Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

My grandmother on my mother’s side had been a young slave. After we moved to Chicago, my mother sent south for her, to bring her here for her final years. My sister said, “Grandma, what was slavery like?” And Grandma began to cry. I didn’t have to read a book to know that slavery wasn’t good.

One day — I must have been 4 — I was playing with matches. Grandma said, in her Southern dialect, “Boy, what you doin’?” I tried to explain that I wasn’t doing anything. She said, “Boy, I cain’t hear what you’re sayin’, ’cause what you’re doin’ talks so loud.” In proper English: Actions speak louder than words. I have never forgotten that.

Nat King Cole was a very good friend of mine. He sat in back of me at DuSable High School. We didn’t know he could sing.

My daddy was a black nationalist, a Garveyite. But he never discouraged us from the idea of integration. He would say, “Learn how to bullshit. You want to be in a position to make money and demands in their language, in their style. Then you can come home and laugh about bullshitting.”

When I was in the army, I would be on leave in London, and there would be some anti-American sitting at the bar. They would teasingly say, “Why do we see Negro soldiers under white officers and never any white soldiers under Negro officers?” My feelings were: “Ain’t none of your goddamned business. We gonna straighten this shit out when we get home. Right now we gotta win this goddamn war.”

I saw the Buchenwald camp. Smelled it. Heard the cries. Indescribable. My experiences with racism growing up, then Buchenwald, I’ve seen how human beings can be systematically treated.

When we marched in Marquette Park in 1966 and they knocked Dr. King down, I said to myself, “If one of them MFs hits me, the nonviolent movement is over.” All due respect to King, I wasn’t going to take that.

You can’t listen to jazz and not feel like you have to get up and dance. It is a positive element of life.

My late son was a brilliant guy and a talented musician. He went to Phillips Academy, Andover in the ’60s and was brutally mistreated there. He didn’t know how to protect himself. His mother and I had separated, and he was heartbroken by that, too. He later contracted HIV and didn’t want to live anymore. Losing my son — I carry that with me constantly.

My third wife is a year younger than my daughter. I just need the companionship. I don’t want to be in this house by myself.

Harold Washington worked himself to death. The Sunday before he died, a group I belonged to invited him to speak. I walked over to him and said, “Man, why don’t you stop and take care of your health?” He was 100 pounds overweight. I was in my office at Loop College when someone came in and said, “Mr. Black, the mayor has been taken to the hospital.” A girl who was in my class immediately began to cry. Harold had an impact on young people.

When Barack Obama came to Chicago, I introduced him to people like Father Pfleger and Jeremiah Wright. People would trust him because they trusted me. That was the beginning of his community organizing. When he became president, we were invited to the inauguration. I was right in front. It was fabulous.

I’ve seen almost miraculous things happen, not just in Chicago but across the world. You have to have faith and believe that all human beings deserve to be loved and supported in their life.

The secret to a long life? Play some good music, drink a little Merlot, get some sleep, and have something to do tomorrow.