Hellooo, dere, Kingfish!!
Racism as writ on the small, flickering screen of television became an entertainment institution.
There are those who mistakenly believe that negative stereotypical portrayals of blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans on television are a thing of the past, however.
Such people should look to the earliest days of network broadcasting and ask themselves where they have seen such hideous portrayals of minorities – chances are good it was while watching television just last night.
The Southern slaveholder labored under the illusion his slaves were happy in their state of enslavement. That sentiment is reflected callously and casually in the song “The Old Kentucky Home” (written by Stephen Foster, 1826-1864, during his lifetime but discovered in a cache posthumously and printed in 1893). The song in its first verse carried the line “’Tis summer, the Darkies are gay”. [As a nod to the racism of such a lyric, that has been changed to “’Tis summer, the people are gay”. Another line in the song read “The time has come when the darkies have to part”. This, too, was changed: “The time has come when the people have to part”. Under the title “My Old Kentucky Home” this song, longing for “simpler” times when slave children rolled around “the little cabin floor”, had its politically corrected lyrics adapted by the Commonwealth of Kentucky by legislative action in 1986.]
The happy, singing, clowning Southern “darky” was the model for an institutionalized form of racist entertainment known as minstrelsy or blackface. These were characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks as adapted by whites. Minstrelsy took the positive artistic cultural contributions of blacks in America and turned them into caricatures to be laughed at by white Americans (under the guise of entertainment). The shuffling, slow-drawlin’ Negro was a means of making white audiences laugh.
And yet it was not African-Americans who were doing the acting. It was white men and women, in “blackface”, a sooty application of cheap makeup concocted from burnt cork. Completing the picture were white gloves (to exaggerate the whiteness of the palms of the average black person), and finally a clown mouth drawn on in white to contrast directly with the blackness of the burnt-cork makeup. Topping it off were nappy wigs and, voilà – a “black” minstrel was allowed to go onstage and engage in his or her buffoonery to the delight of vaudeville audiences everywhere. [In one of this “art” form’s more ironic situations these minstrel shows occasionally featured true African-Americans as singers and dancers. And yet, these players were also required to cover their faces in soot, the white clown make-up, and the white gloves to avoid revealing their race to white audiences!]
As early as the first decades of the 19th Century, minstrelsy was popular. The characters themselves became fixtures in both the culture of America and in its speech. Jim Crow originated in 1830; a white minstrel performer, Thomas “Daddy” Rice, used charcoal paste or burnt cork on his face. He danced a jig as he sang a song, “Jump Jim Crow.” Another character of the time was created by George Dixon in 1834. Named “Zip Coon” the character cut an arrogant, ostentatious figure, dressing high style and speaking loftily in malapropisms and puns. This character skewered freed blacks – those trying to better themselves with education and by learning professions – and it served only to belittle their efforts.
These two characters were surprisingly, and annoyingly, durable, and were recast by many other minstrels over the decades. By the time of the turn of the 20th Century the two had been merged into one stereotypical character that became known as the “coon”.
It was the Italian physicist and inventor, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) who first realized radio’s potential as a broadcast medium when he sent a ship-to-shore message over the airwaves. He also sent messages by wireless across the English Channel in 1899. True radio frequency communications had been demonstrated and shown to be practical as well. Marconi later shared a Nobel Prize in physics in 1909 for his contributions to the invention of radio.
In Marconi’s mind, though, radio was the medium for maritime and industry. He envisioned only point-to-point communications, and did not foresee the power of broadcasting (taken from the same term describing sowing a field by throwing handfuls of seed to the winds, letting them fall where they may to take root – “broadcasting”). He similarly could not have understood the entertainment value of broadcasting radio programming.
When radio sets became more affordable in the 1920s, it was unfortunately during the time when America’s race relations were at their most strained. An openly racist President was in the White House at the dawn of the decade, Woodrow Wilson. In the music business, certain popular 78-rpm discs were recorded that printed the genre of the song contained on them as “Coon Music”. [By the 1940s, this term evolved into “Race Record”, then finally to “Rhythm and Blues”.] And on the radio, many performers carried their minstrel blackface acts, all racist stereotyping intact, from the vaudeville stage to the radio broadcast studio.
Though a songwriter himself, Jolson had not written “My Mammy”. Written by another tunesmith in 1921, the song was first performed by stage actor William Frawley (who would go on to immortality as TV’s “Fred Mertz” in the classic late 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy).
