doing — when they sit down to eat, they have to think about you.

Q: Didn’t you say once that America is the most obese nation on earth?
A: Oh, it is.

Q: Do you see any hopeful signs that this may change?
A: I’m optimistic. One of the most hopeful signs is the fact that America spends over $39 billion a year trying to get slim by following the wrong diet. Eventually, they’ll get tired of doing the wrong things, and they’ll start doing the right things. If America would spend $39 billion on trying to stop smoking cigarettes, I’d see that as a good sign.

Q: Your book Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Like to Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature has been a perennial best-seller. Among other things, it’s a primer on raw-foodism and vegetarianism. Has that had an impact on the eating habits in the Black community?
A: Oh, yes! It’s been a bestseller since 1973. It’s also had a great impact on the white community. It’s penetrated the Black community and it’s prominently displayed at all the Black health expos.

Q: You were the first Black celebrity to advocate a fruitarian, raw food diet. That was a very courageous thing to do.
A: But I don’t push that.

Q: Yes, I noticed that you didn’t mention it in your one-man show.
A: I try to take a gradual approach and put people in a transition period. If you were a good friend of mine, and if you were a heavy smoker, and if you were in a very bad accident, I would not come to the hospital and entice you to stop smoking because the one thing that a person needs when he gets into a crisis is his crutches. After you recovered, then I’d try to get you to stop smoking. I remember that when I was a heavy smoker, the first time that something happened — bad or good — I’d reach for a cigarette. When I stopped smoking, my whole nightclub act went off. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I’d been using the cigarette as a prop. I’d tell a joke and the whole joke would be set to the rhythm of my smoking.

Q: Was it harder to give up eating meat or smoking cigarettes?
A: Cigarettes. We’re not addicted to meat-eating the way we are to cigarettes.

Q: Do you have any religious affiliations?
A: I grew up in the Baptist Church.

Q: Do you think Christ was a vegetarian?
A: Sure. As a spiritual person, he had to be. He had to have reached the conclusion that nothing with life in it should be killed under any circumstances.

Rynn Berry is the author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes and the forthcoming Food For the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World’s Religions. Copies may be ordered from the author at $16.95 each postpaid from 159 Eastern Parkway, Apt. 2H, Brooklyn, NY 11238.


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