As a spindly little white boy helping a large black family harvest a local farmer's tobacco crop, I had few rights or privileges. Slow, weak and ill-at-ease, I struggled to keep up with the rest of the farm hands as the old harvester rumbled through the sticky forest of tobacco stalks. My older brother fared better; he could strip the passing spires of their ripest leaves with the best of them. But I barely managed to hit every stalk and I caught a lot of good-natured but incessant ribbing due to my overwhelming lack of agricultural acumen. Don't get me wrong: Edgar-Lee and Miss Ruth were good - no, great people. They and their half dozen kids could 'take in' a barn of fat green tobacco leaves faster than most crews of full-grown men. That I emerged as the weakest link was more a product of my young age, coke-bottle glasses and uncoordination than any overt strains of reverse-racism. Still, it was tough to swallow at times, even for a kid as used to being an outcast as I was at the time.
Luckily, there was one time of day when persecution of the smallest Pittman fell by the wayside. Sometime around the noon hour, after the four corner nabs and Dr. Peppers had been drained, Edgar-Lee, Miss Ruth and kids would gather under the shade of a tree or barn-shelter and laugh away the remaining time before the farmer arrived to resume the workday. During those precious few minutes, Edgar-Lee's clan acted more like a family and less like a gang of hardened tobacco-pullers. They's laugh and joke, kid one another and treat me and my brother like one of their own. I still remember watching the older girls of the family practice dance moves to Kool and the Gang's new song, 'Celebration'. With that song playing endlessly from a filthy boombox, color, class and cutting remarks faded away. But the one thing that totally erased the differences between all of us was a battered 8-track of Richard Pryor in concert.
We'd all gather around my brother's Rally Sport Camaro and try not to shoot soda out of our noses as the caustic comic fashioned a life of poverty and pain into a bold new form of comedy. I was way too young to understand all of his material, but one thing that seemed abundantly obvious even then was that Pryor's acerbic wit and lethally true observations crossed all socio-economic and racial barriers. Richard Pryor described himself simply as a 'comic'. To the twelve year old me, he was so much more; a street-level preacher could make you laugh, think and possibly wet your pants, all while understanding that neighbor who doesn't look like you a little bit better. Here's hoping he's finally at peace.