Before the applause light had a voice
it was a campfire flickering stories of slaves.
The stage, microphone chord and spotlight
echo the platform, hangman’s noose and torches.
Comedy has always been truths’ Trojan horse.
Richard Pryor, history gutted you.
Son of a pimp and prostitute
had you been born a girl
your diaper would have held dollar bills.
Your mobile twirled a father’s hands
thirsty for bruise-stained sheets.
A brothel boyhood trained you
to sleep best to women’s screams.
You practiced jokes on wives
who learned the meaning of punch line
better than most. You made pain hilarious,
gripped a microphone like a lifeline
and lip-synced a forest fire
the final cries of the lynched
in each epithet turned laugh line.
You were loved for this.
Finally, an imperfect man took stage,
body, a billboard for the broken
who spoke the way real people talk
truth wrapped in barbed wire, no lace.
King of the scarred tongue
the haunted laugh
the joke everyone wanted to repeat
but no one wanted to tell.
Critics called you abrasive.
They wanted you to be Cosby.
They meant white.
Said, play the game like Jackie.
Whispered, slaves work in fields.
Be a funny, quieter black man.
That little white kid’s toy.
It echoed, boy.
The 21st century shackle clangs
in the shape of accents and paychecks.
It dangles like men lynched for having skin.
You rubbed your gums with coke
to numb the jokes
and got paid more than Superman
in a movie he thought was named for him.
Long before Multiple Sclerosis
burned your body to a cornstalk, you knew
strength is not standing in front of guns
when bullets can’t hurt you.
It is dressing your skin in flames
and telling jokes about the scars.
Power doesn't live in ability.
It lies in the faulted face of the earthquake.
Doctors thought you would die
the night you washed your body in rum,
set yourself ablaze and ran down the road
as if show from the barrel of a long rifle.
You simply joked, when a black man runs down the road on fire
people get the hell out of the way.
Even the cops.
Audiences laughed so hard
Pressure sharpens the diamond.
You took teeth from real-life monsters
to build smiles,
named your daughter Rain
as if tears could soften the burn
and claimed M.S. was God getting jealous
for giving you more funny muscles than Him.
M.S. just more shit you called it.
He was telling you to slow down.
Sniff the roses not the coke.
After 20 years of smoldering
critics renamed you a shell of a man
as if constructed of more casket than flesh.
And we watched you die
the way real legends die --
in a slow, ugly procession of doubt.
Your life, a one-man play about Watts burning.
Doctors still claimed you should have died
the night you mistook a dragon’s throat for home
and ran down the road like a crazed meteorite.
They didn’t know, you had been running
down the road, on fire, since day one.