Harlem Cultural Festival begins

On the afternoon of June 29, 1969, a crowd consisting mostly of Black people from the nearby area packs Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). Over the course of this afternoon and the next five Sunday afternoons, Black performers from many different genres and eras appear on the park’s brightly-colored, sunlit stage in a dazzling series of shows known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. The festival will draw a total of over 300,000 people.

Tony Lawrence, the eccentric lounge singer, concert promoter, and youth director of a local church, was chosen to organize and emcee the Harlem Cultural Festival by the New York Parks Department. The festival began in 1967 and drew big crowds in its first two years, convincing Lawrence to make the 1969 edition the biggest yet. In the wake of 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (and subsequent assassination of Robert Kennedy) had led to massive unrest in Harlem, the administration of Mayor John Lindsay felt compelled to offer cultural programing to the city’s Black residents, perhaps in an effort to keep the peace. Despite the city’s support and the sponsorship of Maxwell House coffee, the budget was tight: without enough money to pay for proper lighting, organizers situated the stage facing West to take advantage of sunlight. A steep cliff opposite the stage would serve as a makeshift grandstand as more and more people crowded into the park. The Black Panthers provided security for the concert series, some appearing in the crowd in uniform, some undercover, and some perched in the trees.

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured some of the most popular acts in the United States. Sly and the Family Stone’s set included “Everyday People,” a number-one hit at the time, and Gladys Knight and the Pips performed “Heard it Through the Grapevine” which had recently reached No. 2 on the charts. The acts were eclectic, showcasing talented Black artists from across a spectrum of genres. Jazz icon B.B. King, a young Stevie Wonder, Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, psychedelic-influenced acts like the 5th Dimension, and legendary comedienne Moms Mabley were just a few of the acts that took the stage over the course of six Sundays. Critics have long pointed to the festival as a crucial point in American musical history, a coming-together of the sounds that were defining Black music at the time and would set the tone for American popular music for the next decade.

READ MORE: 11 Anthems of Black Pride and Protest Through American History

It was also an important moment for Harlem’s Black community, a chance to collectively mourn Dr. King and others lost in recent years while also celebrating Black pride and Black power. Nina Simone performed her yet-to-be-released “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” an uplifting message to Black youths, and closed her set by reciting a poem that asked the audience, “Are you ready to smash white things? …to build Black things? …Are you ready to kill if necessary?” That same day, when the show was interrupted by the announcement that American astronauts had landed on the moon, the crowd booed the news — “Cash they wasted, as far as I’m concerned, in getting to the moon, could’ve been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem” one attendee told the evening news.

In one particularly meaningful moment, the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose grandparents were enslaved, signaled to a young Mavis Staples to join her in a duet. The pair sang a raw, moving rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” MLK’s favorite song. Before the performance, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was shot, told the audience that MLK had mentioned it immediately before his death, and that King had “died asking the Lord to lead his hand, to help him lead us.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was an unqualified success, but it would not return in 1970 and the footage languished in obscurity. Lawrence had hoped to tour the country with a similar show, and to put on another the following year, but neither idea came to fruition. He eventually began to accuse white investors and even the mafia of scuttling his efforts. As some Black observers correctly predicted, the festival was immediately overshadowed in America’s collective memory by Woodstock, which took place between August 15 and 18 in upstate New York. Although attempts to turn footage from the festival into a “Black Woodstock” film began as soon as the concert series ended, it would not be until the 2021 release of Questlove’s documentary, Summer of Soul, that footage of the Harlem Music Festival became easily accessible to the public. 

READ MORE: Why the Watershed 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival Was Overshadowed for 50 Years


A lawmaker introduces the pun “May the Fourth be with you” on the floor of U.K. Parliament

On May 4, 1994, in a groan-inducing moment on the floor of U.K. Parliament, a lawmaker uses a pun that will spawn its own holiday far, far away from the halls of government.

“May the 4th is an appropriate date for a defense debate. My researcher, who is a bit of a wit, said that it should be called ‘National Star Wars Day,’” said Harry Cohen, then a Member of Parliament from Leyton, an area of East London. “He was talking about the film Star Wars rather than President Reagan’s defense fantasy, and he added, ‘May the fourth be with you.’ That is a very bad joke; he deserves the sack for making it, but he is a good researcher.”

