Transformative racism: The black body in fan works

Poe Johnson

DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article examines the potential pitfalls with the depiction of black bodies in transformative fan works that do not actively consider and account for the history of racism directed toward black bodies in American mass media texts.

[0.2] Keywords—Antiblackness; Media history; Race

Johnson, Poe. 2019. "Transformative Racism: The Black Body in Fan Works." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

[0.3]The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people's imagination.

—D. L. Hughley

1. Introduction

[1.1] If the root of American media fandom and therefore Western fan studies is the archive from which fan texts and texts about fan texts blossom, then that root is planted deeply in a generational oppression that neither fandom nor fan studies have sufficiently reflected upon. By now, the history of the investment of the media cultures of the United States in the dehumanization and destruction of blackness should be common knowledge.

[1.2] From the 1840s to the 1870s, blackface minstrelsy was the country's most popular medium (Springhall 2008, 57). The practice, which was essentially white men engaging in a racist and reductive cosplay of the black body, was also often a justification for black enslavement. D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915), considered to be the first Hollywood blockbuster, is one part Confederate apologetic and one part propaganda piece, justifying lynching and the set of racist pogroms that would come to be known as Jim Crow. Amos 'n' Andy (CBS/NBC, 1928–60) was a long-running hit radio program in which two white actors portrayed, or misportrayed, two black characters in a style that evoked the then-defunct blackface minstrelsy era. The radio program then moved to television, where it had a short-lived but commercially successful run (CBS, 1951–53), with black actors taking over the roles, before being canceled thanks to protests by the NAACP.

[1.3] After the Amos 'n' Andy debacle, and because of the combined racist attitudes of television and movie producers and the American public, black filmic and televisual depictions were scarce throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In those rare moments of inclusion, black characters occupied peripheral spaces where white spectators could safely ignore them if they so desired. And this is exactly what fandom and fan studies have done.

[1.4] Fan studies' denial of the significance of race in media began with John Fiske's (1992) now infamous overt refusal to analyze race because, according to him, he could not find any studies on nonwhite fandoms. This same refusal continued for decades without any thorough engagement to the contrary. Recently, Kristen J. Warner (2015), Rebecca Wanzo (2015), Rukmini Pande (2018), and Mel Stanfill (2018) have done exemplary work in forcing fandom and fan studies to confront its erasure of black fans, announcing its ignorance of the genealogy of black acafandom, challenging the belief that fandom is a utopic or even positive space in relationship to identity, and bringing to the fore fandom and fan studies' obsessive investment in whiteness. Similarly, embedded within the imagistic manifestation of the black body is the presumption that any black body stands in for all black bodies and that black bodies can be bartered, sold, and traded.

[1.5] Consider this notion in relationship to potential fan works, particularly Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson's categorization, following obsession_inc, of fan activity as affirmative and/or transformative. According to Busse and Hellekson, affirmative fans "collect, view, and play, to discuss, analyze, and critique" that text in such a way that it affirms the text's obvious ideological position (2014, 3–4). In contrast, transformative fans "take a creative step to make the worlds and characters their own, be it by telling stories, cosplaying the characters, creating artwork, or engaging in any of the many other forms active fan participation can take" (4). Of course, we know that affirmative fans can and do challenge a text's ideology when it disagrees with their own and that even the categorization of affirmative and transformative is not a true binary. Rather they are overlapping and at times intertwined modes of engagement that could either affirm or transform a text's canonical and ideological framing. Still, Busse and Hellekson, like many fan studies scholars to date, view the ability of the fan to wrestle control away from corporate media as an emancipatory move in which the participant-consumer challenges the authority of the regressive content creator and manufacturer. In most instances this might very well be true; however, what is at stake when fans transform rather than affirm a mediated corpus is the control and ownership over canon.

