Written by Zakiya Harris
Now, before you get into this, let me just start out with a disclaimer: I am nineteen years old. I did not grow up watching Soul Train as a kid; in fact, by the time I was at a tv-watching age, Don Cornelius was no longer the host and the funky music that had propelled the show’s success had morphed into something surely unfamiliar to its earliest generation. In fact, the first time I’d probably actually seen the show in action was that episode of Fresh Prince when Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv are invited back for their 25th anniversary—a hilarious episode that ends with Carlton doing an on-point imitation of Michael Jackson’s iconic “Billie Jean” performance.
But all of that aside, I can say that I’ve been raised with soul from the beginning. I’ve gotten as close to it as someone my age can, from seeing pictures of my afro-ed parents from way back, to hearing my mom’s fondest roller disco memories and sifting through my Dad’s Earth, Wind and Fire records. So naturally I was excited when I heard about ImageNation’s Soul Train event, and even more excited when I realized that I could be a part of it.
The night started off right with nostalgic performances by InJoy Enterprises, during which the artists paid homage to the legends, like Stevie, Aretha and Marvin, who paved the way before them. Afterwards, the audience was reminded by activist Terrie Williams that July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, as well as the importance of getting a “check up from the neck up.” Sometimes things are not always how they seem—a too well-known issue applicable to that of the late great Don Cornelius. She was followed by Dionne Monsanto, who spoke about the Siwe Project. Finally came Aida Chapman, one of the original producers of “Soul Train.” Her proud nephew boasted, “That’s my aunt!” as I moved closer to the stage to snap a picture.
When the sun had nearly gone, leaving a comfortably warm night in its wake, it was time for the main event: the soul train line. I furtively searched for a place to take post where I wouldn’t get in the way as I photographed the hundreds of dancers eager to “bump” and “funky chicken” their way into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Despite the lack of a real breeze, as I took in the sight I felt a mixture of pride, kinship and nostalgia. The crowd’s dancing reflected the words of the audience members I’d spoken with earlier: “I take great pride in who I am…I let everybody know why I come here. A lot of people think Harlem is a play place…no, Harlem is a great place of pride,” said George Jenkins, a New York native, when I asked him what brought him to Marcus Garvey Park that night.
I thought about another member of the audience, a woman whose name got lost in the crowd’s cheers as she introduced herself to me. She’d grown up in the only African-American family in her Bostonian neighborhood at the time. When I asked her what Soul Train meant to her, she explained how it had been her “one hour salvation” and her “cultural reference point” growing up. It was the chance for her to see people who looked like her and danced like her on television—something that every African-American adolescent needs.
I thought about how my family had filled in the void that Soul Train would have filled had I been around to watch it in its heyday. As Aretha’s “Rock Steady” blared from the stage and the crowd moved and grooved along the lengthy line, it brought back affectionate memories of a 7 year-old version of myself riding in the backseat of my Dad’s old car on the way home from karate.
Soul Train was more than just a show–it was a mindset, a sense of belonging, a family in itself that accepted everybody and anybody that wanted to be. And I felt like I truly belonged there that night at Marcus Garvey Park, bopping along with the rest of the crowd composed of all ages and sizes and colors and kinds.
It’s needless to say that ImageNation’s Soul Train line broke the record, composed of over three hundred and fifty-two dancers–well over the minimum amount needed of 212. But more importantly that Thursday night, it united a mass amount of beautiful people with the familial bond of peace, love, and sooooooul.
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