Wednesday, October 3, 2007

I'SE REGUSTED: It may seem perverse, even offensive, that I devote two whole class meetings to Amos 'n' Andy. Why give so much precious instruction time to a program whose name has become synonymous with pop-culture racism? Well, first of all, the show's racism is precisely why it deserves sustained analysis, as it represented the latest episode in the long, disturbing tradition of entertainment based on bigotry. Secondly, many scholars argue that the medium of radio would not have taken off as it did in the late 1920s without the popularity of Amos 'n' Andy. And finally, Melvin Patrick Ely's pioneering book, The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon, offers a richly researched and carefully argued case study of this pivotal moment in American popular culture.

Amos 'n' Andy was the brainchild of two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Both men worked their way up through the world of minstrel shows and vaudeville, often performing in blackface and dialect, and they originally envisioned the radio show simply as a way to promote their live performances. What they created, instead, was the most successful radio show of all time, a program that at its peak drew forty million listeners, six nights a week, and would run from 1926 until 1960. (One great indicator of its popularity: for the fifteen minutes that Amos 'n' Andy aired every night, many movie theaters would stop their screenings to pipe in the show.)

To 21st-century ears, Amos 'n' Andy sounds crudely racist. The show's scripts were written and performed in heavy "black" dialect. Moreover, the lead characters often acted uneducated, confused, and foolish -- stumbling over basic vocabulary, misreading simple arithmetic, and generally conforming to longstanding stereotypes of the ignorant African American. Favorite dialect catchphrases ("Sho, sho," "I'se regusted") quickly became part of the popular vernacular. And yet Gosden and Correll also placed Amos and Andy in familiar situations that any listener could identify with: romantic entanglements, business troubles, sickness and loss. Ely argues that while some listeners may have heard only mockery and jokes, others (including many African Americans) may have focused on the characters' humanity, the continuing stories that lured audiences back night after night, year after year.

Conveniently, the Internet Archive has collected dozens of recordings of old Amos 'n' Andy broadcasts. Try listening to a couple of those early programs. How do they make you feel? Did you laugh? cringe? shrug? Why do you think radio listeners of the 'twenties and 'thirties -- both white and black -- found the show so enjoyable?

On Friday, I'll talk about Amos and Andy's appearances on film, cartoons, and TV, and the ways in which those appearances, and audiences' reactions to them, reflected shifting attitudes about race and popular culture in mid-20th-century America.

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