This song on its surface is clearly an homage to a son’s mother, but it also is a sly reference to yet another “darky” minstrel character from the 19th Century, the “Mammy” (familiar to
African-Americans continued to be generally stereotyped on radio and in the few movie parts they could get as the decade of the 1920s neared its end. And it was in the minstrelsy’s mean-spirited parody of black life that two more white men became famous (and rich) playing black men.
WGN’s station management, wanting to capitalize on a popular comic strip of the day, approached Gosden and Correll with the idea of a radio adaptation of the strip. However, this would have required female voice impersonations which neither felt comfortable doing. They, in turn, suggested a totally different angle; recalling the minstrel tradition with which they were both familiar and wanting to work as male voices, the pair pitched the idea of a radio serial featuring “a couple of Colored characters.”
The show was christened Sam ’n’ Henry, and it debuted on January 26, 1926. The show was a huge hit, spoofing the “Colored” lifestyle, and by 1927, Gosden and Correll wanted to expand their show’s exposure. They came up with the idea of recording the show on 78-rpm discs and shipping them to other radio stations for airplay (an early form of syndication). WGN nixed the idea, and the pair quit. [Episodes ran until mid July 1928.] Since WGN owned the rights to the Sam ’n’ Henry characters, Gosden and Correll could not use them afterward.
Another station (WMAQ) hired Gosden and Correll (along with their former WGN announcer) to come up with a series similar to the successful Sam ’n’ Henry. They were enticed with salaries larger than what they’d earned at WGN, and the pair set out to re-create their earlier success. Amos ’n’ Andy started on March 9, 1928 – Gosden and Correll would later claim the names of the main characters came from a conversation overheard by two African-American men in a Chicago elevator who had addressed each other by those names.
Keeping with the idea of “broadcasting” nationwide, each show was recorded on 78-rpm discs before airing at a sound lab in the city. The program moved its operation to the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs in the early 1930s. Their show was the first to be syndicated in the US, and by August 1929, somewhere north of 70 radio stations beyond WMAQ carried their show (thanks to the records).
The humor was of the “coon” variety, appealing to white America’s sense of superiority over the hustling, conniving pair of Amos and Andy (whose developing story found them as owners of a taxi service after buying a cab). Among the cast of characters was George “the Kingfish” Stevens. This blustery blowhard was apparently modeled directly after the original “Zip Coon” minstrel character – he was always attempting to act very high-toned, and was always trying to convince Amos and Andy into becoming embroiled in yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes.
The pair did not go unchallenged for the show’s obvious stereotyping of blacks. The Philadelphia Courier (the nation’s second-largest black newspaper) in December 1930 printed a brief condemnation of the show’s lower-class characterizations of African-American and its “crude, repetitious, and moronic” dialogue. This blew up into a full-fledged crusade against the show for six months of 1931, to no avail. [An apologist/broadcast historian claimed this show’s racism was somehow more palatable than other similar programs of the period. Citing other more extreme examples, such as the vaudeville blackface act of Two Black Crows, and a minstrel headliner who recorded for Okeh Records in the late 1920s as being far worse than Amos ’n’ Andy, this is a flimsy argument.]
Considering their age (both men in their late middle years by then) and knowing that, though America was divided by the doctrine of “separate but equal”, even white-bread America could not accept white men in blackface as credible on television in recurring roles Gosden and Correll made the decision with this show to feature an almost all-black cast. [Their original scheme, however, was for the main black male actors to mouth the dialog as Gosden and Correll supplied the vocals off-stage.]
This idea was quickly scrapped, and they spent four years searching for black actors and actresses to cast the show. The show went into production in June 1951. Almost immediately it drew fire from the NAACP, and though it was a hit, it was plagued by protestations from more liberal quarters throughout its run. The creators had told of their desire to retire in 1953, and the show was done by April of that year.
Gosden and Correll returned to radio in 1955 with The Amos ’n’ Andy Music Hall, a nightly half-hour featuring music as well as the expected low-brow comedy. The radio show lasted until November 1960. The television series from the early 1950s continued in re-runs until 1966, with Civil Rights a front-burner issue, when CBS finally pulled the program totally from the airwaves.
Nat “King” Cole was perhaps one of the smoothest crooners of the 1940s. He was also elegant, articulate, attractive, and personable. His diction and enunciation on his records are trademarks of his pop vocal style, and the man had talent to burn as an accomplished jazz pianist with The King Cole Trio. [Some of his earliest records, cut during the first years of World War II, were mastered on glass discs due to the US Government’s prohibition on using valuable metals for anything other than necessities or the war effort.] Cole was already an established star of radio and recorded music. He had millions of fans, and his records were best-sellers. He was also a songwriter (penning an early minor hit “Straighten Up and Fly Right” among others).
