At a time when America was neck deep in a racial crisis, with the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. causing riots and uncertainties among blacks in the nation, Ellis Haizlip conceived the idea of a television program specifically for African-Americans. Not only did he intend for the program to display the beauty and variety of black arts and culture, but Haizlip also wanted to intellectually challenge blacks to assess their place in America and transform their roles in society. The fruition of Haizlip’s vision was SOUL!, a program made to ensure that the revolution would be televised.
First airing on Thursday, September 12, 1968 on WNET in New York City, SOUL! was and is one of the only programs that promoted African American community, culture, and artistry as well as provided a medium for political expression and the ongoing fight for social justice.
SOUL! developed a large following and received strong support and reviews, but heading into the 1970s, Haizlip was under constant pressure to downplay the show’s message of black pride or face cancellation. The last episode of SOUL! aired on March 7, 1973.
Although the hundreds of videotaped episodes of SOUL! have been locked away in a vault, Ellis’ niece Melissa Haizlip, a former television, film and Broadway actress, is ensuring that her uncle’s show and its message are spread to the current generation.
Haizlip, along with Dr. Ivory A. Toldson, an associate professor at Howard University, and Howard Dodson Jr., an active participant in the civil rights movement and director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and Howard University Libraries, all stopped by Howard University’s campus in early March. During their visit, they showed a 20 minute trailer of Mr. SOUL! Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV, a behind-the-scenes documentary of the show. They also discussed the state of African Americans and their relationship with media. The panel was moderated by Dr. Greg E. Carr, associate professor of Africana Studies and Chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.
“We need to understand the power of media,” said Toldson, encouraging the room full of students, professors, and interested members of the community to examine media and not just watch and read it. “This is not something we should look at passively.”
African-Americans have undoubtedly made much progress in areas of equality, yet racism and discrimination assuredly still exist in this country. “Now racism is more elusive and economically driven,” said Toldson.
In media, the gatekeepers are those who control the flow of information and choose how different cultures and people are depicted in everything from commercials and films, to news articles and radio stations. Not surprisingly, little to no gatekeepers are non-white, and their depiction of blacks has led blacks to have a muddled depiction of themselves.
”Black people are the most gullible people in America,” said Toldson in reference to the way the media has manipulated blacks to value certain things over others, as well as adopt specific patterns of consumption.
“The intention of the Civil Rights Movement was to integrate our people, and we are being victims of our own success,” said Dodson. By integrating into the mainstream media instead of creating our own, blacks have become subservient to the agendas of media gatekeepers and the businesses they work for. “Your Job is to make white people rich.”
Without black owned businesses and media specifically for blacks like Mr. SOUL!, the messages administered and money made will never be truly relevant to black community and culture. “This is the time to tell our own stories,” said Haizlip. The only people that can properly promote and uplift the black community are blacks themselves. “We are the only protection we have now,” said Dodson.
One constant struggle in having successful black businesses is actually keeping them black instead of trading in that success for monetary gain.
“I believe this generation of African Americans has grown up with a keen desire to make money, but not necessarily make money in business,” said Haizlip. “The strategy I suggest is this: we need to take extra care that we’re building and cultivating entrepreneurial minds, and increasing our intellectual potential from birth. That way we’ll be more likely to develop our skill set to dominate in the market and less likely to sell out once we’ve achieved success.”
This type of insight into the black perspective and push for dialogue and advancement is what made SOUL! so special, and the documentary Mr. SOUL! looks to bring that same type of programming forward into the 21st century. “We hope that the success of the documentary will create a resurgence of interest in the original series,” said Haizlip, a director and producer of the documentary.