Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Lurma Rackley's memoir of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, Laugh If You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny. Used with the permission of the author.
Petey often felt that formally educated people considered themselves smarter than he, and in fact, thought of him as ignorant. Nothing rankled him more. And nothing pleased him more than having transcended his meager beginnings, being recognized or awarded above the ‚Äúmackacuckalackies‚ÄĚ with their various degrees and their monied backgrounds. He glowed with pride when recounting his successes for his memoirs.
‚ÄúI spoke at Harvard. Here‚Äôs a nigger with a 8th grade education speaking at Harvard. They fly me all ‚Äėround the country to speak. I just get in my hotel and laugh and say, ‚ÄėThank you, Jesus, because I know he made this possible. And when I step out to go to speak, I be so clean. I just put all kinds of clothes on because I‚Äôm the one that had cardboard in his shoes.
‚ÄúMy grandmother made me wear some girl shoes to school one time, and I was the leader of the gang. I said, ‚ÄėGrandma, them is girl‚Äôs shoes.‚Äô She say, ‚ÄėThey anybody‚Äôs shoes that wear ‚Äėem, boy. Just put ‚Äėem on and go on to school.‚Äô They had big ol‚Äô buckles on ‚Äėem, like Little Abner‚Äôs mother used to wear.
‚ÄúWhen my friends came in class, they said, ‚ÄėWhy you wasn‚Äôt out on the basketball court this morning?‚Äô I got my shoes up under my desk. Finally one of my buddies saw them shoes. ‚ÄėOh my God! Dance ballerina, dance.‚Äô I said, ‚ÄėI‚Äôll kill you.‚Äô The teacher said, ‚ÄėWhat‚Äôs wrong back there?‚Äô I said, ‚ÄėHe talking ‚Äėbout my shoes.‚Äô Then everybody got to looking.
‚ÄúI know my grandmother didn‚Äôt make me wear those shoes because she thought my friends would make fun of me. She wanted me to get a proper education. That was all she had at the time.‚ÄĚ
Petey could hardly believe the twist of fate when he was invited to deliver the keynote address at the DAR Constitution Hall to the graduating class of suburban Maryland‚Äôs Walt Whitman High School on June 7, 1982. Whitman‚Äôs student body president, John Bourgeois, loved Petey‚Äôs radio and t.v. talk shows, and submitted his name as featured speaker for the predominantly white graduating class.
In the face of criticism from parents, teachers and faculty, the students banded together, gathered petitions and overwhelmingly elected to have Petey as their speaker. The adults relented, under an agreement that Maryland Congressman Mike Barnes would share the stage, speaking first.
For Petey, the engagement was the ultimate chance to prove himself more than equal to the typical commencement-day guest of honor. And he delighted in the fact that Mike Barnes would be there. Mike, too, knew Petey and liked his show.
True to himself, Petey delivered a speech full of homespun wisdom, raucous humor, and classic rhymes. He approached the podium with an icebreaker, tacitly acknowledging the controversy surrounding his invitation: ‚ÄúI know you‚Äôre nervous because you don‚Äôt know what I‚Äôm gone say. And I‚Äôm nervous because I ain‚Äôt never spoke in front of this many white people.‚ÄĚ After the anticipated laughter, he added, ‚Äú . . . so y‚Äôall might as well relax, ‚Äėcause I‚Äôm gone be all right.‚ÄĚ
He told the students of his childhood memory of the Daughters of the American Revolution barring singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall. He went on to explain that with the blessing of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Ms. Anderson sang before a crowd of 75,000 people on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. The next week, Mrs. Roosevelt canceled her membership in the DAR.
‚ÄúI ain‚Äôt no ignorant nigger; I know my history,‚ÄĚ he declared, before delivering the meat of his remarks, which encouraged the students to ‚Äúget a game plan,‚ÄĚ stay away from white collar crime (‚ÄúDon‚Äôt take short money.‚ÄĚ), lead with compassion, and stick to their areas of expertise.
In explaining that his own area of expertise involved verbal skills, Petey elicited another rousing applause and sustained laughter when he rattled off the intro he used for his three-card game hustle during his Army days and young adult life:
‚ÄúThis is the game from Newport News,
the red you win, the black you lose.
It‚Äôs a mile and a quarter from the Mexican border
when three broads got to scuffling over a dollar and a quarter.
The first one looked up and the second one said, you lose with the black but you win with the red.
Your pick sir.‚ÄĚ
In an eerily prescient moment tinged with both sadness and optimism about his future, he told the audience, ‚ÄúI been out in the street now 17 years. I came out in 1965. I‚Äôm a member of DON‚ÄôT, Efforts for Ex-convicts, and I got another organization called VOTE, Voice of the Ex-offender. I don‚Äôt think I‚Äôm going back.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm 54 years old, and I ain‚Äôt got too much longer. I‚Äôve got two beautiful babies, one 13, one 14, and one day, I‚Äôm going to be in the audience while them two chumps is gone have on a cap and a gown.‚ÄĚ
Again, wild applause interrupted Petey‚Äôs flow. As he moved toward his finale, Petey told the crowd.
‚ÄúTake this from the bottom of my heart: I‚Äôm so glad that you had me. And to the parents and to all of you that don‚Äôt like me, it don‚Äôt make no difference; you got to come because the babies wanted me.‚ÄĚ
As soon as the laughter, applause, and cheers ended, Petey lobbed his final off-the- cuff rhyme that caused the room to erupt.
‚ÄúAs I stand before you this evening, on the stage of Constitution Hall, I really enjoyed rapping to you, and I done had myself a ball. Now the most important thing that I want to tell you, may you jump and shout, one day you gone be in the field somewhere, and you gone hang a shingle out. Now you might be a Huckleberry Finn reader or call you Tom Sawyer; maybe you‚Äôre a doctor, physician, or some of you gone be a lawyer. Sometime you‚Äôll jump around and sometimes you‚Äôll think it‚Äôs sweet; even with your education, try to get something from the street. When you put it all together, whether you go near or far, I owe all this speaking tonight to my main man, John Bourgeois. Thank you.‚ÄĚ
Petey returned to his chair but the students still stood cheering, whistling, whooping and hollering. The moderator called out, ‚ÄúSettle down for the benediction,‚ÄĚ and several minutes later, order returned to the room. Quietly, students congratulated each other for selecting one of the most memorable graduation speakers of all time.
When it comes to Petey Greene, Lurma Rackley wrote the book. So why didn't it become the source for Talk to Me?