Black Was The Color of His TV Tube: Asante Sana, Gil Noble and WABC-TV’s “Like It Is”
by Todd Steven Burroughs
The nation’s longest-running Black public affairs program, “Like It Is,” is no more, a casualty of host Gil Noble’s disabling stroke. Noble ran the show for 43 years. “Again and again he looked right at me/us asked me/us to do what he now cannot—to speak up, organize, get involved, save the children of our race.” What remains of Black and left forums for political exploration, is an unsatisfying mix. “Unfortunately, too many conscious Black people now depend on Google News, Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden, Russ Parr, Tavis Smiley, Amy Goodman, Youtube and, most recently, Sharpton to give them the contextual information they need.” Still, the author finds it “almost unbelievable that something this Black not only survived the 1970s, but quietly marched right into The Obama Era.”
Black Was The Color of His TV Tube: Asante Sana, Gil Noble and WABC-TV’s “Like It Is”
by Todd Steven Burroughs
“Noble blamed America’s Eurocentric educational system for creating too many Blacks who saw themselves as journalists first.”
So, for the last time, I’m online watching the intro to the latest edition of WABC-TV’s “Like It Is,” a titan of a Black public affairs television show—here comes the drums! here comes that historical chronology of black-and-white footage morphing into 1970s-era film color!–and I couldn’t help noticing that the vast majority of all of the luminaries were either dead or hobbled. (Dead, hobbled, dead, hobbled—a 2011 metaphor?) A time to be born, a time to die. The program ended 43 years of African- and African-American centered broadcasting in the New York City metropolitan area on Sunday, Oct. 16. I was born on February 17, 1968, just under four months before the program debuted on June 2, and “Like It Is” is now dead but I’m still here, thinking about the closed door now locking. Gil Noble, 79, the longtime host and producer of the program, is still here, too, trying to get back to the remainder of his life after suffering a very bad stroke that started the credits rolling, for the man and the program, in our minds.
Anchor Lori Stokes didn’t do a bad job, but, well….. The last episode was subtitled “A Tribute To Gil Noble,” but, for a “Like It Is” presentation, the tone was all wrong. The producers (purposely?) forgot that “Like It Is” was as serious as its host. First of all, Stokes looked like she was about to hit the club or a swanky dinner after the broadcast, which was not appropriate at all for a program that was purposely not pretty, or flashy. Station-created “urban contemporary” chase music replaced the silence that normally hit the viewer like a right hook as the show would go to commercial. Stokes tried to get into the cultural milieu, but her broadcast training openly struggled against her being the niece of Carl Stokes, the first Black mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, and the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes. After all, she is an employee of WABC-TV, its public face during the weekday morning, a rising star, anchoring a new generation—one removed from Noble’s life and priorities.
“Stokes announced that a new Black program, possibly named ‘Here and Now’ (Get it?) would replace ‘Like It Is.’”
It was a full and relatively fast-paced hour. Interview and documentary clips were choppily shown from approximately four decades. (I shuddered a little when I wondered if this was the last time I’d ever see Ancestor John Henrik Clarke and Future Ancestor Yosef Alfredo Antonio Ben-Jochannan [“Dr. Ben”] on broadcast television.) Stokes got an update about Noble’s condition from his daughter Lisa, and Bill Cosby came justthisclose to telling Stokes he’d personally take care of the program’s archives, which, according to several sources, Noble owns. (Thank God! Activists: Please ask Cosby about this whenever you see him, from now on, until he tells us what’s going on. Thank you.) More clips. An off-camera producer interviewed the Rev. Al Sharpton, now a host of his own MSNBC program, “PoliticsNation.” Stokes talked to some “Like It Is” regulars during the show’s last years—like: journalist/historian Herb Boyd; longtime WNEW (now WNYW) anchor Bill McCreary; Leonard Jeffries, the African-centered professor; media activist Betty Dopson, New York City Councilman and flame-thrower Charles Barron, and Black journalistic stalwart Les Payne. (In an embarrassing snafu, Stokes mentioned at the end of one segment that Danny Glover was coming up. I’m still waiting.) Stokes announced that a new Black program, possibly named “Here and Now” (Get it?) would replace “Like It Is” next week. (It didn’t; my uncle informed me as I write this that the Noble tribute show repeated this past Sunday.) Then a Gil-signing-off montage, so again and again he looked right at me/us asked me/us to do what he now cannot—to speak up, organize, get involved, save the children of our race. Cue new urban music under “Copyright 2011” tag. It’s official: a New York area television institution that had become its own history—its own Black PBS, just for spoiled New York era viewers!—has now joined its subjects. I stare at the computer screen, and the words stare back. Replay? Share?
