Tracy Morgan On Being 'The New Black'Tracy Morgan, a Saturday Night Live alumnus and one of the stars of NBC's 30 Rock, has a new memoir — I Am the New Black — about growing up in what he calls "Ghetto, USA."
You'd be forgiven for confusing Tracy Morgan with his character on 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan. Jordan stars in a sketch comedy show on NBC; Morgan starred on Saturday Night Live for seven seasons. In 30 Rock's pilot, Jordan is filmed running down a crowded street in his underwear, wielding a plastic light saber; Morgan has appeared on a local talk show reclining on top of a desk with his shirt pulled up over his belly.
Morgan shows his belly on the cover of his new memoir, too, but the book, called I Am the New Black, reveals a surprising side to the seemingly manic comedian.
I Am the New Black By Tracy Morgan Hardcover, 224 pages Spiegel & Grau List price: $25
Morgan grew up in the Bronx and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (which he calls Ghetto, USA), and says that even as a child he knew he wanted a better life. He fled a troubled relationship with his mother, but life with his father, who served in Vietnam and recovered from a heroin addiction, didn't make him happier.
"I was like any other inner-city kid with a chip on his shoulder because his daddy and his mommy wasn't together," Morgan tells Terry Gross. Morgan says his father, a musician, took him fishing and encouraged him to play football, but his battles with addiction and then AIDS — a result of his heroin use — put a strain on the relationship.
After his father's death, Morgan turned to dealing crack. As he tells it, he was a bust as a drug dealer, but the experience haunts him. "It still bothers me today," Morgan says, "but it's something that I did. It was survival."
Morgan didn't turn to comedy until after his best friend was murdered.
"He would say to me, 'Yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy,' " Morgan says. "A week later, he was murdered. And that for me, that was like my Vietnam. I had my survival guilt when I started to achieve success. Why I made it out and some guys didn't."
When he arrived at Saturday Night Live in 1996, Morgan turned his attention to standing out in a cast full of future stars. He decided to be the funniest thing in any sketch — no mean feat given that Morgan's tenure on SNL coincided with Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.
"Saturday Night Live was like a university for funny," he says. "I had to let my guard down to let the writers see my flaws."
30 Rock creator Tina Fey was the first writer to see that "he was funny, but you had to let him be him," Morgan says. "And it worked."
Fey invented the Tracy Jordan character specifically for Morgan, and has imported elements of his over-the-top personality and real-life exploits — like the time he had to wear an alcohol-sensing bracelet after a DUI conviction — into 30 Rock. Morgan says he trusts Fey's writing because she always spikes the self-referential plotlines with real laughs. Plus, Tracy Jordan's on-screen antics give Morgan a release: "I love 30 Rock because Tina Fey allows me to fly over the cuckoo nest once a week."
Morgan says the anger that ruled his life as a teenager has mellowed: "That little 17-year-old boy — he's grown up. He's a man now. And when I was angry, when I was younger, I was in a cocoon. Now I'm a beautiful, black butterfly."
I Am the New Black By Tracy Morgan Hardcover, 224 pages Spiegel & Grau List price: $25.00
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that may be offensive to some readers.
There are many reasons why you might be reading this sentence. You're obviously curious about me, or you wouldn't even be holding this book. That's cool with me, I'm happy about that, Mr. or Mrs. Whoever You Are. If there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's that curiosity might kill cats, but it doesn't kill people. Unless you're curious about doing things like bungee jumping high on crack to see if you really need that harness, curiosity will not kill you! I tell you what will kill you — people will. We've got a long way to go to change that around, but I hope we do. For now, I can say this and I know it's true: Curiosity makes you smarter. Don't fight it! Learn to learn, learn to ask questions. Clearly, you've got questions about me. In this book you'll find some answers.
I have a pretty diverse audience, and that makes me happy — laughter is universal, and I don't differentiate between people at all. Why should I? People are people. There's no reason why one person can't relate to any other person on this planet in some way or another. That's something I didn't have to be taught — I believed that as a kid, and leading the crazy life I've led has done nothing but prove me right to myself. I have friends who are black, white, purple, gay, straight, Martian, yellow, old, and young. I have friends who are animals and a few who I believe to be robots. All of them are people to me. In my mind it's not about what you look like or what you do, it's about who you are inside.
