“Summer of Soul,” the documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, is a joy to watch.
The documentary, produced and directed by Questlove, showcases nearly every major Black act and genre — blues, soul, rock, Motown, Afro-Cuban, salsa, gospel — from the era. The festival occurred over several weekends in Morris Hill Park in Harlem, and the film depicts a new sense of freedom and being among Blacks. The festival was a perfect encapsulation of Black power, the power of love. “And how beautiful it was,” reflected Musa Jackson, who, as a young boy, attended the event and is seen watching the film.
However, what made the film interesting is that the original taping of the event was stored away for fifty years, unseen. Television and Hollywood producers were not interested in seeing Blacks enjoying music. But the film, as a time capsule of the past, also showed that Blacks in roughly half a century had gone from the liberatory high of Black power, as seen in the film, to the somnolency of black trauma. In other words, a cultural and/or psychological shift has occurred. Black power was an affirmation of agency; Black trauma, however, is a rejection of it.
If Blacks are indeed “traumatized,” it may be due to the reality that African Americans still do not have any power after fifty years. Rather than talking about this lack of power, African Americans have begun using the term trauma, a medical term, to avoid facing a political problem: Power, or the lack thereof. However, in the past fifty years of the post-civil rights era, African Americans have demobilized themselves politically. They have done nearly everything not to obtain or build any independent collective power. They have failed to develop new tools or organizations and strategies when compared to the fifties and sixties.
The post-civil rights era was characterized by the institutionalized phantom politics: Presidential campaigns of putative Black leaders; so-called Million Man Marches; numerous Black leadership summits; issuance of “Black agenda,” etc. These actions led to no advancement in the collective power of Black voters. Blacks could still be shot with relative impunity by the police. That 2 million Black and Brown people are either in state or federal penitentiaries, with another 5 million in some form of probationary custody, underscores a lack of power despite having more Black elected officials (BEOs) than fifty-year ago, including a black president. By any stretch of the imagination, the War on Drugs was also a political war on black people but euphemistically called “mass incarceration.”
Yet despite a rising middle class, superstar public intellectuals, billionaire athletes, God-like hip-hop artists, and other types of entertainers gaining cultural influence, Blacks have not established any networks or apparatus to discuss, press, or present issues important to themselves. African Americans have not established any significant foundations, think tanks, media, or independent political organization, and certainly not in the way that conservatives have since the seventies.
Had Black leadership decided to build an independent political apparatus, going from “protest to politics,” as argued by Bayard Rustin, they would not have to look very far and wide. To establish an independent network or cultural/political infrastructure geared towards advancing their agenda and building coalitions, they could have used a model from the labor movement since many blacks were involved in union organizing. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), for example, promoted worker self-education and cultural activities. As Paul Prescod noted in an article about Maida Springer, a Black ILGWU organizer, “By 1938, the union had 620 educational groups attended by 22,050 students across the country. It established a vibrant cultural life that included film screenings, dances, parties, concerts, hikes, museum trips, and more.”
Such a model could have been incorporated during the seventies if Black leadership and activists had a broader view of politics other than building a “Black Party” or being incorporated into one of the two parties after the National Black Political Conventions collapse. Imagine the possibilities if “MLK Clubs” had been established as a means to create “vibrant cultural life” that included film screenings, dances, parties, concerts, hikes, museum trips, and more.” The “more,” in this case, being lectures and presentations regarding issues as a means of keeping black voters educated and informed. Had such clubs been established in major black cities, it would have attached the masses of blacks to BEOs (that they weren’t may have been the point). That such clubs or networks were not established may explain why African American communities have frayed along class lines. African American civil society, like much of its politics, is a phantom of its former self.
The Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in the film, showed how Black culture could have been used as a connective to political power. While viewing Summer of Soul, viewers should wonder: How was it possible for newly “liberated” people to go from “protest to politics” and then from black power to black trauma within fifty years? The answers to that may be locked away for another fifty years, just as the original tapes to the Harlem Cultural Festival languished in a basement for half a century.
* “Summer of Soul” is available on Hulu and in theaters.
• Norman Kelley lives in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, including “The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome” and “Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music.”