|Although the above quote seems rather simple-minded, the racial connotations behind such a statement are extraordinary. The creation of Amos Jones and Andrew Brown might be criticized for perpetuating black stereotypes but they cannot be attributed with originating those ideas in the first place. The blackface tradition, appearing with cork in hand as early as the 1830s, is a long and rather complex history that still requires a great deal of research to properly understand its cultural impact but for the purposes of the radio duo in question, our emphasis is best focused on post-Civil War America. Melvin Ely explains in his personal and social biography of the comedy team that they were growing up in an era of growing prejudice. Freeman Gosden's belief that blackface comics could tell funnier stories is based on his exposure to the racial sentiments and comics of the previous generation:|
He was bright and open enough to see something beyond the racist stereotypes; yet both he and Charles Correll were products of a turn-of-the-century America in which axioms of white supremacy were more widely and heartily accepted than they had been since the days of slavery. Neither man showed any early inclination to challenge these assumptions, and both would come before the radio microphone steeped in the racial images that Americans had long imbibed from plantation literature and minstrel shows. (p 25)Established sentiments of black inferiority are echoed by accounts such as Douglas Gilbert's American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times, in which Ely's allusions are made more specific:
To many in the eighties the Civil War was a vivid recollection and in every Northern town and hamlet there was sympathy for the Negro and gentle tolerance for his foibles. These--his supposed shiftlessness, his easy acceptance, his abandon, and general disregard for responsibility--many performers built into characterizations that were sometimes artistic....(p 79)The black character served as a childish other in these performances. Regardless of their newly found freedom, they were separate from (and less than) the white society that laughed at them. The humor found in these performances worked on two levels: it exaggerated black traits (as perceived by white society) into familiar notions of laziness and a careless nature but at the same time, it reinforced the sense that no matter how bad off the white audience was, they would never be lower than these black characters appearing in front of them. The racial disparity was played out behind the curtain as well. Melvin Ely describes the situation while identifying some of the black blackface predecessors to Amos ‘n' Andy:
Many, in fact, had begun their own careers on the minstrel stage. They appeared on the white-dominated vaudeville circuits and in all-black musical comedies....Bert Williams and George Walker--who collaborated on the musicals Sons of Ham and In Dahomey--were among the most distinguished of a generation of gifted black performers active while Correll and Gosden were growing up....in order to compete with white blackface comics, Williams and Walker felt compelled during Charles Correll's most impressionable years to bill themselves explicitly--as other black acts did implicitly--as "Two Real Coons." (p 34-35)
Managers gave but little credit to the ability of black people on the stage before the native African element was introduced. All that was expected of a colored performer was singing and dancing and a little story telling, but as for acting, no one credited a black person with the ability to act. With a show behind us, Williams and Walker were able to put a premium on Cake-walking, and at one time, in 1902 and 1903, we had all New York and London doing the Cake-walk. (Qted in Krasner)
|While the medium through which this message was delivered might move from the footlights to the airwaves, the messengers and the message remained the same. Members of the racially privileged part of society, including Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, adhered to the established cultural hierarchy that put them in that position in the first place. Michele Hilmes articulates this development in her book, Radio Voices when she states:|
The emphasis that radio played on the minstrel tradition, and the corresponding absence of authentic and uncontained black voices on the air, demonstrates the structuring role played by the increasingly nationalized voice of the U.S. commercial radio in maintaining social hierarchies and distinctions, and in providing the audience with a way of understanding themselves and their role in this new, modernized American culture of assimilation and consumption. (p. 81)This influence can specifically be understood in regard to the creators of Amos ‘n' Andy when Ely notes:
Gosden felt that he knew Afro-Americans, and the two men's entire career up to the mid-'20s had prepared them for nothing if not to play comical black roles. The countless depictions of blacks that they had seen, read, and acted over the years had taught the pair what seemed to them an axiom. It would last a lifetime. (p 54)Regardless of whether or not they recognized their role in the history of blackface, Correll and Gosden reinforced racial stereotypes of their era by doing what came naturally to them.