In Looking at the Stars Carrie Teresa explores the meaning of celebrity as expressed by black journalists writing against the backdrop of Jim Crow–era segregation. Teresa argues that journalists and editors working for these black-centered publications, rather than simply mimicking the reporting conventions of mainstream journalism, instead framed celebrities as collective representations of the race who were then used to symbolize the cultural value of artistic expression influenced by the black diaspora and to promote political activism through entertainment. The social conscience that many contemporary entertainers of color exhibit today arguably derives from the way black press journalists once conceptualized the symbolic role of “celebrity” as a tool in the fight against segregation.
Based on a discourse analysis of the entertainment content of the period’s most widely read black press newspapers, Looking at the Stars takes into account both the institutional perspectives and the discursive strategies used in the selection and framing of black celebrities in the context of Jim Crowism.
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Untangling Discourses of Representation in Black Press Celebrity Reporting
"What does an artist owe to his race?" Ralph Matthews had become a fixture in the pages of the Afro-American by the time he posed that question, in 1931, in his Looking at the Stars weekly gossip column. Matthews asked his readers the question in response to the news that two of the nation's most famous black celebrities, actor Paul Robeson and tenor Roland Hayes, had both defected to Europe, "denouncing America and incidentally the American racial group to which they belong." Racial strife in the United States, the author posited, "makes some demands of the Negro artist, who has caught the ear of the dominant classes, and he should lend his efforts to break down as much as possible, those barriers which are raised against those less fortunate than himself." In Matthews's view any race performer who achieved "celebrity" status had an obligation to advocate on behalf of the communities he represented — a duty previously reserved only for "uplifters": politicians, clergymen, educators, and civic leaders. Participation in entertainment culture represented a new opportunity to put the cause of civil rights on the nation's agenda.
Matthews's critique was part of a larger discussion unfolding in the pages of the newspapers and magazines of the black press that coincided with the development of an entertainment-based leisure market spurred on by technological innovations in photography, film, and radio. By 1922 the New York Amsterdam News had established an entertainment section. Three years later both the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier followed suit. In 1929 and 1930, respectively, the Philadelphia Tribune and the Baltimore Afro-American also began to dedicate a section to coverage of celebrities and popular culture. By the early 1930s, entertainment sections were commonplace in black press newspapers. Analysis of newspapers from this period revealed that by the mid-1920s discussions of celebrity culture had become more prevalent and had shifted from discussions about race representation to more-sensational coverage of celebrities' personal lives. For instance by the end of 1926, laudatory articles about tenor singer Roland Hayes's contribution to the race were replaced with discussions about his complicated love life. Louis Armstrong's failed diet plans and Hayes's affair with an Italian countess were both well documented. One journalist went so far as to dismiss Josephine Baker's Italian fiancé as a "gigolo." Journalists shared with their readers the likely unpleasant long-distance phone call Jesse Owens received from his childhood sweetheart — a phone call that encouraged him quickly thereafter to put a ring on it. Actors, athletes, and musicians became popular, widely recognizable symbols. As such they played a decisive role in shaping how black and African Americans defined themselves as free citizens.
Though it might be tempting to disregard the influence of celebrity culture given our contemporary personality-saturated media system, in which it seems anyone can achieve "star" status, it is imperative to note that during the early twentieth century, celebrities were an exclusive sector of the population who performed an essential proscriptive function. They presented to audiences "an idealized concept of how people are expected to be or expected to act." Orrin Klapp has connected the notion of exemplarity (or, to use his term, heroism) with celebrity performance and social dynamism. Klapp defines a "hero" as "a person, real or imaginary, who evokes the appropriate attitudes and behavior." He writes of the mediated nature of heroism, noting that heroes are often constructed as symbols through discourses of news and public relations. Journalists construct heroes through discursive strategies that include venerating them, positioning them within familiar metaphors and myths, and commemorating their achievements on landmark dates. Stars are particularly useful exemplary figures because they reflect changing social attitudes and mores. "An age of mass hero worship," observes Klapp, "is an age of instability." Accordingly, the tenets of exemplarity evolve with changing social and cultural conditions.
In conjunction with the development of early film, the idea of public recognition, or "celebrity," was established as actors, singers, and musicians were increasingly present and visible entertainers. The status of "celebrity" was not confined to artists. Filmed versions of boxing matches were popular with urban audiences, making stars out of the athletes featured. With the development of sound technology in the late 1920s, musical performance became an important part of the film industry. Film studios relied on journalists to promote entertainers. The concept of "celebrity" emerged during this period as a journalistic invention that was mutually beneficial for the newspapers that enjoyed elevated circulation figures due to their coverage of beloved celebrities and the film studios that promoted new projects based on the actors and entertainers who starred in their productions.
