Melvin Ely gives the low down on ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’

The humor of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was very popular during the Jim Crow era. In order to accommodate the enormous numbers of the radio show’s fans, factories reorganized shifts and civic organizations reorganized meetings.

During a recent talk at Randolph-Macon College, Melvin Patrick Ely, the author of “The Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon,” said that 40 million people in the country watched “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” during this time.

With the show’s racial context in mind, Ely said that “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was “an ink blot test… (in which) what a listener thinks it means tells more about the listener than it does the program itself. …this is a show that has black fans, liberal white fans and Ku Klux Klan fans.”

The people who wanted to justify their racist views could have done so by watching the radio-turned-television program. Ely showed a clip where such bigotry was apparent. It included a black janitor who spoke slowly and was obviously uneducated and not very intelligent.

However, the two main characters, Amos and Andy, were both portrayed as moral and intelligent men. They dressed in nice suits and spoke properly. In another scene shown by Ely, Amos, with tears in his eyes, explained the Lord’s Prayer to his daughter. This directly contrasted the character of the janitor. Andy also spent one episode trying to earn some extra money to buy a little girl a great Christmas present.

Although the show had many fans, it was not without its critics, especially among the black population. But there was even disagreement among the African-Americans who did not support the show. One group disagreed with the show because they believed that it negatively portrayed blacks while another group disagreed with it because they said that it tricked a good deal of blacks into liking the show in order to justify mocking black people, said Ely.

Whites viewed the show completely differently. Ely sited an article written during the the show’s popularity in which the white author emphasized the fact that the show “never slurred or insulted the black race.” Ely’s take on this was that “whites could enjoy the show just a little bit more if they believed that blacks weren’t offended by it…. Some white people began to be a little bit embarrassed (about racial discrimination).”

During his talk, Ely had some interesting viewpoints on the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” series. Although there was, and still is, a great deal of disagreement over the different aspects of the program, its popularity lives on and it can not be compared to any shows on television today.

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