The Politics of Black Celebrity: A Comparative Historical Roundtable

AHA Session 78
Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Gerald Early, Washington University in St. Louis
Paulina Laura Alberto, University of Michigan
James W. Cook, University of Michigan
Ruth Feldstein, Rutgers University at Newark
Chinua Thelwell, College of William and Mary

Session Abstract

The politicization of black celebrity is hardly new, but it has accelerated dramatically in recent months. NFL players kneel in anthem protests—which, in turn, provoke rebukes from the U.S. President. Meanwhile, scores of prominent black performers, artists, and writers have responded with rebukes of their own via print, YouTube, and Twitter. At the recent Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey’s widely seen acceptance speech quickly positioned her for a possible presidential run in 2020. To a surprising extent, however, the broader phenomenon of black celebrity remains an unmarked (and understudied) category of historical analysis.

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.

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