radio

Whites As Blacks

American radio was not particularly accommodating to black actors. Although black comedians found occasional employment in broadcasting, most of the preferred racial roles were filled by white actors. This was possible, of course, because audiences did not see the person to whom they were listening. Stations and networks found it preferable to hire whites to play such characters as Amos and Andy, Beulah, and dozens of other comedy characters. Furthermore, such representation had been standard for a century before radio. Since the 1830s, minstrels had utilized blackface comedians who used burnt cork, coarse wigs, and stereotyped dialect to entertain generations of white patrons. Radio, therefore, simply inherited and perpetuated a tradition deep in American popular culture. Radio also imitated the other popular arts in the manner in which it characterized blacks. Except for bandleaders and singers, broadcast depictions were almost always insensitive distortions of African-American reality for, as "lovable" and humorous as were black characters, they were most objectionable because they were the only depiction of black life consistently aired.

Specifically, the stereotypes generally conformed to one of three familiar types: Coons, Toms, and Mammies. The Coon was derived directly from minstrel shows. He was above all the clown of radio—murdering the English language with malapropos, conniving to fleece a comrade out of money, fumblingly avoiding gainful employment, and wheezing out his words in ignorant accents unfamiliar to actual African-Americans. Above all, the Coon confirmed the racist slur that black society was populated with stupid and scheming dolts.

To counter this portrayal, however, radio presented the Tom, the loyal soul whose goodness and gentleness could never be disturbed. The Tom might be religious, relatively sober-minded, or even grandfatherly, but he was primarily the submissive, "good nigger" whose existence gave reassurance to white audiences that there were forces of reason at work within the black community. Thus, the Tom was an antidote to the unpredictable rascality of the Coon.

The Mammy may have existed for the sake of humor, but structurally she operated as a social suppressor of the black male threat. Toward white people, the mammy was always cordial and deferential, courteous to the point of self-depreciation. Within black society, however, she offered an image of black women as a mixture of quick temper, earthy wisdom, and loving maternity. No one could bake like a Mammy, and no one cared for her wards more conscientiously. But, no one could rant like her, either. She would take backtalk from no black person, especially a black man. The Mammy may have added feminine warmth and intuition to a stereotype of African-American life, but she could control the men of her race.

These minstrel-based caricatures were found not only in radio, but in the various media of popular culture—film, theater, print, and music. Such unflattering typologies, moreover, were not reserved for blacks. At the turn of the century, when the wave of struggling immigrants was so high, America made its humor at the expense of groups such as Italians, Jews, Germans, and Greeks. Decades before, the Chinese had been familiar targets of disrespectful representations.

Yet, blacks were the oldest American racial group to be so thoroughly denigrated. In a society where his assimilation was hampered by skin color as well as legal and extra-legal servitude, the African-American was practically a resident alien. As such, blacks were uprooted from their historical past, denied economic independence, and thwarted in attempts at social self-fulfillment. As a social group they lacked power and wealth, vital factors within an achievement-oriented society. Blacks remained chronically at the bottom of the social scale, therefore, and were continually vulnerable to the ridicule of those above them.

Still, programs such as Amos ‘n’ Andy, for example, enjoyed apparent popularity among black listeners. For several years after this program disappeared from the top of the Hooper ratings, it remained a solid favorite in the American South, an area heavily populated with African-Americans. A fan magazine in 1933 illustrated the ambivalence that surrounded such programming. It noted that while black lawyers were seeking a court injunction against Amos 'n' Andy, a charity group in Harlem had telegraphed its thanks to the stars of the show "for being friends of the Negro race.”

Years later Dr. E. I. Robinson, president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a strong foe of the program, suggested that he was not opposed to the program as much as he was to the one-dimensional view radio gave to blacks. Speaking in 1950, Robinson remarked, "The sooner they're off the air, the better it will be for the Negro. Radio points to one side of the Negro, the worst side, most frequently."

Although the Georgia Minstrels and other minstrel programs had been broadcast in the early 1920s, it was not until the success of Amos 'n' Andy in 1929 that the tradition of minstrel comedy was accepted nationally as an institution in radio. Portrayed by two white comedians, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the blackface characters within two years became the favorite radio personalities of millions of Americans. Erik Barnouw has related how factories altered their working shifts to allow employees to listen to Amos 'n' Andy, Monday through Saturday evenings from 7 to 7:15. Their popularity was legitimized, moreover, when President Herbert Hoover invited them to perform at the White House. And they were largely responsible for the rapid rise in the sale of radio sets and parts which rose from $650,550,000 in 1928, to $842,548,000 in 1929.

As the blackface characters, Gosden and Correll made records for the Victor Company, launched a comic strip that was syndicated by the Chicago Daily News, appeared in 1930 in a feature motion picture, and in 1933 provided their minstrel voices for a pair of animated cartoons. Even a candy bar was named after the characters. In this manner Amos 'n' Andy became part of the American lifestyle. In March 1930, the New York Telephone Company confirmed this fact when it reported that during their broadcasts rows of operators now sat idly where they had always been active with families using telephones to plan evening activities.

Amos 'n' Andy remained an enduring radio feature. Despite several changes in format and networks, the program continued until the late 1950s. The characters originally lived in Chicago, but eventually moved to Harlem. They conducted much of their humorous business from the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge Hall. Here were found all of the stereotypes which radio borrowed from minstrelsy.

