For the 30th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Carrie Teresa her new book, Looking at the Stars: Black Celebrity Journalism in Jim Crow America.
Carrie Teresa is an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Niagara University in New York. Her doctoral dissertation on celebrity journalism in the early 20th century Black press was awarded the American Journalism Historians Association’s Margaret A. Blanchard Prize in 2015.
This episode is sponsored by the Niagara University’s Department of Communication and Media Studies.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by Niagara University’s Department of Communication and Media Studies. For more than a century and a half, Niagara has educated students in the highest academic tradition so that they graduate with the confidence, clarity of direction, and heightened sense of purpose to excel in their careers and be change leaders in today’s fast paced world. Learn more at Niagara.edu.
In the new book Looking at the Stars: Black Celebrity Journalism in Jim Crow America, author Carrie Teresa explores the meaning of celebrity as expressed by black journalists writing against the backdrop –
[0:01:00] of Jim Crow era segregation.
Carrie, welcome to the show. Your book is interesting because it shines a light on ways that newspapers and entertainment media served to oppress the black population in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But there were also opportunities to push back on racism through mass media. Let’s begin by discussing the racism apparent in the media environment during this time. You note that the “reduction of the black community to exaggerated, ridiculous, and negative stereotypes and the perpetuation of those stereotypes in popular culture were a means to entertain and comfort white Americans and psychologically oppress newly freed black citizens.” For those unaware of films like The Birth of a Nation, talk about what was portrayed and the societal repercussions of using entertainment media to reinforce and enhance racism.
Carrie Teresa: Sure. So in 1915, which was the year that Birth of a Nation –
[0:02:00] was released in theaters, going to the movies was still kind of a novel idea, and audiences were so in awe by the technological spectacle of a film like Birth of a Nation that sometimes they either forgot or just didn’t want to remember that none of it was real. Birth is the filmic adaption of a novel called The Clansman, and that story revisions the Ku Klux Klan as heroes of the Reconstruction Era South, saving it from Northern usurpers and freed slaves. So think now about how deeply ingrained heroic narratives are in our culture. That didn’t come from nowhere. And imagine the ugliest organization in our history depicted in that way. Reportedly, Birth actually inspired dormant Klan chapters around the country to reorganize. So when we’re talking about societal repercussions here, we are talking in my mind of –
[0:03:00] one of the most dangerous pieces of media ever made. Popular culture then did exactly what it does now. It shapes the way we view the world. There was less of it then, though. There were fewer voices. There were less perspectives. So its power to influence, especially something like Birth which was such a, you know, a technological achievement at that time, I mean that influence was huge.
Now moving beyond Birth of a Nation, we had damning stereotypes of African-Americans on the vaudeville stage and in later films, such as Gone with the Wind and even the Shirley Temple/Bill Robinson series [the 1935 movie The Little Colonel as well as films Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner.], which featured a black lead, one of the first films to feature an African-American actor in such a role. Those films in particular were weird because they had this sort of strange nostalgia for the antebellum South. So they were wildly popular films –
[0:04:00] during the 1930s that suggested to audiences that there was quote, unquote, “a valuable way of life that had been lost when the South lost the Civil War.” So imagine being an African-American moviegoer or citizen during that period. Imagine how jarring and how upsetting that must be.
Teri Finneman: Along with that, you had mainstream newspapers of the time presenting racist ideologies as fact and excusing lynching and Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation. How do we as journalists today work to overcome these horrific practices of the past?
Carrie Teresa: That is such a difficult and complex question, and I’m not sure if I have an answer. And it’s particularly difficult for me to answer that question from outside the industry. But I do think that if we want to dismantle oppressive ideologies, we need to start with those newsrooms and we need to get as many diverse –
[0:05:00] voices as possible in every single one of them. We need to amplify those voices and we need to listen when they question and challenge quote, unquote, “the way things are or the way things were.” And that’s exactly what black newspapers did back in the day.
Teri Finneman: So going off that, to help counter mainstream press coverage the black press took off. By 1890, almost 600 black newspapers had been established. Discuss their significance in journalism history.
Carrie Teresa: Black newspapers offered a counternarrative to the mainstream newspapers that had a truly limited capacity to objectively tell the stories of people of color, especially when it came to lynching and other racist violence, as you mentioned earlier, but also in covering the joyous community building moments, the weddings, the graduations, the sporting events, the farmers markets, that sort of thing. And so African-Americans often only appeared as mainstream news subjects if they were accused of a crime or –
[0:06:00] less frequently, if they were really famous. So the coverage was incredibly limited and one-dimensional, and often it relied on the stereotypes that were apparent in other forms of media like film, like in vaudeville theater, but that were also prevalent in the public health discourses and the legislative discourses of the time.
