It's Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television

It's Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television

by Gayle Wald


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Soul! was where Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire got funky, where Toni Morrison read from her debut novel, where James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni discussed gender and power, and where Amiri Baraka and Stokely Carmichael enjoyed a sympathetic forum for their radical politics. Broadcast on public television between 1968 and 1973, Soul!, helmed by pioneering producer and frequent host Ellis Haizlip, connected an array of black performers and public figures with a black viewing audience. In It's Been Beautiful, Gayle Wald tells the story of Soul!, casting this influential but overlooked program as a bold and innovative use of television to represent and critically explore black identity, culture, and feeling during a transitional period in the black freedom struggle.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822358251
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/03/2015
Series: Spin Offs
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Gayle Wald is Professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University. She is the author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in U.S. Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture.

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It's Been Beautiful

Soul! and Black Power Television

By Gayle Wald, Chester Higgins

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7580-7


Soul! and the 1960s

Ellis [Haizlip] said the civil rights movement made his show possible. Black people made the show possible. Not the Kerner Commission or the Ford Foundation or executives at WNDT.

—Novella Nelson, interview

Soul! emerged from the shattering events of the 1960s. In a sense, it bears a dialectical relationship to the riots, protests, assassinations, and violence that punctuated the decade, especially in its later years. In other words, Soul! was not simply a child of the 1960s or a cultural mirror for the historical and social changes associated with the era. Neither was Soul!'s emergence or the particular form it took inevitable. Rather, the creation of a space for black programming on public television, and the idea of a primetime, hour-long show presenting an innovative—and, for the times, unusual—mix of culture and politics, performance and talk, materialized through ongoing cultural labors that paralleled, even as they were shaped and enabled by, struggles in the proverbial streets.

As Ellis Haizlip, the producer of Soul!, avowed—in words recalled by his friend and colleague, the singer Novella Nelson (figure 1.1)—the civil rights movement was the show's condition of possibility. It was the movement that framed television—or more precisely, the near-total exclusion of black people from employment or nonstereotypical representation in TV—as a significant social and cultural problem in American life. It was the movement that protested the exclusively white ownership and oversight of broadcast institutions, and the movement that compelled a variety of state and nonstate actors— including government agencies, media and telecommunications policy makers, philanthropic organizations, and public TV managers and executives—to take substantive action to address these problems. And it was black cultural workers who came of age with civil rights, Haizlip among them, who seized on openings in public broadcasting in the late 1960s to appropriate television as a tool of social change: not merely as a visible manifestation of integration, but more audaciously as a means of articulating, critiquing, and disseminating new modes of black consciousness.

In A Dying Colonialism, published in a mass-market English translation in 1967, Frantz Fanon—the theorist of colonialism whose work deeply influenced U.S. Black Power activists—had written hopefully of Radio Algiers, which transformed a medium previously associated with repressive state power into a revolutionary instrument of public information. Seeing their national struggle as part and parcel of a larger global movement against colonialism, apartheid, and imperialism, Haizlip and other black television pioneers dared to imagine using a medium that had largely failed to include black people in its visual representations or imagined audience as a way to raise consciousness and build community. Mindful of the example of the Black Panther Party, which used arresting iconography and visual symbolism to communicate with the black masses, and cognizant of television's particular capacity for expressing and enabling public feeling, Haizlip and his cohort sought to capitalize on the resonant and felt dimensions of the era's preeminent visual medium to enact, or at least envision, a more beautiful society.

As I tell it here, the story of Soul! and the 1960s is thus slightly different from the one usually associated with the articulation of television and civil rights—that is, the story of television as a medium that abetted, even as it altered and was altered by, movement politics. As numerous scholars have shown, the fact that television, as a form of domestic entertainment, and civil rights, as a defining postwar social movement, coincided in time means that television and civil rights are deeply implicated in each other's histories. Among other things, civil rights activists developed sophisticated media strategies, recognizing television as an important tool for disseminating images of local efforts to repress African American citizenship on a national stage. "We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners," Martin Luther King Jr. had declared in 1967, the day after a sheriff's posse beat peaceful protestors in Montgomery, Alabama. "We're going to make them do it in the glaring light of television." In its broadcasts on the evening news programs that Americans collectively watched of images showing state-sponsored violence against civil rights activists, television was indispensable to mainline civil rights organizations' ability to portray local fights as national crises in need of swift and decisive federal response and to arouse national sympathy for civil rights protestors.

Wittingly or not, the producers of TV news aided civil rights organizers by recognizing that the spectacle of such violent confrontations were both compelling political drama and compelling television. Like the movement against U.S. intervention in Vietnam, then, the civil rights movement was both culturally framed and experienced by viewers as something that was happening on television. For those at a distance from the front lines of these struggles, in other words, watching civil rights protests, marches, and speeches, as well as scenes of violence and the abuse of state power, became a powerful and distinct mode of cultural consumption and affective engagement with the movement itself.