Amos, described by Gosden and Correll as "trusting, simple, unsophisticated," was the Tom who brought sobriety into each program. Andy Brown, "domineering, a bit lazy,” was the oafish Coon who perpetually was chasing women and being swindled by his friends. One of the auxiliary characters created by Freeman Gosden eventually came to dominate the program. In George "Kingfish" Stevens, the series presented the rascal Coon stereotype, a wheeler-dealer whose plans for quick money frequently involved cheating his friends, but never involved getting a job. The Kingfish, thus, was the classic "shiftless loafer" whose indolence forced him to become a schemer, and whose scheming alienated him from "respectable" people. This dilemma was explained in a conversation between the Kingfish and his shrewish, Mammy wife, Sapphire, in the broadcast of April 22, 1947: Sapphire: George Stevens, I done made up my mind that I'm gonna have a husband that dresses good, knows nice people, and is got a steady job.

    Kingfish: Sapphire, you mean to say that you is gonna leave me?
    Sapphire: George, I know why you're a no-good bum. It's on account of your association with Andy Brown. Why don't you try to meet a nicer class of men?
    Kingfish: Well, I ain't got da opportunity to meet 'em, they's all workin'.
    Sapphire: Well, that Andy Brown is the cause of it all. What has he ever accomplished?
    Kingfish: Well, yesterday he had a run of thirteen balls in da side pocket without leanin' on da table.
    Sapphire: Now, that's exactly what I mean: Andy hangin' around a pool table all day. Why don't he go to a cultured place like a public library?
    Kingfish: They ain't got no pool table there.
The success of Amos 'n' Andy inspired many blackface imitators. As early as 1929, George and Rufus appeared on WOV (Brooklyn). Other groups in the 1930s included such teams as Honey and Alexander on WBT (Charlotte), Moonshine and Sawdust on The Gulf Show, Buck and Wheat on Aunt Jemima, and Rastus and Jasper on the Modern Minstrels program. Some of these groups possessed outlandish names, such as Sugarfoot and Sassafras, Anaesthetic and Cerebellum on KGW (Portland, Oregon), and Watermelon and Cantaloupe on the Corn Cob Pipe Club program over WEAF (New York City).

 

Two white men who enjoyed great popularity as minstrel comics were Pat Padgett and Pick Malone. At one point in the mid-1930s they broadcast on Monday nights as Pick and Pat on the Dill's Best Show, and on Thursday evenings as Molasses 'n' January on the Show Boat program. As Pick and Pat they even made motion pictures.

Such blackface duets also appeared as male-and-female groups. Here, radio produced such teams as Conjure and Caroline on WOR, Magnolia and Sunflower over WGY (Schenectady) , Lulu and Leander on WXYZ, and Emmaline and Easy, also on WGY. In most instances, the female character was actually portrayed by a white man speaking an octave above his normal voice. In the case of Lizzie Titus and Mrs. Emma Potts, a female minstrel duet on WLW (Cincinnati), however, both women were played by men.

One of the most popular and long-running network series featuring a white actress as an African-American character was Aunt Jemima. Even before she became a radio personality, Aunt Jemima was a commercial figure created by Quaker Oats for its pancake flour. As portrayed by Tess Gardella, a white woman, the jovial Mammy figure made Victor recordings in the 1920s and achieved success on Broadway in 1928 in the Jerome Kern musical, Showboat. Her role in the musical probably was responsible for creating her radio series the same year. As played by Gardella and her successors—Harriet Widmer in 1935, and Vera Lane in 1943—Aunt Jemima was a fat and happy Mammy figure whose songs, conversation, and pancake commercials kept the morning program on radio until the 1950s.

If Aunt Jemima captured many of the attributes of the Mammy, and the minstrel duets capitalized upon the stereotypes of Toms and Coons, Jimmy Scribner in The Johnson Family possessed the widest possible range of black caricature. In this serial which began in 1936, Scribner, a white man, demonstrated the twenty-two separate African-American voices he had developed. Even a stereotyped program like Folks from Dixie, which in 1933 broadcast on NBC its weekly "humorous sketch of Negro life," was enacted by several men and women. But Scribner, operating originally at WLW, and later on the Mutual network, played every role for over a decade. In 1948 Scribner developed a similar program solely for children. In Sleepy Joe he played the story-telling Tom role, as well as the voices of all the animals in his tales—voices that were also stereotyped black characterizations. Scribner's success, no doubt, encouraged the Liberty Network to syndicate from Dallas, in 1951, a white man, Brooks Read, in a similar Uncle Remus series.

The resentment that many blacks felt toward such consistent stereotyping of both blacks as blacks, and whites as blacks, was profound and telling. One critic aptly summarized this hostility when in 1931 she challenged the racist impulse in radio:

The radio should not be prostituted to the teaching of race inferiority or spreading mischievous propaganda that will generate contempt or antagonism between the races. The Negro is permitted to sing spirituals or do burlesque stuff over the radio, but not to speak over a nation-wide network. He is never given a nation-wide chance to talk to people of this country. What is the fear? Why the boycott?"

For the most part, such condemnation was not seriously heard by those involved with radio programming. Not until the threat of war emanated from Nazi Germany—the most perfected form of racism in the Western world—did a sizable number of radio officials move to offset bigotry in American broadcasting.

Continue Reading        Previous