Televising Black Politics in the Black Power Era: Black Journal and Soul!
Created for and by African Americans, Soul! (1968-73), a variety talk show, featured the era’s most prominent Black political and cultural figures, musicians, writers, and poets. Lasting five seasons, Soul! was public television’s national platform for Black arts and entertainment, while simultaneously providing a public forum for internal debates within the Black community. Similar to Black Journal, Soul! presented some of the first fully realized and multidimensional coverage of Black nationalists and other radical Black organizations at the time, articulating their ideologies, ideals, and philosophies. The series is representative of the Black Power era (1965-75) and an era during which public broadcasting initially sought to compete with commercial television and provide a more encompassing televisual landscape. One of the first Black-produced shows on television, both commercial network and public television, Soul! was dedicated to the cultural, political, and artistic expressions of African Americans. Each week, Soul! offered viewers a space filled with music, politics, art, dance, poetry, theater, and fashion. While other public affairs programming, such as Black Journal or Black Perspectives on the News, relied on traditional news formats or documentary style reporting, Soul! instead featured politics and culture as seen through the eyes of artists, political leaders, and cultural figures.
1968 America was key to the emergence of Soul! The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. incited unrest around the country, and the incident propelled public television towards increasing the presence of African Americans on television. Published in 1968, the Kerner Commission report cited racially-biased mass media representations of African Americans as one cause for the social alienation of Black Americans.
Producer Christopher Lukas, the director of cultural programming for New York’s Channel 13, New Dimensions in Television (WNDT), initially conceived of Soul! In 1968, Lukas recommended a “black [version of the] Tonight Show” to the Ford Foundation.36 Lukas, who had extensive experience in television, believed in the ability of noncommercial television to be a more inclusive form of mass media. Lukas argued that WNDT, metropolitan New York’s primary noncommercial television station, could not accurately claim to service or represent the public if it continued to exclude African Americans from representation or gainful employment.37 With the assistance of a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, Soul! premiered on September 12, 1968, and ran weekly on WNDT in its initial season for thirty-five episodes. While the majority of episodes from the first three seasons of the series are unobtainable, lost, thrown away, or repurposed, the popularity and success of the regional program led to its national distribution on educational television stations nationwide, and many of the programs from the final two seasons have survived.
Ellis Haizlip, a theater and television producer, joined Soul! as its producer and eventually became the regular host. Haizlip was initially resistant to hosting; he had a minor speech impediment and was known in television, theater, and arts circles to be gay. However, with the support and encouragement from friends such as Nikki Giovanni, he eventually flourished in the role. Haizlip used his connections, contacts, and leadership to make Soul! his own. He not only booked guests but also hired staff members. Haizlip’s friendly and casual interview style created a space that was interactive and intimate, giving African American artists such as Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Nikki Giovanni, and Cicely Tyson, amongst many others, the chance to speak openly and honestly about the state of Black America.
Soul! was also aesthetically different from public affairs programming of the time, especially the programs that were produced under the direction of Stan Lathan. Lathan, whose resume at the time included shows such as Black Journal and Say Brother, directed the episode “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” in 1971 and subsequently became the permanent director of the series. Soul! was technologically and artistically innovative; the production team used wipes, double exposures, and other innovative special effects to give the series a distinct look and feel, further distinguishing the show from other public affairs television programs. A clear example of the distinct aesthetic choices of the series is evident in the episode “Black Woman” (January 1971), where dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade performs an original modern dance. As she performs, her image is projected behind her and tripled, giving the appearance that three dancers are performing in unison.
Soul! and the Complexity of Black Politics
Soul! was not the typical public affairs show, such as NBC’s Meet the Press (1947- ), CBS’s Face the Nation (1954- ), or ABC’s Issues and Answers (1960-81), which relied heavily on statements from government officials on the condition of Black America, using only occasional interviews with featured civil rights leaders.38 Soul! purposefully moved away from representations of Black Power that exploited disagreements among political leaders, and, as cultural historian Gayle Wald has written, “news programs that profited from the spectacle of brash young activists only to represent them as dangers to democratic civility and destroyers of mainstream goodwill toward civil rights.”39 Soul! instead can be considered a cultural affairs show that illustrated varying viewpoints and representations of Black Power and Black nationalism without positioning one side against the other. The series hosted guests of different political leanings and relied on in-depth interviews with pointed questions. For example, in the episode “Farrakhan: The Minister” (October 1972), host Ellis Haizlip allows NOI minister Louis Farrakhan to both open and close the episode with the ideals and teachings of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. In between Farrakhan’s orations, Haizlip takes the time to question Farrakhan on long-held beliefs about the NOI, specifically its stance on homosexuality and the covering of Black women’s bodies in public.
This example demonstrates how tensions and debates within nationalists’ discourses were explored in depth. Black Nationalists were allowed to speak openly and freely in a welcoming environment. Audience members in turn were implicitly invited to question their own political identifications and leanings. Black Power and Black nationalism were interrogated consistently as a means of understanding Black cultural and political expression.
Towards the end of the series, activist Stokely Carmichael appears in the episode “Wherever We May Be” (February 7, 1973) to discuss his political work and provide an explanation of the origins of the term Black Power, his strategic use of the phrase, and why Black Power became a movement. Carmichael begins by discussing his role with SNCC and the organization’s tactical use of nonviolence, the importance of voting, and what the organization was truly about. He also is candid about the internal conflicts between SNCC and the SCLC and is open about internal conflicts within his own organization, SNCC, around questions of Black nationalism, self-defense, the war in Vietnam, and SNCC’s relationship with Africa. He sets the record straight on his views of SNCC as an integrationist movement, claiming that as a member of SNCC he integrated spaces as a means of telling white people that he could not be told where to be. However, he never returned to many of the places he helped integrate. By far, the most telling part of Carmichael’s interview is his brief historical overview on how SNCC used a tactical approach to make “Black Power” a phrase that began a movement. Stokely Carmichael’s interview is evidence of the open forum that Soul! provided and the show’s ability to elicit candid responses from political figures. Haizlip and Carmichael demonstrate a rapport, a shorthand, and comfort with each other that clearly comes across on screen.
Soul! As a Black Public Sphere
Soul! also was a cultural space centered on Black artists, poets, musicians, athletes, and activists who discussed their varying positions on Black liberation and Black identity, helping to decenter the common misconception of a monolithic Black community. Soul! positioned itself as an open forum, where opinions were both heard and valued. Episodes were informative, encompassing discussions on issues impacting African Americans in the United States and abroad. Topics included the Black Panthers, Black Power, the assassination of Malcolm X, Black love, homosexuality, and the decimation of the Black community from drugs. Some Soul! episodes were focused specifically on one topic, others were segmented to cover a range of topics; however, they frequently blended art and politics, showing the necessary interconnectedness of the two, as espoused by the Black Arts Movement at the time. For example, the episode “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” (December 8, 1971), features two interviews, one with Kathleen Cleaver about her international work with the Revolutionary People’s Communications Network and another with playwright and director Melvin Van Peebles, both of which are intercut with performances from Van Peebles’ play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death.” The interview with Cleaver is very serious in tone; however, the inclusion of Van Peebles’ play is an example of what made Soul! both entertaining and informative.
Soul! relied on Black cultural producers to function as experts on the state of Black people, the status of Black life, and Black progress. While this may seem like an obvious thing to do, network news stories of the time often relied on white experts to explain the Black experience. The series gave entertainers opportunities that went beyond performing on stage. Soul!’s use of Black cultural producers is evidenced further by the numerous guest hosts whose differing life experiences lent new perspectives to the episodes and interviews. Guests hosts included psychologist Alvin F. Poussaint, musician Curtis Mayfield, poet Nikki Giovanni, and South African singer Letta Mbulu. This diversity of perspectives introduced Soul!’s audience members to varying forms of African American political thought, aesthetics, identity, fashion, and art.
As the series was broadcast at the height of the Black Power era at a time in which many Black political organizations viewed art as an integral part of the struggle for freedom, guests often acknowledged the connection between Black arts and politics, in addition to offering their personal beliefs on current affairs. For example, while advertising the film Buck and the Preacher (1972), a period piece based in the post-Civil War era about a man who helps ex-slaves locate settlements in the West, actor/director Sidney Poitier tells Ellis Haizlip, “We have a commitment to not only entertain people but to say some important things at this particular time in our history, and we felt that this film, this script, contributed largely to that.” The ability to entertain but also provide a message or learning experience was key to Soul!’s existence. In another episode, exiled South African singer Miriam Makeba performs on stage and then transitions into conversing with guest host Nikki Giovanni, where she suggests the similarities between South African apartheid and American segregation.
Soul! seamlessly blended performance and politics, demonstrating to the audience the indisputable connection between Black arts and Black political thought. Soul! revealed the possibility that popular culture could be a voice for the people. “Baraka the Artist” is a key example of how Soul! was able to merge politics and art. The episode highlights Amiri Baraka as a writer, performer, and political voice. In his poetic performance, Baraka stresses the relationship between Black Power and Black arts. In his interview with Haizlip, Baraka discusses family, polygamy, and the role of the artist in the Black community. He also outlines seven principles based on Ron Karenga’s “Black Value System.” In a call-and-response fashion, Haizlip asks Baraka to slowly state the seven principles, so that audiences may repeat each one. The viewer, both in the television audience and at home, was both expected and encouraged to participate and to learn something in the process. In this sense, Soul! was not only topical, but pedagogical in its demonstration of the connection between art and politics.
Soul! Gender and Sexuality
Another distinguishing feature of Soul! was its progressive stance on both gender and sexuality. Although Haizlip never openly outed himself on camera, at times he questioned guests about the contentious issue of homosexuality in the Black community. One memorable example is the previously mentioned interview with Minister Louis Farrakhan, where Haizlip frankly asks him about the Nation’s views towards homosexuality. Haizlip also straightforwardly asks Amiri Baraka about polygamy and the rumor that Black revolutionaries have relationships with multiple women.
