THE BLACK GAY MAN WHO GAVE AMERICAN TV SOUL!
By Tre Johnson
December 17, 2018
Against a backdrop of blackness in a full Afro plume, Nikki Giovanni asks, “ever been kidnapped by a poet?” and breathlessly recites her poem, “Kidnap.” As the lights go up, she’s still framed against Blackness only now it’s an audience of Black faces for SOUL! and, within moments, after the applause drifts off, Giovanni, only 28 at the airing of the 1971 episode, introduces Philadelphia’s The Delfonics. The band goes right into the opening lines of “Trying to Make a Fool of Me”: “We’ve been together for so long / Listen baby, I’m gonna love you / Right or wrong,” SOUL! often explored the transformative and healing importance of Black art, but also the necessity of Black conversations across gender, sexuality, formats and politics. Both ahead of its time and right on time, Ellis Haizlip’s show reminds us of not only our inherent strength, but also what’s missing in today’s Black public discourse; opportunities to let art and the artist challenge all of us without having to worry about the gaze, consumption or consideration of white America.
As a grant-funded public access show, SOUL! ran from 1968-1973, and that was long enough to burnish Ellis Haizlip’s creation into a thing of legacy. The show was a platform that explored Blackness in all its beauty, tension and complexity with a remit that showcased what meaningful resistance looked like from the Black artists’ point of view. Straddling a post-Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War America, SOUL! encapsulated the ongoing Black political voice, creating space for Black public figures and artists to wrestle with how we move forward with a conscience. It never presented a singular answer either, opting instead to showcase the various ways Blacks were fighting any number of systems.
Its various cold opens played with formats, identities and tones that reminded anyone who watched of the various conversations that were happening within the Black community. From week to week, SOUL!’s episodes, from beginning to end, illuminated the struggle and the consequence of resistance, and the many things we were resisting. Some episodes were urgently political like 1971’s third episode, opening with a Haizlip monologue on protest and featuring the music of Max Roach and the J.C. White Choir, was interspersed with re-enactments of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches, performed by actor-activist Arthur Burghardt. At the time, Burghardt, a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War — like frequent SOUL! guest Muhammad Ali — was performing a one-man play in the theater, and months after his appearance his war stance would earn him a five-year sentence in prison. The result was him serving two years, including a five-month stint in solitary confinement while enduring a series of beatings and terrorism the whole time while imprisoned.
It’s likely that Haizlip was able to curate this cultural view because he was often positioned as an outsider himself due to his openly gay identity. Despite the other cultural revolutions that permeated the 1960s and 70s, a full embrace of sexuality still eluded the community, and as a gay Black man Haizlip’s voice and determination to make SOUL! proof of all Black identities was pivotal to the era. Haizlip and SOUL! should be commended for this sort of activism. Michele Wallace reminds us in ”Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” despite contributions to the Civil Rights Movement by queer and Black women, the movement was still largely defined by the desires and victories of cisgender Black men. Through SOUL!, Haizlip created a space that held all this while also providing room for voices by often turning the hosting duties and guest appearances to those same maligned communities. This intentional intertwining of everyone within the Black community complicated and challenged America’s picture of Blackness and succinctly proved to everyone watching that there was a vibrant humanity in every expression of Blackness. And while SOUL!’s sexual politics were more show than tell, mirroring Haizlip’s own understated approach about his own personal identity, he also never shirked from challenging Black thought on the issue, too, such as a 1972 episode, where Haizlip interviews the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. Amidst issues about Black nationalism, politics, and religion, Haizlip steadily poses more hypotheticals for Farrakhan to consider, cleverly challenging Farrakhan’s purported love for all Black people to see if that embrace includes homosexuality. Distressingly, Farrakhan launches into a winded response that includes “deviation,” “laws of the universe” and “nature,” framing the notion of homosexuality as brothers and sisters being “lost,” and a “system of perversion,” and as his voice reaches various crescendos, the surrounding Black audience applauds — several times — as he denounces homosexuality as Haizslip cooly allows his guest to share his thoughts.
SOUL!’s studio aesthetic — low-ceiling, dark, tight space — often felt like a bunker where secret conversations about Blackness were being held, the overall effect that it was currently the only place secreted for Black dissidents, activists and rabble rousers could talk with frankness. Set against the Nixon administration’s conservative political climate, the appearances and selections of mainstream singers and artists — like Jerry Butler, who’d go on to have a decades-long career in Chicago politics, or Bill Withers, who famously protested the Vietnam War through his music — were also proof of how much Haizlip and crew were determined to prove that art had a responsibility that it was taking seriously.