It’s the story of a son of Harlem who grew with the mass media era. Both the Garvey Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, a.k.a. “The New Negro Movement,” had had its impact on that section of Manhattan. In the 1930s, when Noble was a small child, Harlem was becoming not only the Capital of Black America, but of American Blackness itself. The Harlem branch of the New York Public Library purchased a large donation of books and documents from a Puerto Rican man named Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Activists took to stepladders and crates on streetcorners when it wasn’t raining and cold to give their opinions on Pan-Africanism, racism and white supremacy. One man, Louis Michaux, allowed speakers to rent a stage and a microphone near his National Memorial African Bookstore, also known as “The House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda.” It was located on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, right in the heart of the growing African village. One customer, a young man by the name of Noble, wrote that “the store was tiny and crammed with books on the Black experience…. The store was a meeting place where one could overhear stimulating debates on Black issues.”
“In the 1930s, when Noble was a small child, Harlem was becoming not only the Capital of Black America, but of American Blackness itself.”
But Noble purposely stayed away from one figure that would come to be associated with that corner—Minister Malcolm X Shabazz of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. A jazz pianist who was mentored by one of the greats, Jackie McLean, Noble did not want to get tangled in Malcolm’s radicalism. He would spend the rest of Mr. Michaux’s days receiving intellectual aid from the man all of Harlem called “the little professor,” and spend the rest of his days making up for not meeting the man who he would openly say for decades directly influenced him as a Black man and a journalist. But first, Noble had to leave his jazz trio and go around the corner to get McCreary to give him a part-time job as a news reporter at 1190 WLIB-AM. It was 1962. The Black Freedom Movement had been well underway, and Black newspapers were being supplemented (and would soon be supplanted) by WLIB and 1600 WWRL-AM, “soul stations” with tiny news departments. These stations would become electronic centers of Black news, politics and culture in New York City, incorporating elements of both Harlem’s street-university personality and its bookstore atmosphere. “Hardly a day passed,” Noble wrote in "Black Is The Color of My TV Tube,” his 1981 memoir, “in which we couldn’t leave the station to cover a major news story breaking within a few blocks.” Noble would stay at WLIB until 1967, when Shango intervened.
The birth of the Black public-affairs television show is drenched in blood. Mostly Martin Luther King's blood. King was assassinated in 1968. So too died many major cities, torched by those of us who were angry at his killing. King once said the riot was the “language of the unheard.”
It was the right term. The same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Report of the National Commission on Civil Disorders, nicknamed "The Kerner Commission" because it was lead by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner. The purpose of the Kerner Commission was to find out why so many Negroes and others physically rebelled in the summer of 1967. The commission correctly found that white racism was the cause of the urban insurrections. The white news media was one of the greatest targets of the commission. It wrote that the major news media, which was virtually all-white at the time, see the world only from the perspective of white men. The commission's recommendation was that the news media hire Negroes—and fast.
“The Kerner Commission wrote that the major news media, which was virtually all-white at the time, see the world only from the perspective of white men.”
Noble wrote about his sudden employment opportunity around Kerner time at New York's WABC, the flagship of the ABC television network. “The mass media had been caught with their zippers down,” wrote Noble. “Red-faced executives scurried about, seeking Blacks for on-air and other job activities. What more logical place to find Black media persons than the so-called soul stations and newspapers? Within a year, many of us found ourselves downtown at major radio and TV stations....None of the stations said we were being hired because of the prescriptions of the Kerner Commission's report. They all maintained, and they still do, that they are committed to being equal-opportunity companies. If asked about pressure, they would say, ‘What pressure?’”
What is also not mentioned by these employers, but mentioned by Noble and other Black journalists of his generation, is that they were needed for another reason: White journalists, many of whom had never taken the time to cover Black communities adequately, were understandably and correctly getting their tails kicked while trying to cover those that were exploding in 1967 and 1968.
After a brief tryout, Noble's hiring by WABC was cinched when he was sent to cover the Newark rebellion. “The news director had decided to hire me,” wrote Noble. “I wearily returned home to tell my wife the good news and was acutely aware of the countless brothers and sisters who were still encircled within the National Guard barricades. Their uprising had been at least partially responsible for my new employment.” When King was assassinated less than a year later, WABC made another decision: he would contribute to a new Sunday program.
“Roughly between 1968 and 1978, Noble was getting some company, locally and nationally.”
Similar decisions were being made not only in other New York television stations, but also in local commercial and public television stations in several major markets roughly between 1968 and 1978. Noble was getting some company, locally and nationally. A 13-week show called “Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant” aired on WNEW around the same time “Like It Is” debuted. (Later, WNEW aired a weekly newscast simply called “Black News,” hosted and led by McCreary, who would become a longtime co-anchor on that station’s weeknight evening newscast. In late 1987, it would expand to an hour and be renamed “The McCreary Report.”) WNET, the flagship affiliate of the new National Educational Television network (soon to be called PBS), produced and aired two national shows: one was “Black Journal,” a news magazine, and the other was a Black (Power) music showcase called “Soul!” WNBC created a show called “Positively Black.” All of a sudden, the Black press and Black radio had a new, stronger, big cousin—one that would reach more homes than any streetcorner orator cat could imagine, and making some of them seen as well as heard. Around the nation, some of these shows, like “Black Journal,” renamed “Tony Brown’s Journal,” would air for decades, while others just for a few years. In New York City, “Like It Is” would outlast them all.
The hour-long program was first hosted by the actor Robert Hooks, but Noble took over some months afterward. (Hooks had to devote himself to his new network drama, “NYPD.”) Noble became producer in 1975. Under Noble’s leadership, "Like It Is" slowly became known in New York City and by Black notables nationwide as one of the most outstanding Black-oriented shows in the nation. Noble produced and written several documentaries, under the "Like It Is" banner, on ancient Egypt, Malcolm X, The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and on the Movement. The show's tone was strongly African-centered; Noble took the worldview of people like Malcolm and Michaux and made it the editorial norm on one-hour of network affiliate television, with a potential audience of millions. “Many Whites feel intimidated when anger is expressed on the program,” wrote Noble. “Others mistake the speaking of truth for racism.”
“’Like It Is’ slowly became known in New York City and by Black notables nationwide as one of the most outstanding Black-oriented shows in the nation.”
Imhotep Gary Byrd, who joined WWRL before “Like It Is” had its second birthday, had a great opportunity twenty years later, in 1989. He was broadcasting live from the Apollo Theatre on WLIB, which had become a Black news-talk station. Byrd decided to dedicate a week of his show to New York City’s “Pioneers in Broadcasting.” He reminded his Apollo and radio audiences of Alma John, a pioneering WWRL sister who had hosted WPIX-TV’s “Black Pride” before she joined The Ancestors. Then, on another day, Hal Jackson, who, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is still on WBLS-FM (the former WLIB-FM), in 2011, on Sunday afternoons! (Jackson had celebrated his 50th year in broadcasting when Byrd honored him, 21 years ago.) Then, for the other two days, the honorees were Bob Law, host of “Nighttalk With Bob Law” on the National Black Network (of which WWRL was the flagship) and Noble, who, by this time, had won several local Emmy awards as well as a special award from the National Association of Black Journalists for his work.