Soul! was not unrelated to these efforts to use television to make civil rights protests and their repression visible, or to the practice of watching television as a mode of both knowing and feeling about the civil rights movement. Yet it was distinct from both of these in the sense that it grew out of African Americans' new access to television production. Although the visibility of black people on television had increased throughout the decade, it was not until 1968 that shows like Soul!—that is, shows primarily imagined and made by women and members of racial and ethnic minority groups—found a foothold in television. Originating in both public broadcasting and network outlets, often as local productions, these programs typically focused on news and public affairs. Better-known examples included Boston's Say Brother, New York City productions Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant (on public television), and Like It Is (on the local ABC affiliate), and—after a protest that led to the ousting of its original white producer—Black Journal, a nationally televised newsmagazine. As the label newsmagazine indicates, although they did not directly compete with the network news broadcasts, such shows worked within, even as they experimented with, the established format of public-affairs programming, through which the civil rights movement itself had come to visibility as a series of spectacular TV events. Here, too, Soul! was an exception among exceptions: a show that put creative expression, rather than reporting or documentary, at the forefront of its representation; that was topical, albeit unconcerned with the news cycle; and that articulated politics and culture rather than subordinating the latter to the former.

This chapter narrates how Soul! came to be: how it grew out of a fragile alliance of liberal and radical interests, both public and private, that sought to integrate television in the late 1960s, and how it came to take shape as a platform for the sort of entertainment content typically shunned by educational television. In the chapter, I trace the development of a certain discourse of public television in service to a black audience, and although this discourse did not originate in the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, convened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 while Detroit was still burning, nevertheless it was given important public expression in its widely influential Report (popularly known as the Kerner Report after the commission's chair, Illinois governor Otto Kerner Jr.). Yet I open with the epigraph from Nelson because her recollection of Haizlip's privileged perspective on the origins of Soul! illuminates a methodology for narrating the show's prehistory while remaining attentive to the limitations of official or policy-oriented discourses and archives. First, in starting with the observation that the civil rights movement made Soul! possible, and then restating and refining this claim (to "black people made the show possible"), the quote from Nelson instructively points toward a theory of historical agency, conceptualizing civil rights as a social practice rather than an abstract thing in which people participated. Moreover, in insisting that not the Ford Foundation, WNDT executives, or the U.S. government bore primary responsibility for Soul!, the quote serves as a useful reminder that it was the civil rights movement that emboldened, or in some cases compelled, institutions and people to pursue social justice in, as well as via, the mass media. Indeed, attributing Soul! to the Ford Foundation, WNDT, or the Kerner Commission sets in motion a narrative in which Haizlip and his creative team availed themselves of opportunities provided by beneficent individuals or institutions, but in the quote from Nelson, such openings are suggestively reframed as a response to movement strategies and demands.

One can hardly deny the importance of institutions in the emergence of Soul!—indeed, the following pages discuss precisely those named by Haizlip in his comments to Nelson. But the inroads they created in television for new modes and uses of the medium were paved at every step by black people who were motivated by their collective and individual experiences of exclusion, as well as by their many and diverse allies. In this sense, Nelson's quote contains a useful warning about the limitations of a narrowly top-down approach not merely to the history of Soul!, but also more generally to the history of television's incorporations of difference. For example, if we allow the state to prevail in the story we tell of how TV news operations came to feature black reporters, we might start and end with President Johnson's 1965 executive order requiring that the recipients of federal monies—including commercial TV networks—"take affirmative action" in hiring. Although the president's mandate was consequential, it tells us little about how the civil rights movement itself made the hiring of black reporters essential to TV news operations. Even before Johnson's order could be implemented, the 1967 uprisings in Detroit and Newark brought the need for black reporters to the forefront. When violence erupted in these cities, white TV programmers, who may already have sympathized with the movement, realized that they could no longer delay in hiring black reporters and camera operators. The integration of TV newsrooms was thus at least as much about survival and self-interest as it was about political solidarity or dutiful compliance with a governmental dictate.

Such recognition of the varied agencies of change, whether reformist or radical, helps to clarify this book's argument about the authenticity of cultural productions embedded in networks of capital or the state. The fact that Soul! was a production of public broadcasting, and thus tethered in important ways to U.S. government and private philanthropy, did not render it inauthentic as an expression of black sensibility and affect in the late 1960s and 1970s. Haizlip's characterization of Soul! as a show made possible in the first instance by the civil rights movement and black people anticipates this claim, usefully complicating the conventional opposition of black art and white money that inheres in many accounts of twentieth-century black creativity. Unlike the poetry broadsides, writers' workshops, and community theater or arts spaces typically and justifiably celebrated in histories of the black arts movement, Soul! was costly to produce (episodes cost $15,000–$20,000 each) and, in its four seasons as a national program, relied on an unwieldy and politically contested system of PBS connections. Inasmuch as financial independence and independent distribution were never even remote possibilities, Soul! is a case study in the complex negotiations that underlie the making of progressive black cultural productions amid white ownership of the cultural apparatus.

