Whack, Rita Coburn 1958–
Rita Coburn Whack 1958–
Author, producer, radio personality
It is not often that a new writer emerges who embodies the definition of a Renaissance woman. Rita Coburn Whack is just such a writer, who appears to move effortlessly between several media, including television, radio, and novels. Whether she functions as an award-winning producer of television documentaries, as an interviewer on public radio, or as a writer, Whack has found a way to give voice to her own experiences, to the experiences of an earlier generation, and to the faith that is so important in her life.
Rita Coburn Whack was born on June 13, 1958, to Willie E. and Charlie G. Coburn. Although born in Harvey, Illinois, Whack and her sister, Joyce, were raised in nearby Phoenix, Illinois, a small town about twenty miles from Chicago. As a student at Calvin Coolidge Elementary School and later at Eisenhower Elementary, Whack was always interested in both writing and in reading. These are the same interests that she took with her when she entered Thornridge High School in nearby Dolton, where she also worked on the yearbook and was a member of the “Lassies,” an Irish Dance Group. After graduating from high school Whack attended Illinois State University, where she studied television production. Whack also studied television production and creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago before transferring to Northwestern University, where she completed a B.A. in Communication in 1980.
After completing her degree, i Whack found work as a writer and producer in television and radio. She has been honored with two Television Emmy Awards for two of the documentaries that she has produced for Chicago television stations WBBM and WTTW. Whack’s first Emmy Award was in 1995-1996 for a documentary that she produced, African Roots, African Soil: African Americans in Agriculture, for the Chicago CBS affiliate WBBM-TV. Whack earned a second Emmy Award in 2000-2001, as a producer for Remembering 47th Street, a program broadcast on the Chicago PBS station WTTM-TV.
Although Whack makes it seem easy to have achieved such phenomenal success, breaking into television producing did not just happen; it required careful planning and hard work. Whack related in an interview with Shonell Bacon for The Nubian Chronicles that
At a Glance…
Born on June 13, 1958 in Harvey, IL; daughter of Willie E. and Charles G. Coburn; married Harold Lee Whack, 1983; children: Christine and Harold Jr. Education: Northwestern University, BA, 1980. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Producer of documentaries for Chicago television stations WBBM and WTTW, 1995-01; currently producer at Chicago television station WYCC and contributor to radio station WBEZ-FM in Chicago; presenter of program “Eight Forty-Eight;” author.
Awards: Emmy Award for producing the documentary African Roots, African Soil: African Americans in Agriculture, 1995-96; Emmy Award for producing the documentary Remembering 47th Street, 2000-01.
Address: Office —P.O. Box 607, Flossmoor, IL 60422.
good college instructors told her how to find a job: “Call the person with your dream job and tell them that they have your dream job and ask to interview them.” Following this advice led Whack to interview an anchor at station WYCC in Chicago, who advised her to “root” herself when she found somewhere that she wanted to stay. Whack took this advice and was willing to do whatever work was available, including answering the phones. Television work is competitive, but Whack listened to the advice given to her, and as a result, she says she has survived both unemployment and racism.
Radio is another area that has benefitted from Whack’s many talents. She has also been a contributor on WBEZ-FM, a Chicago Public Radio station, where she contributes to “Eight Forty-Eight,” the station’s morning magazine program, where listeners can find a diverse mix of programming, including interviews. Whack has conducted regular on-air interviews for this program, including interviews of writers, Monique Greenwood, James McBride, and Tina McElroy Ansa. Most of Whack’s choices for author interviews are African-American writers—the kinds of writers and books that she, herself, likes to read.
Whack has remained deeply interested in African-American issues. Her first award-winning documentary, African Roots, American Soil, focused on the role of African Americans in Agriculture. Her second Emmy-winning documentary, Remembering 47th Street, examined the history of Chicago’s 47th street, which was a focal point for black immigrants who came to Chicago from the southern United States. When segregation limited the movement of blacks in the Chicago area, they found a haven along 47th Street, and the area developed as a center of African-American life. Whack told Bacon that creating documentaries for television combined her love of the oral tradition with her love of older people, their history and stories.
When Whack turned to her next creation, a novel, it seemed only reasonable that she would again focus on the traditions and history of black families. Whack’s novel, Meant To Be, released in spring 2002, is a coming of age story of a young girl and her deceased grandmother’s influence on her life. As might be expected, Whack combines several topics that interest her—African-American family life, older people, the author’s own experiences, and spirituality—to create her first novel.