In the pages of mainstream urban dailies, black celebrities were subjected to the same snubs and prejudices as ordinary black citizens were. In contrast black entertainers in theater, film, music, and sports came to life in the front pages, gossip columns, and sports and feature pages of black press newspapers. Black journalists almost immediately understood the symbolic power of celebrities and quickly began to pursue news stories about them, which often appeared on the front page of popular metropolitan newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the Philadelphia Tribune.
Exploring the Representational, the "Real," and the Real Black celebrities operated on three discursive planes: the representational, the "real," and the real. Journalists analyzed the performative dimensions of black celebrities. As Stuart Hall has noted, representation is both "a concept and a practice — the key first 'moment' in the cultural circuit." In the "Spectacle of the 'Other,'" Hall asserts that "the body itself and its differences were visible for all to see, and thus provided the 'incontrovertible evidence' for a naturalization of racial difference. The representation of 'difference' through the body became the discursive site through which most 'racialized knowledge' was produced and circulated." "Racialized knowledge" was produced and circulated through depictions of black corporeality presented in mass culture, which of course included the burgeoning entertainment industry. Nineteenth-century public amusements, such as P. T. Barnum's American Museum, became "evidence" of white supremacy that could be bought and sold by audiences. Later films such as D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation stretched the economic possibilities of this model even further, though they were tempered by aggressive grassroots campaigns against damning racial imagery and by the tenacity of a handful of black creators who fought to attain equal footing in the structurally unequal theater and filmmaking industries. Race performers defined black American identity within the context of transnational imperial politics that relied on pseudoscientific theories from both the United States and Europe that sought to define racial power relations based on biology and reduce them to nonsensical minstrel characters. Scholar Daphne Brooks has argued that performance during this period was a way in which black Americans could "rewrite the ubiquitous master narrative of minstrelsy." Therefore, the roles race performers chose or the songs they played and how they played them were ways of defining a collective and mediated enactment of blackness that was then presented to the masses as a rhetorical device designed to persuade blacks to feel proud of and empowered by their racial identity and whites to experience feelings of racial tolerance.
Yet these celebrities were not just performers; they were people, and Americans quickly grew hungry for glimpses into their personal lives. These glimpses, though, could not be spontaneous — that would have been far too risky in the context of building a celebrity's "image." Instead, the "real," personal, behind-the-scenes information that audiences received were highly contrived productions orchestrated by journalists and public relations professionals. Discourses about celebrity culture that circulated more generally in sensational news reporting were the product of a symbiotic relationship between newspapermen and women and a celebrity's entourage. Audiences sought to find out relatable information about the private lives of their favorite celebrities, though these portraits were no less mediated than the public performances themselves. This constituted the "real" dimension of celebrity — the highly orchestrated peeks into private lives and private selves.
But then there was the reality (the real) experience of celebrities working to gain a foothold in the Jim Crow entertainment industry — the limited roles, the awards snubs, the separate accommodations, and the hostile racist audiences — which hung like an albatross around the necks of many race performers.
Public performances by black entertainers — whether it was Bert Williams lamenting onstage that he "isn't never got nothin' from nobody, no time!" or Jack Johnson strutting across the mat to mock his suffering opponent — were one part of the "representational matrix" of black celebrity. The "representational matrix," according to Stephanie Leigh Batiste, consists of the performers themselves, the material conditions of their performance (plot, imagery, setting, enactments), and the spectators' critical responses.
Celebrities, as scholars have understood them, are enacted through the process of spectacle. They are inventions of public discourse; they operate as symbols constructed in "gossip, public opinion, magazines, newspapers and the ephemeral images of movie and television screen[s]." The development of visual spectacle — spurred on by advances in printing, photography, and cinematography — meant that the black body was particularly on display for consumption by white audiences desperately seeking evidence of their "superiority" and the darker races' "inferiority." Laura Mulvey has noted that in Hollywood film, the hegemonic nature of the filmic gaze creates an unequal power relationship between those who are looking (represented by the camera's incessant snooping eye) and those who are being spied upon. Though Mulvey is writing about gendered power relationships, a similar dynamic persists along racial lines. White audiences at minstrel shows and in nickelodeon theaters and white readers perusing daily newspapers enacted power over black subjects who were often reduced to their corporeal forms. It was difficult for black-owned production companies to remain financially viable long enough to counter hegemonic racial tropes, and those that did, such as the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which produced early "race films," suffered financially. Too, these films lacked what Thomas Cripps has called a "usable" black past. The mythic stories of heroes and villains from which early popular culture derived its structural elements "did not fit as cleanly" when transposed onto black experience. Narratives that focused on the lived experiences of blacks without the realities of Jim Crow oppression — enacted in real life by whites but neglected on screen simply because black filmmakers did not want to employ white actors — seemed absurd to the audiences who watched them. This was particularly acute in narratives that attempted to reflect the experiences of black Americans of direct African descent, who carried with them the vestiges of slavery. Spaces in which blacks both controlled the material conditions of representation and constituted the dominant gaze enacted upon performers of their race were limited even though technological modes of representation had evolved at lightning speed.