I hope whoever you are inside likes surprises, because I've got a few in store for you here. I'm not a child star, but you could say that I've grown up on TV. I went from being an unknown, down-and-out comic from Brooklyn and the Bronx to being a regular character on a major network comedy called Martin. From there I went on to become the most notable black comic on Saturday Night Live since Eddie Murphy. Then I had my own show, The Tracy Morgan Show, and now I'm on 30 Rock. I definitely went from a boy to a man on TV, all on NBC — what up, Lorne Michaels! But here's what you don't know: I was already a man of the streets. I had to be to survive my upbringing.
The version of me you see on TV now and in my feature films is a pretty happy guy, isn't he? Finally, in my personal life, that much is true too — or it's getting there. Happiness, contentment, security — that's all new for me. I've reached my forties and I can finally say that no one except me can take my house away from me. No one but me can put me on the street. But it wasn't always like that. My life growing up was a twisted Bronx version of The Color Purple. It had a much different soundtrack and no trees, but that desperation was the same. At this point in my life I plan for the future. Back then I planned how to get through one day at a time.
Let me make one thing clear right now: I'm not writing this for your sympathy, and I don't feel like any kind of hero. I'm not God's gift, but my life wasn't dumb luck either. As you'll see, I made a series of choices — some bad, most good — that led me here. I don't want your praise, but I do want to be an example. Not the kind of example the principal suspends for throwing food at the teacher or the cops arrest in front of his friends for spray painting eat my ass on the school. I want to be an example of a guy who made something of himself out of nothing. A guy who overcame the odds of a tough childhood, who worked hard, who didn't let his surroundings get the best of him and lead him to jail or the graveyard. Where I ended up — being a comedian, a TV star, and a movie actor — might be unique but my story is not. When a child is born, it's born with a heart of gold, but the way of this world can turn that heart cold. I'm still a good person and I thank God for that — He's working with me on it.
In many ways, all of you reading this who are like me, who come from what I came from — we are the last of the Mohicans. I've seen so many of the black males I grew up with end up dead or in prison. My closest friends from school who are still living work with me or for me, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that we are all that's left from our old crew. I keep them close because they're the only people I trust.
We grew up in the inner city, New York, in the late seventies and early eighties. We saw the birth of hip-hop right on our front stoop. Those were the good times; we were poor, but for a while there was harmony in our community. And those of us whose homes weren't what they should have been found what we needed in the neighborhood, because back then there were role models to be had. Hanging out on corners wasn't always dangerous — they weren't always just places to sell drugs. Back in my day, generations of families would meet on the street just to be together. Kids like me, from broken homes, used to be able to find family just outside their door, among a network of neighbors. We were all brothers of other mothers back when I was young. But not for long. As we became teenagers, all of that slipped away. The city turned its back on the Bronx and let the neighborhoods become hoods, fueled by drugs. My backyard became the city's market for crack and heroin, and our people were right there to participate in every way — as dealers, as addicts, and as statistics day after day. Throughout the eighties and into the nineties, my high school friends and cousins were taken down by drug-related violence. My own family was no different. We were torn apart by drugs and AIDS. I lost a lot of role models to that terrible twosome: dirty needles and a disease society didn't understand. Like a lot of the young men in my neighborhood, I ended up on the streets dealing just to get by. We dropped like dominoes, pushed over by the end of a gun or the tip of a needle. If you think about it, I really shouldn't be here at all. If you're the kind of person who likes numbers and statistics, I'm the long shot, the lotto Powerball winner. I'm the mutation in the DNA that makes evolution a reality. I am the new black. Once you know a little bit more of my story, you'll probably agree that the odds were against me sitting in a luxury apartment in Manhattan starring in an Emmy-winning series with an Emmy nomination myself, alongside people like Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin on a network like NBC. Given the facts of my life, those of you who like to spend time at the OTB would have put your money on finding me, at my age, curled up in a ball in a corner of the ghetto ready to die if I wasn't dead already. The Emmy nod surprised me: I thought they'd wait a few years to give this black man his trophy. I figured I'd just keep rocking the Golden Globes. I love you, Europe!