Soul! consistently offered varied examinations of gender relations, interrogating the status of both heterosexual and homosexual African American relationships. Nikki Giovanni was at the center of several discussions focused on family and Black gender roles in episodes such as “Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin” (December 15 and 22, 1971) and “Black Woman” (January 1971). In “Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin,” the two artists attempt to define what it means to be a ‘woman’ and a ‘man’ in their current political, social, and cultural climate. James Baldwin, the self-exiled public intellectual and author of such works as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, was living in London at the time and agreed to do the interview only if Soul! came to him. This two-hour-long, two-part episode features an unfiltered and unscripted conversation between the two literary figures about gender relations, race, politics, and art. In the end, this inter-generational conversation leads to no resolutions, but is representative of the generationally shifting understanding of what it means to be a Black woman and a Black man.
“Black Woman,” which aired in January 1971, is dedicated to women and features only Black women on stage and in the audience. Guests include singer Carolyn Franklin, poets Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Sandra Sharp, dancer Carmen de Lavallade, composer/pianist Margaret Harris, actress and Soul! staff member Anna Horsford, and actresses Marilyn Berry and Novella Nelson. The episode addresses gender roles, relationships, motherhood, love, family, and the woman’s relationship to Black Power and Black nationalism. Here Soul! celebrated Black women, acknowledged their often-unsung contributions and gave them a forum, which was unprecedented on television.
The visibility of Black women on Soul! was not a coincidence, as Haizlip hired numerous women behind the scenes in both editorial and production roles. Nikki Giovanni frequently appeared on camera and participated behind the scenes as an informal producer and confidant to Haizlip, but always on a volunteer basis. Giovanni specifically opted to volunteer as she had no desire to be formally tied to any project, wishing instead to have full independence to pursue her own creative endeavors. Employing a predominantly female staff created a welcoming space both on and off camera for women, making the inclusion of women a part of Soul!’s larger culture.40
Soul! and the Black Audience
Soul! broadened the role and function of both the studio and television audience. As the show aimed to relate the actual experiences of Black people to a Black audience, each episode was recorded in front of a live studio audience. Similar to other talk shows, Soul! used direct address to speak to the audience, which fostered the intimate feel of the show and worked to make the show a communal experience. However, Haizlip also encouraged audiences at home to participate in the experience of Soul! by writing in on particular topics of interest or on any aspect of the show. The acknowledgement of the home audience was significant in Soul!’s attempt to reach a broad African American audience. For example, in “Farrakhan the Minister,” Haizlip directs the TV audience to send letters and contribute to the conversation. Towards the end of the episode, Haizlip, looking directly into the camera, states, “We are trying to create programs of Black love, of Black strength, of Black encouragement, and we hope that you agree with what’s going down and if you do agree write us and if you don’t agree, write us; we just need to hear from you.”
The studio audience was also at times tailored to the specific guests or topics covered in certain episodes, such as “Black Women” or “Farrakhan the Minister,” featuring Black women and NOI members, respectively. The role of the audience as producers of meaning speaks to the pedagogical nature of Soul! Audiences were asked each week to form new kinds of engagement with culture, art, and politics.
Soul! also understood the importance of its audience as vocal advocates for the program. In 1969, when the series was threatened with cancellation, Soul!’s audiences and fans wrote hundreds of letters of support.41 Nearing the end of the series, in the episode, “Wherever We May Be” (February 7, 1973), Haizlip again called on the audience to help keep the series afloat.
The End of Soul!
Under its Project for New Television, the Ford Foundation contributed the majority of Soul!’s budget. As the mid-1970’s approached, a shift in funding for noncommercial public affairs television resulted in the demise of several public television shows with an African American focus including Black Omnibus (1972-73) and Black Arts (1970-72).42 The new focus for cultural programming and public affairs television was “cross-cultural,” television shows that encompassed both a white and Black perspective.43 The last episode of Soul!, “To the People, Thank You,” airing on March 7, 1973, was, according to Wald, “a live, hour-long episode devoted to staff reminiscences and the reading of poems and tributes from viewers.” Haizlip explained to the audience that after five seasons it was necessary for Soul! to shut down its operations as CPB did not renew the show’s funding. This meant that Soul! was without corporate or federal funding, and Channel 13 did not have room in the studio’s budget for the series.44 CPB instead chose to focus its efforts and funding on Interface, a show with a more interracial focus, produced by television journalist and Black Journal alum Tony Batten.
Soul! presented specific images of the most politically charged music, art, and culture on television during the Black Power era. By featuring African American artists, actors, musicians, poets, and political figures with varying opinions as experts on a multitude of aspects of Black existence, the series provided audiences with representations of African Americans independent of white definitions or assumptions.