Black press newspapers were the antidote for all of that. They were not only vehicles for organizing collective political action, for battling stereotypes, and for investigating crimes against black Americans, but they were also community building newspapers that crystallized a sense of identity, a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging in developed and established black communities across the country that weren’t monolithic, that had different identities and needs, and these newspapers captured those identities and needs, and formed them and, and built –
[0:07:00] communities around them.
Teri Finneman: Moving to the celebrity focus of your book, let’s talk more generally about the concept of celebrity. At this point, we’re so used to celebrities that it feels like we’ve always had them, but they actually became a thing in the late 1920s. Why then, and what role did newspapers play in helping celebrity culture take off?
Carrie Teresa: Yeah. I’m so glad you mentioned that because you are so right. It definitely feels like we’ve always had celebrities, and we are just bombarded with them, and it feels today like anybody can be famous if they have like an Instagram account and something halfway interesting to say or show. But in fact, the idea of celebrity is a relatively recent invention. In the early 1900s, film technology was taking off. Public relations firms were being established. The newspaper industry was changing. The entire media landscape changed significantly during this time. And I should mention that, uh –
[0:08:00] later, a couple decades later, radio became a really ubiquitous medium. And that really laid the groundwork for the concept of a mass or a popular culture celebrity, someone who was famous for entertaining basically rather than a civic leader or an influencer. What newspapers did to help drive the celebrity machine was super simple. They made entertainers newsworthy. They framed them as people or subjects that we needed to know about. Entertainers, in turn, moved newspapers off of newsstands. Entertainers are excellent sources of sensational content, which was really important back in the ’20s and ’30s, particularly to black newspapers who were starting to borrow sensational news practices from the mainstream press, just sort of a couple years behind them. But celebrities were also appealing as aspirational or exemplary figures, as role models, and at that time that’s sort of what ordinary people were looking for. They were living in –
[0:09:00] big cities. Life was changing really fast. They were surrounded by lots of things that seemed unfamiliar to them, and celebrities were something that they could kind of hold onto as sort of like this beacon or [author] David Marshall calls them sort of like this constellation in sort of an uncertain sky.
Teri Finneman: So why were you interested in studying black celebrity journalism specifically?
Carrie Teresa: Well, it started with a boy. [Laughs] When I was doing my doctoral work at Temple’s Media and Communication program, my husband and I were just married, and because we were just married and I was in grad school, you can imagine we spent a lot of time inside watching movies. And one night he talked me into watching Ken Burns’ Unforgivable Blackness, which is a documentary about heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. I’ve always been interested in the freedom struggle. For as long as I can remember, those were the stories in school that captivated and moved me.
[0:10:00] But because I’m not a super duper sports fan, I had never heard of Johnson specifically before, and after watching the documentary I immediately knew I wanted to make him a focus of research. At the same time, I was taking Carolyn Kitch’s Journalism History course where I was introduced to the black press, and again I was completely captivated. A term paper in that class became my first publication, which became my dissertation project, which became the book as I began to expand the contradictions inherent in Johnson as a race hero versus a race celebrity to other famous black Americans at the time. So the question that my dissertation and then the book sort of asks is essentially what did it mean to be famous and black under Jim Crow, and so I found a lot of different interesting answers to that question.
Teri Finneman: Papers like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and Baltimore Afro-American –
[0:11:00] added significant entertainment sections to their papers by the early 1930s. Who were some of the main celebrities covered and how were they covered?
Carrie Teresa: Oh, they covered stars from film, from the big screen, the music and dance halls, the Broadway stage, and the playing fields. Jack Johnson and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams were the first real entertainers to be covered extensively, and now this – we’re talking around 1909, 1910, uh, through the beginning of the 1920s – so for that decade, it was mostly Johnson and Williams. But by far the most popular, entertainers to be covered were in the 1930s, so jazz musicians Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington in particular and boxer Joe Louis. Joe Louis essentially made the Courier the premier black press newspaper in the country, beginning in the mid- to late-1930s.
[0:12:00] Coverage of these entertainers was far from monolithic, and that’s a really important point because that was a preconception that I really wanted to challenge in the book. There seemed to be a trope that suggested that any black entertainer who was moderately successful must have been lauded by the black press, that either visibility or economic success was enough to make them exemplary and heroic, and that just wasn’t the case. And that was immediate to me when I began to research Jack Johnson. Johnson was the exact opposite of that. I mean, he was highly visible. He was super wealthy. But at one point, the newspaper industry completely turned its back on him altogether based on some decisions he made in his personal life. And so the way celebrities were framed was based first on the political and social context –
[0:13:00] in which they performed or operated, and those ideologies changed significantly from 1900 to 1940.
