When the nominees for the 2016 Oscar Awards were released, the choices were immediately criticized for their lack of diversity. Several prominent African Americans in the film industry such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee opted to boycott the award ceremony as a response, and the hashtag “#oscarssowhite” began to trend on Twitter as discussion of the nominees gained momentum. African American racial inequality can be found in most if not all forms of entertainment, but this module will specifically cover the racist portrayals of African Americans propagated during 1950s television. These stereotypes include but are not limited to the use of blackface characterizations as well as the portrayal of African American characters as uneducated and subservient to their white counterparts.
For the sake of clarity, this module defines propaganda as the distribution of information or ideas that carries an agenda to benefit or harm a person, people or movement. The biggest distinction this definition makes compared to others lies in conscious intentionality. Most examples of propaganda concern a group with an outwardly unified purpose to damage the legitimacy of another entity, but this does not hold true for the depiction of African Americans during 1950s television. It was not the case that network executives had a unified agenda to demonize African Americans during their productions, but the effect their shows had were propagandistic in nature nonetheless. Though the apparent racial stereotypes present in these publications were not part of the intended message, it does not change the impact they had on their viewer’s perceptions of African Americans.
The first concept that contributed to the demonization of African Americans during 1950s television was the use of blackface and minstrel shows. Blackface had been a popular form of entertainment for over 100 years, and the actual use of it was few and far between before the time period in question. The way blackface and minstrel shows continued the cultural narrative of the ignorant black man was through the actors’ racist characterization on stage. According to author Mel Watkins, “He became the sniveling black man who was really a coward and was ignorant and somewhat comical in his connections to the slave masters.”. As it was stated earlier, the use of blackface on television was seldom during this historical context. However, the cultural stereotypes it propagated were manifested in the examples that will be covered later in this module.
Continuing with the stereotypical depictions set forth by blackface minstrel shows, the next core concept for this module are the loaded signifiers present during the roles of African Americans during 1950s television. Most notably in the popular television series “Amos ‘N’ Andy” and “The Jack Benny Program”, the African American characters are depicted as stupid and usually speak in Ebonics. In the case of Amos ‘N’ Andy the lead characters were played by actors Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams, both of whom were African Americans. When the show first aired on the radio during the 1930s, the voices of the two principal characters were played by creators Gosden and Correll, both of whom were Caucasian. When chronicling the show’s impact on the lives of Childress and Williams in a piece for Ebony, author Edward T. Clayton expresses the same concerns about the show’s creators, “They were not Negroes, but had earned a handsome living by merely portraying their versions of what they believed to be Negro humor.”. Mel Watkins reinforces this sentiment when discussing the minstrel show’s impact on media during the 20th century, “It was the way the world was. Blacks were presumed to be this way, the stereotype was this and therefore the media had to reflect it in that way.”. Though these African American characters were getting significant airtime, their mannerisms and perceived lack of intelligence only continued to damage the overall perception of African Americans.
The final core concept for this module is the recurring role of African Americans playing the servant for their Caucasian counterparts. This role is best exemplified by Louise Beavers as Beulah in the series “The Beulah Show”. Beulah is the maid for a Caucasian family known as the Hendersons, but her relationship as a server for the family can easily be aligned with a racist archetype known as being the “Mammy”. The image of the Mammy is a representation of the traditional slave woman who is content to love and obediently serve her white masters, and this caricature is most famously displayed in the form of Aunt Jemima. Author Micki McElya specifically discusses the role of Aunt Jemima in 20th century marketing of her products, “Aunt Jemima and other popular images of faithful slavery in the twentieth century equated the African American’s place in modern life with servility, obedience, and joviality.”. The image of the servant African American woman can be characterized in the image of a Mammy, but this archetype of servitude also applied to men. One example of this can be found in an incident between Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Ed Crump, the head of a censor board in Memphis, TN. In the 1945 Brewster’s Millions, the movie was banned because the character of Jackson, played by Rochester, socialized too much as an equal with his Caucasian costars. This incident exemplifies the harsh racial dynamics that all of these actors operated under.
