James W. Cook, University of Michigan
Ruth Feldstein, Rutgers University at Newark
Chinua Thelwell, College of William and Mary
In one direction, we have a growing historiography on Western fame that extends across multiple centuries, but with little attention to people of color: e.g., Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown (1986), Joseph Roach’s It (2007), and Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (2010). In another direction, there is a rich and venerable literature on famous black individuals of all sorts: from David Levering Lewis’ When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981) and Martin Duberman’s Paul Robeson (1989) to Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth (1996) and Natalie Zemon Davis’ Trickster Travels (2007)—to name one small subset of the larger groundswell. For the most part, though, these literatures have operated independent of one another. And in the bigger picture, we have not really considered black celebrity as a broader geopolitical phenomenon that might be studied comparatively—i.e., across different eras, national contexts, and media.
Thinking comparatively about the politics of black celebrity raises important questions about both “blackness” and “celebrity” as major categories of historical scholarship. What meanings have famous black individuals, and their broader audiences, attached to celebrity in a variety of eras and global settings? Under what kinds of conditions have people of African descent attained celebrity, and with what effects? How do different constructions of “blackness” across time and place shape the power or fragility of celebrity for men and women of African descent? And how, in turn, does the achievement of celebrity status shape or recast an individual’s race or color?
Our proposed AHA roundtable aims to provoke new ideas in these directions. We have assembled a roster of leading scholars (at multiple career stages) working on book projects on the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Africa—and over more than 200 years (roughly, 1800 to the present). To facilitate the richest possible exchanges, each panelist will present a very brief (10-minute) synopsis of one major figure, using her/his case to raise broader questions about the shifting forms, uses, and politics of black celebrity. More specifically, Gerald Early will chair the roundtable, while Jay Cook will offer remarks on Ira Aldridge (Europe); Chinua Akimaro Thelwell on Orpheus McAdoo (South Africa); Paulina Alberto on Raúl Grigera (Argentina); and Ruth Feldstein on Nina Simone (U.S.). But we plan to reserve at least half of our 90 minutes for more comparative cross talk with our chair and the larger AHA audience.