"We believed that once you established your characters,
if they're likable, the public will become fond of them. All you have to do to
them is put them into recognizable situations. You don't have to have a laugh
in every line to be funny."
"You would have laughed yourself sick at them. They're so much
like darkies. Not the fresh Northern niggers, but the genuine
real Southern darkies, the good niggers, lazy, happy-go-lucky,
strutting themselves out in titles....just like real life."
Amos' nostalgia for the past (and, specifically, the old South) as evidenced
in Check and Double Check and similar comments made in the radio programs
can be understood through multiple interpretations of Correll and Gosden's
approach to African-American life.
--Quoted from Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell
By basing their series on two black men heading North in search of work,
Correll and Gosden grounded their characters in the context of the Great
Migration in which African-Americans moved to the cities in record numbers.
This contemporary setting provided the otherwise fictional adventures of a
predominantly black community with a touchstone for black and white listeners
alike. The uncertainty of city life became a theme that all listeners could
relate to. Multiple associations of such a life, however, often lead to a
number of different interpretations.
For example, if one primarily saw Amos and Andy as blackface figures and
part of the minstrel tradition, Amos' desire to go back to work for
Mr. Williams might be read as a desire to return to a state of dependence
complete with a white benefactor. As Michele Hilmes notes in Radio Voices,
this nostalgia was a common trope in storylines and advertising:
"It is not surprising...that advertising and the commercial media relied so
frequently on ‘black' images drawn from minstrelsy, usually in settings that
associated ‘mammy' and blackface figures with tradition and nostalgia for a
bygone way of life in which ‘others' labored to provide those things that
modern ‘white' consumers could now purchase in a box." (p 31)
In these terms, Correll and Gosden might be seen as perpetuating the same
nostalgia that was being used to sell pancake syrup and long grain rice.
The racial identities Amos ‘n' Andy grew from allow some to understand
the duo as a new addition to a long line of minstrel figures that promoted
black inferiority and eventually went on to sell products themselves.
When ad men for NBC talked Pepsodent into sponsoring Amos ‘n' Andy in an
attempt to increase sales, the toothpaste company was following in the tradition
of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben before them. Michele Hilmes later notes, "these
figures mediated the conflict between traditional and consumer society through
the realignment and reinforcement of racial definitions. Racial discriminations
sold products...." (p 32).
This is evident in material such as Amos ‘n' Andy's fictional map of
Weber City and the accompanying letter, which was sent out as a promotion for
the toothpaste. The use of dialect, terrible handwriting, and spelling errors
reinforce the sense that Amos and Andy might best be understood as children in
need of supervision.
While Pepsodent was one of the major beneficiaries of Amos ‘n' Andy
promotions, they were by no means the only ones. From toys and candy bars to
animated cartoons and sheet music, Correll and Gosden licensed the likeness
of their characters for a number of items. Like any good contemporary
promotional campaign, these objects didn't necessarily have to be related
to the radio series since Amos ‘n' Andy weren't selling the show so
much as a familiar nostalgia long associated with blackface.
Amos' comments about the farm they used to work on is only one of many examples
in the film and radio series that demonstrates the dilemma that Correll and
Gosden navigated throughout their careers. Melvin Ely adds another, similar
dimension when he states:
|This message seems to conflict with the other reading of Amos ‘n' Andy
as representatives of America itself and Amos' nostalgia as a general desire for
a lost (but apparently good) past. In light of the country's economic hardships
occurring as Amos ‘n' Andy broadcast over the airwaves and the serial
adventures of these characters, which regularly allowed these two ‘black' men
into homes that real men might never see, it is also easy to understand the duo
as representative of all men.
But by creating the only radio series that depicted an all-black world,
Gosden and Correll painted themselves into a corner. At first glance,
the radio team's practice of avoiding any hint of unpleasantness between
the races seems an enlightened one--and an easy policy to follow simply
by using almost no white characters. But the result was that virtually
all of the show's countless larcenies and deceptions were committed by
blacks against other blacks. However benign their intentions may have
been,..., Amos ‘n' Andy's fans could easily see the series not
only as a traditional burlesque of universal human greed, but also as
a portrait of Afro-American character and communal values. That picture
was no compliment to the race. (92)
James Oliver Horton attempts to distinguish between the multiple
interpretations of the program when he writes in his essay, "Humor
and the American Racial Imagination":
There was considerable ambivalence among blacks who hungered for
almost any media presentation of African-American life but were at
least irresolute about this racial burlesque.... Blacks are expected
to accept that which demeans them as humorous, to be a "good sport,"
to be "able to take a joke." Some could remain detached enough from
the racial insult of "Amos ‘n' Andy" to appreciate the universality
of the characters. (p. 169)
Some audience members who appreciated the everyman quality of the
series were present in the throng of 35,000 people who attended the
picnic sponsored by the Chicago Defender in August, 1931.
The warm reception given Gosden and Correll at the Defender's
picnic in Chicago was the most dramatic of many signs that the two
men's portrayal of Afro-Americans in the big city had a large following
among blacks themselves....Even as the Defender was organizing
its parade and picnic, another popular black weekly newspaper, the
Pittsburgh Courier, was conducting a relentless campaign to
ban Gosden and Correll's show from the air." (p 5)
It is almost as if Correll and Gosden themselves were uncertain of exactly
where their debt to blackface ended and their genuine interest in
|The multiple levels of interpretation of the program weren't helped by
the mixed messages sent out by Correll, Gosden, and others handling the
show's promotion. For example, the book All About Amos ‘n' Andy
presents a series of pictures of the white duo associating with black
fans and allegedly getting ideas for their show. This documentation of
the comics attempts to provide the series with a sense of authenticity
that is similar to the example in the film. All of these attempts,
however, fly in the face of statements made by Correll and Gosden, not
to mention their debt to the imagined world of blackface.