Meant To Be tells the story of a young woman who makes a mistake and who subsequently prays to her deceased grandmother for advice and comfort. The novel’s heroine, Patience Jan, moves to the big city, attends college, and embarks on a career as a disc jockey. In many ways, Jan’s movements from small town to big city mirror Whack’s own experiences, including her choice to work in radio. There is, however, a more important semi-autobiographical connection than just the dichotomy between small town life and big city excitement. When her father died, Whack embarked on a spiritual quest. She prayed for answers, and in her vision her father called her. It was this experience, Whack told The Nubian Chronicles, that led her to write a novel about “family, love, spirituality and how wonderful and difficult it is.” Just as Whack’s father spoke to her after his death, bringing comfort to ease her grief, the novel’s heroine, Jan, prays for her deceased grandmother’s guidance, and in response to her prayers Grandmother Hannah assumes the role of narrator, telling, and the reader assumes, guiding, the story of Patience’s life.
Whack’s first novel is an attempt to capture the essence of the author’s own spiritual beliefs, as well as a fundamental element of African-American culture. In an interview provided by Whack’s publicist, Whack described African culture as lived on three levels: “the living which you and I are, the living dead, a person who is dead but still remembered … a recently deceased relative, and then there is the dead and gone, a person no one on earth remembers.” The role of Patience’s grandmother is designed to capture Patience’s ancestry and those “African concepts of existence.” Whack claims that her novel is not Christian fiction; instead, Whack wants readers to consider how they define themselves and their place in the world. The spirituality in the book is meant, as Whack told Bacon, to inspire contemplation in the reader, who should “think deeply about who you are, your place in your family, relationship and the world.”
It took 12 years to write Meant To Be and another five years to find an agent and a publisher. Also, Whack told Bacon, “it took the world time to change,” for an audience comfortable with overt Christianity to develop. Meant To Be found a positive reception with both reviewers and readers. Publishers Weekly stated that Whack makes “a sincere attempt to integrate Christianity, black history and fiction.” The reviewer concludes with the observation that “Whack’s considerable narrative ability and the color and vigor of her prose add up to a highly readable tale.” Meant To Be, was a selection of the Black Expressions Book Club and a Blackboard Bestseller.
Whack has known from the time she was a small child that she wanted to write. She has written under a number of circumstances, from the napkin on the table, to begging her father for a typewriter by the time she was in the fourth grade. Whack’s family was very poor and a typewriter was an expensive luxury; nevertheless her father found the way to give his daughter the typewriter she had craved. Having the typewriter did not turn the owner into the writer she had envisioned, since typing was a skill she lacked.
Whack’s grandfather, who died long before she was born, was a griot, a storyteller in the African tradition, who recounts the history of his or her people. Whack feels that her grandfather’s spirit guides her and that she, too, is a griot and a scribe, infused with the responsibility to record the many things in her culture that are being lost. She believes, as she told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), that the novel is a perfect expression for the “intricacies of the culture that speak to language, tradition, religion, emotional stability and to political, race and gender documentation.”
Although she has taken writing classes, Whack’s approach is one of allowing time for the story to be pried out and then refined. She is never in a hurry, as is evidenced by the 12 years spent writing Meant To Be. Whack has also written poetry and short stories.
In her interview with Bacon, Whack described herself as “a contemplative, down to earth, spiritually Christian based friend, wife and mother.” From her documentaries on important African-American themes, to her radio interviews of black authors, to her novel of a young black woman’s spiritual quest, Whack clearly expresses her own strong commitment to her peoples’ cultural history and to her deep belief in the healing presence of God. Her strong base of Christian, family, friendship and ministry offer her support. She pointed out to CBB that her writing “reflects the fruit of these elements.”
Whack has remained very busy with a number of commitments to television, radio, family, and church. She has continued to produce television programs for public television station WYCC, an educational station affiliated with City Colleges of Chicago. Whack has also continued as a contributor to WBEZ-FM in Chicago and to the “Eight Forty-Eight” program. Whack, who married Harold Lee Whack in 1983, has two children, son Harold Jr., born in 1984, and daughter Christine, born in 1985.
Meant To Be, Villard Books, 2002.
“Two Women and a Little Oliver Oil,” a short story published in Black-Eyed Peas For the Soul, compiled by Donna Williams, Fireside, 1997.
Publishers Weekly, January 7, 2002.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on July 4, 2002 and from a marketing release document provided by Rita Coburn Whack, July 8, 2002.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
"Whack, Rita Coburn 1958–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/whack-rita-coburn-1958
"Whack, Rita Coburn 1958–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/whack-rita-coburn-1958
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