Still Black, Still Proud: Unpacking the Untold Story of Harlem’s ‘Summer of Soul’

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The Harlem Cultural Festival. Have you ever heard of it?

Better question: If I told you that approximately 300,000 Black people peacefully gathered at a park in Harlem (over six weekends in 1969) and watched performances from Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder, before Woodstock would you believe me?

Prior to the news of Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, I’d argue that many would say “No.” Heck, I’d likely say no. But then I’d shake off that moment of naïveté and remind myself that within this racist American system, Black erasure is a pervasive. It’s no secret that the contributions of Black people (across the globe) are erased from history books, an act which ultimately upholds white power and privilege.

When asked about Black erasure, The Roots band leader said that he found himself “making excuses” out of the disbelief that footage from the 1969 festival in Harlem would sit in a basement, untouched for nearly five decades.

Unpack That chatted with Thompson: “So when they’re telling me, ‘Hey, there’s this festival that was thrown’ in the way they presented it to me, they’re like ‘Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Nina Simone, you know, Ray Barretto.’” The director continued, “I’m thinking like, oh, what the quality of the tape is bad or something? Unprofessionally shot or something? They’re like, ‘no.’”

Questlove said that his “faith in mankind,” in part, initially led him to believe that The Harlem Cultural Festival wasn’t real. Alas, Thompson also shook off his moment of naïveté. “What I’m learning is that the benign level of racism cuts a little bit deeper.”

Here’s the thing: Black erasure attempts to narrow Black influence in this world and literally says that Black realities do not matter, but as evidenced by the Summer of Soul film, we will be seen and heard whether we’re included in history books, or not.

Learn more about this epic moment in American history in this episode of Unpack That, featuring Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is in theaters and on Hulu, Friday, July, 2.

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