Noble, onstage with Byrd in front of a cheering crowd, recalled how it was a Pan-Africanist, Queen Mother Moore, who taught him he didn’t know his true name—the African one he would have had sans the slave trade. She “made me understand the severity of my condition.” That perspective, he told Byrd and the audiences, made him “ward off the intoxication” of New York television fame. He blamed America’s Eurocentric educational system for creating too many Blacks who saw themselves as journalists first. He explained that his dedication to “Like It Is” was his way of giving back to the people who really got him the job at WABC. And besides, “white people need to learn the truth about themselves, too.” Laughter at the Apollo. Laughter from me, listening to the audio cassette tape I made in Newark, New Jersey, at 21 years of age. I still have the tape, not unlike the scores of Black New Yorkers who have a “Like It Is” videotape they made decades ago, somewhen, somewhere.
“’Many Whites feel intimidated when anger is expressed on the program,’ wrote Noble. ‘Others mistake the speaking of truth for racism.’”
While visiting my 77-year-old mother in New Jersey with my sister this past weekend, I found out two important things about the current Black boob tube. First, that the past exists on terms set by the present: “Positively Black” has been reduced to a five-minute segment on the early morning, pre-“Today” WNBC newscast. (To my shock, Mom didn’t even remember the half-hour, well-produced show had existed!) Lost, stolen, strayed. Second, that Black activists are continuing to create their own broadcast forums: Mom explained to me that the Rev. Jesse Jackson has not one, but two hour-long shows on The Word Network, a Black-oriented Christian cable network: his live “Rainbow PUSH Saturday Morning Forum” on Saturday mornings, and a separate talk show that airs every Saturday night. On the former, Jesse’s son Jonathan talked about Muammar Gaddafi's being killed, and Jesse interviewed his “Forum” guest speaker, Olympic great John Carlos (he of the Black-Power-gloved-fist) on the latter, called “Upfront with Jesse Jackson.” Hmm……
Gil Noble and “Like It Is” were household names in our family for decades. (I used to love it when, over the past few years, I would occasionally mention it to my sister, who lives in Maryland with me, and she was happy to hear it still was on the air. I did, too: I always laughed my posterior off watching the latest episodes online, when that “Copyright 2011” tag came up, because, like my sister, I found it almost unbelievable that something this Black not only survived the 1970s, but quietly marched right into The Obama Era.) But now we have new households, with scores of new distractions. Unfortunately, too many conscious Black people now depend on Google News, Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden, Russ Parr, Tavis Smiley, Amy Goodman, Youtube and, most recently, Sharpton to give them the contextual information they need. (This really means that much of Black America now depends on products produced by major white corporations or white, left-leaning foundations, asking them to allow as much of the truth, or as much Blackness, as the hosts want.) I listened intently as Mom swore by MSNBC’s Sharpton show; she’s a proud part of the Rev’s electronic pews every weeknight. I sat with her and my sister last Friday determined to have an open mind. At the end, I was openly cheering and applauding! Sharpton has clearly learned a lot from Noble, Byrd and himself, and he’s applying it well for his core audience, which I have to assume is composed of practical progressives of all races. In the program I saw, Sharpton had not softened his tone for MSNBC. (He has for Obama, but that’s another story.) But there were no comments from black-and-white Malcolm about the Democratic fox and the Republican wolf, and no drums to be heard. The silence I heard through the sound.
Todd Steven Burroughs is a journalist, historian and popular culture geek (www.whosemedia.com/drums) . During the day, Burroughs is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies at Morgan State University. He is a lifelong student of the history of Black media.