Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a Sirius XM radio host and the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” Follow him on Twitter @claycane. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In August of 1969, a 36-year-old Nina Simone told a cheering audience at the Harlem Cultural Festival, “Are you ready to listen to all the beautiful Black voices, the beautiful Black feelings, the beautiful Black waves moving in beautiful air? Are you ready Black people? Are you ready?”
Black people were more than ready – but for the rest of the country, those words from the High Priestess of Soul were the backbone of cultural expression that was powerful (and frightening) enough to be shelved for 50 years.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut, is not just a music documentary, it’s a time capsule of silenced Blackness. Fifty-two years ago this summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park from June 29 to August 24, 1969.
Extensive, amazing footage of this festival, a crucial part of Harlem history, lay dormant for over 50 years. Why? It wasn’t solely because people with power in media and entertainment ignored its value. Black and brown history has always been subject to erasure in the US. The roads not taken in this complicated country are the truths we refuse to admit. Our history is threatening; what if it liberated the minds of not only Black folks but Whites as well?
Today, there are bills being proposed and passed in several states to bar the teaching of “critical race theory,” a prohibition that is code for forbidding the teaching of history that isn’t neo-Lost Cause propaganda. In this allowable version of so-called “history,” everyone – Black, White and everyone in between – would likely let “Summer of Soul” stay erased, and not ask any questions about progress since 1969.
That said, we are not doomed. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shows us the power of optimism, unity and reinvention.
Some have wrongfully deemed the event a “Black Woodstock” (at least partially in an unsuccessful bid to market the film footage of it) but there is no comparison. Just imagine if nearly 400,000 Black people flooded a farm, high on psychedelic drugs in 1969 – they would have been in handcuffs before the first act strummed a chord.
The Woodstock Festival, which – like the moon landing and the Manson murders – was also the summer of 1969, was in part an opportunity for suburbanites to play hippies. The Harlem Cultural Festival cut deeper; it was a marker in the celebration of people who were abandoning “Negro” and proudly embracing “Black” – boldly carving out an identity that was theirs, not crafted for them by a White power structure.
Former New York Times writer Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the few Black women writers at the publication in 1969, said in “Summer of Soul” that she insisted on writing “Black” when she referred to Black people, instead of “Negro,” which some of her White editors fought against (until the White executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, read her memo laying out her argument, told her “you’re right,” and changed the paper’s policy). No one had ever written “Black” as a race in the New York Times before her, but Hunter-Gault demanded that change and she was heard. More importantly, she was listening to the people.
Hunter-Gault explained in the film that she took this action after listening to her community, Black people who were calling for this change.
Created and hosted by producer Tony Lawrence, the six-week festival captured an artistic revolution that should have been seen by the entire Black diaspora – but was not.
Originally filmed by filmmaker, producer and television director Hal Tulchin, who died in 2017, the footage never aired because, the film says, no television or film studios were interested in performances from Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Nina Simone, Moms Mabley and countless others.
Decades later, producer Robert Fyvolent gained the film and television rights and brought Roots drummer Questlove on as director. The doc, which is playing in select cities and streaming on Hulu, premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the US Documentary Competition.
While the performances are jaw-dropping and the diverse music is a master class in the brilliance of Black art, the people of Harlem are the true stars of this film. Its textured narrative overflows with the memories and enduring elegance of Black people who survived the turbulent 1960s, which took the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Medgar Evers and, Harlem’s own, Malcolm X.
In the film, the voices of Harlem are heard via footage from 1969 and current interviews. From activists like co-founder of the Young Lords, Denise Oliver-Velez, to Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Musa Jackson, there is beauty in every word and smile, wrapped in fiery resilience. But disturbingly, the wants and needs are the same as in 2021.
Harlemites of this time spoke out about the criminal justice system (the Black Panther 21 trial was taking place in New York City), police brutality, a drug epidemic, lack of access to jobs, low wages and a country more concerned in investing $28 billion to put a man on the moon than Americans living in deep poverty.
Fifty-two years later, Black communities all over America are living the same issues.
As someone degreed in Black Studies, I am disheartened to be reminded in such stark terms that our communities continue to fight the same social ills (along with the new ones). Yes, there has been progress but not nearly enough.
But as much as it summons a historical echo of despair, “Summer of Soul” also highlights the hope generated by revolutionary groups like The Black Panthers. They and others, like Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, focused on Black economic empowerment. Jackson and Operation Breadbasket’s musical director, Ben Branch, are featured prominently in the film, the former talking in electrifying tones about Martin Luther King Jr’s last words before he was shot and introducing an unforgettable performance of King’s favorite song, “Precious Lord,” by Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson.
This was Black Power.
Regardless of the fears of the time, Black Power was never about swapping roles of oppression but freeing people, including White people, from a mental, economic and a physical stranglehold that would control us 52 years later. Black Panther Fred Hampton, who was assassinated later that year at only 21 years old, frequently spoke of a multicultural Rainbow Coalition. Although the Black Panthers, who served as security during the Harlem Cultural Festival, believed in different tactics than Dr. King, they still personified his famous words, “No one is free until we are all free.”
Now look where we are.
According to The Washington Post, the racial wealth gap has become a gulf in five decades and, in 2019, the Institute for Policy Studies reported that the 400 richest Americans own more wealth than all Black families, plus a quarter of Latino households, in the US combined.
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There are many reasons for these dystopian numbers: a broken Congress, a failure to address institutional racism, exploitative wages and more. But “Summer of Soul,” while its genius shines a painful light on our country’s failures, also brings its Black joy to keep us going in the fight.
As legendary Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barretto declared from the stage at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, “We got to do it all together before it’s too g**damn late.”
I hope it’s not too late. As Nina said that day in August, “Are you ready?”