Harlem’s Forgotten Festival

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a documentary film streaming on Hulu and playing in select theaters. In the film, Director Ahmir Khalib (Questlove) Thompson highlights black and brown musicians performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 in Manhattan’s Mount Morris Park.

If you never heard of this festival, welcome to the club. I hadn’t, and the backstory of Summer of Soulstaying out of view until 2021 raises questions of power and wealth, class, race and gender.

Festival performers range from Mahalia Jackson to Pops Staples and his daughters, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, The Fifth Dimension, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Mann, David Ruffin, Hugh Masekela, Ray Barretto and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. It is a stellar lineup.

In Summer of Soul, musicians perform in the sacred and secular traditions of black America. They express in part emotions of anger and rage, love and laughter, to their second-class status in the nation.

Footage of folks grooving, wearing dashikis and sporting Afro hairdos bring viewers back to the revolutionary vibes of 1969. It was a momentous year on many levels, from the cultural to the political, at home and abroad.

Target of the FBI’s Cointelpro (Counterintelligence Program) to smash movement politics, the Black Panther Party handled security at the festival. Some 300,000 people attended over multiple weekends in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood.

Interviewees recall their experiences dancing and listening to the performers. Speaking of the performers, Questlove interviews some of them.

Their facial and verbal reflections are moving and revealing. Marilyn McCoo of The Fifth Dimension, watching the group’s 1969 performance, reveals how one critique of their music stung her particularly.

Gladys Knight shares how diligently the Pips and she practiced. Viewers see them perform but not the thousands of practice hours that precede the group’s snappy choreography and music.

It’s better late than never that viewers are only now seeing the historic Harlem event of 1969. By contrast, as a 13-year-old, I listened to and watched the Woodstock music festival of the same year repeatedly.

I would have similarly enjoyed the musicians at the Harlem Cultural Festival. That chance never happened, though.

Why the media discrepancy between the Harlem and Woodstock music festivals? The answers speak to the historic content and form of oppression in America, whereby the social class system operates along what scholar W.E.B. Du Bois termed the color line.

Questlove unpacks that aspect of U.S. society. Meanwhile, the Harlem festival coincided with an American moon landing.

To a person, festivalgoers disdain that space travel, part of the military-industrial complex, what scholar Noam Chomsky calls the Pentagon system. Instead, the Harlem interviewees opt for more New Deal and Great Society policies and program to feed, clothe and shelter poor nonwhite folks.

Who could blame them? Nonwhites occupied the lower rungs of society as the postwar economy lost steam and taxpayer revenue flowed to war and waste, while assassins killed black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.

In 1969, civil rights legislation might have ended formal Jim Crow discrimination and segregation, but political reaction was in the air. A bipartisan corporate offensive was just ahead, with the human wreckage of that change in economics and politics all around us today.

However, in the summer of 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival, free to all, delivered a public venue for nonwhite people to celebrate through vibrant music their resistance to centuries of oppression. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a film to reflect on and savor.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com