Fragile alliance, my own term, is meant to call attention to this complexity, acknowledging Soul!'s efforts to give expression to utopian desires in the less-than-utopian context of office politics and bureaucratic protocols, including the corporate reports and grant proposals necessary to keep the money flowing. This chapter offers a broad picture of the discursive and material conditions in which Soul! took root. It also emphasizes the sometimes conflicting, sometimes mutually reinforcing nature of distinct discourses of black audiences, educational television, and minority programming, so that Soul!'s political, ideological, and aesthetic negotiations of such discourses may be better understood.

Before I move on from this chapter's epigraph, I would like to use it to make a final introductory point, which has to do with the function of the black audience in this story. As I have begun to argue, Soul! marked a turning point in the concept of delivering targeted television content to black viewers, conceptualized—sometimes in conjunction with racializing socioeconomic markers, such as the phrase ghetto residents—as a distinct demographic group. As one of the first TV shows to target black viewers explicitly and to differentiate their interests and needs from those of mainstream (usually understood as white) audiences, Soul! participated in the imagination of a black audience constituted in and through a common TV-watching experience. This claim, too, is anticipated in the epigraph. Although it may not strike us at first reading, the phrase "black people made the show possible" conveys an implicit concept of black audience, particularly if we read "black people" as those who watched Soul!, not only those whose labors created the conditions for the show's emergence.

In this sense, the epigraph likens the vision of Soul! to that of the era's black arts movement practitioners. Like the movement's poets and artists, the program blurred boundaries between "platform and pit," high and low art, aesthetic universalism and beautiful black difference. Soul! reinterpreted the role and function of audiences for television, envisioning what I am calling an affective compact between black viewers and black producers and performers. Indeed, through the notion of an affective compact, as I began to outline it in this book's introduction, Soul! in many ways sought to transcend the limitations of television as a medium that offered few, if any, avenues of dynamic engagement between its representations and those positioned as viewers.

Just as a notion of black audiences and their affective investments in black programming was necessary to the making of Soul!, so the black audience was a vital fiction for those institutions and discourses that abetted the show's emergence. The authors of the Kerner Report needed the notion of a black audience to support their finding that it was underserved by the preponderance of white faces and viewpoints on television. Likewise, the Ford Foundation, the most significant private funder of public television from the 1950s to the early 1970s, required the notion of socially and culturally distinct audiences with distinct representational needs to support the establishment of grants for minority TV programming. Haizlip employed a concept of the black audience every time he used the word we on camera, or when in 1973 he told Stokely Carmichael, a guest on the show, "it's been beautiful"—referring to Soul!'s five seasons on the air. Assumptions about this audience undergirded the very notion, important to Haizlip, of Soul! as a television show for "the community."


Excerpted from It's Been Beautiful by Gayle Wald, Chester Higgins. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations  vii

Photographer's Note: A Vision of Soul! / Chester Higgins  ix

Introduction. "It's Been Beautiful"  1

1. Soul! and the 1960s  36

2. The Black Community and the Affective Compact  70

3. "More Meaningful Than a Three-Hour Lecture": Music on Soul!  104

4. Freaks Like Us: Black Misfit Performance on Soul!  145

5. The Racial State and the "Disappearance" of Soul!  181

Conclusion. Soul! at the Center  213

Acknowledgments  221

Notes  225

Bibliography  253

Index  265

What People are Saying About This

Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 - Daphne A. Brooks

"Gayle Wald's examination of Soul! offers new ways of interrogating the imbricated discourses of Civil Rights and Black Power politics in the context of popular culture. It's Been Beautiful contributes to cultural and televisual studies, adds new dimensions to sonic studies and black performance studies, intervenes in and expands the racial and political dimensions of affect studies, and builds in exciting ways on new advances in black queer cultural studies."

Nikki Giovanni

"The next step should have been, needed to be, had to be a strut. And no one strutted like Ellis Haizlip. We on the radical side of Civil Rights needed someone to listen; those on the more traditional side needed a platform from which to explain their views. Soul! brought it all together. Opera to Rap; Muslim to Christian; men to women; straights to gays. Soul! didn’t back off of any aspect of our community. Brave, Bold and downright Simply Wonderful. Haizlip lead all the shows that followed: Blacks on national television shows doing news; doing entertainment; from Tony Brown’s Journal to Don Cornelius’s signature “Peace, Love and Soul!” Ellis was the leader. Now his story and the story of that great show can be told. Excellent job, Gayle Wald. Ellis would be proud."

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