Veteran international filmmaker, theater director, arts administrator, actor and author Pemon Rami released his memoir, When Blackness Was Golden, in April. The memoir is a first for Rami, who’s written plays and film scripts. 

During his time as educational director at the DuSable Museum of African American History, he wrote education manuals and curricula. He’s produced films such as 93 Days, Stories from the Soul, Of Boys and Men, and much more. In addition, he also was a Chicago casting director for Cooley High, The Blues Brothers, Mahogany and more. 

“[Writing a book] is a whole other ball game, and writing a book of any sort is not for the meek and squeamish. So you go through a lot in terms of processing what the material should be about, but also who you should leave out and where you should stop,” Rami told The TRiiBE on June 8. 

When Blackness Was Golden is a coming-of-age story that highlights Rami’s upbringing in Bronzeville and weaves in the Chicago Black Renaissance of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His memoir also highlights essential figures in the city’s art and cultural scenes as well as the ongoing social and political movements like the Civil Rights Movement. 

The social and political movements of the 1950s, 60s and 70s led to transformative change in the United States and abroad. He self-published the book in collaboration with BookBaby, a book publishing service provider for self-published authors.

In the fall of 1968, there were a number of protests at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high schools. After graduating from Wendell Phillips High School, 18-year-old Rami became one of the leaders in the city’s Black Student Movement. 

CPS schools with a predominantly Black and brown student body protested over the lack of investment in schools, poor building conditions, overcrowding and the lack of Black and bilingual educators and administrators. 

Filmmaker Pemon Rami is pictured here in 1968 during the CPS student boycott. Photo credit: Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum. This photo also appears in chapter six of Rami's coming-of-age memoir 'When Blackness Was Golden,' which was released on April 21.

In October 1968, Rami and other organizers presented a Black manifesto to the Chicago Board of Education with their demands that called for complete courses in Black history, including the contributions of Black persons in all courses, Black administrators in Black schools, technical and vocational training, more Black teachers, repair of school buildings and more. 

When their demands weren’t addressed by the district, they acted and organized a series of walkouts on Mondays throughout October 1968. The first citywide boycott was on Oct. 14. Between 27,000 and 35,000 students boycotted, according to an excerpt from Rami’s book. 

“There were no Black business [contractors] allowed in the schools, very few Black teachers, we couldn’t teach Black history and very few Black administrators. The boycotts helped to change that,” Rami said. 

At the time, Rami said the district did not extend business contracts to Black businesses. School-related things such as student photos, class sweaters or class rings were produced by white vendors, he explained. One of their demands in the manifesto was for Black businesses to supply class photos and rings in Black schools. 

Rami hopes that his memoir will empower readers to recognize their power and that their voice can impact their lives and the people around them. He also hopes his activism and organizing in the Black Student Movement will inspire people of all ages to demand equity for themselves and others. 

“I hope that as people read it, they get a true sense of how magnificent it was to live in Chicago during the 60s and 70s and to be a part of the Renaissance. I know that some people will say, well, but you all [Black people] suffered and had these issues with violence and the Democratic Convention. Yes, that is all true,” he said.

But at that time, he added, it was refreshing to see Black pride and to see Black people love and embrace their hair and color unapologetically. 

The TRiiBE recently spoke to Rami about the Black Chicago Renaissance, the importance of documenting and sharing stories with younger generations, his involvement with the Black Student Movement, and how his upbringing in Bronzeville and the South Side influenced his passion for the arts and Black history. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

The TRiiBE: You’ve written a lot throughout your career. But you stepped into something new by writing a memoir for the first time. Why did you decide to write about yourself?

Pemon Rami: I realized the importance of documenting what we do very early, like in my teen years. So what is reflected in the book is not just my story. It is the story of the development of Chicago, the development of Bronzeville, the Black Student Movement and the development of the Black theater and film movement in Chicago. I was at the epicenter of all of those movements. When Blackness Was Golden traces my life and the context of what was going on within our communities at that time. 

How did you decide what moments of your life to focus on or highlight?

PR: My life corresponds with many seminal events that happened in Chicago. So, of course, I started with my birth, and I started with my being born in Chicago because I was born at Provident Hospital, the first Black hospital in the United States that we owned and controlled. I also wanted to focus on where I grew up, now known as Bronzeville. We didn’t call it Bronzeville when we were growing up. We called it the “low-end” or “the bottom” or any other configurations. But it was never Bronzeville. 

[Reporter’s Note: Provident Hospital was founded in 1891 by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a Black surgeon. Williams performed the first successful heart surgery in 1893. The first location for the hospital was on 29th and Dearborn. Its current location is 500 E. 51st Street].

