Good Morning, Everyone.
We will take a look this week at Black Comedians. We will begin today with Amos and Andy.
To some, they were comedic genius. To others, they were nothing more than a Minstrel Show.
What Was It About ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’?
By Mel Watkins;
Published: July 7, 1991
THE ADVENTURES OF AMOS ‘N’ ANDY A Social History of an American Phenomenon. By Melvin Patrick Ely. Illustrated. 322 pages. New York: The Free Press. $22.95.
During the late 1920’s and early 30’s, the most popular radio program in the United States was “Amos ‘n’ Andy”; many historians contend that it was the most popular show ever broadcast. This comic serial — in which the white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll portrayed two black men — not only dominated this country’s listening habits for 15 minutes, five days a week, but also significantly influenced its daily routines. Al Smith, for example, scheduled radio spots for his 1928 Presidential campaign so that they did not compete with the program, and George Bernard Shaw reflected its impact when he commented, “There are three things which I shall never forget about America — the Rocky Mountains, Niagara Falls, and ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy.’ ”
The program’s popularity and the dispute that ultimately forced its withdrawal from network broadcasting are the focus of Melvin Patrick Ely’s “Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Mr. Ely, who teaches history at Yale University, tracks the program from its debut as “Sam ‘n’ Henry” in 1926, through its rise to national prominence during the early days of radio, and follows its continued success during the Depression and World War II, when the humor broadened and Kingfish became the central character. He also describes its controversial television debut with black performers in 1951 and its quick demise after black protests spurred a heated dispute that drove off many prospective sponsors.
But Mr. Ely moves beyond a chronicle of the rise and fall of a black sitcom. Foremost this is a social history; the author uses “Amos ‘n’ Andy” to examine “American racial attitudes in the first half of the twentieth century.” And one of the initial questions he asks is why, “if Gosden and Correll’s work was nothing more than a heap of racist cliches,” the show attained such “unique popularity and influence among both black and white” audiences.
Racial cliches may partially explain white America’s attraction to the program, but that explanation is incomplete. During the 20’s and 30’s, blackface comedy acts — most offering far more demeaning caricatures of black life — were common. But the Mack and Morans, Buck and Wheats, and Anaesthetic and Cerebelums who crowded the airwaves never seriously challenged “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” At least initially, as Mr. Ely writes, although the “show was a comedy, its essential appeal seemed to lie somewhere other than in its humor.”
The stereotypical portrayals of Amos Jones and Andy H. Brown were balanced by other attributes. Amos was unquestionably dense and naive, but he was also honest, dedicated and hardworking. And Andy, although lazy, conniving and pretentious as minstrelsy’s venal Jim Dandy, was also a good-natured fellow. Moreover, they were depicted in realistic situations with which both whites and blacks could identify. Migration from rural to urban areas was common throughout the nation at the time. The struggle to survive the Depression was an experience shared by nearly all Americans. And although Amos and Andy spoke in a dialect spiced with malaprop (” ‘Splain dat to me,” “Ain’t dat sumpthin’,” “I’se regusted”), Gosden and Correll avoided humor based entirely on race. Mr. Ely says they depicted “Afro-American life while minimizing references to race and categorically ruling out scenes that even implied racial unpleasantness.” Amos and Andy were called “dumbbells” and “rubes,” for instance, but pointed racial slurs were avoided.
Unlike most blackface characters, those in “Amos ‘n’ Andy” reflected many values common to lower middle-class Americans. White audiences could empathize with the universal aspects of the experiences of the black people depicted on the program — financial problems, personal relationships, even reactions to contemporary events — while laughing at their supposed ethnic traits. As Mr. Ely points out, Gosden and Correll walked a tightrope, plying white audiences with traditional racial stereotypes but cleverly muting their harsher overtones.
As the show evolved, however, its central comic characters became George Stevens, the Kingfish of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge; Lightnin’, the shiftless handyman; Algonquin J. Calhoun, a bogus lawyer, and Sapphire, Kingfish’s wife. As unmitigated minstrel caricatures they were less humanized than Amos or Andy, and were the principal targets of black complaints about negative images.
Despite protests over the years, many African-Americans were also avid fans of the show. Mr. Ely cites surveys and provides samplings of personal testaments and correspondence illustrating black support. As he shows, black reaction to “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was most accurately characterized by its disparity and vacillation. The Pittsburgh Courier, for example, began a campaign to remove the show from the air in 1931. But Roy Wilkins (then a journalist and editor) debunked the effort, maintaining that “Amos ‘n’ Andy” had “all the pathos, humor, vanity, glory, problems and solutions that beset ordinary mortals and therein lies its universal appeal.” By 1951, when “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was on television, Wilkins had changed his mind and led a campaign by the N.A.A.C.P. to ban the program.