Pittsburgh Courier, 1931

The point in time when the Roaring Twenties were silenced by the Great Depression was also the era of several important African-American newspapers. The biggest sellers, circulating nationally, were The Chicago Defender, The Afro-American, and The Pittsburgh Courier.

The latter was founded in 1907, and ran the words of W.E.B. Dubois, James Weldon Johnson, and Marcus Garvey. In 1932, it would be influential in shifting the political ideology of many Blacks from Republican to Democrat.

In 1931, it was a key voice of protest against Amos ‘n’ Andy. The Courier initiated a petition to have the show taken off the air, its stated goal to amass a million signatures. Sanctioned by the NAACP, the paper charged Amos ‘n’ Andy with the “exploitation of Negroes for profit, portrayal of demeaning characters, and making the Negroes’ means of support suspect.”

In the show’s hometown, the Windy City, another Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, had an altogether different outlook. That paper, far from being offended, not only spoke out against the Courier, but also threw a large picnic for children, inviting Gosden and Correll to perform.

Gosden and Correll presented a defense that may not have represented enough savvy to persuasively deal with the complicated issues at hand. A comment from Gosden was, “We have a deep respect for the black man. We feel our show helps characterize Negroes as interesting and dignified human beings.” The books and articles on Amos ‘n’ Andy’s tumultuous history give us very little in the way of complex discussions of race from its creators.

However, along with the dismissals of the program as being hopelessly backward, or, worse, malicious, there are many other viewpoints. Marla Gibbs, probably most famous for her role as Florence, the caustic maid on “The Jeffersons,” speaking in a 1983 TV documentary, Amos ‘n’ Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy, said that while she was no enemy of the show, those who were may have been reacting to the fact that at the time, the buffoonery portrayed on the show was just about the only representation of Blacks.

Many Blacks appreciated the portrayals and just liked the humor. Some found the characters actually relatable, but the more common reaction was to dismiss the idea that the slapstick shenanigans on the program were meant to represent all of Black America any more than the antics of White characters were meant to symbolize White America in general.

One attitude many Black listeners had was one of curiosity, of being surprised at what they were hearing, and later, seeing on TV. In his essay “Amos ‘n’ Andy: Past As Prologue?” Mark Freeman quotes Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminiscing about his mother shouting “‘someone colored...colored!’’ was on TV, urging the kids to come down and have a look at Amos ‘n’ Andy. University of California Professor Patricia Davis said Amos ‘n’ Andy gave “confirmation that there were blacks in the world.” Does this justify portrayals that can be considered offensive or damaging? James Oliver Horton writes, “Blacks are expected to accept that which demeans them as humorous,” a state of affairs that can of course add insult to injury. He adds that at the same time, “some could remain detached enough from the racial insult of Amos ‘n’ Andy to appreciate the universality of the characters.”

“Amos ‘n’ Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy.” M.R. Avery Productions. 1983.
Character Depth: Multiple Layers in Amos ‘n’ Andy. xroads.virginia.edu.