And he was also an ideal fit for television. He was not the first “Negro” to host a variety show (two others preceded him in programs that quickly failed) but he was probably the one with the most potential for success. He had already appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show six times before getting his own program. Suave and striking in his physicality he could have been one of television’s earliest superstars and a great example of what African-Americans could achieve. However, with active segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North (still under the “separate but equal” mindset) NBC had a hard time selling his show to sponsors. [On April 10, 1956, Cole was attacked by six white men, members of a white supremacist group, The White Citizens Council, during a concert appearance in Alabama. He sustained back injuries from the assault.] Because Cole was black, many Americans could not accept him as a leading personality (ironically, as a side-kick, Jack Benny’s black valet, Rochester, was wildly popular during the same period).
NBC struggled to maintain sponsorship for the program. Carter, the personal care products maker of Arrid [sic] deodorant and Rise shaving cream, came on board. Thus, Nat King
Show after show, Nat “King” Cole brought the crème-de-la-crème of the entertainment world to his set: The Nelson Riddle Orchestra, with whom he had worked on countless occasions, was his house band. Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, and other talented African-Americans appeared on the show. His program was a class act. His professionalism was always in evidence, and his demeanor one of joy and graciousness. About the only cringe-worthy moment in the show’s run was when Cole strapped on a guitar and performed “Jailhouse Rock” (as perhaps a nod to the rock ’n’ roll handwriting on the pop music wall). Though he gamely plows his way through it competently, it is apparent he was not comfortable with the genre of rock (the closest he ever came in his recording history was a later song called “Send for Me”, more of a barrel-house vamp).
The struggles to maintain sponsorship, combined with declining ratings, led to a tough decision. Cole had no money to pay his guests, and he felt badly calling on so many big names to appear on his show for nothing or next-to nothing. In an unprecedented move, NBC offered to finance the show itself; it also wanted to move it to a different time slot on a different night, hoping to salvage its ratings. Cole felt the schedule change would only make things worse, not better.
By choice, Nat King Cole gave up his program. The last airing was on December 17, 1957. A shining moment was a duet between Cole and pop vocalist Billy Eckstine (who also throws in some surprise trumpet work as Cole played the piano). “For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television,” he wrote of his TV experience in Ebony magazine a year later.
[The next African-American given a shot at hosting his own show was entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1966. Like Nat King Cole, though, low ratings killed his program; he was forced off the air after less than four months.]
The character, developed by Dana in comedy clubs during the 1950s, was what every American typified Mexicans as: shiftless, lazy, conniving, and always looking for an easy way to make a buck, or to get out of work. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the Jiménez guise, and he cut several comedy records as the Jiménez character. He was popular for the same reason Amos ’n’ Andy was popular – the stereotype reinforced white America’s belief that “those” people were inferior, objects of scorn or to be laughed at. Bill Dana starred in a self-titled sitcom; in the Jiménez role from 1963-1965, he was a bell hop. [This show also featured Jonathan Harris – later gaining cult fame as the insipid Dr. Zachary Smith in Irwin Allen’s TV sci-fi/camp classic, Lost in Space – as a hotel manager. A pre-Get Smart Don Adams also starred as an inept house detective.]
One man who knew of racism up close and personal, and who refused to submit to the demands of the day, was Desi Arnaz. Married in 1940 to comedienne/film actress Lucille
The show had originally been pitched as a vehicle solely for Lucille Ball in 1950. She, however, refused to consider it unless her real husband, Desi, could play her TV husband. CBS balked at the idea, but to prove their point Desi and Lucy took their act on the road, doing vaudeville-style shows across America, proving that the pair – a Cuban and a “white” woman – was comedy gold.
Even so, CBS couldn’t see that “Ricky Ricardo” could be acceptable to mainstream America (unless he was a stereotype like Bill Dana’s José Jiménez). When the show was in development, though, Desi early took a firm stand on how his character was treated. He demanded that the show be positive, not demeaning, to the Latino character of Ricky. He personally approved – and hammed it up on occasion – jokes made on the show about his Hispanic accent. Otherwise, he wanted Ricky Ricardo to come off as just a regular man who happened to be an up-and-coming Cuban bandleader.
Desi Arnaz’ prescience about the way he should play (himself, in effect) on television was a definite move in the right direction for Latinos (and Latinas). And even today, in imitation of his accent, some people, in jest, will say to someone else, “You’f got some ’splainin’ to do!”
Despite the positive influence of Desi Arnaz (and he was also a powerfully placed Hollywood producer), however, most Americans still carried a negative image of Hispanics in their heads.
