White on Black in Black and White
By Martin P. Kafka
Who knew that Amos Jones and Andrew Brown (a.k.a.) Amos n’ Andy were conceived, written, and voice-dubbed by two white-skinned black-face actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll who first conceived their distinctive characters while producing a radio drama series.
Having thrived by learning to mimic American negroes’ distinctive jargon, their very successful minstrel show performances groomed Amos n’ Andy to reach an ever-expanding radio audience and became the first radio program to be nationally syndicated.
With the advent of black and white television in 1936, the successful radio drama series eventually morphed into the Amos n’ Andy Show, a half-hour weekly comedy series. White voices were replaced by black actors and black voices, of course, whose humorous, folksy, but sometimes denigrating depiction of black culture and racial stereotyping was eventually censured by the NAACP. Eventually, social pressures forced the show to leave the air waves in 1966.
As a kid, I was studious and not much of a television watcher, but I fell in love with Amos n’ Andy, Kingfish, Sapphire, and Momma. Their humor–and especially Kingfish’s outlandish money-making schemes–consistently kept my attention. I especially recall Kingfish because of his enthusiastic naivete, his persistent entrepreneurial spirit, and his legacy expression, “Holy Mackerel!” These TV characters were sentimentalists, and I adored them. The show’s brand of “black” humor memorably tickled my white-kid funny bone. When they bungled, I giggled, and that was the way it was in Flatbush during the early and middle fifties.
In the all-white neighborhood I grew up in, “racially mixed” translated to ethnically mixed which further translated to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all mixed on the same street in private homes. When we kids played stickball, stoop-ball, or the Three-Steps-to-Germany variant of street curb tag, we cared about ‘athleti-city,’ not ethnicity. During the winter holiday season, in my parents’ generation, menorahs were prominently displayed in front facing windows on my block. Some houses had Christmas lights and real Xmas trees. For their generation, the racial issue wasn’t black and white–it was the Jew, the Gentile, and the long shadow of the Holocaust. Both my mother and her mother frequently spoke of “the Goyim” as if they were some “other” or alien race to be wary of. I recall really disliking it when they spoke that way, but in retrospect, it was their ethnically-tinged way of saying “Jewish Lives Matter.” My grandmother had barely survived Cossack progroms in Russia, and both my mom and dad served during World War Two.
So, Amos, Andy, Kingfish, and the rest of your heartwarming crew, although you are all long gone now, your African American legacy has evolved into today’s Black Lives Matter movement. I know that you would all be proud marchers for racial justice in today’s America. And I hope that, in coming days, our culture will become less white on black in black and white.