[1.6] This is not to say that fans who engage in transformative works are claiming sole ownership over a text, but they are inherently claiming a form of authority; nor am I implying that all fans are white or that only white fans can replicate antiblackness in their transformative works. Instead, I posit that when fan texts are heavily informed by black bodies, regardless of the racial identity of their creators, the concepts of ownership and authority are imbricated with the history of racist representations from the blackface minstrel shows to the continued use of images that invoke enslaved people in contemporary advertisements, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. There are few consequences when fans assert this authority over white mediated bodies, at least in the abstract. However, when fans are either unaware of or unsympathetic to the histories of oppression that black people have experienced and how those histories have constructed a Western visual regime that relies upon the objectification of the black body in order to further materialize white supremacy, the transformative works that those fans produce will inevitably take part in the systemic order that has extended what Saidiya Hartman (1997) calls the afterlife of slavery.

2. The conundrum of representation

[2.1] This article seeks to build on the work of the previously mentioned scholars by posing a question: What if, rather than treating race and in particular blackness as the third rail, fandom centered blackness and black bodies in its transformative works? On the surface, the answer to this question seems to bend a little toward the utopic. For black fans and those who want to see fandom address the historic erasure of black characters and black texts through inclusion, this would appear to be a dream come true. I argue the opposite.

[2.2] For decades, black thinkers and critics have argued over whether it was better to have no representation or poor representation. In the late 1950s, Hollywood studios started to minimally address the overwhelming whiteness of their leading men by making films that featured or starred Sidney Poitier. And while Poitier is largely regarded as a trendsetter and legendary actor, among some black critics and black film scholars he, or at least the characters he played, are thought of as sexless, sycophantic characters who exist largely to appease and please white audiences. The same has been said about Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Will Smith, and other black stars who, it can be argued, sold their soul and their blackness for temporary white acclaim.

[2.3] On the other side of the coin, blaxploitation cinema was originally thought to be a revolutionary genre that directly countered Poitier's phallically challenged black men. Except, as many critics and scholars have pointed out, blaxploitation films eventually rendered black life into white-produced hyperviolent and overly sexualized spectacles of flesh. Historically, black people have been denied access to representations that depict their basic humanity without having to first make affordances to the white gaze. Instead, black people and black bodies have been occupied and utilized as objects for the procreation of white supremacy. There is no reason to suggest that, left to its own devices, fandom would do anything differently, particularly when we consider the ongoing primacy of slavery as a formative framework of blackness.

3. Mediated black representations in the afterlife of slavery

[3.1] Saidiya Hartman's 1997 foundational text Scenes of Subjection questions the existence of the black subject when factored through the long and ongoing afterlife of slavery. For Hartman, and for other thinkers who consider themselves Afro-pessimists, the ontological nature of blackness itself is slavery because the conditions that both necessitated the creation of blackness and mired black people in a seemingly never-ending rubric of oppression have not been alleviated.

[3.2] From this perspective, black enslavement did not truly end with emancipation but instead shifted and extended in material, cultural, and visual forms throughout the nineteenth century and into the present. As Hartman herself states, "To be a slave is to be under the brutal power and authority of another" (1997, 3). She goes on to claim, "This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment" (6). The afterlife of slavery extends this brutality to the present-day material conditions of black life in part through a mediated American culture that has historically been invested in maintaining white supremacy vis-à-vis the rendering of the image of the black body into violent spectacles and dehumanizing caricatures.

[3.3] What is at stake in Hartman's work is not only a topography of black oppression but also a philosophical unmooring of the notion of black subjectivity. The mediated ramifications of the afterlife of slavery are nearly as profound as the material conditions. This history complicates the fan studies narrative that fans' disruption of the top-down narrative of media production and consumption by transforming a text in ways that challenge the text's previous ideological framing as inherently emancipatory. As noted earlier, blackface minstrel performances, Griffith's Birth of a Nation, Amos 'n' Andy, and other works illustrate both the various visual methodologies employed to instantiate white supremacist dominance over black objects and the fact that black bodies are always already fandomized.

4. The case of Antoine Dodson

[4.1] For instance, in 2010, Hunstville, Alabama native Antoine Dodson was interviewed on a local NBC affiliate after an attempted rape of his sister Kelly in the home the two shared. In the interview, Dodson, who is black, speaks in a Southern accent and dialect. Dodson's interview spread across the internet, going viral a few days after it first aired. I argue the reason why the video of the interview became so popular is that people in the United States are accustomed to seeing black cultural performance as a form of entertainment, even when it is not explicitly intended to be entertaining.

