[April 20th marks the 50th anniversary of NPR’s first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of radio histories and contexts, leading up to a Guest Post from a colleague whose upcoming book on college radio should be a must-read!]
On blackface radio, and what makes it distinctive from other such performances.
In this piece for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, I traced some of the many layers to blackface performance’s influences on 20th century American culture. As usual, when I share another piece of my writing, I’ll ask you to check that out if you could, and then to come on back here for the remaining paragraphs of this post. (And if you want to read more on blackface, check out the work of historian Rhae Lynn Barnes, our leading expert on the subject.)
Welcome back! It stands to reason that if (as I argue in that piece) every other genre and medium of 20th century American popular culture was influenced by blackface performance, from film to TV to animation, then radio would be as well. And indeed it was, with one of the longest-running radio programs in history, Amos ‘n’ Andy (1928-1960), as a striking case in point. Created by a pair of white actors and comedians, Freeman Gosden and Charles Cornell, who had met in Durham, North Carolina and were each steeped in the blackface minstrelsy tradition, A&A featured Gosden and Cornell performing the voices of its titular two African American characters who lived in Harlem. As with so much of blackface performance, the show relied on exaggeration and stereotypes to create laughs, putting its characters in ridiculous situations and letting their caricatured perspectives and contrasting personalities produce hilarity out of those extremes. But you don’t need to listen to a word to know that the show epitomized blackface performance—just look at the original poster!
So Amos ‘n’ Andy was definitely an example of blackface performance, and needs to be criticized for the same flaws and faults, and the same destructive cultural and social effects, as the genre overall. But I would say that there’s at least one difference when it comes to blackface radio compared to other media, and while I don’t want to overstate it, I believe it has some significance. Because a radio program can’t use visual cues, slapstick comedy, exaggerated reactions, ridiculous makeup, and so on, it relies almost entirely on the voices of its characters. And while of course those voices can be exaggerated and stereotyped as well (and were in the case of A&A), the simple fact of two characters being voiced week after week, over a period of decades, creates a more multi-layered and three-dimensional depiction of those voices, perspectives, and characters than might be possible in more visual forms of blackface performance. Amos Jones and Andrew Hogg Brown certainly weren’t the most progressive of characters (again, far from it), but they are likely two of the most well-developed in the history of radio and pop culture, and there’s a resonance to that which I would argue illustrates the potential of radio programs even amidst cultural limitations.
Next RadioStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other radio histories or stories you’d share?