by Becky Gillespie
My husband and I recently had the pleasure of watching the film “Summer of Soul ( … Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” at the Del Oro Theater. The documentary chronicles a pivotal moment in Black culture by interweaving interviews from festival attendees and performers along with clips pertaining to the political and social climate in with the festival footage. The festival featured amazing talent from Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and The Fifth Dimension to Nina Simone, B.B. King and Mahalia Jackson.
I was amazed to encounter such incredible music through this film — musicians like The Staple Singers, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, and Mongo Santamaria — that I probably would not have encountered in my day-to-day life.
Although the festival took place over the course of six weekends in 1969 and was attended by thousands, the event was overshadowed by Woodstock. For nearly 50 years, the footage sat in a basement because, according to original producer Hal Tulchin, no one wanted to buy footage of “Black Woodstock.” I and my fellow filmgoers almost missed this opportunity, as Hal Tulchin passed away in 2017 and many of his archives and memorabilia in his basement were destined for the trash bin.
The Harlem Cultural Festival is just one small sliver of our country’s past that was nearly forgotten because our society has historically chosen to ignore and even silence non-white voices.
Instead of continuing to push aside and denigrate these voices, we need to include them. In that respect, I was happy to see that the California Board of Education adopted the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum so that my school-age children will have the opportunity to learn a more robust history of our country and learn more about the multitude of people who comprise it.
(Note: The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is a guidance document that provides support to teachers and administrators in developing courses and/or instructional content in a specific topic area. It is strictly a resource. It does not replace classroom curriculum or materials, nor are schools required to use it as it is a supplemental resource. https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/cf/esmc.asp).
We are at a critical juncture in the great experiment that is the United States of America. Although our country is multiracial, since the first Europeans encountered Native Americans upon their arrival, we have done a poor job of listening to those who are not white.
We need to decide if we want to embrace the shared humanity of all our citizens by learning more about the experiences of our fellow Americans, which includes Native American, Black, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latinx and others. Or do we continue to marginalize nearly 40% of the people in our country?
I submit that most Americans, regardless of race, don’t want our country to fail. In order for our great experiment to continue, we must be open to learning from one another. Our history can no longer be one-sided. It must include more perspectives and recognize the imperfections of those involved and of the policies and laws created, as it is this recognition that allows us to continue striving to improve our country for all our citizens.
Watching “Summer of Soul” on the big screen, I not only enjoyed the musical performances, I learned also about the political and cultural climate in the summer of 1969 from a Black perspective, thereby enhancing my understanding of that era. Thankfully, the footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival was salvaged so that we can learn from and enjoy it today.
Hopefully, my kids will also learn about the Harlem Cultural Festival in school alongside the discussion of Woodstock so they have a better understanding of that time in our country’s history. Let us continue to seek out and save these treasures from our past to share in our great American story.
Becky Gillespie lives in Nevada City.