Cohen, of course, was referring to “May the Force be with you,” the guiding principle of the heroes in the wildly popular Star Wars movies, a franchise which was then just three films.

The pun (which may or may not have been original to Cohen’s staff) has been repeated countless times since, to the extent that May 4 is now recognized as Star Wars Day by Lucasfilm, Disney and fans around the world.

Fueled by memes and photos on the internet, fans began organizing “Star Wars Day” events in the 2010s—one of the first appears to have been at the Toronto Underground Cinema in 2011. Having acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise in 2012, Disney began observing Star Wars Day the following year, with special events and releases marking the occasion.

2015 marked the first known celebration of Star Wars Day in space, when astronauts aboard the International Space Station watched Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Rather than limit their celebration to just one day, fans may choose to observe “Revenge of the Fifth” the day after Star Wars Day, although many hold that “Revenge of the Sixth” is a better pun.

READ MORE: The Real History That Inspired ‘Star Wars’


“The Joy Luck Club,” the first major studio movie with an all Asian American, mostly female, cast, premieres

A glass ceiling is smashed on September 8, 1993 with the premiere of The Joy Luck Club, the first major modern Hollywood movie featuring an all Asian American and predominantly female cast. The adaptation of Amy Tan’s 1989 novel received highly favorable reviews and grossed $33 million, making it a landmark moment for Asian Americans in the film industry.

Tan’s novel focuses on four women, all of whom faced hardships in pre-revolutionary China before emigrating to America and raising children in San Francisco, who formed the titular club to play mahjong and swap stories. Their stories are interwoven with those of their children, who have grown up in the United States and have complex relationships with their identities, as well as with their mothers. The screenplay, co-written by Tan and praised by Roger Ebert as “remarkable for its complexity and force,” spans much of the 20th century and depicted the Asian American experience in a way that no major-studio American production ever had.

Before The Joy Luck Club, female Asian characters in American movies had almost always been racist stereotypes, and if Asian characters’ roles were substantial enough, they were often given to white actors. Ming-Na Wen, who starred in the film as June and went on to star in Mulan and other major productions, called it her “green card to Hollywood.” Although it has received some criticism for playing into stereotypes about China and for its portrayal of Asian American men, The Joy Luck Club is still viewed as a turning point for Asian Americans in entertainment. Despite the buzz around the film and the boost that it gave to its cast, it took 25 years for another major motion picture to feature a predominantly female, Asian American ensemble cast: 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians

READ MORE: How Hollywood Cast White Actors in Caricatured Asian Roles


James Wong Howe becomes first Asian American to win an Academy Award

Noted for his innovative use of wide-angle shots, low-key lighting and deep focus, cinematographer James Wong Howe becomes the first Asian American to win an Academy Award on March 30, 1955.

Receiving the Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Rose Tattoo, starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster, Howe had a knack for making “old stars young, plump stars thin, ordinary faces beautiful,” as he once said, according to Smithsonian.

Born in China in 1899 and immigrating to America at age 5, Howe got his Hollywood start as an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille. Considered one of the most influential cinematographers of all time, over his six-decade career he was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning twice. He also took home the Best Cinematography award for Hud in 1963.

Married in 1937 to writer Sanora Babb, who was white, the couple’s interracial marriage wasn’t recognized until the 1949 end of California’s anti-miscegenation law, according to Variety. “Even then, Wong Howe and Babb couldn’t go public, since mixed-race marriage violated the studios’ morals clause,” the publication writes. Post-World War II, Howe was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and was “gray-listed.”

Although the gray-listing caused him to lose out on work in the 1940s and early 1950s, he still earned credits on more than 130 films, including The Thin Man, Picnic, Funny Lady and Yankee Doodle Dandy, working with legendary stars such as Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand, among others. 


Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” opens in New York’s Central Park

On February 12, 2005, 7,503 orange curtains unfurl across New York City’s Central Park from thousands of gates. The art installation, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates,” will be gone by the end of the month, but it will leave a lasting impression and be remembered as one of the best-known and most beloved works of site-specific public art.

