Fandom as Praxis in Black Visual Media

by Poe Johnson

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) coalition—a collection of organizations from around the country dedicated to combatting historical and contemporaneous vectors of white supremacy—argues in their comprehensive policy platform, the “Movement for Black Lives,” that each and every form of black life must be embraced. Included in this platform is a list of demands and legislative suggestions that the BLM coalition argues would help combat the historical and contemporaneous vectors of white supremacy. In positioning themselves as an organization advocating for all black lives, BLM challenges the elements of respectability politics that still remain in some sections of black cultural thought. The term “politics of respectability,” originally coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, refers to a performative strategy employed by black people that privileges “respectful” or “moral” modes of resistance against racialized oppression.1 For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr., engaged a politics of respectability through the clothes he wore, the language he used, and his philosophy of nonviolence. Since Higginbotham’s book, respectability politics has taken on a negative connotation in progressive black circles due to its perceived capacity to police black cultural performance that falls outside the norms of mainstream society.

It should it be noted that in a 2016 interview, Higginbotham clarified that her idea of respectability politics included not just assimilating to dominant cultural norms but also fighting for respect for black life that falls outside of these narrow parameters.2 Still, in various configurations, critics of the BLM movement often cite either its disrespectable strategies or its inclusion of LGBTQIA black people as a rationale for dismissing the movement and its stated goals. And yet, it seems obvious to me that BLM’s inclusive rhetoric and commitment to fighting against the various ways that the poverty, alienation, and brutality authored by white supremacy work to oppress all black people heighten the movement’s goals over previous civil rights movements that neglected non-mainstream black existence. However, what BLM accomplishes using policy can be truly successful only if there is also a large-scale effort to expand the cultural delimitations of acceptable forms of blackness. As educators interested in teaching about Black Lives Matter in our classrooms, we must recognize that the movement is interested in police violence directed toward some black men, as well as in a greater desire to see all black lives gain greater access to social, economic, and educational freedom.

As a scholar of both fan studies and the representations of blackness in film, I argue that fandom practices, namely the writing of fan fiction and the creation of memes, can be instrumental in bringing the liberation theories of the BLM’s platform to students of all ethnicities, races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. Educators can help students find entrance into the plurality of black existence through a rigorous deconstruction and reconstruction of black visual media that depict black bodies across class, gender, and sexuality spectrums. If students engage with black visual media that treat the variances of black identity with respect and dignity while also illustrating the inherent complexities of being black and American, they can better understand the principles of Black Lives Matter and its continuing significance in black political and cultural performance. Although fan studies scholarship has been negligent in its examination of race and fandoms often reflect the systemic oppressions that groups such as BLM actively fight against, fan activities offer a unique set of methodologies that can destabilize the identity-laden distinctions between image and spectator.3 Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse separate fan-identity into two modes: affirmative and transformative. An affirmative fan engages with a text mostly on the level of spectator, collector, and analyst. In contrast, the transformative fan takes a text and reworks it to create a new textual object, whether it be an image or a story.4 Since creating transformative fan text requires that students think like a fan, asking students to temporarily become a fan of black visual media may allow a person of any racial identity to safely explore the ramifications of being black in a white supremacist world. For instance, a student who writes fan fiction about a “woke” black visual media object can inhabit a world populated by black characters who recognize and critique white supremacy. These students would be invited to create a fictionalized world in which race and racism are constant agents in the daily lives of their characters. In this sense, fan activity can be more than just a theory enacted by a self-selected few; it is also a mode of praxis in which students can engage with black visual media as a means of expanding their own understanding of black life. Moreover, teaching with and through fan theories allows educators to introduce what Paulo Freire calls “liberation pedagogy” into the classroom.

In his seminal monograph, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire attempts to overturn one element, and thus, eventually, all elements of systemic hegemony by radically intervening in one of the primary institutions that reifies the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor: education. Freire’s primary objective is to conceive of an intellectual paradigm that allows the oppressed and the oppressors to join forces in solidarity in order for the oppressed to acquire freedom without also becoming oppressors in the process.5 To that point, Freire states, “Hence, the radical requirement—both for the individual who discovers himself or herself to be an oppressor and for the oppressed—that the concrete situation which begets oppression must be transformed.”6 In other words, Freire believes that freedom requires a dual commitment between the oppressed and those oppressors who wish to overthrow the existing power structure. And while I might quibble over any model that holds oppressed people and their oppressors equally responsible for achieving emancipation, Freire’s goal that the material circumstances of oppression be altered is laudable. Still, the continued need for the BLM illustrates that before the lived realities of the oppressed can be remediated, the ideological and psychological manifestations of racial oppression must be dealt with. Using fandom as a praxis through which students can place themselves in the simulated realities of oppressed people through visual media objects can be one step in treating the ideologically based drug of racial oppression that this country has been hooked on since the seventeenth century when Virginia landowners first created a system of racial slavery in order to split the class-based coalition between African and Irish bondservants.7

For the purposes of this discussion, the oppressed—meaning black people, although other people of color and marginalized groups also fit into this categorization—must join forces with white allies and others who hold social and economic privilege to counter the impact of America’s long history of dehumanizing systems that range from the installation of pogroms (convict leasing, lynching, redlining, etc.) to the legal assignment of certain individuals as second-class citizens. And yet, from an all too practical perspective, the academically approved literary and filmic canons have further instantiated the condition that only respectable black people are worthy of study. Novels such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, along with films like Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971) and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), offer a relatively limited examination of black life, even being revolutionary in their own right.8 For that reason, educators ought to focus on black visual media that explore a variety of black performances. A television show such as A Different World (1988-93) does just that. Bill Cosby originally created A Different World as a spinoff featuring The Cosby Show’s (1984-92) Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) and her journey through the fictional historically black university, Hillman College. Through its six seasons, the show explored black identity from a variety of political, cultural, and economic perspectives.

For the bulk of the show’s run the two leads are a math nerd, Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and the spoiled daughter of a rich businessman, Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy). The show’s ensemble of characters embodies different forms of black identity. There is a young black woman from urban Baltimore, a biracial hippie, and a young black Republican, to name just a few. In addition to its depiction of many different facets of blackness, the show also addresses various cultural and political issues that young people of all ages face. A season two episode, “No Means No,” explores campus rape culture when student-activist Freddie (Cree Summer) is sexually assaulted by the university’s star athlete, Garth (Taimak).9 For its time period, the episode displays a surprisingly progressive agenda regarding the role of men in combatting rhetorical and physical sexual violence. Early in the episode, Garth tells Dwayne that it is the man’s responsibility to force women into sex. Rather than just render this moment without challenge, the show presents an utterance of rape culture with the severity it deserves. Throughout the episode, Dwayne struggles with what Garth has told him. In one scene, after warning Freddie about Garth, Dwayne confides in Walter (Sinbad), the university’s baseball coach, about his concerns. Walter unequivocally tells Dwayne that any man who violates a woman’s consent is a rapist, but only after Walter brags about street harassing women while working as a construction worker. Eventually, the show devolves into a masculine fantasy in which Dwayne rescues Freddie from rape.

As pedagogical tool, educators can use fandom practices that encourage students to be active re-creators of the episode in a way that depicts Freddie’s point of view. I have used an assignment in which students rewrite the story, which allows me to focus on both the show’s strengths in conveying the damaging consequences of rape culture and its weaknesses in presenting this story from the perspectives of men. Students can, for instance, decide to alter the events so that Freddie becomes the primary agent of her own rescue, authoring a backstory that the show only hints at. If your students have a greater technological fluency, they can dissect the show into short visual segments called GIFs as a way of retelling the story. Because these GIFs need not follow the trajectory of the original narrative, students can create a new narrative from moments of the episode that focus on Freddie rather than Dwayne.

The capacity to rewrite masculine-focused narratives in a way that centers different voices is why fan studies, or aca-fandom as it is often called, has been considered a feminist project by many.10 Yet fan studies has seldom addressed intersectional feminism. In 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw used intersectionality as a concept to examine the encounter between race and gender, particularly when it comes to black women.11 Educators and students should thus keep intersectionality in mind when studying any text that renders race and gender in the same imagistic frame, which is to say always. By applying this theory when writing fan fiction and creating Internet memes from A Different World, students can evaluate the ways in which the textualized bodies of people of color decode identity politics within the show’s visual grammar, and they re-create that politicization within their transformative fan texts. Also, A Different World’s relatively long run grants a plethora of interpretive opportunities in which the material circumstances surrounding black collegiate life can be used as a cipher for understanding the struggle of being young and black in an era of hypervisible police brutality. In this sense, BLM’s ideological perspectives find textual markers within a work created decades prior to the movement’s existence.

Even black visual media that overtly appeals to the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter does not always adhere to the movement’s politics. The hit television show Empire (2015– ) chronicles the story of the Lyon family, a hip hop dynasty consisting of a patriarch, Luscious (Terrence Howard), the matriarch, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and their three sons: Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). At its core a soap opera, Empire is seldom concerned with critically navigating the parameters of fame, wealth, and blackness. Instead it concentrates its attention on the scheming and violence of archetypes found within the world of hip hop. This does not mean that we should cast it aside as a Trojan horse for respectability politics but just the opposite. Empire displays an array of representations of black identities, some of which are queer and nonnormative, that can be coupled with fan activities to counter the show’s otherwise restrictive politics.

