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HOME > RESOURCES > AMOS 'N' ANDY: PAST AS PROLOGUE?

AMOS 'N' ANDY: PAST AS PROLOGUE?

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Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia


AMOS 'N' ANDY: Past as Prologue?
By Mark Freeman

Amos 'n' Andy was born on radio in 1928. But its stereotypes

and caricatures have roots deep in American culture and branches

that are still evident today. The negative images in Amos 'n' Andy

not only have historical precedents, but that they continued to

inform televised representations of black Americans long after the

show was no longer available.

What is the significance of these depictions in popular culture

on the African American family? African-Americans are among the

heaviest viewers of commercial television. As a working premise it

may be fair to assume that images are not insubstantial, that they

powerfully shape perceptions, values and behavior; and that

consequently negative images have negative consequences. The

negative consequences of television viewing are likely to be

disproportionally borne by viewers who are younger, less educated,

and those whose sense of self-worth and self-image are the least

formed--- that is our children. In particular, the unmonitored,

unsupervised, uncritical viewing of television puts children at

risk, and makes them the most vulnerable to negative consequences.

I've chosen Amos 'n Andy for this case study because of the

importance of the show ---both as a radio series and as the first

national television series to cast African-Americans in leading

roles. Because the last Amos 'n' Andy radio program was broadcast

on 1/25/60, and the television series was withdrawn from syndication

in 1965 a generation and a half has grown up without direct access

to the material.


Between June 28, 1951 and June 11, 1953 CBS broadcast 78 half

hour episodes. The programs were shot on black and white film, and

in 1951 the series was the most expensive show produced for

television. The program was designed as a situation comedy set in

Harlem. The majority of the stories revolved around the Kingfish

(Tim Moore) and his schemes to both avoid work and, if possible,

take financial advantage of the ignorance and naivete of Andy and

other characters/caricatures. Although set in a decidely

middle class milieu and often depicting black professionals, the

series did little to support black self-esteem, needless to say it

did provide positive role models.

Amos 'n' Andy was created by Charles Correll and Freeman

Godsen. Their personal histories were shaped by the Civil War and

the legacy of slavery and race relations in the South. Correl's

family was related to Jefferson Davis, the president of the

Confederacy. Godsen's father joined the rebels at 17 and was one of

75 officers who refused to surrender at Appomatox. Godsen claimed

to have been raised by a "mammy" and shared his home with Garrett

Brown, an African-American boy "adopted" by the Godsen's. Freeman

and Garrett created minstrel shows for the family's entertainment.

In fact the minstrel show tradition is the foundation for the

"humor" of Amos 'n' Andy which depends on race for it's effect.

What are the characteristics common to these popular entertainments?

Perhaps the most salient feature is that both Amos 'n' Andy and

minstrel shows were created by whites, to entertain primarily white

audiences. Thomas Rice created the Jim Crow caricature---

"plantation style" song and dance combined with "comic" dialect. By

the 1850's minstrel shows were popular throughout the United States

and toured widely in Europe. By the 1920's these caricatures had

become institutionalized in American popular culture. In fact the

first talking picture The Jazz Singer (1927) starred Al Jolson

singing "Mammy" in black face. Books of "Darky Jokes," "Minstrel

Jokes," and "Coon Jokes" were readily available in most 5 and 10

cent stores.

On the Real Side by Mel Watkins (pp 29-32) raises issues

critical to an understanding humor at the expense of blacks and

"Black Humor." "Blacks were funny for most white Americans

only insofar as they engaged in quaint, foolish or childlike

behavior, or stumbled over a language they were only half-heartedly

taught to speak, and [during slavery] forbidden to read." (Watkins,

p. 29). This "naive humor" re-enforces the power relationships

between superior whites and inferior childlike blacks.

Nathan Huggins' Harlem Renaissance in(Lipsitz in Spigel

and Mann) "points out that minstrel show stereotypes enabled white

society ....to attribute to black people the characteristics that it

feared the most in itself....." Blacks represent laziness, greed,

gluttony and licentiousness. The "...psychic reinforcement …

enabled whites to accept the suppression of their natural selves."

(Lipsitz 94), and instead embraced thrift, sobriety, abstinence and

restraint----behaviors necessary to the functioning of an industrial

capitalist order. ...."Amos 'n' Andy did for the values of the 50's

what the minstrel shows of accomplished for previous generations.