Intellectuals from Booker T. Washington to W. E. B. Du Bois were exerting great influence particularly over the black press, but over other blacks and institutions as well, but secondly they were framed based on their own ability to balance their real frustrating experiences with Jim Crowism against their obligations as celebrities and race representatives, role models, and advocates for the community from which they came. And so in the book I talk about sort of this theoretical concept that’s sort of this three-pronged idea of black celebrities operating on the representation plane, the quote, unquote “real plane,” and the actual real plane. And this was inspired by Erika Spohrer’s work on Paul Robeson.
[0:14:00] And in that article she argued that Robeson operated on two discursive planes. He was a performer, he was an actor, so when he took on roles like Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones he was presenting a representation of black masculinity to particularly black audiences. That was a watershed. It was something they had never seen before and it made a definite statement on black identity. But off the stage, off the screen, Paul Robeson was Paul Robeson. He was a celebrity. And Spohrer argues that he used that extra textural space, journalistic interviews, public relations events, et cetera, to share his ideas on the freedom struggle and on race relations. And so I took that idea and I applied it not only to other celebrities outside of Robeson, but I thought about adding a third plane, which was the real experience of these entertainers –
[0:15:00] as they navigated particularly the Jim Crow South, but racism all over the country as ordinary citizens, in public, in the theaters they performed, in staying at hotels, in returning to the communities from which they came. Somebody like tenor singer Roland Hayes, who became famous for being the first black classical singer to appear with the BPO. Um, I’m sorry, the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Roland Hayes was the son of a slave, and so no matter how famous he got, no matter how rich he got, he always carried that with him. He always had that as part of his identity. And so I thought it was really important to consider the real actual experiences of these celebrities outside of their personas of being performers or carefully constructed PR figures to look at sort of their real experiences –
[0:16:00] to the degree that I could get at that.
Teri Finneman: You also focus on black women celebrities. What did you discover in media coverage of them?
Carrie Teresa: Well, I discovered that black women had very limited cultural scripts that they could follow without being written off or condemned. For instance, someone like Florence Mills, who was a Broadway star, had a very private, guarded personal life. She was happily married. There was never any rumor of anything other than that. She did a ton of charity work. She was incredibly feminine and incredibly demure. She had a very soft voice. She had a very soft performance style. She was much more likely to get flattering coverage than her contemporary, Josephine Baker, who in many ways, was a more interesting news subject. Baker flaunted her sexuality on stage.
[0:17:00] When she was performing throughout Europe, she wore a skirt made of bananas and pretty much nothing else.
Teri Finneman: Oh, wow.
Carrie Teresa: And now we’re talking, yeah, we’re talking like the late 1920s, okay? And she was married multiple times. So there’s this article in the Baltimore Afro-American where one of their gossip columnists actually found her rumored first husband, a man she had reportedly married when she was a teenager, and they published this exposé on Josephine’s sort of hidden first husband. Later on she married, an Italian quote, unquote “count.” This guy that was basically a con man who told everybody that he was part of Italian royalty. So she was a really interesting sort of tabloid subject, but she didn’t get near the coverage, and certainly not nearly as flattering coverage as Mills did. And in fact Baker –
[0:18:00] was an incredibly talented singer and dancer and she was a – her performance style sort of broke through and sort of ushered in many ways, sort of like the Harlem Renaissance era kind of performance style. But she was never credited for any of that and in fact, she was undermined. So journalists would write things like, eh, she was better when she was younger. That sort of like implicit sorta sexist framing. Overall, women were very much written out of the story of celebrity and representation, and certainly out of the story of uplift. They never got nearly the kind of notoriety that their male counterparts did.
Teri Finneman: So you’ve mentioned racial uplift a few times, and one of your chapters focuses on this. Talk about how that occurred with black celebrity journalism.
Carrie Teresa: Sure. Uplift is a pretty complex concept, but ultimately it –
[0:19:00] related back to W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of the talented tenth, that it would take a few to raise the many. And so celebrities were really visible, and I think it made sense for journalists to assume that they were the chosen, the talented, the ones who would uplift the rest of the race. Someone like Roland Hayes was the epitome of this idea. He was an African-American classical singer who could sing spirituals alongside European standards, and he could charm and influence white audiences as well as he could black audiences. So he was the epitome of this idea of racial uplift. Black journalists often wrote about how Hayes basically showed white audiences – and, and not to sound reductive, but in their own words that African-American culture was just as highbrow, just as valuable as European culture was. So that was a real key –
[0:20:00] to racial uplift, the idea that celebrities could be basically a part of the talented tenth, they could be one representative of the possibilities of the race as a whole, and Hayes was like the perfect example of that.
Teri Finneman: You write that participation in entertainment culture represented a new opportunity to put the cause of civil rights on the nation’s agenda. Explain how.