[4.2] Dodson's performance—and Dodson himself—were turned into spectacles simply by existing within a mediated culture in which any recorded act can be consumed as an act of entertainment. Not only did Dodson's interview proliferate rapidly across the internet, fans of the video also created various remixes and other transformative works. The most popular of these works was the Gregory Brothers' song "Bed Intruder." The song ended up on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and its music video has been watched an astounding 141,000,000 times. What the interview and the remixed transformative works that were inspired by the interview reveal is that if anything can be consumed as entertainment, then anything can be fandomized. And while this would appear to be a trait of contemporary digital culture, as the continued legacy of blackface minstrelsy tells us, black people have always been vulnerable to this process.

[4.3] The fascination with Dodson's interview, and the subsequent works created from the video of the interview, centered on Dodson's iteration of black vernacular English and his performative black body. In one of the most famous and quoted lines from the interview and the song, Dodson states: "Hide yo kids, hide yo wife," while wagging his head back and forth. It is Dodson's unwitting callback to the earliest instantiation of the black body in American popular culture—blackface minstrelsy performances—that seemingly activated an American viewing public that often finds pleasure and joy in the more outlandish forms of black cultural performance, regardless of their authenticity.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] While it is doubtful, and irrelevant, that the Gregory Brothers meant to recreate a history of antiblackness and white supremacist logic, the fact remains that they were guilty of it nonetheless because of either their ignorance of or disinterest toward the idiosyncrasies inherently involved with the representation of blackness. Still, the video's overwhelming popularity makes everyone who shared and bought the video and song complicit on some level. The songs and videos of Dodson that were made by internet content creators reveal two important points about the status of the black image and the way representations of the black body have been consumed.

[5.2] The first is that the ontological status of the visual black body is in no way removed from the ontological status of its referent. Which is to say, borrowing again from Saidiya Hartman, that the primary ideological condition of images of the black body is one of accumulation and fungibility. The second point is one that has always been true but that the internal logic and methodologies of fandom culture only make clearer, particularly in the digital age: for those who both create and consume content, there exists the capacity to occupy the black body, to imbue it and embody it with deeply rooted historic aggressions that reify the systemic and institutional oppressions found in the DNA of the United States. In order to avoid this reification, creators must make a deliberate and concerted effort to use antiracist and decolonial methodologies. Simply wanting to be inclusive is not enough; it has never been enough.

[5.3] Historically, black people have had limited control over how their imagistic and textualized bodies are encoded with meaning in mass media culture. Transformative fan works of the black body can lead to a further destabilization of the authority that black people have fought so hard to obtain. At best, this means that predominantly black fans will have to spend time and emotional labor in correcting those fans who are reproducing white supremacist logics without intending to. At worst, it leads to a violent participatory culture in which the images of the black body are used either as a justification to terrorize or as the terror itself. Of course, as Rukmini Pande (2018) has pointed out, this is a similar argument that racist fans have used to deflect from their racism. I am not suggesting that the racism of white fans and white fan studies scholars who have ignored black characters and black texts should be disregarded. I am, however, suggesting that when we call for greater inclusion within fan spaces, we must be careful what we are asking for, and from whom we are asking it.

6. References

Busse, Kristina, and Karen Hellekson. 2014. "Introduction: Why a Fan Studies Reader Now?" In The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, edited by Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, 1–18. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Fiske, John. 1992. "The Cultural Economy of Fandom." In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture in Popular Media, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 30–49. New York: Routledge.

Hartman, Saidiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pande, Rukmini. 2018. Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Springhall, John. 2008. The Genesis of Mass Culture: Show Business Live in America, 1840 to 1940. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stanfill, Mel. 2018. "The Unbearable Whiteness of Fandom and Fan Studies." In A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies, edited by Paul Booth, 305–19. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wanzo, Rebecca. 2015. "African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genaologies of Fan Studies." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

Warner, Kristen J. 2015. "ABC's Scandal and Black Women's Fandom." In Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century, edited by Elana Levine, 32–50. Bloomington: University of Illinois Press.