From there, I tried to cover the things I was involved in. The Civil Rights Movement pushed me toward the Black Power Movement, and the Black Power Movement forced me towards the Black Student Movement and opened me up to the [Black Arts Movement]. So because I ended up being at the epicenter of so many of these movements, in many ways, I was one of the architects of the Black Student Movement here, as well as the Black Theatre Movement. 

And so, as I was part of constructing it, I thought that it would be important for people to see what you go through to create institutions that can be sustained over a long period and how ideology impacts not only what you do day-to-day but the choices that you make regarding the kind of work that you do, the type of organization that you become involved with, and the kind of commitment that you want to make to make the world a better place. 

"When looking at what young people can do, the book says that you can make a difference in the world if you have your eyes open, see it, and have the commitment to change it," Rami said. Photo by Joe Sterbenc. Framed photo of Rami in the background by Bobby Crawford.

How did being involved with the Black Student Movement lead to you being involved in the Black Arts Movement? 

PR: I called the book When Blackness Was Golden because it was an era in which the individual took a back seat to the group. For example, the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League was formed for two reasons: they were being abused in the police system, and they also recognized the impact that the police were having on the Black community. 

So they came together to create an organization to help to clean that up. Then you had the Black teachers, sociologists and psychologists, all of which came together to improve the quality of Black lives. 

When you look at children of the Civil Rights Movement, kids were on the line because we were in a position to take more of the heat. The [Black] Student Movement, The Black Arts Movement and the film movement were about freedom. Black people during that period understood that what was good for all of us should be good for the individual. But the individual’s ability to be successful didn’t necessarily impact the group. 

There were a number of institutions where you could have this kind of conversation that existed during that period. Every weekend, we were at some location having discussions or planning based on our conditions and how they needed to be changed. We’ve moved from a place where we were fighting for the group’s freedom and justice. We end up with individuals succeeding and the group being left behind.

A lot of people can say the Black Power Movement and Black Arts Movement, or the Civil Rights Movement ended. They didn’t. It just transitioned and morphed into something else. Now we have people that are in positions that we weren’t able to be in earlier, but their priority is not necessarily the Black community, as it should be.

You mentioned playwrights that came along while you were a child that took you under their wing.  We talked about this with the 2021 TRiiBE Guide. A lot of attention was paid to the Harlem Renaissance in New York, but not so much in Chicago, which was experiencing a Black Renaissance of its own in Bronzeville. Would you say that Bronzeville’s art and cultural scene inspired your passion for the arts? 

PR: Not only me, but it also helped the Harlem Renaissance as well. In the 1930s, Langston Hughes started a theater company called the Skyloft Players here in Chicago. 

When you look at New York or California and at those institutions that were developed in either one of those places, you will see the footprint of many Chicago people in those cities that relocated. So the Afro-American Studio for Acting & Speech in New York was one of the top schools and was run by a gentleman named Ernie McClintock, who was originally from Chicago. 

The spirit of Chicago resonated in all these other areas. I would go to visit another city and say wait a minute these are all Chicago people. So yes, there was a renaissance in Chicago, but it’s never truly been recognized. The development of AfriCOBRA set the standard for what Black Arts represents in Chicago.  

[Reporter’s Note: AfriCOBRA is a collective of African-American visual artists that was founded in Chicago in 1968. At first,the group was known as COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). The group changed its name in 1970 and added “Afri” to represent the African diaspora. They also changed the definition of COBRA to African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists].

Films that came out of Chicago were a musical force. When you look at the Afro-Arts Theater, the home that generated the energy, music and direction for Earth, Wind & Fire, we [Chicago] can go across platforms as it relates to film and television. 

You have all of the stuff that has come out of Chicago. But we haven’t stood up enough to talk about it or to generate the truth of what we feel the story of Chicago should be. And that was part of the reason why I wrote the book. Too many people have gone unnoticed and should be remembered and held up in high esteem. 

I don’t know if you remember saying this or not. Back in 2020, we had you on our TRiiBE Tuesday panel.  We talked about Black traditions and how they’ve been passed on throughout history. I remember something you said that’s stayed with me. You said that your generation gave us a roadmap through books to address the issues we’re facing today. What lessons are there in your memoir for young people today?

PR: When looking at what young people can do, the book says that you can make a difference in the world if you have your eyes open, see it, and have the commitment to change it. What I want people to do once they read the book is to realize the importance of them telling their own stories and documenting them, and to keep it and to make sure that for generations to come, they’ll be able to pull back on it. If I hadn’t kept the material that I did, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate the story in the way I’ve been able to. Books allow us to reflect. 

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.