This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
It’s the birthday of Charles Correll (1890-1972), not exactly a hero to people of color, but it is the second day of Black History Month, and as Correll’s principal creation has to do with depictions of African Americans, it makes sense to time the post for now. It is highly overdue anyway. For Correll, along with his comedy partner Freeman Gosden (1899-1982) was the originator of the long-running radio and television phenomenon Amos ‘n’ Andy.
Like The Birth of a Nation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Song of the South, and the long history of blackface minstrelsy that predated them, Amos ‘n’ Andy has long been a kind of lightning rod, a shorthand for racist American entertainment. It is also a litmus test. I often send up what amount to trial balloons in the course of my work. The word I usually use to describe entertainment of this nature is “problematic”. The word is carefully chosen. I don’t go so far as to call it “irredeemable”, although many certainly would, and understandably. I never say such entertainment should remain forever buried, although people immediately rush to the conclusion that that’s what I’m recommending when I use the highly measured word “problematic.” And that’s the litmus test. If you fly off the handle when I use some mildly disapproving, cautious word like “problematic” to describe this show, when you go berserk when I suggest that when we play these historic programs nowadays we ought we label them somehow, to distance ourselves from their dehumanizing aspects and the attitudes of the early 20th century, if these mild bromides make you see red until you can’t think or talk straight, well then there’s a good chance you’re a racist.
Why sugar coat it? The first outcry against Amos ‘n’ Andy by members of the African American community was in 1930. Almost 90 years ago. It continued until the syndicated TV sitcom was finally yanked off the air 36 years later. There’s your evidence that it’s offensive. It offends people! I can’t tell you the number of times a WHITE person has written to me in response to my comments on this topic, “What’s the issue with this show? I don’t think it’s the slightest bit offensive!” No one cares that it doesn’t offend YOU, white person! You’re not affected by this. You’re part of the power structure that’s shoving this in somebody’s face.
I don’t presume to speak for anybody but myself. As you’ll see below — there are good things to be said about the show, for all its warts. The TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy has African American stars, and even has African African fans. All I ever say is that it’s complicated…or, if you will, “problematic”. If you don’t acknowledge that at least, one can only assume you endorse majority white people taking it upon themselves to disseminate unflattering depictions of minority black people, and squashing any attempt by the latter to chime in on the subject.
The other thing some people have come back at me with is, “People are grown-ups. They can decide for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong.” Sure — up the point where you hurt and disenfranchise and marginalize others. Let’s not be Polyannas about this. My father’s family was from Alabama, and my mother’s mother, in Connecticut, named her two ebony French poodles after the comedy team. I’m white. I have seen — up close and with my own eyes — how it was enjoyed and processed by white people. But this is no longer “back in the day” — and if you (like plenty of folks who write to me) bemoan the fact that we have changed from that wonderful old society where all the African Americans were maids and Pullman Porters, you need to go ahead and acknowledge what you are. I looked it up in the dictionary. The word is “racist”.
With that pre-emptive opening salvo out of the way, if I haven’t yet lost you, we now look at this problematic history.
Freeman Gosden (Amos) was from from a socially prominent family from Richmond, Virginia. It’s commonly given out (as though it were some sort of mitigating factor or qualification) that he had an African American nanny and his family adopted an African American child, who was sensitively nicknamed “Snowball”. Gosden was a radio operator in World War One, which is what first got him interested in the infant medium. After the war he was touring with shows to promote a local tobacco company, clogging, singing and playing the ukulele. He was then hired by a Chicago based outfit called the Joe Bren Producing Company, which specialized in helping local social organizations put on their own amateur theatricals. That is to say, if your local Elks lodge wanted to put on a minstrel show to raise money for a new pool table, you’d call these guys, and they would help you do it — they brought the scripts, the sheet music, they’d stage it, costume it, etc. So Gosden was hired by this company around 1919, and this is where and how met Charles Correll (Andy), a Peoria native who was doing the same kind of work for them. Correll had played in amateur minstrel shows, sang, and played piano. The pair came together in Durham, North Carolina, had a rapport and instantly became a team.
