Revealing Roots: Chris Rock Uncovers the Ancestral Source of His Drive

In this excerpt from African-American Lives, the comic is moved to tears when he learns about an ancestor who fought for the freedom of other slaves and, against terrible odds, became a state legislator at age 24.

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Getty Images

It’s amazing no one’s ever been persecuted for treating people like this — taking away their names, taking away everything. People just treat it like it was disco — or bell-bottoms. Just something that happened. Slavery. 

Christopher Julius Rock was born Feb. 7, 1965. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His mother, Rosalie Tingman, was born Feb. 22, 1945, in Andrews, S.C., and his father, Julius Rock, was born Jan. 6, 1932, in nearby Charleston, S.C.

Both Rosalie and Julius moved north when they were young, living first in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, before settling in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant. Rock is the oldest of six children, and he remembers his parents as being extremely hardworking people who struggled to support their large family.

“My mom,” he said, “worked with mentally handicapped kids, and would sometimes take care of other people’s children. Dad drove a truck for Rheingold Brewery for 15 years. Then he drove another 20 years for the New York Daily News. He also drove a cab on the side. My father always kept a job — no matter what.”

Rock claimed that New York City’s busing policies “killed his spirit” as a child. “I was 7 years old, in second grade, and I was actually bused to a neighborhood worse than the one I lived in. I was bused from Bed-Stuy to Gerritsen Beach, a very ethnic Irish-Italian working class neighborhood.

“I had to get up an hour and a half earlier than anybody in my class, travel a long distance. I encountered a ton of racism. On the other hand, I didn’t know anybody in my own neighborhood. Once I walked off my block, I was a stranger in the ghetto.” 

Ironically, Rock was bused to Gerritsen Beach from his Bedford-Stuyvesant home because his parents thought he would get a better education among whites. The end result, of course, was a disaster. Rock was so unhappy that he dropped out of high school in 10th grade.

I assumed that Rock was concocting jokes in the back of the class. “I wasn’t funny then. My grades were horrible. I was bored and far from the funniest guy in my neighborhood.”

He remembers spending more time listening to his relative’s jokes than making up his own. He says he ended up stealing a lot of his material from them. “I would just watch my father be funny, my grandfather was funny and all my uncles on my father’s side were hysterical. If I took you to a family reunion right now, you would never pick me out as the famous guy. The personalities in my family are so big, every one of the men holds court.”

Rock and I began to explore the people who had a strong influence on him. We began with his paternal grandparents, Allen Rock and Mary Vance. Allen was born on Sept. 22, 1908, in Eutaville, S.C., and Mary was born in the same area on June 9, 1918. They met and married in South Carolina, where Julius — Rock’s father — was born. During the 1940s, the family moved north, ending up in Brooklyn.

“They were great people,” he said. “My grandmother was just a real sweet, typical grandmother, you know, bake you a cake, bake you some pies, fry up some chicken. My grandfather drove a cab. I never went a week without seeing him. Sometimes I would end up in the cab with him driving people around. He was also a preacher at a Brooklyn storefront church.”

Rock said he writes his jokes the same way his grandfather used to write his sermons. “We both just write bullet points,” he said. “My grandfather never wrote a sermon all down. And I never really write the whole joke, ’cause I want it to come out with the passion of an argument, as opposed to, like, some written thing.