Carrie Teresa: Okay. Celebrities were just as they are now cultural ciphers. They weren’t just people, though they were, and they were people who struggled under Jim Crowism just as ordinary African-American citizens did, but they were public, carefully constructed representations, too. And back then it was impossible for a black celebrity to be seen as anything other than his or her race, at least in the eyes of white audiences. These folks had voices though. They had PR teams –
[0:21:00] who could help to construct their persona. They had the performances that they chose themselves. They had journalists who covered them. And so they had a unique opportunity to advocate for their communities, which many of them, like Paul Robeson and actress Fredi Washington did and did forcefully, and I consider those folks to be entertainer activists. But others like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, simply gave white audiences I believe a reason to pause. Think about how powerful fandom is. Fandom was and is such a force, and I wonder if that alone was enough to make at least some people question their racist assumptions. So it was through both explicit advocacy and implicit I think admiration that gave these celebrities the symbolic power to change minds and hearts –
[0:22:00] and ultimately to contribute to the cause of civil rights. So certainly some of the celebrities that I write about in the book had really explicit roles in organizing collective action. Fredi Washington, who I just mentioned, was one of the leaders in unionizing black actors and she was a head of the Negro Actors Guild for about 30 years. So it’s an example of explicit political action to the end of – the benefit of her community. But there are others who I think just sorta shifted sorta that cultural barometer to sort of set the stage for what came to follow.
Teri Finneman: One of the chapter headings in your book is “Sports Heroes Save Black Newspapers.” How did they do this, and how did black and mainstream newspapers cover black athletes?
[0:23:00] Carrie Teresa: Oh, um, they did this by being heroes at the top of their game. [Laughs] That’s how they did it. Jesse Owens and Joe Louis were particularly important cultural figures in the 1930s. Both took on symbolic battles against European fascism and won. One newspaper commented that on an international stage these men represented quote, unquote “unhyphenated Americans,” which is one of my favorite quotes in the entire book. It’s a very powerful statement particularly in the 1930s, particularly as it applies to race. Practically speaking, though, these guys were straightforward, uncomplicated sports heroes and fans went crazy for them. And not just black fans. Black and white fans, especially Joe Louis after he won his rematch against Max Schmeling. As a result, people bought tons of newspapers. Like I said earlier, Joe Louis –
[0:24:00] basically made the Courier what it was in the late ’30s and 1940s. But both Owens and Louis were young, they were handsome, they were sweet, they were family oriented. They both got married at the height of their fame. So newspapers had personal things to write about them, but never anything too controversial. And so in that way, they became sort of the ideal mythic heroes in the way that [professor] Jack Lule talks about sports heroes as being sort of like these mythic hero figures, and let’s face it. Heroes sell newspapers. They did back then and they do now. And they did back then even during the Depression.
Teri Finneman: What do you hope is the main takeaway people have of your book?
Carrie Teresa: That’s an interesting question and it’s something that I’ve thought a lot about since the book came out. You know, we live in such a celebrity saturated culture, as we’ve discussed, that I think it’s hard not to be cynical –
[0:25:00] about fame and not to be cynical about celebrity culture, to not think, well, does it even mean anything to be a celebrity anymore. And so I’m hopeful that this book will maybe spark some interesting conversations about what celebrity was and what it’s turned into, and maybe even whether or not it has the same symbolic power that it once did, which I think is a complex conversation and not a monolithic conversation, but I think is an interesting one to have at this sort of cultural moment.
But more than that, I hope it’ll encourage scholars to study black press newspapers, plain and simple, and to develop new and innovative ways to look at their content, to look closely at different sections of the paper to understand the broad scope of what these newspapers and what these journalists were trying to accomplish. The Defender just published its last print issue, and my fear is that these newspapers are gonna slip from our –
[0:26:00] shared cultural memory. So if the book can contribute to this growing body of literature, if it can maybe inspire or encourage other scholars to take up the subject of the black press, I’ll be very happy.
Teri Finneman: Our final question of the show is always why does journalism history matter?
Carrie Teresa: Oh, uh, why doesn’t it matter? Right? You know, I was thinking about this question last night when, again, my husband and I were sitting in front of the TV and watching archival footage of the moon landing. And I thought to myself, gosh, this is – it’s so important that we’re doing this and, and what makes it important not only to study journalism history but to consume it, to venerate it. And I think it’s important beyond just training future journalism practitioners, which we all do as journalism professors and scholars, but I think paying attention to journalism history makes us smarter, better news consumers and –.
[0:27:00] citizens, which I think is incredibly important right now.
Teri Finneman: All right. Thanks for joining us today.
Carrie Teresa: Thank you, Teri. It was a pleasure.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Niagara University’s Department of Communication and Media. Until next time I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.