The pages of black press newspapers were one of the few sites where blacks controlled the conditions of looking. Black journalists covering black performers represented a "resistant gaze"— as black spectators, they were uniquely positioned to view performances by black entertainers through the veil to "read alternative, subversive, and multiple meanings in black performance" that challenged dominant cultural ideologies about racial difference.
At the same time, these papers were instrumental in creating the "real" image that attracted large swaths of readers. Journalists, in conjunction with production studios, were in control of the narrative development of individuals who attained "celebrity" status based on audiences' desire to form parasocial relationships with them. Sociologist P. David Marshall has charted the symbiotic relationship between the nascent film industry and sensational urban newspapers. Around 1915 celebrity profiles in newspapers and magazines "began to change from carefully choreographed studies of public moments involving these people to revelations about their private lives and how that intersected with their public lives." Journalists began to structure narratives that "confirm[ed] the real person behind the image" presented on the screen or the playing field. Celebrities themselves functioned to symbolically connect alienated urban audiences together. Sharing in the stories of their favorite stars helped to unite disparate strangers in large, sometimes intimidating urban spaces. According to Marshall coverage of these stars provided "a constellation of recognizable and familiar people who filled the gap and provided points of commonality for people to reconnect both with celebrities and with each other."
Often journalists adhered to a standard story structure that provided readers a symbolic connection between themselves and their stars. The "success myth" became integral to the perpetuation of fame. Journalists employed the success myth to feed fans' appetites for inside information about their favorite star; Cab Calloway's favorite breakfast food was as much a part of his "mythic greatness" as were his energetic musical performances. Inherent in the success myth, according to Richard Dyer, is the belief that "the class system, the old-boy network, does not apply to America." As Jackie Stacey notes, the success myth allowed audiences "into a world [in] which their desires could potentially be fulfilled" while simultaneously legitimizing the values and characteristics that they themselves possessed. "One the one hand, [audiences] value difference for taking them into [that] world. On the other, they value similarity for enabling them to recognize qualities they already have."
Erika Spohrer has argued convincingly that the "real" dimensions of a celebrity's persona as they are presented in the context of the success myth allot "extratextual space" for such figures to explore identities that are distinct from the characters that they play but are no less representational. Paul Robeson, she has theorized, used the "extratextual space" created through journalists' speculation of his extramarital affairs to create a version of himself that was overtly activist and increasingly militant. In those news stories, he was not Othello nor was he Paul — he was "Paul Robeson," the public figure who could enact a separate identity from his most famous character but who was making public proclamations about racism and socialism as a celebrity rather than a private figure.
The mythologizing of American celebrities eschewed the realities of black life in Jim Crow America. It promoted a uniquely American model of self-determination that applied only to segments of society whereby upward social mobility was possible. Yet, this model of "celebrity" could apply only to white entertainers as discursive constructions of the mainstream (white) press for the benefit of white, urban audiences. The kind of social mobility that celebrity culture promised to American audiences was in the early twentieth century all but closed off to blacks and African Americans. Under Jim Crow segregation and discrimination, the likelihood of "transcending" their station as second-class citizens deprived of basic rights was miniscule for most. Rayford Logan has characterized Jim Crowism as the "nadir" of American race relations. "Celebrity" was a social construction that belied ideologies not only about the workings of social class but also accordingly racial segregation and disenfranchisement, which were designed around stripping black Americans of economic mobility. As such black press gossip columnists, Hollywood correspondents, theater critics, and sportswriters often challenged traditional conceptions of celebrity by connecting their stories with larger issues related to racial activism to capture the real, true nature of the problem of the color line.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Looking at the Stars"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface Acknowledgments 1. Untangling Discourses of Representation in Black Press Celebrity Reporting 2. Early Crossover Black Celebrities and the Onus of Collective Representation 3. Black Celebrities Uplift the Race 4. The Mythologizing of Black Celebrities 5. The Marginalization of Black Female Celebrities as Race Representatives 6. National Heroes, Foreign Villains, and Unhyphenated Americans 7. Journalistic Commemoration and the Construction of a “Felt” Past 8. The Politics of Black Press Celebrity Journalism Notes Bibliography Index