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Chicago historian shares optimism for the future in his 100th year

In his 100thyear, Chicago historian Timuel Black calls on the storytellers of today to play an active role in writing the history of their time.

“I come from a background, as you do, where we have done the impossible many times,” Black said. “We now have the challenge to continue so that we can do the miraculous.”

The historian spoke recently before the members of the National Association of Black Journalists-Chicago Chapter. He discussed his background—from serving in the U.S. Army during WWII, through his days advising Martin Luther King Jr., supporting Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, and mentoring a young Barack Obama.

“I had a mission,” Black said during the meeting at Bar Louise, 47 W. Polk,  at which he was interviewed by NABJ Chicago Chapter President Maudlyne Ihejirika. “My mission was to break the barriers of segregation, which had been part of my life all my life.” 

Black spoke also about heritage and importance of retaining it—especially in one’s storytelling.

“In Africa, the griot—the storyteller—was the person who shared the history that he remembered—or she remembered—from the stories of his life and the life of his ancestors,” he said.

Black, often dubbed “Chicago’s griot,” really embodies the history of Chicago, said Ihejirika.  The NABJ-Chicago Chapter president and Chicago Sun-Times reporter has interviewed Black over a dozen times in her career, but said her first sit-down with him was the most impactful.

“For the first time, as a young reporter, I was sitting with someone who had actually known these people,” Ihejirika said, listing names of Black’s colleagues and friends—W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Louis Armstrong, and Paul Robeson, among many others.  “For me, it made them real,” she said. Ihejirika was joined by about 20 NABJ-Chicago members at Bar Louie, 47 W. Polk.

Perhaps what all of these prominent friends of Black had in common was that they—through various mediums—wrote and told the story of their time, memorializing it for generations to come.

The goal in telling any story, Black said, is to stimulate listeners so that they think about what they were told.  “[Storytellers] bring reality to a listener’s mind—whether they agree with you or not—when you tell that story which cannot be contradicted.” 

Cheryl Corley, NPR national correspondent, came to hear Black. He advises young storytellers to stay curious in their mission and to look for mentors from whom they can gain insight into history.

“Every generation is challenged with that—with how do we carry the torch forward?” Ihejirika said.

Black said the storytellers of the modern world must have an optimism for the future while maintaining their hunger for change.  And then, be prepared to make that change.

“Change is going to come,” Black said.  “Be prepared. The door is going to open. Whether you open it or not, the door is going to open.  And who will walk in?”

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