At the intersection of State and Washington Streets in the Warehouse District of downtown Peoria, a city of about 116,000 that sits halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, stands a nine-foot-tall bronze likeness of the city’s most infamous native son. If you were a visitor, in town to hang out along the up-and-coming riverfront or to visit Caterpillar, the only Fortune 500 company headquartered in the city, you would be forgiven for thinking this makes sense, that of course Peoria would memorialize Richard Pryor arguably the most culturally significant Peorian of all time, and inarguably one of the most significant figures in African American cultural history of the twentieth century. As a visitor, you might not be aware that this homage to Pryor, erected almost ten years after the comedian’s death, was years in the making—and that its official name,“Richard Pryor—More Than Just a Comedian,” is ultimately an artifact of Peoria’s belated attempt at reconciling the foul-mouthed, woman- and drug-abusing comedian-cum-social critic with an image of itself as a model American city.
I was born forty years after Pryor into a Peoria that seemingly wanted to rid itself of any memory of its singular superstar. I consequently had little frame of reference for Pryor until after I left home for college when I came to know that for many people, particularly black folks, he was often the only point of reference for my hometown. Among the things Pryor opined about Peoria, was that it’s only a model city insofar as it “had the niggers under control.” This sort of quip did nothing to endear Pryor to his hometown critics, but when you consider that in the past several years Peoria has been designated both an “All-America City” and one of the ten worst cities for black Americans, the prescient guerilla intellectualism underlying Pryor’s act is brought into sharp relief.
I was raised in a Christian household shielded from much of what Pryor came to know intimately in his childhood, which was spent in brothels owned by his grandmother, Marie Carter. While Pryor might seem an inordinate point of departure for me, a church-girl-turned-college professor, it is in his brazen commentary and his obscene, autobiographical, profanity-laden stage routines that I have found something of a life I know—something that the conventions of academia can sometimes gesture toward but for me, have only been fully embodied in the place I know of as home.
I came up “down the hill” on Peoria’s predominately black South Side which, like most such places, is the most economically depleted, resource-deprived neighborhood in the entire city. Then and now the South Side is largely seen as Peoria’s site of consummate failure, the place from which one must flee in order to be understood as successful or “upwardly mobile.” Then and now the South Side is talked about as a neighborhood almost wholly given over to criminality, where one’s life might be snuffed out at any given moment. Then, and most certainly now, certain political figures imagine that what it must be like to live in communities like the South Side , is reducible to “hell,” as if our lives are conditioned by nothing other than absolute terror, as if all we need is a savior to come rescue us from ourselves.
Literary scholar Hortense Spillers reminds us in her essay “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date” that just because we do not live in a place doesn’t mean that we are not of a place. Here, then, is Pryor’s truest legacy. While he might have mocked and critiqued Peoria, he never held himself apart from it. Indeed, what others took as the detritus of black life he took as its very substance, and in his 1994 autobiography, Pryor Convictions, he argued that people like hustlers, prostitutes, winos, and pimps who he grew up with and who he continued to surround himself with throughout his life, were people who “knew stuff worth knowing.”
Perhaps for those who know nothing of what it means to live on the “black side” of town, it is difficult if not impossible, to imagine that people like Peoria’s black South Siders—who aren’t just thugs and gangsters but are like my mom, bookkeepers, like my best friend, nurses, like my stepdad, business owners and everything else in between—know something worth knowing. What they know is that while their lives ain’t no parts of easy, they are fundamentally irreducible to their worst days or their saddest moments. What they know is that black social life is life that is lived in spite of.
If you believe the rhetoric about the “inner city” that would suggest boarded up homes, broken down schools, food deserts and chronic joblessness means that we don’t have joy here, that we don’t have self-love here, that we don’t have fellowship here, that we don’t have scholarship here, or that we don’t have safety here, then, as the wino said to the junkie (in a Pryor skit), “that shit done made you null and void.” While “hood life” certainly does not always acquiesce to the demands of the state or the protocols of the “proper,” although very often it does just that, it is this very capacity for fugitivity, or what we might otherwise call making a way out of no way, that is, the very enabling condition of home, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Feature Image Credit: Downtown Peoria from Air (Detail) – 1967 by Roger W. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.