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The (Brief) Return of Amos ‘n Andy

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Amos 'n Andy, the television show, was hauled off the air in the sixties, after years of protest by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP and its leader Benjamin Hooks and other African-American organizations and many African-Americans detested the stereotypical caricatures portrayed in the show. The show presented the antics of Amos Jones, a middle-of-the-roader who accepted the racial status quo, Andrew Hogg “Andy” Brown, a dim-witted, failed entrepreneur, George “Kingfish” Stevens, a scheming, overly clever smooth talker, Algonquin J. Calhoun, a crooked, third-rate attorney, Lightin’, a slow talking, slow stepping janitor, Sapphire, a loud back-talking wife, and Mama, a bossy, opinionated mother-in-law, as a microcosm of the entire American black urban community.

The show was viewed as a representation of all of black America. That there were no admirable characters in the show told viewers that there were no admirable people in black America – just clowns and buffoons. The show had a talented cast and was well written and produced, but was wrong for the times, perhaps wrong for any time. Some people contend that if there had been competing black television shows at the time which portrayed African-Americans in a more positive light, that counterbalance would have created more tolerance for the negative stereotyping that took place in Amos n’ Andy. A positive, counterbalancing view and the high quality of the acting would have saved Amos 'n Andy – maybe.

Many of the show’s themes involved Andy and the Kingfish. Sometimes, Andy had something the Kingfish wanted, but most often, the Kingfish was trying to bamboozle Andy in some business deal or another. Whether it was selling Andy a lot with a movie-prop house façade as a full-scale home, selling him land with the false claim that it had valuable oil deposits on it, or selling Andy a restaurant that would soon lose its customers because of the rerouting of a busy highway. The Kingfish could always smooth-talk the dim-witted Andy into the web of his many schemes. And, whenever Andy resisted, the Kingfish often enlisted the help of their fellow lodge member, the under-esteemed Algonquin J. Calhoun, Esquire. Together, the two frequently carried out their plans to dupe Andy, but karma was always on Andy’s side, and their schemes always backfired on them. The Kingfish’s charm was that he was always as glib explaining his way out of the situation as he was conning Andy into it. The Kingfish was a master at subterfuge and trickery and Calhoun often helped by paving the way.
There were many episodes of the show in which, when the Kingfish’s schemes were uncovered, the Kingfish would use whatever evidence Andy or Sapphire (his most frequent targets), had against him to prove his good intentions. The Kingfish would recite the same evidence that pointed to his guilt, twist it a little, to prove that he had committed no wrong, legal or otherwise, and that he meant no harm.

I was watching a cable news station for most of the day on May 27 when the story broke about the release of the secretly recorded telephone conversation between now Senator Roland Burris, Democrat of Illinois, and Robert Blagojevich, the brother of Rod Blagojevich, then the Democratic Governor of Illinois. In the conversation, Mr. Burris could be heard cooking up Kingfish style (Now let me see here) scenarios on how to pay for an appointment to the US Senate seat vacated by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States. Mr. Burris ran through many of the possibilities, and having found them all to be equally unsatisfying, promised to send a personal check for the governor before November 15 (2008). What is heard in that telephone conversation is clear: Mr. Burris was willing to help the governor financially in exchange for appointment to the US Senate.

Mr. Burris even disclosed that his backers, the people from whom he would raise money to donate to the embattled governor, would be disappointed if after laying out their cash, their man did not get the appointment, thereby denying them a seat at the table of power. What this says is that Mr. Burris was already divvying up shares in the Senate seat he was now seeking to buy. The Kingfish would be proud — and envious. Now, none of you ought to be snickering. This is a near normal transaction in politics; it is only because of the release of the wiretap that we get this glimpse into the inner workings of government.

