I’m so glad you mentioned Aretha Franklin’s homegoing ceremony. I grew up in a Southern Black Baptist church environment and the entire event was so visually and sonically familiar. While I was only able to catch bits and pieces of it, I’m thankful that Black Twitter was able to provide me with a rundown online. Participatory culture in a digital era is enhanced by racialized social networking practices.
The appearance of the church within many Black media objects is such an important observation. While you focus on nineties sitcoms in your research, I can’t help but think of a figure like Tyler Perry. I wrote an essay for the edited collection From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry (University Press of Mississippi) titled “Worship at the Altar of Perry: Spectatorship and the Aesthetics of Testimony” that attempted to account for the fandom (especially southern black churchgoing female fandom) around hugely successful African American media maker Tyler Perry through the framework of religion. I argued that Perry transformed the cinematic experience into a sermon with his on-screen parables. While Perry is not an actual pastor, it seems that Black religious leaders have a fan culture unto themselves - certainly the African American mega-church preacher is a mainstay in Black culture that garners much adulation.
Your use of haunting to describe how Blackness resonates across popular media forms is intriguing. The TV programs that you mention seem to always be present in Black cultural discourse as specters. Scholars such as Alfred J. Martin are bringing them back into focus as valued objects of study, because they are frequently obscured in traditional archives of television programming history. Additionally, Black fans have notoriously been excluded from examinations of fandom (see Rebecca Wanzo’s important essay “African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies” in the journal Transformative Works and Culture).
The recent Emmys broadcast commented on these mainstream erasures with Michael Che’s bit “Reparations Emmys” in which Black TV sitcom actors like Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersonsand Kadeem Hardison from A Different World were given Emmys for their influential roles in iconic Black-cast television programs. African American communities have been exposed to these legends through a kind of televisual “inheritance” that you speak of passed on from generation to generation.
When Che gives Kadeem Hardison his Reparations Emmy for his role as Dwayne Wayne, he tells him, "I don't think you realize how many young brothers you actually inspired to go to college." My study's participants echoed these sentiments, citing A Different World as a key influence on their ability to see themselves as college students. In the 24 years since the show's series finale, it has remained the primary scripted televisual representation of Black college life. There is a generation of Black folks (myself included) who probably made some major life decisions informed by their A Different World fandom and who proudly identify as alums of the show's fictional Hillman College. Emmy-winning writer and producer Lena Waithe, who named her production company Hillman Grad productions, described her affinity for A Different World and The Cosby Show in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross. "I was just lucky that I was a kid watching it, seeing not myself yet in A Different World. I was seeing who I wanted to be and I saw so much of myself and so much of what I wanted to be in those shows. What television did for me is that it taught me how to dream, it taught me what to dream about." In this sense, fandom, like religion, can be understood as aspirational, providing the guidelines for the kind of person one hopes to become.
The Cosby Show is such a difficult text to engage with now. And Bill Cosby himself represents a kind of crisis, ideologically and affectively, in Black fandom. I think in part because of the way in which Black icons make meaning, spiritually, with Black audiences. The symbolic power they can hold over culture really puts us in a tough position when/if they fall from that position of “grace.” The Boondocks episode that critiques R. Kelly (and R. Kelly fans) perfectly depicts such a crisis.
I’m interested in what you think of these Black Americans deemed exceptional across fields (television, music, sports) and examples of how we have participated in their elevation.
As a basketball fan, coming of age during the 1990s, there was no player more important than Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Crying Jordan meme, dad jeans, and "the ceiling is the roof" aside, Jordan remains a largely unassailable figure amongst basketball fans. While like Beyoncé, Jordan clearly appeals to a broad spectrum of people, there is a special place within Black culture for "his Airness". Writing about Jordan in the early 1990s, public intellectual and theologian Michael Eric Dyson identified "a religious element to the near worship of Jordan as a cultural icon of invincibility" and argued that Black youth made a particular "symbolic investment in Jordan's body as a means of cultural and personal possibility, creativity, and desire". The Black youth of the 1990s have grown into adults who remain fiercely loyal to Jordan and are particularly invested in him remaining a cultural icon. Make any earnest attempt to discuss the greatest basketball player of all-time and you quickly learn that there is little room for arguments that do not have Jordan firmly at number one. In the words of Krs-One, for many fans Jordan is not only number one but "number one, two, three, four, and five." In recent years, most conversations about the GOAT involve comparing Jordan's credentials against those of Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (whose King James nickname is perhaps too on the nose when it comes to religiosity and sports). At some point in the debate, the pro-Jordan fan offers MJ's perfect 6-0 record in the NBA finals (compared to James' 3-6 record) and his intangibles such as his "heart" and "killer instinct" as evidence of his superiority. The latter traits, while not quantifiable, are nonetheless felt by the fan. The anti-LeBron argument will often come back to a single moment in his career when he was viewed as "quitting" on his team, perhaps the ultimate sin that an athlete can commit. What on the surface seems like a conversation about who is the better ball player is really one about faith, about which player you can believe in.
I’m wondering if this all comes down to a reconceptualization of faith to account for how Blackness signifies in popular media culture...how Black folk make meaning and create symbolic worlds to believe in as we navigate discrimination and oppression. The hope, across generations, that is put in representation (especially as epitomized by our icons) becomes vital.
Patrick Johnsonis a Ph.D. candidate in the Social and Cultural Studies program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include critical media literacy, Black fan studies, cultural memory, and the residual circulation of past media.
Brandy Monk-Paytonis an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. Her research on theories and histories of African American media representation and cultural production has been published in the journals Film Quarterly, Feminist Media Histories, The Black Scholar, and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. Other work has appeared in various edited collections and is forthcoming in the anthology Unwatchable(Rutgers University Press). Her first book project examines Black celebrity in late twentieth and early twenty-first century U.S. public and popular culture.