The first example of the demonization of African Americans during 1950s television is exemplified by two performers by the name of Glenn Vernon and Edward Ryan. Halfway through their routine, both entertainers don blackface and drastically change their vernacular. As figure 1 displays, these performers are employing the racist characteristics of blackface. They continue to propagate the exaggerated features of African Americans by adding overly large bow ties and sunflowers to their outfits.
After witnessing the stereotypes of stupidity portrayed by Glenn Vernon and Edward Ryan in blackface, the impact of their skits becomes much clearer when African Americans begin to gain roles in television during the 1950s. The next clip comes from an episode of the Amos ‘N’ Andy Show where Andy and his friend Kingfish unknowingly buy a chair that has $100,000 stashed inside of it. Instead of protecting their new fortune, both characters hold on to their money until getting a reference of stockbrokers from their friend Calhoun. Blindly trusting whoever walked through their door, Amos and Kingfish unknowingly give their money back to the men who originally stole it. The trend continues during an episode of the Jack Benny Program with African American actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. As the show is put on hold, Jack Benny calls on Rochester to deliver lunch for the crew. Jack Benny calls out to Rochester as if he were some sort of pet, and figure 2 shows how he continues to supervise him as he completes his remedial job of making ham and cheese sandwiches. Both cases show a gap between the perceived intelligence of the African American characters compared to their Caucasian costars: Amos and Kingfish literally give their fortune away while Rochester needs help making sandwiches. Kingfish had the honor of serving his Caucasian counterparts, a theme that is most prevalent in the next two examples.
The last core concept, the depiction and implications of the Mammy stereotype, can clearly be seen in these Aunt Jemima advertisements as well as Figure 3 which is one depiction of Aunt Jemima by actress Anna Robinson. The depictions appear to be made for print, but the box displayed in this television advertisement from 1959 shows the consistency with which Aunt Jemima was displayed as a stereotypical Mammy. The last example is an excerpt from an episode of “The Beulah Show” that aired in 1952. Throughout the clip, Beulah and her friend Oriole blissfully do the family’s laundry. The most notable signifier of the Mammy stereotype of this example is exemplified by the pair’s upbeat attitude as they complete their house chores.
For all of the stereotypes exhibited by African American actors in television during the 1950s, it is important to keep in mind that this module is a mere snapshot of the demonization of African Americans on television. The demonization of these actors extends back hundreds of years, and the impact these stereotypes had on entertainment can be seen in the controversy over the most recent Oscar nominees. African American actors still struggle to escape the traditional subservient and uneducated typecast, and this problem continues to put their community in a very negative light. These characteristics can fade away over time by individuals becoming educated and knowledgeable on the subject, a task this module seeks to help.
- Can you think of other stereotypical depictions of minorities in television and film?
- Can you think of examples of African Americans playing empowered characters? How do they differ from the examples of this module?
- What can you do to spread awareness on this issue as well as the societal problems it manifests itself in today?
- How would you combat the stereotypes presented in this module?
For More Information
- Created by historian Ken Padgett, “Blacks in Blackface” elaborates the history of blackface and depicts famous black actors who portrayed these stereotypes.
- The Jim Crow Museum gives an extensive history of the damaging characterizations of African Americans.
- Referenced by The Jim Crow Museum, Part 1 and Part 2 of Ron Barrett’s Television Inside Out (1981) provides extensive examples of the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans stemming beyond 1950s television.
- PBS offers a full history of blackface minstrelsy from the perspective of several historians, writers and performers.
 Watkins, M. Blackface Minstrelsy: How were the minstrel shows racist?. PBS. Accessed 24 September 2016. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/foster/sfeature/sf_minstrelsy_5.html
 Clayton, Edward T. (1961, October) The Tragedy Of Amos ‘N’ Andy. Ebony, 16(12), 67.
 Watkins, Blackface Minstrelsy: How were the minstrel shows racist?.
 McElya, Micki. (2007). Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 No Author. (1945, November) This Is The House That Jack Built. Ebony, (1)1, 18.
 Zena. (2011, February 13). Feb 13 – Aunt Jemima: Negative Stereotype or Iconic Brand? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://zmblackhistorymonth2011.blogspot.com/2011/02/feb-13-aunt-jemima-negative-stereotype.html