- Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press: Framing Dissent by Sarah J. Jackson
Sarah Jackson’s Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press: Framing Dissent, the second book in the Routledge series “Transformations in Race and Media,” analyzes the framing by both mainstream media and the black press of events [End Page 107] over the last sixty-five years involving African American celebrities expressing political dissent in spaces unsanctioned in the dominant public sphere. With the fires of Ferguson, Missouri, still smoldering—barely a year after the Trayvon Martin tragedy—Jackson’s book is a critically important addition to our understanding of the way that the media have responded to and constructed discourses about African American dissent.
Jackson devotes chapters to Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Sister Souljah, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Kanye West. She selected these celebrities “because of their explicit critiques of American inequality and the non-traditional spaces and discourses they used to publicize such critiques” (2). Her aim is to recover the agency of these individuals in the discursive field of an African American counterpublic space, despite the attempts to discredit or dismiss their dissent in the dominant public sphere. In this comparative study of mainstream and African American news media, Jackson employed a quantitative content analysis to uncover the frequency of the appearance of specific characteristics/terms connected with cultural values as well as a qualitative discourse analysis to reveal the larger ideological frame offered to readers to guide their reception. This comparative analysis reveals that the relationship between the mainstream media and the black press was one-sided, with the black press consistently reacting to a dominant public discourse that ignored counternarratives.
The chapter on Paul Robeson focuses on the news coverage of the riots that occurred in Peekskill, New York, in 1949, on the occasion of Robeson’s concerts. By then labeled as a “Communist sympathizer,” Robeson inspired fear in the mainstream news, with such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times framing the events as battles between “anti-communist demonstrators” and those who supported “singer Paul Robeson, advocate of Communism,” and further connecting Communism to the civil rights movement. Although Robeson’s reception in the black press presented a counter discourse with a more nuanced and complex analysis of the events, these journalists were still cowed by McCarthyism and ended by disavowing Robeson for being too radical. Jackson establishes in the case of Robeson what would become a recurring pattern in the press’s harsh reception of black celebrities who attempted to step outside of their roles as cultural spectacles for audience consumption to challenge the hegemonic status quo.
Jackson’s study of Eartha Kitt’s appearance at a White House luncheon in 1968 hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, in which Kitt denounced the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, demonstrates the way in which gender combined with race in the media’s response to the event. Mainstream media castigated Kitt as rude and impolite, while African American newspapers, which praised her truth telling, engaged in sexual objectification, referring to her as [End Page 108] “sultry” and a “sex kitten.” As with Robeson, she was politically threatening in her public denunciation of American imperialism, but additionally she was criticized for failing to display the qualities of ideal femininity—a double threat. Hounded by the CIA and the FBI for her political dissent, she had to leave the U.S. for a decade to continue her career in Europe.
The fascinating chapters on the U.S. medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf explore the media’s responses to and depictions of dissenting African American athletes. As was the case for the black entertainers Robeson and Kitt, these men were expected to conform to the protocol of the black spectacle, perform brilliantly for their country, display the right kind of patriotism, and keep their mouths shut—or open, in the case of Abdul-Rauf, who refused to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner...