(A brief history of the television program Soul!)
by Jon Kanis
(published in the San Diego Reader, September 28, 1995)
My family has a five-hundred dollar color television set that we turn on once a week. Thursday — 9 p.m. — Channel 13 — Soul! Because it’s the only for real thing on T.V. Dig it?
— Ann Minor, Long Island, NY
People’s stories fall through the cracks in time. One chapter missing from the books recording television’s history is on a show called Soul!
Soul! can be described as an hour-long musical-variety show by and for African-Americans, but “can be” doesn’t cut it. Part town-hall meeting, part poetry reading, the show offered a club-performance cabaret with elements of street theater balancing out a down home approach to black culture in America. Soul! gave African-Americans their first significant TV forum. Since it was yanked from the air in 1973, it has never been seen again. But what happened to it?
The program was masterminded by Ellis Benjimin Haizlip, a Howard University graduate whose deep interest in the performing arts led him to New York City. Haizlip made a name for himself after working behind the scenes with the Harlem YMCA. He produced a world tour of Langston Hughes’ gospel song-play Black Nativity. He subsequently formed his own production company and organized several world tours with an all-African-American theater group that produced O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. When Haizlip’s production of the Donald McKayle Dance Company’s Black New World caught the eye of independent television station WNET (Channel 13) in 1967, it was subsequently telecast and Haizlip began a 14-year relationship with the station, eventually serving as executive producer.
Not long after Haizlip joined the staff at WNET, riots began sweeping across America’s inner cities. The Kerner Commission appointed by President Johnson to look into things determined that “America was moving toward two societies — one black and one white — separate and unequal, with segregation and poverty creating in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.”
The commission’s findings struck a chord in Channel 13’s Director of Cultural Programming Christopher Lukas. Lukas says that “Among the recommendations [that the commission made] were that the media had a responsibility. The report stated that there were no black people on most newspapers, that there were no black people in television and no black people on television and I looked around me at Channel 13 and I noticed that they were absolutely right.” This observation inspired Lukas to produce a show called Talking Black, showing life in inner cities of Boston, Pittsburgh and New York. Lukas wanted to show that African-Americans “weren’t just out in the streets rioting — that they have their own lives, with their own responsibilities.” The show was well received. Its success paved the way for another idea that Lukas had.
“I went to the head of the station and said that I wanted to do a black Tonight Show. I asked Ellis’ advice and he said that he’d like to produce it. So, Ellis and I discussed it and it quickly became apparent to me that he thought that a black Tonight Show was ridiculous. It is not how black people would do a show. And I said ‘Design the show, I’ll make my comments, but essentially it will be your show.’”
Soul! debuted over New York airwaves on September 8, 1968. Initial shows were broadcast live, giving the show a gritty, hit-and-run appeal which caused one journalist to remark that “If some of the language was a bit strange and some of it not generally considered suitable for polite conversation, it succeeded splendidly in conveying the writer’s meanings. And that, baby, is what language is all about.”
By the end of Soul’s first season the show received enough support and praise to broadcast nationally, when WNET became part of the Public Broadcasting System. It was then that San Diego viewers had the chance to catch Soul! The show aired Friday nights at 10 p.m. on Channel 28.
Over the next four years Soul! grew into itself, found it’s own voice, and helped others find theirs. “The creativity of realism can only lie in that creativeness of the aware” wrote one viewer. That is what Soul! accomplished; it made people aware of the African-American experience. The late ‘60s were a powerful time in African-American culture. Ida Lewis, the publisher ofEncore magazine, wrote that “the problems of blacks reflect the whole panorama of our human needs in microcosm. The black struggle is related to the natural aspirations of society as a whole.” Soul! zeroed in on those aspirations and struggled to bring as much history, art and truth about the black experience to America as could be tastefully orchestrated into the space of 60 minutes.
The diversity and range of talent that Soul! presented is still breathtaking. With no other avenues on television for African-American artists and audiences, Soul! became by default the showcase for black talent of the day.
One young artist to receive his first national exposure through Soul! was author and poet Quincy Troupe. Troupe, currently a professor of creative studies at UCSD, confirms that “at the time there was nothing out there for African-Americans. There was no show for African-Americans and there still isn’t. Because everything is segregated in this country. People are so tribalistic. Irish are for Irish, Jews are for Jews and you don’t get this innerflow, what I call a cross-fertilization that makes the country really unique. So you get black-owned networks and you get black-owned radio stations and that is what becomes the norm. And that has become the model because it is easier to do it that way for the advertisers, because you can target markets, but you end up segmenting everyone. What we should be working towards is fusion, but people don’t think about it in that way.
“What Ellis wanted to do with Soul! was put something out there reflecting African-American culture. It was a revolutionary idea then and it is still a revolutionary idea. He was combining poetry, fiction, music, politics and everything else into one forum. Now, you tell me that’s not revolutionary. That’s not happening now. No show on television does that.”