In an early segment of the news, I saw Senator Burris’s attorney and law partner, Tim Wright, explaining how the secretly caught conversation proved that Mr. Burris had done no wrong, because it showed that Mr. Burris was only placating the governor’s brother to stay in their good graces while the Senate seat was still open. If Mr. Burris had made a contribution to the governor, his attorney explained, it would had been for under five thousand dollars, far short of what a Senate seat could bring on the open market. This trifling amount, in itself, proved that Mr. Burris could not be attempting to buy his way into the Senate. But since Mr. Burris never intended to make a contribution to the governor and never did, the taped conversation proves that he did not engage in “pay-to-play,” a form of Chicago political affirmative action.  Oh yeah, I thought, man, that reminds me of Algonquin J. Calhoun – just the argument Calhoun would make in defense of his client George (Kingfish) Stevens. The information you have that shows my client’s guilt, if you turn it over, it also shows my client’s innocence.

Then later, I saw the senator on television, stumbling and shuddering through the same explanation as had his Calhoun. He was only trying to hoodwink Andy (in this episode played in white face by Governor Rod Blagojevich) into appointing him to the Senate, and he had done no wrong. Mr. Burris admitted that he told anyone who would listen that he wanted that appointment. In this episode, Andy had something the Kingfish wanted. You see, Mr. Burris had already purchased his mausoleum and had all of his great achievements inscribed upon it. Chief among his achievements were these: He had been a foreign exchange student at the University of Hamburg in Germany, he had been elected as State Comptroller and Attorney General of Illinois. It would be grand if US Senator could be included on his mausoleum. The inscription would have to read “Appointed” and not “Elected” but that would be okay, it would be like when parents tell their adopted children that they’re special because they were “chosen” and had not come to them from the natural process where parents don’t have a choice.

Senator Burris was reminded by his interviewer that he had stated on several occasions that he had made no attempts to pay-to-play. He made this assertion on television, before the US Senate and before the Illinois State Legislature, two of these times he was under oath, and now the disclosure of the wiretapped conversation with the governor’s brother disputed his claim. Mr. Burris shuddered through a maze of unrelated words that ended with him declaring that he did not make a contribution to the governor and therefore had done no wrong. This was his story and he was sticking with it, or, maybe to it.

The return of Amos 'n Andy in the persons of Roland Burris and Rod Blagojevich brought back a flood of memories; I was surprised that I related the incident to my very mixed feelings about that show, but hearing Mr. Wright’s explanation on television immediately brought back my youthful fondness for Algonquian J Calhoun, and I started shaping the comparison in my mind as events developed. I was happy that it was I, a black man, who made the comparison and not a white person from my era, because I can’t come to the belief that a white person would have brought the same degree of empathy (a word in the news these days) to the comparison. Senator Burris is a very accomplished man and I don’t intend to diminish any of his great accomplishments by pointing out this one similarity to the great Kingfish.  I mean the man rose to be one of only four (Edward Brooks ( R ) MA, Carol Moseley Braun (D) IL, Barack Obama (D) IL) black United States Senators since reconstruction. But I can see him now with both his hands to his cheeks uttering that great Kingfish lament “Holy Mackerel Andy, What is I gon do now.”

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About Horace Mungin

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Beautiful! Corruption as sitcom! Life imitates art!

    I hadn’t thought of how much Israeli politics imitates “Amos’n Amdy”, but it does. And that sitcom plays day after day, with our tax dollars and lives as the bait for the local “Kingfish”, in all of his various guises in Israel. The races and culture seem so different – but S-W-I-N-D-L-E seems to spell the same in Hebrew and in Emglish. You may rue having written this article in future. I’ll be referring back to it time and again (with proper accreditation, of course!) to skewer the petty and gross thieves and swindlers in Israeli politics who make our lives miserable. Humor is just as effective as denunciation, and I’m gonna have me a ball!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Another great article, Horace. I can’t comment on the show (wasn’t in US until 61). What I do find interesting, however, is the lack of response from our little, politically astute, I should think, BC community.

    The point you’re making is universal, and yet . . .