Gil Noble Was A Giant of Journalism

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Gil Noble understood something: Black journalists who practice “objective,” or, “neutral” journalism do so at the peril of their own relevance. For, legitimate journalism should be about facts and truth—even if that truth disturbs the powerful.

[Tribute To A Legend]

Amid throngs of media luminaries, hundreds of people turned out for the funeral service to pay their final respects to Gil Noble on April 13—one of Black America’s most important journalists.

Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and Editor Les Payne, who spoke at the wake the previous night, reflected on first meeting Mr. Noble around 1972, at a City College function where noted Black journalists had gathered. This was a time, as Payne pointed out, of "Negro journalists" who often obediently identified themselves, with genuflection, by the corporate media organizations paying their salaries.

But, as Mr. Payne recalled Noble identified himself by saying only “Hi, I’m Gil Noble.” Payne also characterized Noble this way: “Gil was his own man. He was self-assured. He had no subordinates and he was no one’s subordinate. He was well-adjusted. And he, this is no secret, related to Malcolm X and he couldn’t kowtow. He was interested in the world. He was interested, in those days, in South Africa. He was interested in Zimbabwe. He was interested in what SWAPO [South West Africa People’s Organization] was doing, and, in Namibia, South-West Africa, at that point, and we spent many hours together, off camera, and it was very instructive to me.”

Mr. Noble, the popular host of the multiple Emmy award-winning "Like It Is" program, fell ill last July suffering a debilitating stroke that abruptly ended his stellar career. Then, on April 5 he died. He was 80.

Gilbert Edward Noble, who was born in Harlem, New York of Jamaican parents, got his journalistic start in 1962 at WLIB Radio, where he read and reported newscasts. In 1967, during yet another period of urban unrest in America—especially after the 1965 Watts rebellion in California—Noble reported on the uprisings in Newark’s African-American communities for the mainstream WABC-TV.

In this period, America’s establishment journalism was unable to adequately cover these momentous events, primarily, because of mainstream journalism’s, all-White, all male, composition. American journalism’s White blind-sidedness was articulated in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report which characterized the media as being “shockingly backward,” especially, due to its lack of ethnic minority reporters. Not surprisingly, at this time, a few African-American reporters were being recruited to cover events in ethnic minority communities. In 1968, Noble became a weekend anchor for WABC-TV and by the end of the year was host of "Like It Is."

For 43 years, Mr. Noble’s "Like It Is" program was, perhaps, the most relevant news, analyses, and public affairs show dealing with issues critical to Blacks with any level of depth, sensitivity or profundity. From 1968, Noble nurtured "Like It Is" and used the program, not only to highlight important news for African-Americans, but to tell the stories of African people within the proper historical context. "Like It Is" became an informational reservoir about African arts, culture and history.

Over the years, Mr. Noble covered many Black influential figures. A partial list of people he interviewed, or, did documentary programs on include: Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Dr. Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell, Jack Johnson, Andrew Young, Fannie Lou Hamer, Louis Farrakhan, Kwame Ture, Dr. Joy Leary, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaugh, Sammy Davis, Ella Baker and Charlie Parker.

Mr. Noble and his "Like It Is" program was very instructive in my personal evolution as a teenage person of African ancestry growing up in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands. In my early teens, the book that gave me the first real epiphany of my true African self was the seminal work of Dr. Ivan van Sertima's "They Came Before Columbus." Gil Noble’s "Like It Is" was the first place I saw Dr. van Sertima, and, the likes of Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Cheikh Anta Diop and Chancellor Williams—as well as Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan who grew up just across the waters on St. Croix.

Reflecting on the path that led me to writing—having had early visions of being a lawyer, Major League Baseball player, or, an audio engineer—I think of the days of being impacted by people like Mr. Noble. On broadcast airwaves, I also learned immensely from local, vibrant voices like St. Croix’s fiery radio personality Mario Moorhead—as well as my ninth grade English teacher Carole Henneman, a columnist for St. Thomas’ Daily News. I contend these people all share a common trait with Mr. Noble: they all used journalism within a historical context to help their people—something that is anathema to many Black journalists today.

Because of these people, local giants like: Edward Wilmot Blyden, D. Hamilton Jackson and Rothschild Francis came into view. Being from St. Thomas, the radical story of labor leader, legislator and newspaper publisher Rotschild Francis strongly appealed to me as a young teen. For, Francis used his newspaper The Emancipator and waged a one man war against those abusing the people—including those elements within America’s government who, at the time, ran the islands’ legislative apparatus and those with big business interests.

St. Croix’s D. Hamilton Jackson was another model of journalistic excellence. An educator, labor leader and journalist he established the territory’s first free newspaper, The Herald, and the islands’ first labor union. This was before America purchased the islands from Denmark—a transaction facilitated with Hamilton’s influence. Prior to The Herald, free newspapers were legally prohibited by Danish decree.

Edward Wilmot Blyden is known by many Africans for his exploits, as an educator, politician, diplomat and journalist in West Africa—particularly in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The great Marcus Garvey cited the St. Thomas-born Blyden—known as “the Father of Pan-Africanism—as being a major influence on his thinking. Garvey no doubt read Blyden’s "Africa for the Africans" essay—a phrase now linked to the hip with the magnetic Jamaican trailblazer.

Suffice it to say, all of this history has a connection. Gil Noble understood that connection. And, as it relates to journalism, Gil Noble understood something else too: Black journalists who practice “objective,” or, “neutral” journalism do so at the peril of their own relevance. For, legitimate journalism should be about facts and truth—even if that truth disturbs the powerful.

He knew authentic Black journalism should speak harsh truths many in the White media avoid. And he understood something the late historian Professor Howard Zinn said, “You can’t stay neutral on a speeding train.” Because of this, Mr. Noble followed in the tradition of great journalists like Fredrick Douglass and Ida B. Wells who practiced Black journalism to correct the lies, distortions and omissions harming their people. Unfortunately, antiseptic analysis poisons today’ media airwaves. With Mr. Nobles’ death that reality will be much more sobering.

But, although, we’ve lost a true treasure we should all remember the stories and lessons he taught. I first meet Mr. Noble, in 2003, at LIU University, in Brooklyn, where I studied. It was at the commencement of President’ Bush invasion of Iraq, and, at that early period he stated to the students that the war was over oil. He also warned ethnic minority journalism students about the racism that was still prevalent within the newsrooms of corporate media—especially as it relates to employment.

I recall introducing myself to him and commenting about my surprise of his height—I’m 6-5 and I was looking up at him. I’ll never forget his response. He said “Yes, television has a way of making you look small.” It dawned on me he was making a deeper point about the superficiality of television. We also talked about his classic interview with Reggae king Bob Marley. When I asked about his impressions of Marley he said something like: “You know that brother was a real simple, down-to-earth brother who cared about his people.”

Ironically, that statement exemplifies Gil Noble. His was a people-first journalist—a concept that evades many of today’s modern professional journalists. We must strive to keep Mr. Noble’s historical legacy alive—and support ongoing efforts to preserve his vast archives of "Like It Is" programs.

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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