Amos 'n' Andy

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Amos 'n' Andy

In the history of American popular culture, no program was both as popular and controversial as the Amos 'n' Andy show. The series, which ran on radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) in several formats from 1928 to 1960, is perhaps the most popular radio series of all time. Created by white performers Charles Correll (1890–1972) and Freeman Gosden (1899–1982), the series revolved around the comedic misadventures of two black characters—Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown. The characters later appeared on their own television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) program from 1950 to 1953. Although the show was extremely popular, many African American groups, led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), charged that the characters were racist caricatures and demeaning to the black community. Complaints about its content eventually led to the cancellation of the radio series and the removal of the TV show from syndication. Amos 'n' Andy is now most remembered for perpetuating the stereotypes of black minstrelsy (traveling entertainment). The show also constitutes a prime example of the limited opportunities faced by black entertainers during the first half of the twentieth century.

Gosden and Correll were both white performers with roots in the Confederate South. They met in 1919 while working for an entertainment company that offered its services to amateur and local theatrical groups. By 1925, the pair had moved to Chicago, Illinois, and were producing a radio show on WGN. The program, titled Sam 'n' Henry, centered on Sam Smith and Henry Johnson, two poor blacks who migrated from Birmingham, Alabama, to Chicago to seek their fortunes. Gosden and Correll performed the characters themselves by employing an exaggerated black dialect. Although the series was a popular success, Gosden and Correll left WGN after a contract dispute in 1927. On March 19, 1928, they premiered Amos 'n' Andy on Chicago's WMAQ. Like Sam and Henry, Amos and Andy were two poor blacks who had left the South for a better life in the North. Amos was the honest, humble, and intelligent owner of the Fresh-Air Taxicab Company. Andrew "Hog" Brown was a lazy, shiftless, dim-witted schemer.

During its peak, Amos 'n' Andy claimed some forty million listeners—one third of the nation. People from all walks of life were enthusiastic fans of the show, including presidents Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) and Herbert Hoover (1874–1964). Department stores regularly played the program over their loudspeakers. Movie theaters interrupted films so their patrons would not miss the next installment of the series. In Raised on Radio, author Gerald Nachman quotes the celebrated playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), who when asked about his visit to the United States said, "There are three things I shall never forget about America—the Rocky Mountains, Niagara Falls, and Amos 'n' Andy." The series is credited with altering the entertainment habits of the nation. Amos 'n' Andy also spurred the sale of radios and provided free entertainment for millions of Americans who were struggling through the Great Depression (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2). The show became a national obsession as newspapers printed recaps of the previous night's program. Fans threatened to boycott Pepsodent, the series' sponsor, if Amos's wife was allowed to die. Amos and Andy were not only heard on the radio; they also appeared in films and comic strips, on records, and on a vast array of toys and other merchandise. Amos 'n' Andy created several national catchphrases including "Holy mack'el!," "Ah's regusted," and "Buzz me, Miss Blue." The series, which incorporated many elements of ethnic vaudeville humor, was known for its warm, character-driven humor and its large supporting cast. Amos and Andy spent much of their time with a character named George "Kingfish" Stevens, a colorful con man. The Kingfish became so popular that he became more prominent than either Amos or Andy. On the TV series, most episodes centered on the battles between the Kingfish and his nagging wife, Sapphire.

Despite their widespread adulation, Amos and Andy were not loved by all segments of the population. The program was very popular among most black Americans, but a significant minority viewed Correll and Gosden's characterizations as a racial slur. In 1931, the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, received a petition with nearly 750,000 names demanding the program be removed from the local airwaves. Opposition toward the show only increased when it was transplanted to TV, where the cast was entirely composed of black actors. In 1951, the NAACP filed a complaint with CBS stating that the show "strengthened the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb, and dishonest." Many other blacks rallied to the program, claiming it was one of the few mediums through which black performers could gain recognition and earn a living. They also argued the series presented some admirable black representations, such as doctors, lawyers, and businessmen not seen in other areas of popular culture.

Sociologists and cultural historians have long debated the significance of Amos 'n' Andy. Some argue the show was truly funny and simply employed the same kind of characters and malapropisms (misuse of words, often with comic effect) that dominated later black TV sitcoms (see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) of the 1970s and 1980s, like The Jeffersons (1975—85), Good Times (1974–79), and Sanford and Son (1972–77). Others counter its characters were degradingly portrayed and validated racist attitudes toward blacks. A 1983 documentary, Amos 'n' Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy, explored the series' implications on African American culture. Within recent years, episodes of both the radio and the TV programs have become more widely available. Amos 'n' Andy continues to loom large on the cultural landscape and will surely remain a source of controversy and debate.

—Charles Coletta

For More Information

Andrews, Bart, and Ahrgus Juilliard. Holy Mackerel!: The Amos 'n' AndyStory. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986.

Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ely, Melvin. The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of anAmerican Phenomenon. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

Greenberg, Bob, producer and writer. Amos 'n' Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy (video). M. R. Avery Productions, 1983.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1992.

Nachman, Gerald. Raised on Radio. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

Schutz, David. The Original Amos 'n' Andy Web Page. (accessed on February 14, 2002).