Everything considered precious but contested in white society---

like the family or the work ethic--became violated in the world of

the Kingfish. (Lipsitz, 95)


When the same type of humor is employed by blacks for blacks it

has been describes in psychological parlance as "masochism" ---

redirecting rage away from dangerous persecutors and on to

themselves. This is a kind of false consciousness ---an

internalized oppression, a self-hating notion that agrees with the

stereotypes. This is a tendency not unique to African Americans.

Freud described the phenomenon in his discussions of Jewish humor.

This strategy may appease whites, at the expense of further eroding

estimates of black self-worth.

On the other hand, when such jokes are delivered by blacks for

black audiences there is an undeniable sense of irony---intended to

reveal the barbarity of a system premised on a system of inherent

inferiority. Activist Julius Lester reverse the messages of Amos

'n' Andy. "Kingfish has a joie de vivre no white person could

poison, and we new that whites ridiculed us because they were

incapable of such elan. I was proud to belong to the same race as

Kingsish." (in Lipsitz 97) So how should we understand the

humor in Amos 'n' Andy? Henry Louis Gates recounts that "One of my

favorite pastimes is screening episodes of Amos 'n' Andy for black

friends who think that the series was both socially offensive and

politically detrimental...." He assets that "The performance of

those great black actors...transformed racist stereotypes into

authentic black humor." The historian Thomas Cripps suggests that

only the main characters are stereotyped by language and dress. He

points to many examples of well-dressed, supporting actors speaking

in Yankee accents. (In fact there were Black professionals

including a doctor, a minister, a teacher, a detective, a real

estate broker and a nurse.) Only a few of these professionals were

darker skinned. My own reading is that this does little to mitigate

the show's concentration on and viewers repeated exposure to the

negative impressions created by the lead characters.

Context has much to do with our evaluations. Patricia Davis a

UC professor, "I think how excited my relatives would be when

blacks first showed up on tv---it didn't matter that it was Amos 'n'

Andy. It was just a confirmation that there were blacks in the

world." (LA Times) Similarly Gates recalls his mother shouting that

"someone 'colored...colored!' was on tv and we had all better come

downstairs at once." (Gates, NYT)

Today images of oppression are sometimes reclaimed by

reframing them. Lightning’s molasses like slowness in Amos 'n' Andy

can be read as subversive. He's dragging his feet not obeying.

In analyzing the effects of comedy I believe it's essential to

determine whether the humor is subversive---a challenge to authority

and conventional wisdom; or mainly cathartic----temporarily

releasing (social) tension, but ultimately supporting the status

quo. Perhaps one key to use is to determine who's doing the

laughing---and at whose expense. "...Hollywood's slickest

hipster[s] operate not as cultural purveyors of black American life,

but rather as safety valves, generating laughs that mask the

conflict between black aspirations and the maintenance of white

power." (Erhenstein, 9)

In the minstrel shows and their successors on radio, white men

impersonated black men. (In fact a white man ---Marlin Hurt---even

played a black woman---Beulah, a character instantly recognizable by

her high-pitched screams.) Lillian Rudolph who played Madame Queen,

Andy's girlfriend on the tv series spent three months studying with

a white vocal coach so that she could master the "minstrel style

black dialects." (A&J p., 35) And Godsen himself coached the

black male actors. He maintained that as the creator of the series

he "ought to know how Amos and Andy should talk." Spencer Williams

---Andy in the TV series---had been an director of independent black

films. He replied to Godsen that I "ought to know how Negroes talk,

having been one all my life." (Clayton, Ebony in Fife p. 9) What

we have is "a white man teaching a negro how to act like a white man

acting like a negro." (A&J p., 35) Take away this phony accent

and much ---if not all-- of the "humor" is drained from the dialog.

Minstrel shows reached thousands and created the framework for

popular depictions of black life. Radio and later television

uncritically adopted these portrayals and by the agency of the mass

media shaped our shared culture. The Amos 'n' Andy radio show

at it's height was a pervasive artifact of American culture. In

1931 there were an estimated 40 million nightly listeners out of a

US population of 123 million. At times the show captured 74% of the

national radio audience. (A & J p., 31) The program was mentioned

frequently in the Congressional Record. 2.4 million fans wrote in

suggesting names for Amos' and Ruby's newborn daughter. The show

introduced a number of expressions into the vernacular including:

"Check and Double Check; Holy Mackeral," and "I'se regusted." [Not

to mention the characters of the series themselves. For example

Huey P. Long the populist governor of Lousiana ironically took his

nickname "The Kingfish" from the series.] And the show's

popularity resulted in a variety of lucrative spin-offs including a

daily comic strip, a candy bar, toys, greeting cards, two books and

a feature film. The prospect of an Amos 'n' Andy a tv show was

eagerly anticipated. Experimental TV broadcasts were made

throughout the '30's and in fact one at the '39 NY World's Fair

featured Godsen and Correll as Amos 'n Andy.

