Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Is Bill Cosby Right? 8

On page 250 of Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson quotes something that Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said about the program Amos ‘n’ Andy.  Gates stated in a November 12, 1989 New York Times piece:

“One of my favorite pastimes is screening episodes of ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ for black friends who think that the series was both socially offensive and politically detrimental.  After a few minutes, even hardliners have difficulty restraining their laughter.  ‘It’s still racist,’ is one typical comment, ‘but it was funny.’  The performance of those great black actors—-Tim Moore, Spencer Williams and Ernestine Wade—-transformed racist stereotypes into authentic black humor.  The dilemma of ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ however, was that these were the only images of blacks that Americans could see on TV.  The political consequences for the early civil rights movement were thought to be threatening.  The N.A.A.C.P. helped to have the series killed.”

Dyson’s quotation of Gates is in an endnote that goes with a paragraph on page 31.  There, Dyson talks about stereotypes of African-Americans in entertainment media: as “dumb, lazy, criminal, sex-crazed, and so on”, or as “coons, maids, cooks, butlers and the like” in early depictions.  Dyson states that “Cosby has attempted to resist stereotypes from the start of his career.”

There have been possible exceptions, though.  For example, Dyson notes that, although the show I Spy sought to ignore race and to depict the Bill Cosby-character as the Robert Culp’s character’s social equal, there was a time when the Cosby-character was posing as the Culp-character’s valet and tennis-trainer when they were undercover.  Cosby also played a doctor with Richard Pryor in California Suite, and the two of them were bumbling, leading critics to allege that they were depicting African-Americans as dumb.  Cosby lashed back in an ad in Variety: “Are we to be denied a right to romp through hotels, bite noses, and, in general, beat up one another in the way Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, Martin & Lewis, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin did—-and more recently as those actors did in the movie Animal House?  I heard no cries of racism in those reviews.  If my work is not funny—-it’s not funny.  But this industry does not need projected racism from critics.”

In my opinion, comedy entails depicting people as bumbling or as short-sighted.  This was the case with I Love Lucy, and all sorts of shows.  The problem, as Gates noted, occurred when African-Americans throughout the entertainment media were primarily portrayed as bumbling or as short-sighted.  That could perpetuate stereotypes.

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