The most unfortunate “Frito Bandito” – a cartoon Mexican bandit embodying almost every ugly and negative prejudice about Mexicans imaginable – was the marketing brain-child of America’s gigantic snack food maker, Frito-Lay.
The “bandito” promoted “Fritos”, a salty strip-cut corn chip. He featured in commercials from 1967-1971 when complaints by an anti-defamation group combined with changing attitudes and other public pressures finally forced Frito-Lay to retire the character. The Bandito was animated by Tex Avery, and was originally voiced by Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny and any other number of classic cartoon characters).
The Frito Bandito’s commercials are capable of producing cringing.
One Asian-American man, born in 1915 in San Francisco, featured in the long-running Western TV show Bonanza (1959-1973) in a recurrent role. His character is best recalled as the head-bobbing, kowtowing, Pidgin-speaking “house boy” of the Ponderosa Ranch, Hop Sing.
The actor’s birth name was Sen Yew Cheung, but adding Victor and “Americanizing” the last name to Sen Yung gave him a working handle. He appeared in films starting in 1937, but landed his biggest string of steady work when he got a major part (that of “#2 son”, Jimmy Chan) in the Charlie Chan series of films (he starred in 17 of them).
Gaining the role of Hop Sing in Bonanza, however, was not a step up from Charlie Chan’s “#2 son”. The part of Hop Sing more often than not played on the worst of American prejudices against Asians. The Chinese had already been persecuted in America when they immigrated to take jobs building this nation’s railroads in the 1800s. Having only a little over a decade earlier been involved in World War II where one eastern Asian group was the enemy, nearly all Asians came in for racial hatred. The Japanese, of course, were the hated of the last conflict; the Koreans were not far behind thanks to America’s unnecessary involvement in the Korean Conflict of the early 1950s.
There was a dearth of television characters of Asian descent on television when Bonanza aired. Victor Sun Yeng, while probably not embracing his role, more than likely was happy to have steady acting work. Sadly, though, his part is that of a caricature, complete with mispronunciations and the substitutions of “l” for the letter “r”. Combined with his skullcap and single braid, he was a cartoon character and not a fully developed person on the show. He was mostly introduced into a scene for comic effect and nothing more. To add true insult to the cultural injury presented by the character of Hop Sing, Victor, the man, had a degree in economics earned from the University of California in Berkeley, and it is almost painful to see him cast in such a one-dimensional role.
As with Hispanics, the world of marketing felt little compunction about using an exaggerated Asian presence in its TV commercials. Jell-O featured a racist Asian stereotype in one of its older commercials. Most offensive are those for Riceland Rice, with the “It’s velly nice, it’s Liceland” language butchery, and the gross caricature of an Asian person represented (extremely bucked teeth and severely slanted eyes).
Sanford and Son may have been the best of a bad lot, but the chitlin’ humor was sometimes tough to bear. Redd Foxx starred; it was unfortunate that this man (whose “blue” comedy records of the 1960s are classic, albeit extremely tame by today’s standards) who had once been a close co-worker and personal friend of activist Malcolm X (before his conversion to Islam) would have condescended to such buffoonery. The show also starred Demond Wilson as his grown son, and though Wilson’s portrayal of son Lamont was generally thoughtful and positive, there were too many moments when the show’s writers sank to “coon” humor. Its portrayals of Hispanics were also typically remiss.
Two of the worst backsliders had to be That’s My Mama (featuring a lay-about grown black male and his morbid connection to his “mama” living in Washington, DC) and Baby, I’m Back (a sitcom based on a dead-beat dad’s return after leaving his family seven years earlier, starring Demond Wilson of Sanford and Son). [This short-lived sitcom also featured a very young Kim Fields who went on to play “Tootie” in The Facts of Life a few years later.] Good Times (featuring the excruciating ghetto-rat behavior of Jimmie Walker as “J.J.”), What’s Happening!, and The Jeffersons (though a bit smarter than the others) all featured blacks in stereotypical jive-shucking roles.
One of the lowest characters ever brought to the small screen in the 1970s was undoubtedly Starsky & Hutch’s Huggy Bear Brown. This two-bit hustler embodied almost everything negative about how white America perceived blacks – chronically on the make, looking to get over on people, uneducated, sniveling at times, filled with a transparent and easily discerned false bravado at others. It was always up to the very white cops, Starsky and Hutch, to save him many times.
Finally, Bill Cosby made a comeback in the 1980s with a runaway smash, The Cosby Show. The program showcased an upper-middle class African-American family, with two parents still married and in love with each other, and their children. The mother and father were professional people. And yet, thanks to the low expectations set in the past decades and the acceptance of the racist portrayals of blacks on shows such as Good Times, interestingly enough the black community branded the program as “too white”. It seemed inconceivable to some that black Americans could be comfortably middle class, living in nice homes with good jobs, instead of living in the projects, and talking about killing rats and roaches.
