The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival

By Rachael Banahan

On June 25th 2021, the well-anticipated documentary consisting of clips from the Harlem cultural festival ‘Summer of Soul’ (or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), was released. There has been much excitement surrounding it, which is likely due to the fact that the unreleased tapes were locked away in a basement for the past half-century. The festival is well known as the ‘Black Woodstock’ since it is widely compared to another more remembered festival by this name in the same year, located near Woodstock in New York. Performer at the festival with the 5th Dimension Marilyn McCoo notably stated ‘Everybody knew about Woodstock but no one knew about the Harlem Cultural Festival’. The 1969 embodies the shift in Black consciousness in African American communities and celebrates the creativity and musical of talent of the Black diaspora.

The festival was filmed with a multi camera television crew by TV hero Hal Tuchin and there were plans for a special broadcast. Despite Tuchin having 40 hours of footage, no distributor was interested in releasing the special. This was due to the lack of interest from white gatekeepers towards Black centred narratives, especially at a time when race relations were tense. Tuchin is quoted as saying that filming the Harlem Cultural Festival was a “peanuts operation because nobody really cared about Black shows”. However, he decided to take part in the production of it in the first place because he “knew it was going to be like real estate and sooner or later someone would have an interest in it”. The success of Summer of Soul has proved the tapes to be just that, with the movie grossing over $1 million dollars so far.

‘Summer of Soul’ documents the diverse nature and rich history of Black music during the tumultuous time for Black people that was 1969. The Harlem Cultural Festival happened a year after Martin Luther King  was assassinated and a year before Fred Hampton was killed. Malcolm X was also assassinated in 1965. The aftermath of losing such intrinsic members of the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement was dire. For example King’s death led to an outpouring of national mourning and anger- riots shortly followed and 40 people lost their lives nationwide. Malcolm X’s death shook the Black community, as over 20,000 people waited in the cold (he died in February) to visit his body at his funeral. The festival also happened right in the middle of the Vietnam War. Despite the Vietnam War being the first fully integrated war to be fought by American soldiers, Black soldiers were treated appallingly- especially after the murder of Dr. King. Soldiers were victim to regular racist attacks such as cross burnings, confederate flag spreading and bathroom graffiting at military bases insinuating that the real enemy were African Americans- not the Vietnamese. Black soldiers were also more likely to be allocated menial jobs, frequently denied promotion and often ignored when attempting to report racial discrimination and abuse. Furthermore, Black men were placed on the frontlines of the Vietnam War at a disproportionate rate. Despite making up only 11% of the population, they made up 23% of combat troops in 1967. Essentially, the Black community was in need of something to lift and guide their spirits towards hope of better things ahead.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was definitely born out of a need for optimism within the Black community after such an unstable time and it also came from a place of cultural reevaluation and a positive shift in Black consciousness. During the summer of ‘68, the word ‘Black’ as opposed to ‘Negro’ was plastered all over Ebony magazine and by the time James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud’ came out in the October, ‘Black’ was on it’s way to becoming the preferred term in polite society and media outlets. This was a united affirmation that Black people were proud of their skin colour and a complete rejection of slave culture. The Black Panther Party were also fundamental in instilling pride into the Black consciousness of the 60’s and 70’s, with an important element of their 10 point Program (which they based their party values on) being ‘We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.’Just two years after the BPP was founded, they began ‘serve the people’ campaigns. After recognising the inadequacy of public schools to prepare Black children for life, The Panthers created Liberation Schools and breakfast clubs for the youth as they felt it was important to start with the future leaders of America. There were also educational programs for adults as well, such as nationwide political education classes which began a year before the festival. The Panthers aided Black university students in pledging to their respective universities to reform policy, making their voices heard on campus. The Black consciousness had been awakened with The Panther’s encouragement and created optimum circumstances for the festival to happen.

It comes at no surprise that this joyous space that was needed by Black people was designated to Harlem. The birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, this neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan was a cultural mecca for Black art and was renowned for initiating better representation of the Black artists themselves through claiming control of their artistic expression. Harlem was an important hub of community values, art, music, innovation and revolution. The family oriented festival took place in Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) with a free attendance of more than 300,000 people. From the first concert, the New York Police Department refused to provide security, and so the Black Panthers stepped in to do the job. The NYPD eventually arrived, however the Black Panthers remained overseeing the festival to ensure peace. There were numerous concerts that took place over six weekends, with an impressive roster of artists who performed, including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B King, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple singers, The 5th Dimension and Gladys Knight and The Pips. Due to this, of course, there was a wide variety of genres played at the concerts, such as Blues, Motown, Gospel, rock, R&B and pop, reflecting the heterogeneous character of Black music. 

The Harlem cultural festival was another example of music being used as an act of resistance against oppression and in celebration of togetherness in the Black community. Nina Simone debuted her song ‘Young, Black and Gifted’ at the festival, a number which inspired hope and pride in the crowds with lyrics such as:

“We must begin to tell our young, there’s a world waiting for you

When you feelin’ really low

Yeah, there’s a great truth that you should know

When you’re young, gifted and Black

Your soul’s intact’’


“Oh, but my joy of today

Is that we can all be proud to say

“To be young, gifted and Black

Is where it’s at”

Is where it’s at

Is where it’s at

Many genres that were performed at the festival originate from Negro- spiritual music, a type of melody created by enslaved people not only to lift their spirits in dire situations, but to communicate coded messages amongst themselves that would be disguised as joyful singing to plantation owners. For Black people, music is a universal language of revolution, unity and pride, with much of the dancing, singing and spirituality within African-America cultures resembling the practice of African masquerades; entertainment provided by masked performers to invoke ancestral spirits.  Ultimately, the Harlem cultural festival was born out of a need for a safe, liberated, joyful space for Black people in America.

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