Dr. William Grier, co-author of ‘Black Rage,’ dead at 89

Herb Boyd | 9/17/2015, 12:46 p.m.
At the peak of David Alan Grier’s popularity as a cast member of the television show “In Living Color,” it ...
William Grier Contributed

At the peak of David Alan Grier’s popularity as a cast member of the television show “In Living Color,” it was rarely mentioned that he was the son of noted psychiatrist William Grier. However, there was a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Dr. Grier was a household name with “Black Rage,” a book he co-authored with Dr. Price Cobbs.

The two Griers surfaced together recently with the death of William Grier. Grier, 89, died Sept. 3 at a hospice in Carlsbad, N.M., from a brain lesion and complications related to prostate cancer, according to his son Geoffrey Grier.

Few African-American books commanded the attention “Black Rage” received. It came at a most propitious time, with the nation seething with urban revolt, racial tension and general political chaos. Grier and Cobbs struck on a topic at the vortex of social relations and that, for most Black Americans, captured the essence of their feelings about their treatment in the country.

“For a Black man in this country, it’s not so much a matter of acquiring manhood as it is a struggle to feel it is his own,” the authors wrote, though their assessment of the racial animus extended to Black women as well.

The authors, in an updated version of the book, repeated some of their warnings and concerns: “The growing anger of Negroes is frightening to white America,” they wrote. “There is a feeling of betrayal and undeserved attack. White people have responded with a rage of their own. As the lines become more firmly drawn, exchange of information is the first casualty.

“If racist hostility is to subside,” they continued, “and if we are to avoid open conflict on a nationwide scale, information is the most desperately needed commodity of our time.”

Clearly, the authors caught the nation’s attention, at least the more enlightened and compassionate segment, who applauded them for their insight and praised their book in review after review.

Grier and Cobbs were sensitively and academically prepared for this task, and Grier reiterated the book’s thesis to the press. “There is an inclination on the part of white people to deny the history of race in this country, to say that race relations began when they were born, that they haven’t lynched anybody, that they haven’t enslaved anybody, so all that stuff’s irrelevant,” he said. But he insisted that it was necessary to go back to slavery, “You’d have to assume that all living Blacks are genius at digging a hole for themselves.”

Grier’s genius began Feb. 7, 1926, in Birmingham, Ala., where he was born the only child of a postal worker who was unfairly dismissed from his job when Grier was 12. Like many families migrating from the South, they moved to Detroit to get away from Jim Crow laws and for the possibility of greater opportunities.

He was 19 when he graduated from Howard University and later earned his MD from the University of Michigan. It was at the Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kan., that he completed his residency.

Grier contracted polio overseas during the Korean War and was told he would never walk again. Regardless, he overcame the disability and learned to get around on a cane and crutches.

For a while he practiced psychiatry in Detroit and taught at Wayne State University before moving to San Francisco, where he met Cobbs.

“Although we were writing about the clinical state of the Negro psyche,” Cobbs recounted in his finely crafted 2006 memoir, “My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement,” “Bill and I were really describing exposed nerves, violently suppressed anger, teeth-grinding frustration and outrage on the part of Black people from every level of society.” Originally they had titled the book “Reflections on the Negro Psyche” but settled on “Black Rage” instead.

Except for a few critics, the book was widely hailed and considered a benchmark in assessing the psychic condition of Black Americans. Two years later, they published “The Jesus Bag,” which was not nearly as popular as their previous book.

In addition to Geoffrey Grier, Grier’s survivors include his wife, Connie Ort; his son David Alan Grier, the comedian and actor; his daughter, Elizabeth; his stepson, Derrek Karmoen; his stepdaughter Saminah Karmoen; and two grandchildren.