But SOUL!’s magic lies in its ability to cross-pollinate conversations. With the creation of this Black space, either the unlikely were paired or the unexpected conversations took place. SOUL! made it possible for Black art to talk to each other, and so you had, for example, Giovanni’s radicalism and independence around Black love and femininity juxtaposed inside of an interview with Muhammad Ali as he recounts his battle with Howard Cosell and the boxing world promoters. This paired with a conversation between Giovanni and famed South African activist-artist Miriam Makeba, created a tapestry of thoughts about the differing ways that Black men and women were experiencing 1970s America, and even in that, that different Black men and women were concerned with different things even inside our community, removed from direct white violence. There were still things to discuss.
As the Delfonics and Ali talk about the embattled Black man’s heart and body, while turning the hosting duties over to Giovanni allows her and Makeba to have a parallel conversation. On the government oppression that exists on the shores of both women’s respective homes, Makeba offers, “I only say the difference between South Africa and America is slight….the only difference is that South Africa admits who they are.”
Later in the season, Haizlip returns to orchestrate a conversation between Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte on the release of their movie, 1972’s Buck and the Preacher that starred the two men and actress Ruby Dee. As Haizlip weaves the trio through a conversation about the film, he presents an opportunity for the men to touch on a variety of subjects. With his cool, curiosity-based approach to culture, Haizlip alludes to the colorist appeal of Belafonte’s appearance, asking him about the experience of muddying and uglifying his appearance to play the role of Preacher in the film, but also zooms out to also appreciate the activism that’s been at the heart of both men’s careers. Even in 1972, Poitier talks about the need to create stories like Buck, which they were funded to shoot at $2 million dollars, given the political climate that Black Americans lived in.
All throughout SOUL! beats the importance of true activism, art and resistance conversations; things that have been largely reduced to rhetoric and social media in today’s climate. While trailblazing a series of Black expressions on a public stage, watching these episodes reminds us of what’s missing in a landscape without SOUL!; in a world of podcast personalities, social media-fashioned activists and seemingly shallow thought leaders, much of what constitutes activism and the arts nowadays, on the mainstream level, feels inadequate. Our current climate furthers what Mychal Denzel Smith opined in “The Gatekeepers”; that despite what trends on Twitter, elevated to a bigger stage, the Black public is incentivized to unpack our pain, politics and context for white America.
In this new media age of reads, drags, colonizers and #resist, we’ve lost the intrinsic value of the intraracial conversations that we still so sorely need. In today’s politically and socially attuned climate, we should be remembering what SOUL! showed us was not only possible but necessary; that curating the space, we still have the tools to create our own healings and conversations, and with it, there’s the greater opportunity to move us further, faster. Imagine, for example, a world where Donald Glover’s 2015 performance of “Shadows” with Thundercat on a revived Arsenio Hall show happens, but years later releases “This Is America” after he participates in a conversation with Brittany Cooper. What does it look like for Frank Ocean to debut “Bad Religion” and talk with Tarell Alvin McCraney? What do we learn when we pair Colin Kaepernick and Hilton Als? Ryan Coogler and Tayari Jones?
What if we moved away from the treetops of brand personalities and revisited the idea that not only does art create change but that there’s still a vibrant community of writers, thinkers, singers, politicians, actors, poets and painters that not only need a platform but are willing to share it with each other, too?
What if we took the step to do just what SOUL! reminded us of: we push our own culture and used art, platform and influence to doggedly create a better tomorrow that didn’t rest on the laurels of white acceptance and incrementalism? What if we divorced ourselves of corporate collaborations and focused on re-establishing these platforms to further destiny over dollars. It would require the same bravery and vision that Haizlip used to conceive of the show 50 years ago.
The consideration matters too, as our partnership with any and seemingly every corporation — from Lyft to NIKE — seems to come saddled with some pernicious cost of business to our community. In the void that both SOUL! and Haizlip have left behind, there’s also a legacy and a blueprint to be picked up that might provide the beginnings of a liberation we often see trending about on Twitter but haven’t realized just yet. It’s one that would require not only resistance but a clear-eyed sense of risk and stakes as well.
SOUL! was in part shut down as Nixon’s administration squashed the Black pride and political voice that Haizlip’s production and guests routinely represented. In the closing lines of his monologue, before introducing theater actor Burghardt, Haizlip’s words, nearly 50 years ago, still rings true today: “Protest comes in various forms […] It can be the simple refusal to participate in some inhuman but popular act.”
So, what would it take to find SOUL! again?