You are here

The Paley Center for Media's Black History Month

Published on
February 28

The Paley Center explores the cultural impact of media such as radio, music, television, film, and video games. In celebration of Black History Month, the center hosted a month-long event entitled Shaping Our Nation’s Story: African-American Achievements in Television. This exhibition included a gallery honoring African-American televisual accomplishments in the areas of comedy, drama, music, talk, sports, and news, as well as special one-time viewings of impactful moments in black television.
 

A lifelong lover of Motown and soul music, I was thrilled to learn that some of my favorite artists would be honored through this exhibit. I was enticed immediately upon arrival: the center has set up a TV set in its foyer showing a loop of Motown performances. I could hardly concentrate on receiving my ticket as I was already enthralled in viewing this collection of such historical, musical, and cultural significance.
 

I went on to the gallery, where African-American contributions to television are depicted on a timeline, recognizing individual accomplishments in terms of appearances, awards, and breakthrough historical moments. Accompanying this timeline were additional screens set up with loops of important moments in black TV, one for drama, one for comedy, and one for music. These compilations included artists from Sidney Poitier to Kevin Hart and moments from Star Trek’s interracial kiss to Michael Jackson’s first moonwalk, taking the viewer through decades of black history and accomplishment on TV.
 

After viewing each TV loop, I sat in on screenings of the music and dance TV show Soul Train, which featured popular black soul musicians performing for a group of young black people who danced along to the music. This format of television is less popular today, but it was extremely important in its time: in an era when honoring black contributions to music, dance, and TV was uncommon, Soul Train’s existence beginning in 1970 made critical contributions to American culture known on multiple levels.
 

The Paley Center screened two episodes of Soul Train: "The Best of Soul Train" (1973), featuring James Brown, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, and "Soul Train: Salute to Aretha" (1979), a show filled entirely with Aretha Franklin’s music and including special guests like Smokey Robinson. Having listened to and enjoyed these artists for my entire life, I have always respected their historical and cultural impact. However, this was the first time I was able to actually see them within the context of history. Instead of just hearing voices on the radio or seeing likenesses on an album cover, I was watching these artists in action: James Brown’s style, the Temptations and the Four Tops and Temptations dancing their intricate group choreography, the years of friendship palpable when Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin sit next to each other on a piano bench. These moments added invaluable texture and a dimension of humanity to integrate into the incomplete sound waves and album covers of my youth.
 


Soul Train live performance by Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson 
 

The Paley Center’s acknowledgement of African-American contributions to TV and, relatedly, to American culture and history was both delightful and essential. I came for the music and found myself immersed in other areas of television and culture, and that’s part of the beauty of this Black History Month celebration. People of all races in America have been touched by black artists and black culture in some way; this exhibit simply refracted that impact through the device of TV, one of the most widespread components of American media culture. Through this media-centered approach, the Paley Center made it possible for the viewer to broaden and deepen their knowledge and, most importantly, celebrate the African-American individuals who have shaped our country’s story.

 

Leah Singerman is a student in the American Studies MA program at Columbia. Her work focuses on the bidirectional influences between media and culture in America.