The duo began performing on local radio in Chicago in 1924, culminating in their first show, a variety program called Correll and Gosden, The Life of the Party, on which they told jokes and played music, with Correll on piano, Gosden on banjo. In 1926 they were asked to develop a new radio show based on the comic strip The Gumps. They declined, but they worked up their own original show which drew heavily from the traditions of blackface minstrelsy they knew so well, called Sam ‘n’ Henry. The characters were loosely based on the traditional minstrel show two act, the one character more easygoing and backward, the other more sophisticated (so he thinks) and apt to take up new fads and schemes. When they moved to another station in 1928 they were obliged to change the name, and that’s how they became Amos ‘n’ Andy. Gosden was Amos; Correll was Andy. The show went national a year later, with Pepsodent as its sponsor. The setting of the show was changed from Chicago to Harlem. And it became a massive hit, just as it had been in Chicago.
Initially it was a daily, 15 minute long serialized program, with plots that were occasionally dramatic. The characters of Amos ‘n’ Andy ran a cab company. In time, Amos diminished in importance, and a third character “Kingfish” began to dominate — he was the one who led Andy astray in hairbrained schemes. Other characters included “Brother”, a Jonah-like friend, and “Lightnin'”, an ironically named sloth with similarities to Stepin Fetchit. The dialogue relied on minstrel style puns and malaprops, but worked towards painting the characters in three dimensions as well, taking the concept beyond the comedy sketch format. However, when the show was adapted to the big screen for RKO in 1930, the pair appeared as the characters in blackface, impersonations far less benign than the mere vocalizing they’d done on radio.
That movie, called Check and Double Check was written (including songs) by none other than Kalmar and Ruby! I strongly suspect that the success of the film is what inspired Mack Sennett to produce Hypnotized with Moran and mack (“The Two Black Crows”) in 1932. In 1934, Gosden and Correll provided the voices for two Amos ‘n’ Andy animated cartoons, called The Wrasslin’ Match and The Lion Tamer. Go ahead: tell me this is okay:
They also appeared as the characters in blackface in The Big Broadcast of 1936.
As with The Birth of a Nation, what complicates matters is that Amos and Andy was formative. It was one of the very first radio comedy series, and it was well written. It’s kind of the birth of the sitcom as a form. In 1943 it moved to a weekly half-hour format and came even closer to what we think of as the modern sitcom, a form which Amos ‘n’ Andy was crucial in pioneering. Among the writers for the show were Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who later gave the world Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters. Also, not to be denied is that African American characters were often depicted in professional jobs of one sort or another; they weren’t all menials, which was new in popular culture.
In 1951 came the television edition, with the redeeming factor of an all-black cast: Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams, Tim Moore, Amanda Randolph, Lillian Randolph, Ruby Dandridge, Jeni Le Gon, Sam McDaniel, Nick Stewart, Ernestine Wade, Johnny Lee, Dudley Dickerson, Roy Glenn, Jester Hairston and Theresa Harris. Lots of roles for African Americans, and lots of African American fans (among them, Redd Foxx and Marla Gibbs, who later called the show an influence on them). Ironically this is when the NAACP opted to do a full court press to end the series. Their protests quashed the TV version in 1953. It went into syndication for the next 13 years.
Meanwhile, Gosden and Correll continued on radio. In the mid ’50s they changed with the times once again switching back to a daily format, wherein their regular skits were interrupted by the need to play records — they were essentially now D.J.s. They stayed at this until 1960.
In 1961, Correll and Gosden tried a last ditch effort to save the phenomenon, by lending their Amos ‘n’ Andy voices and plots to an animated cartoon called Calvin and the Colonel. It only lasted one season.
The syndicated version of Amos ‘n’ Andy reruns was pulled from circulation in 1966, due to protests. Since that time, it has been seen mostly in the form of clips in documentaries and television programs about ethnic stereotype.
But no one is censoring anything now! This is the age of Youtube, and It’s all available there right now at this very moment. Has been for years. All of it: the movie, the cartoons, the radio show, the tv show. No one is stopping you from watching it, and I intend to watch it (and listen to it) myself. Stop whining about how the children of slaves are oppressing you by criticizing a TV program you like, children of slave-owners. That’s about the nerviest thing I ever heard of.
For more on show biz history, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous