If you are Black and grew up in the New York metropolitan area during the last forty years, you likely went to Black history school every Sunday afternoon by watching “Like it Is,” hosted by Gil Noble on the local ABC affiliate. It was a “must see” program, particularly during a period when taking pride in our culture emerged as a priority in our community. The headmaster of the school was Noble, with a deliberate and probing style that introduced our culture to viewers of all races and ethnicities that had little knowledge of the richness of the Black experience.
Yesterday, Gil Noble passed away; after a valiant fight against the effects of a stroke that caused the end of his long-running program. His death truly marks the end of an era when “public affairs” programming actually meant educating and informing the public. “Like it Is,” came on the air in 1967 and so many years later it is easy to forget the sense of urgency that gripped the nation at that time; a seemingly endless war in Vietnam, riots in the nation’s cities, and a civil rights movement in flux. Gil’s program, like others across the country, was intended to be a buffer; a voice of calm and reason that could still reflect the outrage and disappointment of an African-American community still awaiting liberation. For me, three Sunday programs fed my appetite for cultural enrichment as a child, “Like it Is” and “Positively Black” with Gus Heningburg on the local NBC station in the afternoon and “Soul,” hosted by Ellis Haizlip, in the evening on the New York PBS station WNET. In retrospect, I did not fully appreciate the value of these programs or what they meant to the African-American community. As a young boy I just knew that I was being taught things and my culture validated in a way that was not occurring in my school.
What made Gil so effective was his ability to make the topics of his programs compelling while serving as the backdrop, but still maintaining a very regal persona that was never over the top but very appropriate. He treated our culture with respect and made us respect it in the process. We saw our people and heard their voices on “Like it Is” in a way that was not occurring on the television news programs in the New York area. In Gil we had someone who made us feel important and treated our concerns as worthy of discussion. By watching Gil every Sunday afternoon we came to learn that African-Americans possessed expertise in history, economics, finance, science, politics and a myriad of fields. We discovered our community’s talent not because Gil told us it existed but because he had it on full display, on-air on his program. Even today the absence of Black experts on news programs is glaring, and worse, programs such as “Like it Is” have faded from view. In fact, “Positively Black” on WNBC-TV in New York City is now nothing more than a “segment,” leaving little opportunity for the type of cultural exploration that was the hallmark of these shows.
One of my of fond memories is my first appearance on “Like it Is” in 1990 to discuss the police shooting of a Teaneck, New Jersey youth, Phillip Pannell. While I appreciated the opportunity to come on-air to discuss the tragedy, my excitement over having a conversation with Gil Noble trumped the seriousness of the discussion. It was clear to me that I was in the presence of greatness as was my appreciation for what Gil represented to my community. I considered it an honor and privilege to sit at the table with the “teacher.”
We somehow overlooked Gil in his later years; perhaps because he was such a constant in our lives for so long we never considered there would come a day when he would not be on-air. As public affairs programming lost its luster, Gil had to fight to keep “Like it Is” on the programming grid. The show’s time slot was moved so much in later years only truly dedicated viewers could find it. Yet, I recall in a research report NorthStar had Nielsen Research prepare, the numbers for the show remained very strong. It was only the unfortunate circumstance of Gil’s stroke that put the program on the path to cancellation, and Sunday afternoons in the New York area have been a bit empty since the show left the air. We were truly blessed to have Gil Noble tell it “Like it Is” and in his passing we know “it” will never be the same.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.