Disconcerting, peculiar, provocative, and transformational are words that describe the history of the engagement between television, black America, and black music culture. Television, more than any other form of media, has historically been valued for its potential as an effective tool in fostering public sentiment. While the first generation of dramatic and comedic shows featuring black characters did not challenge the racial and ethnic stereotypes that had been advanced through popular culture, this changed with the highlighting of black music and black musicians on television during the 1950s and 1960s. Programs such as Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (later called The Ed Sullivan Show), Steve Allen's Tonight Show, and Shindig! provided important platforms for the promotion of black music, black artistry, and racial pride. One needs only look to the countless baby boomers who recall seeing the Supremes or the Temptations on Ed Sullivan during the early 1960s for evidence.
In the late 1960s, however, the relationship between black America and television changed significantly. In the wake of riots and racial unrest in a number of major cities, in 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson charged the Kerner Commission with studying race relations in America. An entire section of the Commission's findings was devoted to the role of the media in perpetuating inflammatory representations of the black community. Although the commercial networks were the focus of the report, initial reactions came from public television broadcasters, who not only hired African Americans but secured funding for the production of programs that would build a more constructive relationship between the media and a yet to be defined black viewership. As a result, in the 1970s television became important terrain in the struggle for racial and social equity, as well as a powerful tool in the promotion of racial pride. Gayle Wald's latest book, It's Been Beautiful: “Soul!” and Black Power Television, explores this period in television history through an examination of the one-hour weekly program Soul!
With a production run of five seasons—first on WNDT (1968–69) in Newark and later through New York City's main public broadcasting outlet WNET (1969–73)—Soul! represented an attempt by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB, now PBS) to widen its operational model during the early 1970s to include black-oriented programming. The show not only mirrored the type of intellectual culture that the CPB was generating at that time but also served as an important outlet for black artists. Soul! featured every conceivable form of black cultural expression from poetry to music, as well as interviews that concentrated on the state of black America. Behind the cameras it represented the integration of grassroots black cultural workers into the production studios and executive offices of major networks. Ellis Haizlip (1929–91), who had worked in theater for a number of years, served as Soul!'s producer and onscreen host during its five-year stint, becoming the first black producer at WNET. Like many of his peers in similar professional settings, Haizlip used the show as an opportunity to assemble a largely black production team. Many of its members, such as Alice Hille, who served as associate producer, had worked on the margins of the cultural industry. With access to the resources provided by both commercial and noncommercial television, however, Haizlip, Hille, and the other members of Soul!'s production team created a template for the “for us, by us” model that would define black-oriented television for a generation. It's Been Beautiful examines Haizlip's radical and creative transformation, through Soul!, of the way blackness was defined, promoted, and celebrated via the medium of television.
Like her previous work, Gayle Wald's It's Been Beautiful is well written and extensively researched, and reflects an interdisciplinary perspective. Rather than providing an exhaustive history of Soul! Wald offers readers a critical analysis of the show's role in the promotion of black identity politics, the Black Arts Movement, and the Black Power Movement on mainstream television. Her narrative draws heavily on study of archival footage of Soul! (only four seasons are available) and on the recollections of the production staff, featured performers, and viewers.
Augmenting Wald's study are the exquisite photos of Chester Higgins Jr., who provided publicity photos for Soul! during its tenure. Higgins ranks among the most celebrated black photographers in America. He describes his involvement with the program in a short preface to Wald's book: after graduating from Tuskegee Institute (now University) in 1970 he moved to New York and immersed himself in the cultural milieu of Harlem, where his work as a photographer came to the attention of poet Nikki Giovanni, who introduced the young photographer to Haizlip. Higgins's photographs provide important documentation of the show's history, the book's thirty-five images illuminating Wald's assertions regarding the importance of Soul! as an epicenter of African diasporic cultural and intellectual exchange. Readers will no doubt be struck, as I was, by the photos of Toni Morrison reading from her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, of Nikki Giovanni dialoguing with James Baldwin, and of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles performing prior to their transformation into the Afrofuturistic soul/rock group Labelle.
It's Been Beautiful widens the scope of the body of scholarship on African Americans and television. It combines two important areas that define the theoretical-historical framework for this literature: analysis of the sociopolitical agendas that shaped late twentieth-century media culture, and the role of television as a platform for the performance and negotiation of black identity politics. Wald interrogates the politics behind the efforts to diversify the programmatic thrust of television in the late 1960s and explores the symbiotic relationship that developed between the program's content and its target audience.
