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Becoming Extra-Textual: Celebrity Discourse and Paul Robeson's Political Transformation

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During the 1930s, news media constructed celebrities as individuals whose public lives naturally reflected (or expressed) their private lives. Paul Robeson, however, offered an intriguing challenge to such seamlessness, foreshadowing contemporary evocations of celebrity that highlight the fabricated nature of public personas. I posit that during the 1930s, the discursive formations of scandal and movie stardom challenged celebrity seamlessness by constructing Paul Robeson as a site of extra-textuality: Paul Robeson "the artist" became detached from Paul Robeson "the man." Although mired in essentialism, Robeson's extra-textuality was crucial to his activism, for it ultimately created the space from which he voiced his most impassioned political polemics. Thus both regressive and liberatory, the discourses of scandal and movie stardom mediated Paul Robeson's transition from spiritual-singing aesthete to outspoken political activist.

Keywords: Celebrity; Discourse; Film Stardom; Paul Robeson; Political Activism; the 1930s

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2007

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