What were the basic caricatures common to the minstrel

tradition and Amos 'n' Andy? Fred Mac Donald, radio historian Don't

Touch That Dial describes 3 such characterizations. (Note Gates,

NYT 11-12-89 "In 1933, Sterling Brown, the great black poet and

critic divided the full range of black character types in American

literature into seven categories: the contended slave; the wretched

freeman; the comic Negro; the brute Negro; the local color Negro,

and the exotic primitive.")

Coons--- a clown, murdering the English

language, conniving to fleece a comrade out of money, bumblingly

avoiding employment ----The Kingfish--stupid and scheming, and Andy

lazy and domineering. "Consistent with the values of the 50's as

mediated through popular culture, family responsibilities--or

neglect of them--define Kingfish....his most serious flaws stem from

his neglect of the proper role of husband and father." (Lipsitz

95-96) "As in so much of American comedy, marriage in Amos 'n Andy

us a snare and a straitjacket--- a cruel prank played upon men who'd

rather be fishing, swapping lies, wiping beery foam from their lips

in a cool, dark bar. Instead they find that married life is one long

chore; the honey-tempered angels they wooed in innocent youth have

turned into witches, shrews... When Andy announces his engagement o

a 21 year old beauty queen, the Kingfish slaps him on the shoulders

and chorltes, 'Welcome to the land of the living dead.' (Wolcott

in A & J p xviii)

SHOW CLIP KINGFISH

Lightning ---was a Step'n Fetchit like character. He was dull

witted and slow of speech. He moved like "molasses" (not

lightning). He played one of the most demeaning roles ---but was

not without self-awareness. Nick Stewart says he took the role

because "I couldn't have learned without an opportunity to play

these roles, but I saw how this was poisoning the black community.

People used to say to my children --"Hey let me see you talk like

your daddy."

Calhoun the "shyster." This portrayal of a "coon

lawyer" was perhaps one of the most offensive to middle class

African Americans. The NAACP complained bitterly about the portrayal

of "Negro lawyers ... as slippery cowards, ignorant of their

profession and without ethics." (A&J p. 62)


Toms ---are typically good, gentle, religious and

sober. In their 1929 book All About Amos 'n Andy Correll and Godsen

described Amos as---"trusting, simple, unsophisticated." (p. 16)

SHOW CLIP OF THE LORDS PRAYER. This is an example of the notion

that we're all equal before god and saved by faith and prayer. A

romantic if not outright reactionary response to the realities of

racism ---segregation, poverty, lack of educational opportunities

which existed outside the boundaries of the show.

Mammy is quick tempered, a source of earthy

wisdom who brooks no backtalk. Kingfish's wife Sapphire and

especially her mother are frequently cast as the Kingfish's foils.

The result is domestic violence usually verbal, sometimes physical.

"The glorification of motherhood pervading psychology

and popular literature of the the 1950's becomes comedy in Amos 'n'

Andy. Wives named for precious stones (Ruby and Sapphire) are

anything but precious, and "Mama" in this show appears as a nagging

harpy screaming at the cowering---and emasculated---black man."

(Lipsitz 95 The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class and Ethnicity in

Early Network Television Programs.)

What was the response of the African-American community to Amos

'n Andy? Thomas Cripps identified three types of reactions in the

period between WWI and WWII. Activists---like the NAACP attempted

to affect the products of white producers. They often called for

substantial changes to offending programs. This response was often

characterized as censorship. The second response was of "Hollywood

Negroes" who in defense of their limited livelihoods were often

opposed to the activists. The alternatives as they perceived them

were that they could either play a maid for $700 a week or be a maid

for $7 dollars a week. The third kind of response came from

independent producers of "race movies" who were often far removed

from the hollywood sources of expertise, funds and distribution.