To describe a typical episode of the show is nearly impossible. A show might feature an hour of music by Al Green or Stevie Wonder in a nightclub atmosphere dubbed “Club Soul.” Another might seamlessly weave the poetry of artists like Quincy Troupe, Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) or The Last Poets between musical numbers by The Delfonics or Gladys Knight and the Pips. Then a dance company might perform free-style movements. This fusion of artistic disciplines broadened appreciation for each component.
Haizlip felt a responsibility to offer viewers a sense of the richness and beauty of African-American heritage. “It’s not all finger poppin’ time” remarked Haizlip in a 1971 interview. “I feel good when I realize that I have presented over 300 artists to the public.”
One viewer wrote in, “After viewing your show I saw just how ignorant I was about anything that concerned blacks” and he praised Haizlip for “helping to keep this infested whitewash from taking over our intelligent minds and replacing it with more productive insights of ourselves.”
The main reason African-Americans weren’t represented on television, Haizlip stated, was “a lack of regard for all things black. Our future in the mass-media lies in removing the profit motive from our motion picture, television, and other productions. I don’t say that they should be non-profit. We hope that a project will pay for itself and its artists, writers, producers and contributors. But it is the profit motive which cheapens and downgrades the American product.”
Haizlip’s show didn’t, however, exclusively present artists and musicians that would generate ratings. If he thought that someone had an important and relevant statement to make to African-Americans, he gave them a forum. Perhaps the high water mark of Soul!’s audacity came when it broadcast two complete hours of author James Baldwin conversing with poet Nikki Giovanni, simultaneously a triumph for African-Americans, homosexuals, and women.
The show made you think, and, ultimately, that led to its removal from the airwaves in 1973. Troupe suggests that Soul! may have become too powerful an influence in strengthening the militant outlook of African-Americans. It was suggested by one staff member on Soul! that PBS felt that an all-black show “was no longer necessary since racism was no longer a problem in America by 1973.”
If Soul! was initially funded as a gesture of placating the African-American community after the riots of the late ‘60s, did the PBS higher ups believe its necessity – to represent blacks on TV – had outlived its purpose? We may never know. The story that ran in the newspapers in May of 1973 spoke of PBS withdrawing funds for the program because of low rates and to make room for other types of programming.
When it became apparent that Soul! would be canceled, Haizlip charged that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s refusal to fund Soul! was part of a policy “to destroy all black programming” on PBS. PBS claimed that the money that would have funded Soul! was being allocated to another black show, a program called Interface. Interface, however, was a show geared to an “interracial” audience. Haizlip wasn’t the only one who didn’t consider it a black program.
“We will mount as aggressive a campaign as the situation calls for,” Haizlip announced in the press. “We’ll do everything in our power to bring this to the attention of the people.”
Soul!‘s last episodes address the cancellation by encouraging a heavy letter-writing campaign to provide a show of support; a similar call at the end of the second season (May 1969) had succeeded to keep the show on the air for for three more years. Viewers sent in poignant appreciations of what Soul! meant to them, and on Soul!‘s final program, entitled “To The People, Thank You,” Haizlip offered, “Five years ago there were some uprisings in the United States and these uprisings created an atmosphere that allowed most, if not all, black programs that are on television networks and public broadcasting to exist. But sometimes it is necessary in the evolution of things to disappear, reorganize and to reunite.
“However, the communication has been established – we cannot cut that off. Because it has been expressed to us over and over again that people are reaching out and accepting and responding to the communication that has been laid down before.”
Soul! has never been syndicated or rebroadcast once it was taken off the air in 1973.
After Soul!’s demise, Haizlip worked on many projects, notably a 12-day arts festival at the Lincoln Center in the early ‘70s, “Soul At The Center.” He stayed on at WNET until 1981, created another television show called Watch Your Mouth, a language skills development series for adolescents. He maintained a high social profile, participating in the political campaigns of both Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins. He died of lung cancer in 1991.
Looking back, Troupe says Soul! “gives us a good reference point of what was happening in that period and it sets up a model of the possibilities of what a television show can be.
“You don’t have that now. You don’t have poets on television shows. You don’t have that kind of combination and Soul! showed that it can be successful.”
“It’s important history. It’s real history rather than revisionist history.” And if your mind gets too tired from thinking about all that heavy stuff, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun to jump out of your chair and dance to.
Listen, in my day, older women would get their wagons in a circle and when a girl-child came of age they’d school her in the ways of men folks; same with the men and boy-childs. My father was a master in the community. His motto was: “Knowing how to treat a woman is the root of all knowledge.” Heavy stuff. Of course, for my money there ought to be courses in this kind of thing. ‘Cause this stumbling trial-and-error business is a terrific strain on the heart. And why-the-hell should every generation have to scuffle through thirty or forty years of improvisation just to learn what the last generation already found out? We all get turned around and put to sleep and someone has to wake himself or herself up and put their very life on the line to remind us of something basic. We need schools in a bad way.
— The Johnson Girls by Toni Cade Bambara