Husband-and-wife artistic duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of the project in 1979. The city rejected their proposal in 1981, but, as the artists later stated, the arduous process of getting approval for such a massive installation on city property was itself an artistic performance. “He adds a dimension to the work, no matter what he thinks,” Christo said of the parks commissioner who first rejected “The Gates.” After years of negotiating and resistance from the denizens of the Upper West Side, construction began in 2004 and Mayor Michael Bloomberg unfurled the first curtain on the morning of February 12, 2005.

Like the couple’s previous works, which included wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag in cloth and hanging an enormous orange curtain across a Colorado mountain pass, “The Gates” was as conceptually simple as it was logistically challenging. It took over eight hundred workers to install the thousands of 16-foot-high gates, hung with cloth panels, which straddled 23 miles of Central Park’s pathways and transformed the park into a unique, ephemeral work of art.

Despite initial complaints from prominent locals like late-night host David Letterman, tourists flocked to see “The Gates” and most in the art world considered it an unmitigated success. “In the winter light, the bright fabric seemed to warm the fields, flickering like a flame against the barren trees,” wrote the New York Times. “Even at first blush, it was clear that ‘The Gates’ is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century.”


First issue of “Vogue” is published

On December 17, 1892, Arthur Baldwin Turnure first publishes a new magazine, dedicated to “the ceremonial side of life” and targeted at “the sage as well as the debutante, men of affairs as well as the belle.” A product of the Gilded Age, Vogue has chronicled and influenced high society, fashion and culture ever since.

By the late 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the corporation had bestowed previously unimaginable levels of wealth upon a tiny but high-profile fraction of American society. Families like the Vanderbilts and Astors had the time and the means to build opulent homes, throw glamorous parties, and purchase the finest clothing. As such, their social activities became subjects of great interest for their peers as well as the less-wealthy but aspirational middle classes. Seeing “endless opportunities for running comment and occasional rebuke,” Turnure decided to create a magazine dedicated to this lifestyle, calling it “a magnetic wielding force.” The first issue featured a black-and-white drawing of a debutante on its cover, and early issues of Vogue extensively chronicled “the 400,” a set of elite socialites named for the alleged capacity of the Astors’ ballroom.

Publisher Condé Nast purchased Vogue in 1905, changing it to focus almost entirely on women and fashion and creating the first of its international editions (there are now over 20). The magazine has remained popular and relevant ever since, regularly featuring the work of world-famous models, photographers and writers.


First episode of “60 Minutes” airs

On September 24, 1968, CBS airs the first episode of 60 Minutes, a show that would become a staple of the American media landscape. A pioneer of the “newsmagazine” format, 60 Minutes is the longest-running primetime show in American television history.

The show was similar in tone and style to W5, a Canadian current affairs program considered one of the first newsmagazine shows. 60 Minutes intentionally portrayed itself as a magazine, with “cover” graphics and a variety of content that ranged from straightforward investigative reporting to editorials to more lighthearted commentary. Its first episode, aired on September 24, 1968, featured coverage of the Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey presidential campaigns, commentary from various writers and journalists, an interview with the Attorney General, part of an Oscar-winning short film, and even a high-minded discussion between the hosts on the nature of reality. 

Over its run, 60 Minutes has been known primarily for investigative journalism—termed “gotcha” journalism by some critics—including exposés on the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal, the Abu Ghraib torture revelations and other corporate and political scandals. The “Point/Counterpoint,” segment, which featured two commentators giving the liberal and conservative sides of various arguments, was a 60 Minutes innovation that launched a slew of imitators and spoofs.

While the show has received criticism throughout its history for segments that contained incomplete or false reporting, it has remained the premier newsmagazine program in the country. A number of famous journalists and pundits, including Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Leslie Stahl, Walter Cronkite and Christiane Amanpour have contributed to the show, which has won over a hundred Emmy Awards and 20 Peabodys.


“House of Cards,” Netflix’s first original series, starts streaming

By 2013, Netflix had already fundamentally changed the way Americans consumed movies and television. The service offered unlimited DVD rentals—and, starting in 2007, direct streaming of many of its titles—for a flat monthly fee, a wildly popular model that almost single-handedly drove Blockbuster and other video rental stores out of business. In February of 2013, Netflix introduced House of Cards, the first major TV show that ran exclusively on a streaming service. It was another Netflix innovation that would alter the media landscape.

