An ecosystem of (predominantly white) critics of Critical Race Theory is surging on Twitter and in legislation, growing more vitriolic by the day. Arguments from some creep in from the side while others don’t feel the need to disguise their disgust. The result is similar: the notion that the “founding race” can be criticized is too shattering a worldview for their precious minds to tolerate.
Given that the origins of CRT are in legal scholarship, I’m not equipped to debate the validity of the concept—and it’s not only one concept (as many belittlers would have you believe), but an evolving and dynamic framework for understanding power dynamics, institutional racism, and intersectionality. Instead, I’ll refer you to Conspirituality 56 with Dax-Devlon Ross, and his exceptional new book, Letters to My White Male Friends.
Dax’s book is not specifically about CRT, yet it touches upon the lived experience of living in a country that refuses to confront its sordid racist past and not-all-that-complicated racist present. Dax is a lawyer and touches upon important legal cases that highlight the aforementioned power dynamics from the perspective of someone who has both studied and lived through them.
Academia isn’t necessary to understand the need for honest conversations about race. Simply pay attention to repeated cultural oversights. Rather than discuss legal scholarship, I’ll focus on a field I am equipped to write about: music. This current “battle” over CRT was all I could think about while watching the new documentary, Summer of Soul.
There’s good reason the event—a six-week series of concerts produced in what is now Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park that drew over 300,000 predominantly Black Americans—is being compared to Woodstock. That concert, which took place during the Harlem Cultural Festival, drew 400,000 predominantly white Americans roughly 100 miles north and remains national folklore. Yet most of us are just learning about these Harlem shows, a fact in desperate need of criticism.
A Question of Freedom
You can’t escape Woodstock references. The sixties are defined by this event being an ultimate gathering of “freedom.” Such an assumption is troublesome for many reasons.
The Civil Rights Act was only a half-decade old in 1969; its biggest proponents were murdered throughout the sixties. Non-white populations were not in a position to tune in and drop out. The year before the festival had been particularly fraught with violence and death in Harlem and elsewhere; the Chicago Race Riots of 1968 marked another tragic sequence. The Harlem concerts barely happened.
The sixties were not a time of freedom for everyone.
Woodstockian myths are not only focused on this false sense of liberation. While many festival attendees enjoyed psychedelics, far more Americans were on tranquilizers. Though the Miltown craze had died down, there was one particular group hooked on Valium.
Nearly all the research supporting the notion that psychopharmacological medications were over-prescribed to mothers was conducted during the benzodiazepine craze between 1965-1979.
A pain-numbing revolution began to take root in the 1940s, though it wouldn’t be until tens of thousands of mostly white Americans were dying of opioids that it was declared an epidemic. White people have been self-medicating for generations with little public discussion. Instead of talking about that part of America’s drug problem, Woodstock’s brief psychedelic fury grabs headlines. The daily dampening of emotions through tranquilizers (and more recently, antidepressants) continues unchecked. Sure, heroin was a serious issue in Harlem in 1969, but others somehow escape scrutiny.
The Harlem Cultural Festival also took place during the first moon landing. In one particularly insightful scene, reporters descended upon the festivities to inquire about the landmark space mission. The consensus was not what the journalists expected: fix poverty and inequality here on Earth and stop worrying about space.
A fitting parallel to this summer, as dick-swinging billionaires race one another to ascend beyond the atmosphere in their vanity shuttles. Poverty and inequality persist, thanks in part to at least one of said billionaires.
Unsurprisingly, guidelines for actually reducing poverty include common-sense steps like raising the minimum wage and paying women and non-white workers fair wages—nothing about hurtling more men into space, especially given all the junk these men are leaving in their trail.
White Americans numbing themselves from reality and fantasizing about space missions is on par with the invented controversy surrounding CRT. Instead of staring down the real-world problems right in front of us, they deny their validity by placing a veil over the actual world we inhabit. This refusal to investigate systemic problems is how Woodstock becomes iconic and the Harlem Cultural Festival sits in a basement for decades.
Director Hal Tulchin filmed all the performances: Six different free shows over six weeks. But the Woodstock Festival, which took place that same summer, completely overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival. When Tulchin tried to sell the footage to a film or TV outlet, no one wanted it.
To be fair, Woodstock was progressive in its own right: performances by Ravi Shankar, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone (who also performed in Harlem that summer), and Santana signal an attempt at diversity that fit the ethos of open-minded Americans becoming accustomed to global travel, powerful mind-altering substances, and the cuisine, fashion, and philosophies of international cultures. The festival’s legacy should be celebrated, however romanticized we make it today.
If not for Questlove deciding he wanted to “make sure black erasure doesn't happen during my lifetime,” the Harlem Cultural Festival might have remained nothing more than a distant memory for the ever-shrinking number of Harlemites that attended over 50 years ago. Thankfully, that’s not the case. A historical record now exists.
That too warrants celebration. Just as Woodstock performances remain in circulation, so too must moments from Summer of Soul persist: Stevie Wonder’s prolific drum solo; Mavis Staples crooning alongside her idol, Mahalia Jackson, during a stirring rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”; the 5th Dimension grappling with being a Black band with a perceived “white sound”; a jaw-dropping “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers; Nina Simone—always Nina Simone.
A particularly malicious moment from the Trump administration: Bill Barr gleefully admitting that “history is written by the winners.” Sadly, he’s right.
Look back to find that Christianity has written numerous mythologies out of existence. If not for sympathetic priests keeping alive Irish folk traditions, for example, Celtic mythology would not demand its own field of studies. Not the case for numerous other cultures, especially oral-based societies. We’ve destroyed more history than we’ve saved, mostly because one group wanted to win and had the gall and weaponry to do so.
Which is why it’s hard to stomach pundits dismissing CRT as an illusion—or worse, claiming that Europeans are the reason for such incredible achievements in “building” America, as if the land was a blank slate upon arrival. Sure, America would look different if equity had been extended to every group along the way, but that’s not what happened. Pretending it’s not still happening benefits no one, which is why we need to grapple with our past.
This won’t be an easy battle. Pundits monetizing audiences with bigoted rhetoric is far too common, especially when their disinformation is rewarded by algorithms.
To understand the true intentions of CRT critics, listen to what they say, then watch what they sell. Whether it’s an ideology, a book, or a Substack subscription, there’s usually a vested interest in not being open to criticism—even if it’s “merely” an offense to their person.
Here’s the thing: some people need to be offended. Criticism is how we evolve.