Three of the book's five chapters provide a historical framework for understanding the rise and decline of black-oriented programming. Chapter 1, “Soul! and the 1960s,” probes the social and political motivations for an institutional alliance that precipitated the integration of black-oriented content into television in the late 1960s. This discussion centers on the way the liberal agenda of the CPB, funding agencies such as the Ford Foundation, and the Johnson administration engaged with the radical ideologies of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements.
Chapter 2, “The Black Community and the Affective Compact,” assesses Ellis Haizlip's importance in defining who would constitute the black viewership of Soul! As outlined by Wald, before the 1970s there was no substantial or identifiable black television audience. Constructing this audience was one of the central goals of Soul!'s production team. Wald gives much attention to the African-centered nature of the show's production model, as well as to Haizlip's ability to eschew elitist conventions in order to appeal to both a working- and a middle-class black constituency. Wald posits that the relationship Haizlip developed between featured guests, the in-studio audience, and the larger viewership constituted an “affective compact” that drew on black cultural traditions and practices. She makes clear that music and other forms of cultural expression were essential to maintaining this compact. She also shows how the situating of artist and audience was central to cultivating a communal sense of “we.” This idea is African-centered and reflects the way Haizlip was able to transform non-news-based programming from a phenomenon that talked at black people into one that dialogued with them. In Chapter 5, “The Racial State and the ‘Disappearance’ of Soul!,” Wald discusses the dismantling of certain forms of black-oriented programming during the Nixon administration. She also contextualizes the way Soul!'s role in mainstreaming black musicians and various forms of black music created an interesting paradox that undercut the show's ability to program these artists.
Chapter 4, “Freaks Like Us: Black Misfit Performance on Soul!,” is particularly noteworthy as it analyzes the way Soul! countered the heteronormative, masculinist framework of the Black Power Movement through Haizlip's insertion of black queerness within the spectrum of racial pride and unification. This chapter suggests that Soul!'s acknowledgment of the disembodied voices of black women and black queers through its programming established it as an important interrogator of the intraracial politics of blackness that encased the Black Arts and Black Power Movements. These choices ultimately reframed three important aspects of black identity politics by redefining the black community, exposing the diversity that characterized the black experience, and repositioning who was capable of speaking for and to the black community. These four chapters alone underscore the importance of this monograph and align it with the groundbreaking studies of race, gender, and television by J. Fred MacDonald, Donald Bogel, Robin Means Coleman, and Darnell M. Hunt, among others.1
While the performance of music features prominently in each of the chapters of this book, the most expansive discussion occurs in Chapter 3, entitled “‘More Meaningful Than a Three-Hour Lecture’: Music on Soul!” Here Wald concentrates on three episodes from the 1972 season that are emblematic of the way Soul! presented an alternative model for musical performance on television. By its fifth and final season the show embodied what rapper/activist KRS-One has called “edutainment.” It educated its viewership in a format that was not condescending or reflective of elitist ideals of culture. Instead, Haizlip found stimulating ways to present selected content. Featured performers were not limited to lip-synching or promoting their newest song or record. Instead Soul! provided a platform where musicians could experiment with material that network television rejected or found too radical.
Wald's analysis demonstrates the way the show complicated conceptions of blackness through its promotion of African diasporic culture. The episodes titled “Shades of Soul (I and II)” marked the return to the show of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash as the group Labelle, and the first televised performances of conguero player Mongo Santamaría and Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) musicians Tito Puente and Willie Colón. While the appearance of LaBelle, Hendryx, and Dash during the first season is discussed extensively in Chapter 2, Wald's account of this 1972 performance in Chapter 3 situates them within the framework of the politics of resistance promoted through the Black Arts Movement. The description of their performance of Nina Simone's “Four Women” is justification enough for the public release of Soul!'s extant episodes. The final portion of this chapter focuses on a performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The discussion highlights both the music and the genius of this enigmatic jazz musician and points to the way the jazz avant-garde used live performances as a means of embodying the unrest, tension, and anger of the times in radical ways.
If I have a criticism of this book it concerns the paucity of information provided about Higgins's photos: his preface says little to nothing about the date of or context for the selected images. This quibble aside, It's Been Beautiful is a timely book, especially in light of the appropriation of sonic and visual blackness through music competitions as well as the racial and gender stereotyping that reality television has precipitated in recent years. Its contribution to music and media studies scholarship cannot be overstated, and is best summarized as an ability to further contextualize the problematic history of African Americans and television, as well as to move our collective understanding of the promotion of black culture through this medium during the Civil Rights Movement beyond Soul Train and soul music.