In This Article African American Stars

  • Introduction

Cinema and Media Studies African American Stars
by
Robin R. Means Coleman, Kitior Ngu, Timeka N. Tounsel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0124

Introduction

African American “stars” describes conspicuously public individuals of great social, artistic, and/or political presence, if not competence. These stars have garnered significant media consideration and subsequently have emerged as trailblazing figures with substantial acclaim, acrimony, and/or reverence in the public sphere. The construction of stardom that remains most salient here highlights black-identified persons who serve as objects of reference and who bring a cultural economy to blackness (tropes of history, experience, cultural practices). This entry seeks to delegitimize the focus on stars as persons who achieve fame primarily through film and television roles, or simply due to celebrity status. African American stars are constructed here as those individuals who have gained significance and achieved cultural capital within the African American community and have been cast as objects of desire and identification, working to formulate ideas about what it means to be black in American society. This article draws on an understanding of stardom as a phenomenon that invokes critical social, political, and economic resonance. Unfortunately for the great majority of black stars, their renown has not (yet) translated into significant and sustained attention in the scholarly literature. This is especially the case for those whose stardom rests outside the realm of entertainment roles on the big and small screens, and it especially holds true for women. While media award winners are, frequently, “star” benchmarks, it is important to remember that there is a long line of change-agent stars of the press, such as Ida B. Wells; of recorded sound, such as Dick Gregory; of film, such as Paul Robeson; and of television, such as Oprah Winfrey. Researchers might consider other frames such as watershed cultural-historical periods as the nadir, post-reconstruction, the era of the Civil Right movement, and beyond, thereby gaining access to more than one hundred years of star fodder. This article on African American stars should be read, first, as a sampling of the available literature on black stars as change agents. The intent here is not to be encyclopedic or exhaustive. Rather than further expound on stars such as Oscar Micheaux and Spike Lee, who have already received significant scholarly attention, we use this article to draw attention to stars who are commonly overlooked. Second, and perhaps most importantly, this article should also be read for its absences. That is, one should take careful note of the (startling) gaps in the literature for a star of great relevance.

Stars of Print

The black press may be described as a revolution in print, just as easily as it might be described as an early experiment in black capitalism. As investigative journalists, creative writers, editors, and publishers, the stars of black print have documented the black experience in a collective record that would intervene in mainstream discourse and motivate the black masses. Historically, the personal stakes were high for leaders who often took on divisive issues like lynching. Few journalists know this level of sacrifice as intimately as Ida B. Wells, who continued her work despite assassination attempts. Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois were editors whose bold personalities intertwined with their publications. These leaders, who made critical contributions to the print industry, were not just courageous communicators; they were also daring entrepreneurs. Robert S. Abbott and John H. Johnson grew their publications and simultaneously built their personal fortunes in Chicago. Collectively, they helped build a media infrastructure that took black audiences seriously, and they created models for black marketing that forged a space for numerous publications still in circulation.

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