Eloquent tributes from a stream of religious leaders, elected officials, academics and celebrities punctuated a three-hour funeral service for journalist Gil Noble, who was gratefully remembered in New York City on Friday as the nation's "electronic griot." He died April 5 at the age of 80.
At the service, held at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, notables such as Minister Louis Farrakhan; former New York Mayor David Dinkins; actor Danny Glover; and Susan L. Taylor, retired editor of Essence magazine, offered glowing appreciation for Noble's effort to inform and educate African Americans over four decades on his WABC-TV show Like It Is. Despite professional risk, his show — America's longest-running issues-oriented Sunday show aimed at black Americans — overflowed with powerful documentaries and, often, controversial guests who were misunderstood by many mainstream Americans.
Harlem's Abyssinian Church has long featured high-profile funerals for African-American luminaries. Among them have been services for both Adam Clayton Powells — the father and his son, the famous congressman Adam Jr. — Ossie Davis, Count Basie and jazz singer Dakota Staton. The service for Noble followed in this tradition.
Amiri Baraka, the Newark, N.J.-based poet and fiery political activist, delivered a resolution, read by Abyssinian's senior minister, Calvin Butts III, commending Noble's dedication to informing black Americans and equipping them with knowledge. It was signed by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and all City Council members.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the largest such collection worldwide, also paid homage to Noble in a tribute sent by Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, its director.
Noble, who died at his Montclair, N.J., home after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2011, was as magnetic in death as he was in life. Adoring New Yorkers also packed the church Thursday evening for another three-hour service, during which venerable New York journalist Les Payne announced that "Gil loved him some Harlem, and Harlem loved him back!"
First in line on early Thursday afternoon was Frezzel Martin. To guard against being crowded out of the service by the crush of mourners, Martin had arrived at 3:45 p.m., although the service wasn't scheduled to begin until 7 p.m. "I'm here for an African-American icon," she told The Root.
Martin said her childhood in segregated Virginia "created an inferiority complex. But when I started watching Like It Is, I began feeling a lot better about myself. Gil Noble's show put a stop to [feeling bad about myself] and changed my outlook and my life."
Every Sunday morning mourner Adina Malik, who was also standing in line, said she "went to church to receive spiritual food," adding, "in the afternoon, I watched Like It Is to receive cultural food."
Kathy McCook, who stood in line to attend the Friday service, told The Root, "I learned black history through watching Like It Is and Gil Noble." The show, she said, was so educational that she "could actually do [her] homework by watching it."
Hours after the funeral, during the reception at the Schomburg Center, Noble's wife, Norma Jean, sat surrounded by relatives and friends. Married to him since 1959, when they united after a brief courtship, she said adjusting to life without him, "a man who never yelled, screamed or raised his voice," will take time.
"I have to get used to being without him," she said.
F. Finley McRae is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.