3Qs: The power and press of black celebrity

July 2, 2014 by Greg St. Martin

In her new book Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press, Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media, and Design, examines how the mainstream and black press have covered controversial political dissent by African-American celebrities. Here, Jackson, whose research and teaching interests center on how social and political identities are constructed in the public sphere, discusses what she found in her research and which African-American celebrity became her unlikely inspiration for the book.

What inspired you to pursue this research and write this book?

Believe it or not, my inspiration was Kanye West. In 2005, I was working on a research project at the University of Michigan taking a closer look at media coverage following Hurricane Katrina. One of things I looked at was what got journalists talking about the role that played in the aftermath and response to the victims. Mainstream journalists weren't talking about this at first. But then came that moment during a telethon when Kanye West broke script. Most people only remember him saying, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." What is often forgotten is that he laid out several critiques about racial inequality and poverty in America. The next day, all the lead stories in the mainstream media were about race's role in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

West wasn't then and isn't now a political activist. But he used the space he had available to him as a celebrity to voice the concerns coming from the African-American community. That inspired me to look at other African-American celebrities in history to see what role black celebrity has played in national conversations about political issues, inequality, war, and many other topics. For many it's now easy not to take Kanye West seriously, but you can't ignore the power of celebrity.

What were some of the primary findings of your research?

I examined a diverse group of celebrities, both men and women as well as well-known activists and others who were thrust into the spotlight. I looked at what challenges they faced, how much agency they had, and how African-American celebrities' ability to challenge the status quo evolved over time. First, I must say there has been major progress in American society in terms of opportunities for African-American celebrities and for discussions of issues like inequality and race. But what I found is not as rosy as many people would like it to be. There are still strict, unspoken rules about African-American celebrities' behavior. Today, when these celebrities say or do something politically controversial, they may not be formally reprimanded or threatened with violence like Paul Robeson, who in the 1940s was stripped of his passport and blacklisted for his stances on political issues. But they still are reprimanded in mainstream narratives. Some politicians and commentators call them troublemakers, accuse them of playing the race card, or demand that sports and entertainment should be apolitical.

Another example dates back to 1996, when NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets refused to stand for the national anthem. As both an African-American and a Muslim he felt he shouldn't have patriotism forced upon him, especially given the country's history of racism and discrimination that continues to affect people like him. He was immediately traded, received death threats, and suffered the wrath of sports journalists. He was previously a well-liked player, but the narrative quickly changed—suddenly he was depicted as out of control and ungrateful for the opportunity to play basketball. His career stalled after that controversy.

Contemporarily, black celebrities have a lot more power to effect change. But even today there are still consequences for some who engage in controversial political speech, particularly for those who aren't very famous.

In your book, you examine the difference between the mainstream press and alternative, African-American publications. How have they compared and evolved over time?

The black press, starting with Freedom's Journal in 1827, came about from African-Americans feeling they were excluded from and misrepresented in the . They wanted an outlet to speak for themselves. There's always been an activist component to the African-American press. I was curious to see if these publications were more sympathetic to black celebrities. Interestingly, I found that while many black journalists were supportive, many others were very critical of the political dissent of black celebrities. But it was a different criticism, a more practical criticism. The mainstream press often criticized them for pointing out inequality and challenging and status quo in any way, while the black press would often offer critiques challenging their methods. For example, when athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, some members of the black press, while affirming the need to fight racism and inequality in America, argued that their so-called "black power salute" wasn't the best method for garnering sympathy on these issues.

Since the late 1970s, the black press has been in sharp decline. But in the conclusion of my book, I note examples of celebrities speaking out in non-traditional spaces, including Twitter and blogs. More celebrities are turning to the Web to engage in political commentary. After the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the drummer for The Roots, wrote an online post that went viral about his own experience being racially profiled. Miami Heat players also posted photos online of players wearing hoodies and some played a game with messages like "Justice for Trayvon" written on their sneakers.

Explore further: Celebrity adoption of charitable causes oversold

Related Stories

Celebrity adoption of charitable causes oversold

October 14, 2008

Celebrities do have the ability to focus awareness on charitable and political causes but their power to move the news machine to shape policy agendas has been oversold, according to recent research published by SAGE in the ...

Book reveals young people's views of politicians

October 24, 2013

Politicians need to consider more carefully how they communicate with young people if they are to be trusted and respected as much as 'celebrity' politicians, according to a new book by academics at the University of East ...

The Trayvon Martin case: Lessons for education researchers

April 4, 2014

The 2012 fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin by his Florida neighbor George Zimmerman sparked a fierce debate about racism and gun violence. Now, researchers are exploring what the controversial case says as well ...

Use celebrities wisely, Professor urges charities

April 8, 2014

Celebrities working with international charities are at their most useful when they work behind the scenes speaking to movers and shakers, rather than filling column inches of newspapers, according to new research.

Recommended for you

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.