I'm not going to lie: I know I've got a natural talent that has seen me through my trials and tribulations. Being funny has been my bulletproof vest. This mouth of mine and my goofy face have kept me from getting shot many times, particularly that one time when I stole a drug dealer's girl. Being funny wasn't a career choice growing up, it was my way out of situations, a way to survive another day. In the end, it also freed me from my environment. It was my passport to a larger world that I had no idea existed, even though it was just a few miles south in Manhattan. That world was in the same city, in the same country, a world so many people took for granted, but it was foreign to a guy like me. When I finally moved to a nice community in Riverdale from a run-down apartment next to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, it was like I'd landed on Mars. I had no idea that other people lived without garbage all over their streets. It's crazy to me how in America different people can live just a few miles away from each other but entire worlds apart. The best thing that ever happened to me was being brought up hard. It's kept me hungry, even though now I've got more than I ever thought I'd see in this lifetime. It doesn't matter how much I accumulate — I'll be starving for the rest of my life, that's for damn sure. They say when opportunity knocks you should let it in and invite it to sit at your table. Fuck that — when opportunity knocks, you should take it captive. Beat that shit down. I've got opportunity tied to a chair in my basement with a ball gag in its mouth. Opportunity ain't even thinking about leaving my house. If you keep quiet for a second, you'll hear it whining.
But success isn't everything. Success can be tough if where you're from can't coexist with where you're at, if you know what I mean. If you don't know what I mean, let me break it down. As Biggie said, "Mo' money, mo' problems," and he was right. He was a big fat genius. When you're on top, it's amazing how many old friends you have! People like to push your buttons a little too much: Either they want you to perform for them or they want your money, and they'll take what they want one way or another. My sense of humor is my gift, and I need to protect it, whatever it takes. So I stay out of the street. It makes me sad, but at this point in my life, I can't go back and hang out where I used to live. I cannot have the kinds of negative energy I find there around me. And more than ever, I stay away from people I don't know. Most motherfuckers are miserable, and misery loves company. Fuck that — misery makes its own company if there's no company around. Misery is a crowd. The truth is, I've never thought of myself as the Michael Jordan of comedy. And that's a good thing. You know why? Because I'm not. Wasn't that Richard Pryor? Yes, it was. I know what I am: I'm funny! As far as funny goes, I've got big funny! But take it from me because I should know: There's a Tracy Morgan on every block in every neighborhood like the one I came from — that kid who's off-the-wall funny, who takes on characters for any situation, who can entertain you when the shit is going down. Entertaining people is how he gets through life, and watching him live out loud like that makes your day better. At least he hopes so. That guy was me. That guy is me. I'm tough like a rock, and here I am, against all odds, still going strong in your hands and on your TV. If you know that kid, or, better yet, if you are that kid, I hope that you get out of this book all that I put into it. I hope you're brave enough to be yourself, however different or strange you are. Most of all, I hope you avoid all the wolves and the pitfalls that surround you. If you're born into a situation you didn't ask for, where everything and everyone around you tells you that the easiest thing to do is to fall in line, to follow the crowd straight into danger or a dead end, trust your inner strength. Don't do it. There is always a way out.
It will be a lot of work, believe me. You need to pray to whatever god you believe in for help. And I'm not gonna lie to you: If and when you get what you want, the struggle doesn't end, because once you're free, there is always someone there waiting to drag you down if you let them. But if you don't let them and you achieve the goal you set for yourself, however big or small, there is nothing better. That is freedom on your own terms. Some people out there probably think I know nothing, but believe me, that is one truth I know. Because I'm living it.
If you're wondering what the title of my book might mean, well, before we get started, I'm gonna tell you. I don't mean to speak for all black Americans, and I don't think I am the evolution of my race or anything. Black people might be proud of their own, but if I was ever so arrogant as to say something like that and mean it, I might go down in history as the first black man lynched by black people. And speaking of lynching, I hope you all know that racism is alive and well in this country. Alive and living, I tell you.
Whenever a black comedian achieves a certain level of success, they get asked about racism in the entertainment industry. Every time I see or hear a question like that I think of a joke Damon Wayans did in his stand-up back when he really blew up and earned something like $14 million in a year for the first time. Damon's joke went something like this:
Reporters have been asking me, "Damon, now that you have this $14 million, do you think racism still exists?" And I tell them, while I'm counting my money, "Well if 'n there is any, suh, I ain't seen none!"