Director and producer David Fincher began developing an American version of the British political drama House of Cards in 2011. Cable and premium channels like HBO and AMC, which had experience with “prestige TV” programming, were in talks to pick up the show, but Netflix outbid them, hoping to begin its foray into original content with a bang. Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey was announced in the lead role the same year, and buzz built around the show.

House of Cards’ first season was released all at once rather than episode-by-episode, another first. The show was a hit, garnering nine Emmy nominations, a first for a streaming-only program. House of Cards ran for five more seasons and received a total of seven Emmys and 56 nominations, ending with a final season that focused on Spacey’s character’s wife, played by Robin Wright, after a series of sexual misconduct allegations against Spacey became public.

Netflix had another major hit with Orange is the New Black, which premiered a few months later, and its original shows have numbered among the most popular in the country ever since. Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and other streaming services have made a concerted effort to produce original content in the years since House of Cards debuted, and 60 percent of Americans now subscribe to at least one streaming service. In 2018, Icarus became the first Netflix production to win an Oscar, taking home the award for Best Documentary Feature, and the following year Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma won three Academy Awards.


“Paris is Burning” premieres in theaters

After more than five years of fundraising, shooting, and editing, the documentary Paris is Burning debuts in New York City on March 13, 1991. The groundbreaking look at the culture and characters surrounding the city’s drag ball culture changed the way many people thought about drag, queerness and even documentaries themselves.

Paris is Burning chronicles the “Golden Age” of ball culture in New York, drawing from extensive interviews with drag queens and others associated with the elaborate balls and complex social networks surrounding them. Filmmaker Jennie Livingston had almost literally stumbled across the subject while taking courses at New York University, striking up a conversation with two men whom she saw voguing (a stylized modern dance in which participants often competed at balls) in Washington Square Park. While cobbling together small amounts of funding from disparate sources, Livingston interviewed a cross-section of those associated with the ball, documenting the various categories of competition, extensively cataloguing slang, and conducting tying the experience to larger issues such as the AIDS crisis and the bigotry that routinely faced and even took the lives of the gay, transgender, and otherwise queer subjects of the film.

Paris is Burning was an instant hit, winning prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Los Angeles and New York Critics’ Circle Awards, the GLAAD Media Awards, and more. Its failure to garner an Academy Awards nomination, along with the exclusion of other minority-focused documentaries like Hoop Dreams, led the Academy to revise its system for nominating documentaries in 1996. The Library of Congress added Paris is Burning to the National Film Registry in 2016.


Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 debuts

Month Day
May 04

On May 4, 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony debuts at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor. Having lost his hearing years earlier, the celebrated composer nonetheless “conducts” the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, now widely considered to be one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

LISTEN ON APPLE PODCASTS: Beethoven’s Silent Symphony 

Having established himself as one of the greatest composers of the era in the early 1800s, Beethoven had almost completely lost his hearing by 1814 but continued to compose. The Ninth Symphony required the largest orchestra ever employed by Beethoven, and was unusual at the time for its use of voices in addition to instruments. Beethoven hand-picked two young singers, 18-year-old Henriette Sontag and 20-year-old Caroline Unger, for the soprano and alto parts. He stood on stage and appeared to conduct the orchestra when the Ninth debuted, although due to his deafness the players were instructed to ignore the composer and instead follow Michael Umlauf, the actual conductor. Beethoven was several bars off from the actual music by the time the piece concluded. As he could not hear the applause, Unger had to turn him to face the audience as they hailed him with five standing ovations, raising their hats and handkerchiefs in the air.

Critics consider the Ninth one of Beethoven’s crowning achievements. The choral section, adapted from the Friedrich Schiller poem “Ode to Joy,” has transcended the world of classical music and become one of the most often-played and easily recognizable pieces of music of all time. The “Ode to Joy” has been interpreted in almost every way imaginable, and has been employed as an official or unofficial anthem by an enormous range of entities, including the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Nazi Party, the East-West German Olympic Team and the European Union.