Fellowship to support black cultural history

Gayle Wald wants to ensure an understudied emblem of the black power music era is not forgotten.

The English department chair will chronicle the cultural history of the 1960s public television show “SOUL!,” after earning a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship Award in folklore and popular culture April 13. “There’s something to be said about preservation. If people don’t talk about it or write about it, it literally goes away,” Wald said. “We don’t remember it.”

Wald, who has taught courses like African American literature and pop culture, is one of 181 Guggenheim fellows this year in the U.S. and Canada out of nearly 3,000 applicants for the award.

With the award, along with a $50,000 grant she earned from the National Endowment for the Humanities in December, Wald will take a yearlong sabbatical to research the television show that she said was “like an MTV Unplugged before there was unplugging.”

“[The show] had a style and sensibility that was really of the moment. Big Afros, soul handshakes. A real sense of black pride, black beauty in an exciting moment for these things to be happening, and it was all funded by the federal government,” Wald, who has been at GW for 17 years, said.

Since earning her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1995, Wald also penned a book in 2007 about gospel singer Rosetta Tharpe, which became a New York Times Book Review editor’s pick.

When digging into the archives on Tharpe, Wald said a program showing one of the singer’s final performances caught her eye. Wald was intirqued by Ellis Haizlip, the organizer of the 1972 New York City festival where Tharpe sang.

“I got interested in him. Who is this guy?” Wald said. “It turns out his crowning achievement in his life wasn’t this festival at Lincoln Center, it was producing [SOUL!] for five years.”

From there, Wald said she was inspired to research the understudied history of “SOUL!,” which ran from 1968 to 1973 and featured guests like Patti LaBelle and B.B. King.

“There are plenty of books about African Americans on television, but they tend to focus on commercial shows. There’s a lot about ‘Sanford and Son,’ ‘The Cosby Show’ and BET,” Wald said. “And there’s books about public television, but they aren’t about the racial and ethnic identities after the late ’60s after [Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] assassination. This is an interesting hybrid.”

She will scour video archives and interview people who appeared on the show or worked behind the scenes, as well as fans, as she compiles the details of what she called “a biography of a TV show.”

The show’s five-year lifespan presented an opportunity to study federal arts funding, politics and culture, Wald said. The show took to the PBS airwaves after race riots sparked a 1967 Lyndon B. Johnson administration initiative for African American television shows to receive federal funding.

“In 1968, it was still pretty rare for black pop musicians to get on TV. You could get on TV, but only a Nat King Cole could get on TV,” Wald said. “People who had been mega superstars.”

Her Guggenheim award is the second straight for the English department, which counted English professor Jeffrey Cohen as a fellow last year for his work on British archival history. Dane Kennedy, an endowed professor of history and international affairs earned a Guggenheim fellowship in 2003 for British history, and Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa won one in 1978 for neuroscience while teaching at University of California-Davis.

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