For a moment, I thought it was just an act. Surely Tracy Morgan—the man who discussed crazy animals in his role as Brian Fellows on "Saturday Night Live"; the man whose “30 Rock” character, Tracy Jordan, utters lines like, "I watched 'Boston Legal' nine times before I realized it wasn't a new 'Star Trek.'"—wasn't about to cry.
But the tears welling in Morgan's eyes were genuine as he sat before a packed crowd recently at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square and recalled his childhood with his grandmother in Brooklyn, his struggles with his mother and father, his grief over the best friend who was murdered and whose encouragement pushed him to pursue comedy. The event was held to promote Morgan's new book about his life, "I Am the New Black," written with Anthony Bozza. While I can't vouch for the book itself (or Morgan's stand-up act, for that matter) I can say that on this particular evening Morgan offered a surprisingly sincere and heartfelt discussion punctuated with clever humor and hints of his trademark absurdity.
Morgan volunteered his thoughts about the role of God in his life not as a punch line (though he did have an excellent bit about Frank Sinatra gambling with Abraham in heaven), but as a sincere statement of appreciation for and recognition of the way in which God works through him in his comedy. Morgan encouraged others to work hard at every job, no matter how small it seems, adding that he could have had a truly successful stint as a truck driver or in food services had comedy not worked out. "Those chicken nuggets don't make themselves, so be the best chicken-nugget maker ever,” Morgan said encouraging restaurant employees and perhaps unknowingly invoking Thomas Merton's call to find one's true self.
Morgan also spoke about the importance of family and the need for fathers to be present to their children. He offered encouragement to a single mother in the audience who stood up to say that she had seen Morgan speak in Harlem a few nights earlier and was so inspired by what he’d said that she'd returned, this time dragging along her reluctant teenager daughter. "My daughter actually wrote one of your quotes [from the talk] in her phone," the mother proudly announced, hopeful that Morgan’s message of encouragement had gotten through.
As a young man, Morgan sold crack in his neighborhood but said two things kept him from falling too far into that world. The first: he was terrible at selling drugs. The second was his father. Morgan’s father struggled with his own drug addictions but tried to keep his son from following that path. "When the street had me, my father grabbed me by the collar and he dragged me back," Morgan said. "And I struggled and I struggled." A reminder, perhaps, of how often—easily, foolishly, stubbornly, even—we pull away from the loving reminders of a Father, a voice calling to us, one who wants nothing more than for us to go out into the world and, eventually, to return safely home to Him.