Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Resurrection of Amos n' Andy

I just heard a tiny little aside on Prairie Home Companion that caught my ear. As you might know, the show's creator and host, Garisson Keillor, is a great fan of golden age radio programs from the 30s and 40s. In a skit, he was running down a list of his favorite shows, hitting all the classics – The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly – and then he dropped in Amos n' Andy, along with one of his sound-men doing a short take on one of the characters, in what you might call audio blackface. This was clearly not intended to stand out or be remarkable in any way: Amos n' Andy was just another radio show of the era, its depictions of African-Americans little more than a matter of style.

This is significant because, of course, Amos n' Andy was, both in its own time and for a long period afterward, a hugely controversial show, opposed in particular by the NAACP for its alleged slights to the character of Blacks and Black culture. Whether this assessment was accurate, and whether it is responsible to consider Amos n' Andy primarily on its artistic merits rather than as something of social significance, is largely a question of contents. In the TV version especially, the show can almost seem anti-racist insofar as the main characters, though obvious scoundrels, move in a world where there are many black professionals, and what whites do show up treat the black characters as presumed equals. But the argument is that the TV incarnation in particular, since it was the only major television program featuring black characters and actors, was irresponsible and hurtful insofar as it implicitly constructed its good-for-nothing protagonists as representative of blackness.

But, increasingly, Keillor's perspective – that it should be appreciated as a work of art, its racial overtones only secondarily – is growing. The TV series is widely available on DVD, and it's hardly in the interest of DVD producers to label their product as "Possibly Racist!", so I imagine the show's artistic quality is a much better talking point. There are also good reasons for the re-evaluation, many of them stemming from the genuine achievements of the Black actors, set designers, writers (though most of the writers were white, there was one Black writer) and other creators who made the series one of the best ever. I doubt many people would say those creators' reputations should be tarnished in perpetuity because of their involvement in a controversial show.

But of course, the risk is that the very real, justified concerns over the show's impact on perceptions of African Americans will go by the wayside as everyone jumps on the bandwagon of celebrating it. That's a really unacceptable possibility. Ultimately, while I don't feel history should forget Amos n' Andy, I do feel that when it is remembered, its strengths and its flaws must be taken together.

1 comment:

Gonzo said...

This reminds me - your proposed topic for John's class brought to mind a slew of readings in radio studies. As you might imagine (or already know?) there's a great deal of work on Amos n' Andy as well as other shows of the era and the depictions of African Americans. I think you mentioned the term racial ventriloquy, which a lot of this scholarship is based on. Might be a place to start a foundation for your project.