Along similar lines, Damon Wayans and Tisha Campbell headed up a successful African-American family (perhaps edgier than the Huxtables of The Cosby Show) in the early 2000’s My Wife & Kids. This program featured, again, two working parents who loved each other, and their children. They owned their own home, and the father owned a small business. The point here is that such African-American families as depicted by the vehicles starring Cosby and Wayans are not exceptional; however, the black middle class is generally ignored by the media in favor of gang bangers, rappers, and other clownish negative portrayals.
Hispanics made minor progress by at least getting main-billing in the early 1970’s with Chico and the Man (starring Jack Albertson of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the good one with Gene Wilder, not the crappy and unnecessary recent remake by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp). This was not, however, a good show by any standard. Freddie Prinze (Puerto Rican-German) cut his teeth in comedy clubs, and identified with his Puerto Rican heritage. His character on the show – Chico – was not even given any depth, however. He was mostly written as a stereotype for what Americans thought Hispanics were – fun-time shirkers. But it was a breakthrough of sorts, featuring José Feliciano singing the theme song.
She deserved much better than this, and she found it in later roles in the sci-fi/psychodrama Jacob’s Ladder and in the biopic of Fifties’ rocker Ritchie Valens, La Bamba. She had done several movies and much television since then; mostly her roles treated her as a woman and not as a Hispanic maid stereotype.
Most recently, Elizabeth played on ABC’s Modern Family as the mother of Gloria (the role Sofía Vergara brings to larger-than-living life!). Sadly, barring a stage show, this was to be among the last appearances by this wonderful woman; on October 14, 2014, this sweet woman died at the age of 55. Her cause of death was not disclosed, only that she succumbed after a short illness.
Better still was George Lopez, a sitcom that ran from 2002 through 2007. George Lopez, of Mexican ancestry, was a successful stand-up comedian and had also acted in movies. Though still occasionally stooping to cholo humor, the show pitted George Lopez’ working class ethos against his wife’s more refined background (played by the stunning and personable Constance Marie). Positive characters were represented: George’s father-in-law was a wealthy retired Cuban surgeon; George himself had an incredibly well-developed work ethic, and the show touched on many social and family issues (the son in the show had a learning disability the family had to contend with).
The Fox animated series Family Guy uses exaggerated negative stereotypes for comic effect on many occasions. While some of this is done tongue-in-cheek, much of it, however, can be purely hurtful, as in the recurrent stereotypical Mexican maid character of “Consuela”.
Asians are still mostly ignored on the small screen. Perhaps the best known Asian characters on television in the 1970s were a martial arts monk and a drive-in restaurant owner. The early 1970s brought Kung Fu to television. The main character was Kwai Chang Caine, a martial artist and Eastern monk. The series was set in the Old West. The character was often referred to as “the Chinaman” (although his back story gave his heritage as mixed Asian/Caucasian). As played by David Carradine (of solid European stock with a dash of Native American), this was equivalent to whites in blackface.
The other well-known character was Arnold, from Happy Days as played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (born in America to Japanese parents). His character, though, played as a stereotype much like Victor Sen Yung’s Hop Sing, complete with Pidgin English and servile ducking of the head.
More recently, Margaret Cho (a Korean-American lesbian comedian) had a short lived sitcom several years ago. And Lucy Liu (American of Taiwanese descent) parlayed her beauty and a supporting role on the quirky Ally McBeal (1997-2002) into superstardom, featuring in many big screen films and small screen parts.
For every step forward, such as The Cosby Show or My Wife & Kids, though, there will be a step backward. Currently, African-American Tyler Perry’s television creations – described by director Spike Lee as “coonery buffoonery” – tend to retread the old ground of minstrelsy. His characters have small ambitions, they scheme and connive, they shuck and jive and strut, and they are unfortunately what passes for black-oriented comedy on television today.
In 1971, this powerful public service commercial made the world take notice of the problem of pollution. It featured a Native American named Iron Eyes Cody who cried at the end of the commercial, indicative of the great sadness felt by seeing the land destroyed.
The unfortunate truth is that the “Indian” was born Espera Oscar de Corti in Louisiana to Sicilian immigrant parents in 1904. He spent his life pretending to be Native American, and he enjoyed a very successful career as a character actor playing Indians. The truth is he was Italian-American; the fraud was not exposed until 1996, three years before his death.
How many real Native Americans lost out on chances to portray their own people thanks to this fake?
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