Seizing the "means of production" they produced hundreds of all

black films between 1914 and 1950. These pictures were inspired by

a backlash against racist depictions of black life. In 1937 there

were about 800 inner city theaters most of which featured all black

films. Most of these films were Black imitations of Hollywood B

genre films---black cowboys, cops and crooks. Even the most obvious

genre picture had the advantage of depicting blacks as people rather

than social problems. Perhaps the most well-known producer of "race

movies" was Oscar Micheaux who wrote, produced, directed and

distributed over 20 films between 1918 and 1940.

There is evidence of some support for the program among certain

segments of the black community. For example in 1931 Chicago's

weekly black newspaper the Defender invited Godsen and Correll to be

guests of honor at a community picnic which the Defender described

as being attended by 35,000 and Time magazine characterized as 6000

pickaninies. Duke Ellington's Cotton Club band played "The

Perfect Song." The audience broke into applause identifying it as

the theme song of Amos 'n' Andy rather than from the 1915 Ku Klux

Klan epic Birth of a Nation. (Ely 4) At about the same time the

Pittsburgh Courier was editorializing for the banning of the program

from the airwaves. (Ironically by the time of the TV series the

Courier would be calling the NAACP protesters of the series

"pinks.")

A survey of Negro "adult leaders" in 1932 confirmed the

division of opinion about Amos 'n' Andy which ranged from sheer

delight to "marked resentment and emphatic disapproval." (Cripps p

267.)

The imminent arrival of TV in America was predicated since the

1920's. Experimental broadcasts were made in the '30's including

one at the '30 NY World's fair which featured the radio stars from

Amos 'Andy. TV didn't really take off in the US until the 50's. Amos

'n' Andy was sponsored by Blatz Beer and ran from 6/28/1951-1953.

When the show premiered it was the only one with an all black

cast. Although the writers, directors, producers, and technician

were white. And in fact the program was designed for white

audiences. Especially in the early 50's tv audiences were

restricted to those who could afford the new appliances ---about 20

million predominately white households.

The TV shore framed itself as folklore explicitly comparing the

show to Huck Finn, Paul Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle. (A&J 1) Perhaps

Uncle Remus might have been a better comparison.



In response to NAACP protests about the TV show a survey by

Advertest (sponsored by the network) claimed that 75% of the 365

Black interviewed disagreed with the proposition that Amos 'n' Andy

reinforced stereotypes. The program premier coincided with an

NAACP's 1951 Congress and was viewed by the delegates assembled.

Organizing received a head start from this circumstance. This is how

the NAACP characterized it's objections to the show:



1> It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uniformed and

prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and

dishonest.

2> Every character in this 1 only a show with an all negro cast is

either a clown or a crook.

3> Negro Doctors are shown as quacks and thieves.

4> Negro lawyers are shown a slippery cowards, ignorant of their

profession and without ethics.

5> Negro women are shown as cackling screaming shrews, in big-

mouthed close-ups using street slang just short of vulgarity. 6> All

Negroes are shown as dodging work of any kind.

7> Millions of white Americans see this Amos 'n' Andy picture and

think the entire race is the same.

Why was the NAACP eventually more successful in mounting a

campaign against the tv show than the radio show? Before WW II the

NAACP had been a shadow of it's postwar size and strength. But

"membership increased 10 times over during the 1940s. By 1948 black

leaders were making waves in American journalism and entertainment.

The Democratic party courted them in the election. President Truman

appointed a Civil Rights Commission and declared 1949 a 'Year of

Rededication' to the principals of racial equality....The liberal

concept of full integration---gradual, painless, nonviolent, but

inevitable captured the American conscience." (Jones 51) (Honey I'm

Home) The times had changed. The same Defender picnic that feted the

white Godsen and Correl in 1931 denied the all black cast an

invitation 20 years later in 1951. In 1951 the show ranked 13th in

nielsen ratings (A&J 62). And in 1952 it won an Emmy award.

The NAACP responded by initiating a boycott of Blatz beer. By

April 1953 Blatz withdrew its sponsorship and CBS announced "The

network has bowed to the change in national thinking." Yet the

series was in syndication more than 4 times as long as it was

broadcast on the network. It remained in syndication for 13

years after it was withdrawn from the network schedule. And it aired

in 218 markets in the US as well as in Australia, Bermuda, Kenya,

and Western Nigeria. As late as 1963 it still played on 50 US

stations. The programs were finally locked in vaults as of 1966.

Yet in the 1970's CBS applied for a renewal of it's copyright.

