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 “mackacuckalackies” with their various degrees and their monied backgrounds. He glowed with pride when recounting his successes for his memoirs.
“I spoke at Harvard. Here’s a nigger with a 8th grade education speaking at Harvard. They fly me all ‘round the country to speak. I just get in my hotel and laugh and say, ‘Thank 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’m the one that had cardboard in his shoes.
“My grandmother made me wear some girl shoes to school one time, and I was the leader of the gang. I said, ‘Grandma, them is girl’s shoes.’ She say, ‘They anybody’s shoes that wear ‘em, boy. Just put ‘em on and go on to school.’ They had big ol’ buckles on ‘em, like Little Abner’s mother used to wear.
“When my friends came in class, they said, ‘Why you wasn’t out on the basketball court this morning?’ I got my shoes up under my desk. Finally one of my buddies saw them shoes. ‘Oh my God! Dance ballerina, dance.’ I said, ‘I’ll kill you.’ The teacher said, ‘What’s wrong back there?’ I said, ‘He talking ‘bout my shoes.’ Then everybody got to looking.
“I know my grandmother didn’t 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.”
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’s Walt Whitman High School on June 7, 1982. Whitman’s student body president, John Bourgeois, loved Petey’s 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: “I know you’re nervous because you don’t know what I’m gone say. And I’m nervous because I ain’t never spoke in front of this many white people.” After the anticipated laughter, he added, “ . . . so y’all might as well relax, ‘cause I’m gone be all right.”
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.
“I ain’t no ignorant nigger; I know my history,” he declared, before delivering the meat of his remarks, which encouraged the students to “get a game plan,” stay away from white collar crime (“Don’t take short money.”), 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:
“This is the game from Newport News,
the red you win, the black you lose.
It’s 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.”
In an eerily prescient moment tinged with both sadness and optimism about his future, he told the audience, “I been out in the street now 17 years. I came out in 1965. I’m a member of DON’T, Efforts for Ex-convicts, and I got another organization called VOTE, Voice of the Ex-offender. I don’t think I’m going back.
“I’m 54 years old, and I ain’t got too much longer. I’ve got two beautiful babies, one 13, one 14, and one day, I’m going to be in the audience while them two chumps is gone have on a cap and a gown.”
Again, wild applause interrupted Petey’s flow. As he moved toward his finale, Petey told the crowd.
“Take this from the bottom of my heart: I’m so glad that you had me. And to the parents and to all of you that don’t like me, it don’t make no difference; you got to come because the babies wanted me.”
As soon as the laughter, applause, and cheers ended, Petey lobbed his final off-the- cuff rhyme that caused the room to erupt.
“As 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’re a doctor, physician, or some of you gone be a lawyer. Sometime you’ll jump around and sometimes you’ll think it’s 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.”
Petey returned to his chair but the students still stood cheering, whistling, whooping and hollering. The moderator called out, “Settle down for the benediction,” 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.