|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on 1/25/60, and the television series was withdrawn from syndication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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
What ever the future holds, it is clear that the popular models
of African-American family found on television are need in of
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