For instance, fan texts about the character of Freda Gatz (Bre-Z), a young woman caught within the cycle of violence and imprisonment that too often accompanies systemic generational black poverty, can destabilize Empire’s focus on the lives and machinations of wealthy black people. In the show, Freda’s narrative arc moves her from a hungry, young rapper in search of a break, to being arrested after she attempts to murder Luscious (the one responsible for her father’s death) but instead shoots Jamal, her collaborator and friend. Educators can teach Freda’s story as an example of a poor black youth with extraordinary talent who, like so many others, sees few options for herself and behaves accordingly. Students can then write fan fiction as a means of gaining access to the poor and disenfranchised black people that BLM primarily speaks to. Also, Freda functions as something of an outlier in mainstream television, but not necessarily in hip hop, in that she challenges conventional gender performance. Freda has short hair, wears little obvious makeup, and her lyrics often intertwine masculinity with ability and efficacy. In a second season episode, “My Bad Parts,” during a rap battle with Hakeem, Freda spits: “I’ll make your neck work/Your lady know my best work.”12 While the show has yet to clearly state Freda’s sexual orientation, there is an obvious subtext: “I’ll make your neck work” means that Freda will force Hakeem to give her fellatio, and she follows it by insinuating that she is a better lover to women than Hakeem. This is made more complex by the preceding line that suggests Hakeem is less of a man than his brother Jamal, even though Jamal is gay. And while on the surface this insult seems homophobic and sexist, students engaging with Empire from a fandom praxis perspective might find that they must look more deeply at these sorts of contradictory and troublesome rhetorical gestures while also seeing the humanity of the character who utters them.

In combining black visual media with fandom activities powered by Black Lives Matter ideologies, educators and students can work together to challenge the limited representations of acceptable black behavior. The positive consequences for doing so can establish a coalition between oppressed people and their oppressors that works to break down the ideological arm of white supremacy (American popular culture). Students who inhabit privileged statuses ought to be taught to create fandom texts that require that they attempt to see the world through the eyes of the oppressed, and not the oppressor. In doing so they can hopefully learn to be empathetic to all black people, not simply the ones who are whiteness adjacent. And centering black culture, black voices, and black life may negate the criticisms levied at black people who have been victims of police violence while also being blamed for their own deaths, such as Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and Tamir Rice. If perfection and respectability are not the sole mandates for valuing black life, then perhaps, and still perhaps, in the future all black lives can matter. Unfortunately, at the moment, that designation holds for only those black people whose behavior is seen as acceptable to mainstream white America.

1 Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Harvard University Press, 1994).

2 Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, interview by Kimberly Foster, “Wrestling with Respectability in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: A Dialogue,” For Harriet, 2015.

3 Rebecca Wanzo, “African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies,” Transformative Works and Cultures vol. 20 (2015).

4 Karen Hellekson, and Kristina Busse, “Introduction,” in their The Fan Fiction Studies Reader (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), 3.

5 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed., trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005), 46.

6 Freire, 50.

7 Audrey Smedley, “The History of the Idea of Race. . . and Why It Matters,” Paper presented at the conference “Race, Human Variation and Disease: Consensus and Frontiers,” Warrenton, VA, 2007.

8 Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper & Row, 1940); Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999); Shaft, dir. Gordon Parks (Beverly Hills: Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1971), 100 mins.; Do the Right Thing, dir. Spike Lee (Universal City, CA: Universal Studios, 1989), 120 mins.

9 Margie Peters, “No Means No,” A Different World, season 2, episode 20, directed by Debbie Allen, aired March 30, 1989 (Universal City, CA: Universal Studios).

10 Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), xi.

11 Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” in Critical Race Feminism, 3rd ed., ed. Adrien Wing (New York: NYU Press, 2003), 23-33.

12 Malcolm Spellman, “My Bad Parts,” Empire, season 2, episode 8, directed by Sanaa Hamri, aired November 18, 2015 (Chicago: Imagine Television).

Poe Johnson ( is a PhD candidate in aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. His research fuses together critical race theory, Afro-pessimism, and fan studies to examine the relationship between the mediated black body and participatory fandom cultures. He is also the guest editor of Narratives in Dark Culture, a memoir and podcast project dedicated to creating a cultural history of people of color and other marginalized groups who work within popular culture genres.