Summer of Soul and the Reclamation of Modern Black History
Memories are sacred, just as much as they are cherished. They’re our first experience with consciousness, self-awareness, meaning, the world, and our place in it. Our memories are rooted in history (dates, events, locations, people, etc.). Those histories are what shape and maintain our religions, institutions, and relationships. But for African American communities, those histories—like the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which rivaled the infamous Woodstock festival just 100 miles away at the time—are rarely discussed or celebrated in the ambit of public discourse… until now. A new film titled Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is changing all of that.
To gain a better perspective of what the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in Harlem was like, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson asked a festival attendant to recall his experience with the seemingly forgotten event. The attendant, Musa Jackson, was just five years old at the time, so Questlove was hesitant about using Jackson’s memories as a firsthand experience to help tell this legendary and long forgotten story.Most of us have some knowledge of the Woodstock festival. But why don’t we know about the Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held at the same time?
“What five year old is going to give me insight of the emotional deepness of being there at five years old?” Thompson asked. But what won him over was when Jackson mentioned that the Harlem Cultural Festival was his first memory ever. Jackson just wasn’t sure he actually had the memory. Skeptically, Thompson and his crew removed photos, footage, or anything alluding to the festival. “[Jackson] just came into a dry room” and told them everything he could recall about the festival. Amazingly, Musa’s memories of the event were spot on. Paired with Jackson’s memories, Questlove brought Summer of Soul to life.
Most of us have some knowledge of the Woodstock festival, be it through family, stories, mentions of it in our history classes or movies. But why don’t we know about the Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held in Harlem, New York, at the same time?
The reason is more than likely embedded in the centuries-long practice of Black erasure—an amoral exercise of concealing the contributions and humanity of African Americans and peoples of African descent in western civilization. “The fact that 40 hours of footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists—it was incredibly important to me to get that history right,” according to Thompson. “There’s no way you’’e going to tell me that all these artists did these performances back in the day and there’s no documentation of it whatsoever. It goes to show that revisionist history and Black erasure—be it mean-spirited or on purpose or by accident—is very real.”1
History provides a purpose for today and our trajectories for tomorrow. So concealing well-documented events like the Harlem Cultural Festival is another attempt to erase, not only the facts of the past, but also the memories that lend to the greater notion that we are somebody. “History is the study of the past,” according to historian Kellie Carter-Jackson. “History consists of facts, events, people, and irrefutable occurrences. How Americans understand slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation, though, is colored by memory, which tends to honor only the most shallow aspects of history.”
This is the reason there is such an anti–Critical Race Theory push (which is but a mere veiled attempt at enforcing Black erasure) in schools. The reason is clear, as James Baldwin pointed out in “A Talk to Teachers”: “It is not really a ‘Negro revolution’ that is upsetting the country. What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity,” states Baldwin. “If you are compelled to lie about [or conceal] one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about [or conceal] it all. If you have to lie about [or conceal] my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself.”
Perhaps the concealment of the Harlem Cultural Festival is rooted in the underlying and long-established fears of allowing large gatherings of African Americans in one location, a practice that dates back to the slave codes in response to rebellions like those led by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and the Haitian Revolution. The memories shared in Summer of Soul by attendees and performers at witnessing a sea of 40,000 to 50,000 African Americans in one location represented, not only power, but also possibility. At the time (1969), this generation experienced a decade of assassinations of prominent social and political leaders that prompted both social and emotional turmoil throughout Black communities. So the Harlem Cultural Festival was a means to alleviate some of the social unrest, while inspiring the spirit of progress for the next generation, even if just for a moment.
With a wide variety of acts ranging from Stevie Wonder, Ed Hawkins, and Ray Barretto to David Ruffin, B. B. King, and The 5th Dimension, to Redd Foxx, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and Jesse Jackson, the musical, comedica, and political acumen at one venue was enough to shape a generation with hope while on the edge of exploding with frustration.
Black people needed to see and feel they were a part of a much larger narrative than the one taught to them in schools and on the evening news programs, and the Harlem Cultural Festival delivered—if you were there.
Unfortunately, the attempt to make known and convey the grandeur of Black ingenuity and togetherness by producing the festival as a film was stonewalled at the time. The original owner of the film, Hal Tulchin, shopped around the documented 40-plus hours of film for about 9 years to no avail, so it sat in his basement for decades.
Instead, focus was placed on Woodstock and the moon landing, two events attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival couldn’t care less about—especially the moon landing. These events represented two Americas and couldn’t be contrasted better than in the intercutting interviews between the Staples Singers performance of “It’s Been a Change,” (When asked about the moon landing, a white man says, “I felt the world got closer today. I felt we got to know each other a lot more,” while a festival attendee says, “Cash they wasted, as far as I’m concerned, in getting to the moon could’ve been used to feed the poor Black people in Harlem and all over this country. Never mind the moon, let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.”)
Though devastatingly delayed, Tulchin signed a contract for the rights of the film just before his passing in 2017, and the resulting product is Questlove’s retelling of 1969 through the eyes of African Americans in Summer of Soul. This retelling of a Black cultural phenomenon is important, not only for the history of America we pass on to future generations, but also for the memory that charges us to embrace our God-given destinies to flourish even when opposing forces attempt to erase our identity.
Only when we honestly grapple with an awareness about who we were can we begin to accept, and possibly even change, the horrendously slow pace of progress our society so hypocritically boasts. Pressing forward—even as far as to the moon—means little when the lives of so many are diminished and even erased. Summer of Soul re-inserts truth into our collective memories, helping us to see properly where we’ve been so we can see more clearly where we are headed.
1. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul press conference.