Networks reacted to the controversy over A 'n' A by eliminating

black families from television. 15 years passed from A 'n 'a until

the introduction of another African-American situation comedy (Julia

in 1968.) I would argue that despite the legacy of the civil rights

movements, and the rise of a substantially larger African-American

middle class, the stereotypes of Amos 'n' Andy have been recycled

from year to year and show to show. The 70's continued to feature

"coons and mammies" in minstrel shows including Sanford and Sons,

The Jeffersons, Good Times, What's Happening and Diff'rent Strokes.

(Cummings, 78 The Changing Nature of the Black Family)

Even The Cosby Show while seeming to be the exception to this

trend, ironically its portrait of successful black professionals may

have reinforced pre-conceptions among white viewers. For both Amos

'n' Andy and Cosby live in world which seems determined only by

personal choice. Cliff Huxtable's affluence and the Kingfish's

chronic unemployment are not placed in a social context. Racism,

discrimination, the historical roots of poverty and lack of

opportunity are nowhere to be found in these shows. Cosby and the

Kingfish both move in a world without social constraints, where

individual initiative or it's lack are the only determinants. "The

domestic bliss of the Huxtable household is perceived by whites as

the exception to the rule of black family life, reaffirming the

notion that racism wouldn't be a problem if only blacks were more

like 'us.'" (Ehrenstein, The Color of Laughter 8) Both Amos

'n' Andy and the Cosby Show reinforce a singular vision of the

American Dream. The close identification of Bill Cosby and Clift

Huxtable confirming the "truth" of American fairness an opportunity.

(Jhally and Lewis 8 and Miller 213-214 in J &L)

Negative stereotypes of black life continue. South

Central was in the words of Brotherhood Crusade President Danny

Blackwell, "the Amos 'n' Andy of 1994." Ultimately as Tony

Brown has observed, black families "became narrow, negative,

stereotypical portrayals designed to reflect what television

producers and distributors believe the majority of the American

public/market imagines black families to be." (Television and the

Black Family in Black Families and the Medium of Television, 85 see

note cummings images of the black family.)

Are there solutions to the problems I've identified here?

Historically there has been a call for greater black participation

in all phase of television. If there were more black producers, if

there were more black writers---goes the argument---if there were

more black actors and more black television programs, then African-

American images would be represented more accurately. Unfortunately

the evidence does not seem to support such an outcome. Fox TV more

than any other network "has been committed to airing so-called black

programs in prime time....nearly a third of Fox's series [in 1994]

were black oriented....." (Rosenberg p. F32). And yet not a single

on-going program represents a substantial improvement in the

depiction of African American families. A poignant example--

-Robert Townsend, a well-respected, talented African-American actor

and independent filmmaker, is the star and co-executive producer of

this season's Parent in the 'Hood. The program ---theoretically

aimed at family viewers, is crude, sexually explicit, tasteless and

relies for on working class coon and mammy caricatures for a good

portion of its "humor."

The easy answer to why these forms persist lies in

the exigencies of a market-driven, consumerist commercial television

industry. "The sitcom is a corporate product. It is a mass

consumption commodity.... The promises of bureaucratic democracy,

mamagerial capitalism, secular humanism, and mass consumption are

miniaturized, tested, and found true in the funny travails of TV

families. The sitcom is the Miracle play of consumer society."

Jones 4)

Perhaps the coming 500 channel universe will offer diversity,

intelligence and humor not based on racist stereotyping. Or perhaps

we will have 500 channels of the same old ....same old. Let me

suggest that while it is essential to continue to organize and

protest the debasing impacts of negative television images, it is

simultaneously imperative that we empower our children to become

critical viewers. Unless we teach ourselves and our children the

basic skills of media literacy, there is too great a risk that we

will become what we watch. The alternative is to choose television

selectively, to watch it actively, to discuss and analyze the

programming with children, to take control of an electronic medium

that comes into our most intimate environment.

Children ought to be engaged as producers of video, not as

passive consumers. Making video is one of the best ways to

understand the mechanisms of television. Given access to tools and

encouragement to create images that correspond to the realities of

their lives, a new generation may be able to create community based

productions that capture the reality of their families and their

experiences. Perhaps the future offers the possibility of a de-

centralized, democratized media----a model not unlike the internet

of from many voices to each one of us as we choose; rather than as

mass media from a few centralized sources to the largest possible

audience.

What ever the future holds, it is clear that the popular models

of African-American family found on television are need in of

radical change.




















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   Copyright © 2005 Mark Freeman. All Rights Reserved.