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CHF Celebrates Black History

In his recent, widely acclaimed book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson makes a compelling argument about the ever-increasing diversification of the African-American experience. Speaking in the broad terms of sociology he identifies four large groups: a small elite, a large mainstream middle class, a new group of recent immigrants of African and Caribbean background, and a small, increasingly disenfranchised inner-city minority. Robinson’s trenchant account is a wake-up call to redouble efforts on behalf of the latter group. But it is also a potent reminder of the tremendous richness of the black experience and its central role in the development of American culture at large.

Eugene Robinson

Robinson’s vision resonates particularly strongly in light of CHF’s online multimedia collection. Over the years, we have endeavored to represent and celebrate African-American culture in all of its great variety. And while we have no plans to rest on any laurels, we are proud to look back on the many highlights and the fact that they are readily available online.

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison

Nothing may ever top Toni Morrison’s unforgettable lecture On Love, her inimitable voice starting the proceedings by softly intoning “It’s good to be back in Chicago. It was Paris for me when I was in Lorraine, Ohio.” Amiri Baraka came close, the passion and controversy of the great writer immediately revealed in the opening flash: “When I was a little boy in the Air Force in Puerto Rico, I used to write poems that would come back like missiles.”

Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka

Other titans have been celebrated on the CHF stage, from blues giant Ma Rainey and jazz great John Coltrane to choreographer extraordinaire Bill T. Jones.

In 2009, our theme of Laughter produced an entire quartet of memorable programs, anchored by the incomparable Dick Gregory and completed by comedy duo Tim & Tom, a lecture by Mel Watkins, and a panel on black humor.

Dick Gregory
Dick Gregory

But we have not only focused on the legends. Over the years, CHF has been thrilled to introduce young, black voices into the conversation. We presented E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea, his path-breaking exploration of gay black men in the South and featured theologian Allen Callahan, speaking on the meaning of Jesus in the African-American experience. And we are proud of our association with performance artist Sarah Jones, whose remarkable work hones our understanding of racial specificity at the very moment of its transcendence.

Sarah Jones
Sarah Jones

In all of our programming, we have been mindful that the civil rights struggle is ongoing. Events that have focused on its history – Roger Wilkins’s account of the 1960s or Rebecca Skloot’s remarkable recuperation of the story of Henrietta Lacks – have been paired with accounts that emphasize present concerns, from Raynard Kington’s remarkable analysis of race and health care and Rhodessa Jones’s important prison project to Dwight McBride’s focus on sexuality.

In all we do, we seek to educate, edify, and entertain – ideally, though, we just want to awe ourselves and our audiences. And that, finally, brings us to the biggest speaker we ever had. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took us from the basketball courts of Harlem to one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights struggle: the controversy surrounding Muhammad Ali, when, sitting down with Bill Russell and Jim Brown, he stood up and was counted.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

For this and all the other memorable moments chronicled in the CHF archives, America is better off today.

Explore the Chicago Humanities Festival's long-standing commitment to celebrate African-American culture.


Toni Morrison (2003)

Click play to listen to Toni Morrison On Love.

Amiri Baraka (2002)
A Good Man: Kartemquin Films and Bill T. Jones (2010)
Victor Goines (2010)
Houston Baker: The Great Migration, & the Blues (2001)


Dick Gregory (2009)

Tim and Tom: Comedy in Black and White (2009)

Black Humour (2009)

Mel Watkins, black humor (2009)


Sarah Jones (2010)

E. Patrick Johnson: Pouring Tea (2009)
The Body of Jesus (2010)


Roger Wilkins: Civil Rights in the 1960s (2002)

Click play to listen to Roger Wilkins.

Rebecca Skloot on Herietta Lacks (2010)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2010)


Raynard Kington: Health Care (2010)

Rhodessa Jones: The Medea Project (2010)
Dwight A. McBride: Race and Sexuality (2010)

Tags: Black History, Culture, Civil Rights

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