The new black is impossible to deny — and so am I, because I am the new black. You know my characters on television and in films, and some of you know my stand-up. Which one of those is me? Who am I? Tracy Jordan? Biscuit? Astronaut Jones? The truth is that I'm all of them. They all live in me and I live through all of them. If you want to know the truth about Tracy Morgan, that truth is that like the new black, I'm impossible to deny. Black isn't the absence of color, it's the presence of all colors. That's why I'm the new black. I'm everyone you've seen me be and just myself at the same time. We are in a new era, with a black president. Racism definitely still exists, and the new black knows this, just like the new black knows that now is the time to stand up. The new black is something that our American society needs at every level, because the new black isn't about race, it's about trying. In this era of the new black, you have to try because there's no more excuses. We've got to take responsibility. We've got to raise our children. And people! This book is going to take your excuses from you. If I could get to where I am from where I came from, so can you. Being the new black means you can get there if you try. No more excuses. If your life is hard, you gotta start laughing so you don't cry, and you've gotta try or you'll get nothing. We can make a change if we put in the work. Okay, okay, I've gotta stop this train. I'm not about to jump up on a soapbox blaming society and the economy and the white-man government of the United States for all of the hardships in my life (you bastards already know what you did). Seriously, hasn't all that been said already? Don't we all know that shit by now? We do, right? If any of you don't, let me point you to the Interwebs or your local public library, where you'll find nice search engines or sweet ladies with glasses to help you find material to read. I'm here to relate my personal experience, because growing up in the inner city as a child of the seventies is a state of mind and a state of being. I am a product of those times, and like many others, I've struggled to get past them. There's no one to blame for the bad habits I brought with me when I left the ghetto, though. I almost let them ruin me. Even though now I see them for what they are, they're never dead and buried. They're a part of me just like the parts that make you laugh when you see me on TV. No one's demons ever die; if you're strong, they stay caged and you become their warden. That's where I'm at. I fight my demons every day, and I've gotten to know them so well, they've got a name: Chico Divine. You'll meet Chico in a little while; he's the life of the party whose ass I still got to bury every morning.
In my opinion, life don't come easy no matter who you are. These past forty years have been crazy, but everything I did was worth it, and I'm nothing but grateful to be here now. Would I do it all again? Stupid question! I've got my health, which is much better now than it used to be, even though I've got diabetes. Sure, I've had a lot of complications from it for someone my age, but I still feel lucky — growing up with a complete ignorance of nutrition, I'd be dead by now if I'd never found a way out of the Bronx. I consider my health a blessing. What else do I have? I've got a career I wouldn't trade for anything. I've got opportunity locked in my basement. I've got three great kids. I've got cars, all that stupid shit. I had a great marriage; after twenty years we split up, but we're still friends. I've a girlfriend who is good to me, and there is no shortage of women I'd like to get pregnant.
And I've got a future now too. That's the one thing I never considered back in Brooklyn in 1975. I've got something to live for past the end of the day, past the end of the week, and past the bills due on the first of the month. As a young man, I expected none of that. As a full-grown man, I appreciate all of it. Even at my craziest, when I forgot all about drinking and driving being illegal and dangerous, I didn't overlook any of those hard-earned privileges.
I hope you're interested in hearing the story of my life, because now that we've talked for a bit, I'm ready to get down to it. Some of the situations you are gonna read about may be pretty regular stuff to some of you, and some of the bullshit, to whatever degree, is probably all too familiar to most of you. Everyone else should know that this story is not all good. There's not a big happy ending waiting for you, rubbed down in oil on a beach in Miami.
Sure there's happiness, if you need to know now. Yeah, I'm a success and I am happy. But the only one celebrating at my party right now is me. As of this moment, I'm estranged from my own mother and most of my family, and I'm not sure that's going to change much. I'm not saying why, I'm just saying that's how it is. It's okay though. I've gotten used to it. I'm an island, kind of like Antigua: hot and humid, definitely a destination of choice if you want to get freaky or just kick back. And pretty isolated.
If there's one thing I hope you take away from your visit to my world, whether you care to read about all I've lived or whether you stop right here, it's this: There are two things that will get you through life, and those things are simple and human and anyone can have them. They're laughter and learning. If they're a part of your life, you will always have a reason to keep living. If anyone out there has found a better way to make this world a better place to be, lay it on me, I'm here. Speak up, because I'm always listening and I'm always eager to learn.
From I Am the New Black by Tracy Morgan. Copyright 2009 by Tracy Morgan. Published by Spiegel & Grau. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.