From the Desk of Carrie Teresa: A Love Letter to Entertainer-Activists of the Past, Present, and Future

Carrie Teresa is an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Niagara University in New York. Her doctoral dissertation was awarded the American Journalism Historians Association’s Margaret A. Blanchard Prize. Her new book Looking at the Stars: Black Celebrity Journalism in Jim Crow America will be available June 1. 

In her recently released Netflix special, Homecoming, Beyoncé offers fans a glimpse behind the scenes of her highly touted 2018 Coachella appearance—her first major public performance after the birth of her twins, and perhaps the most celebrated concert event of the decade that transformed the festival into an HBCU homecoming celebration.

Since the release of her 2016 album Lemonade (and before, but in subtler, less public ways), Beyoncé and her husband, rapper and business mogul Jay Z, have emerged as two of the most powerful voices in celebrating African American heritage, tradition, and customs of which HBCUs are among the most important guardians. Of her performance, Beyoncé said that she simply wanted “bring our culture to Coachella.”

Beyoncé is the ideal model of the “entertainer-activist,” a celebrity who uses her cultural, social, and economic capital (the “stuff” of celebrity) to present a public, carefully crafted, positive, and multimodal archetype of blackness while drawing attention and resources to communities in need.

Celebrities, believe it or not given our personality-saturated media environment, can perform essential twin social functions: they can give us (the “fans,” ordinary folks) figures with whom to compare ourselves (for better or for worse) and exemplary models to which to aspire. They have done this (some well, others poorly) since around 1900 or so, when media technologies made celebrity personalities more accessible at the movie theatres, in glossy magazines, and, later, on the radio.

In discussing celebrity culture in the United States, it is essential to note that the very notion of having exemplary public models to captivate the public imagination—more talented, more beautiful, richer Americans, and you too, could be one of them!—emerged at a time when as a country we were engaging in legislative, judicial, and public health policies that denied a core of our citizenship basic rights and a shot at the “American dream.” Under Jim Crowism, any American to identify as black or African American was subjected to discrimination and segregation designed to strip them of their inherent humanity and newly won citizenship.

Yet, to the delight of black communities across the country, black entertainers thrived, and they amplified the need for celebrities to be more than just a pretty face. If, as Stuart Hall asserted, media representation is the “key first moment in a cultural circuit,” then for many black fans, these celebrities were their first opportunity to see someone like them speak truth to power to their experience in a public way. And for white audiences, they were a glimpse into the beauty and complexity of black identities that subverted familiar racist ideologies.

Fast-forward to present-day, when clear parallels can be drawn between entertainer-activists of the past and those who capture the imagination of contemporary audiences. Beyoncé’s support of HBCUs echoes the work of actress Fredi Washington, the beautiful young star of Imitation of Life who was instrumental in starting the Negro Actors Guild of America. Much like Roland Hayes, the first African American tenor to sing on the classical stage, rapper Kendrick “Pulitzer Kenny” Lamar has broadened the traditional (read: Eurocentric) definition of highbrow artistic appeal. And just as Paul Robeson once did, football player Colin Kaepernick risked a promising career in the name of social justice.

The fight for a more inclusive and just society continues, and popular culture is as contested a terrain as any. “I wanted every person that has ever been dismissed because of the way they look to feel like they were on that stage—killin it,” said Beyoncé of her Coachella performance. The recognitions, acknowledgements, and celebrations of (marginalized) identity (in myriad and intersectional forms) resonate as much today (if not moreso) as they did one hundred years ago.

In Looking at the Stars, my hope was to restart a conversation that began in 1932, when famed Baltimore Afro-American columnist Ralph Matthews asked his readers a simple question: “What does an artist owe to his race?” Under Jim Crowism, what could it possibly mean to be black and famous in America? Was such fortune even possible, and at what cost might it come?

What I found was that Beyoncé’s very brand of entertainer-activism emerged out of the tumult of this period, at a moment when, as W. Fitzhugh Brundage once suggested, black performers, by virtue of simply seeking fame were actively subverting racism.

In the early 1910s, Bert Williams, a Bahamian native and the nation’s first black Broadway star, became famous for wearing burnt cork over his naturally dark skin to portray for audiences the “real thing,” as it were. Privately, he kept to himself, capitulated to white audiences, costars, and managers, and even signed a clause when he joined the Ziegfeld Follies that he would not appear on stage with white actresses. Yet, he was wealthy, and though his acquiescence to racist forces on Broadway irked some fans, in Booker T. Washington’s (fleeting) accommodationist black America, Williams was a symbol of upward economic mobility, and economic mobility undeniably meant at least some form of freedom.

In the next decade, the “jazz-mad generation” emerged, and showmen like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington brought both black and white audiences together with their undeniable swagger—and carefully crafted public images. Calloway was particularly particular; he once yelled at a photographer for taking a picture of him while he was “attired for comfort.” These stars showed their fans an Afrocentric version of the “American dream” that was deeply influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and the political activism of post-war black veterans.

The 1930s saw a celebration of national identity that temporarily trumped racial difference. Track and field star Jesse Owens owned the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, much to the chagrin of Adolph Hitler, who refused to acknowledge him in the winner’s circle. Joe Louis’s win two years later over German Max Schmeling drove home the absurdity of Aryanism in a match that ended in 124 seconds with a knockout. In both cases, white and black citizens celebrated together as one and, for a moment, the integrationist dream of black civic leaders was a reality as Owens and Louis became “un-hyphenated Americans” on the world stage.

Over time, it became clear that black celebrities who fit the description of “entertainer-activist” had several things in common with one another: first, they constituted what ordinary black citizens deemed “positive representations” of the race, though that definition changed by decade and, I think, continues to evolve today. Second, they worked tirelessly to give back to the communities from which they emerged. And finally, they proudly defined black identity on its own terms, confronting and dismantling racist ideologies along the way.

Ralph Matthews’s question, to my mind, is just as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. And as such, we see the same motivations in black entertainer-activists of today on the stage, the big screen, the playing field, and beyond, as we did back then.

In many ways, Looking at the Stars is a love letter to the entertainer-activists of the past (some who live on in our cultural memory, and others who have long been forgotten). And I hope their legacies continue to inspire celebrities across cultures, identities, and privileges to use their powerful voices to act as advocates and allies for their communities and to help ordinary citizens to feel a sense of pride and empowerment in a world that often does not see or treat them as equal.

After all, every one of us deserves to have a Beyoncé in our lives.

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