White Boys Had The Beaver; African American children had Buckwheat
As a kid, I could identify with little Timmy Martin and his enduring love for Lassie. And I daydreamed that one day, I could be just like Superman or that I could have a family like the Nelsons and sing like Ricky or maybe even the Cleavers and I’d be just like the Beav.
Or maybe have a family like the Bradfords, the Ingalls, the Cunninghams, the Cartwrights, the Waltons, the Douglasses, the Petries, the Ricardos, the Taylors or the Stones.
It never dawned on my little white brain that every TV family was pure white and that it wasn’t because of a shortage of talented African American actors, it’s just that they weren’t allowed on the early TV shows.
A young African American boy would invariably feel the contradiction in idolizing the white Superman or the white kids’ antics on My Three Sons or the challenges of the white Waltons on the prairie.
If African Americans were seen on a show, whether in film, television or heard on the radio, they were usually relegated to stereotypes, like the befuddled Buckwheat of the “Our Gang” shows or maybe the conniving George “Kingfish” Stephens or dimwitted Andrew H. Brown on “Amos and Andy.” And certainly few African American children knew that during the show’s radio days, from 1928 to 1960, the stars were voiced by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. They were only replaced with African Americans when the show had a brief life on 1950s television.
Nadra Kareem Nittle, the author of the book, “Recognizing Microaggressions,” wrote in a March 2021 column that many roles for African Americans remain limited to stereotypes.
“Black people may be scoring more substantial parts in film and television, but many continue to play roles that fuel stereotypes, such as thugs and maids,” Nittle wrote.
For example, the “Magical Negro” characters tend to be Black men with special powers “who make appearances solely to help White characters out of crises, seemingly unconcerned about their own lives.” An example is the prisoner played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile.”
“Magical Negroes are also problematic because they have no inner lives or desires of their own. Instead, they exist solely as a support system to the White characters, reinforcing the idea that Black people aren’t as valuable or as human as their White counterparts. They don’t require unique storylines of their own because their lives simply don’t matter as much,” Nittle wrote.
Another common category is “The Black Best Friend,” usually a woman whose job is to guide white characters from dangers or other challenges.
“Like Magical Negroes, Black Best Friends appear not to have much going on in their own lives but turn up at exactly the right moment to coach White characters through life,” Nittle wrote.
An example of the Black Best Friend is seen in the film “The Devil Wears Prada,” where Tracie Thoms plays friend to star Anne Hathaway, reminding Hathaway’s character that she’s losing touch with her values.
Another common and destructive role for African American men is that of “The Thug,” playing drug dealers, pimps, con-artists and other forms of criminals in television shows and films.
“The disproportionate amount of Black people playing criminals in Hollywood fuels the racial stereotype that Black men are dangerous and drawn to illicit activities. Often these films and television shows provide little social context for why more Black men than others are likely to end up in the criminal justice system,” Nittle wrote.
Another common stereotype is the loud, aggressive “Angry Black Woman.”
“Black women are routinely portrayed in television and film as sassy, neck-rolling harpies with major attitude problems,” Nittle wrote.
Another stereotype that has been spawned through the many years of forced servitude of African Americans in the United States is the domestic worker or mammy, as in television shows like “Beulah” and the film, “Gone With the Wind.”
In the first two decades of the 20th century, racist film studios ignored African American audiences, creating a high demand for films geared to catering to black audiences. The first African American motion picture production company was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded in 1916 by Noble Johnson and his brother, George Perry Johnson. Noble Johnson, later known as Mark Noble, was an actor and film producer who appeared in films such as The Mummy (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong (1933).
The Lincoln company was created to eliminate the stereotypical, racist roles of “slapstick comedy” in Hollywood that were offered to Black actors and actresses. The company’s slogan was “best advertised and most widely known Race Corporation in the world.” Films included topics that were taboo in white films, such as lynching, job discrimination, rape, mob violence and economic exploitation of African Americans.
The Lincoln Motion Picture Company is considered the first all-Black movie production company, showcasing African American talent. The films were limited to African American audiences in churches, schools, and “Colored Only” theaters. The company closed after just seven years because of production expenses and low sales.
The company made and distributed only five films including the first, “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition” (1916), which was groundbreaking in portraying an African American middle class. The silent film centered on an African-American man who leaves his home to find success in the oil business. When he rescues the daughter of a wealthy oilman, he is given the opportunity to be the head of an expedition. He later becomes wealthy and returns home, where he marries his high school sweetheart.
The director for the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, an author and independent producer of more than 44 films. Micheaux has been described as “the most successful African American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century.”
Micheaux was hired by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and directed and produced “The Homesteader,” based on Micheaux’s book, “The Conquest,” which was dedicated to Booker T. Washington. The film revolves around a man named Jean Baptiste, called the Homesteader, who falls in love with many white women but resists marrying one out of his loyalty to his race. Baptiste sacrifices love for his fellow African Americans. He looks for love among his own people and marries an African-American woman. The film deals extensively with race relationships.
One of the earliest of the great African American actors was Ira Frederick Aldridge who was known in the 1820s for his portrayal of Shakespearean characters. Aldridge is the only actor of African American descent honored with a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England.
Ernest Hogan was the first African-American entertainer to produce and star in a Broadway show, “The Oyster Man,” in 1907 and his songs were among the first published ragtime songs.
As a teenager, Hogan worked in traveling minstrel shows and composed several popular songs, including “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” The song was the basis of a new genre known as “coon songs” because of the use of racist and stereotypical images of black people. Hogan’s use of the racial slur “coon” in the song angered many African Americans and some black performers substituted the word “boys” for “coons” whenever they sang it.
African American actors in the 1920s and later were generally relegated to stereotypes. One was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit. In the 1930s, the vaudevillian, comedian and actor developed a film and stage persona as Fetchit, the “Laziest Man in the World.” Perry parlayed the Fetchit persona into a successful career and was the first black actor. He was the first to earn $1 million and was the the first black actor to have featured screen credit in a film. He appeared in 44 films between 1927 and 1939.
Another actor of childhood acclaim was Matthew Beard Jr., famous for playing the character of Stymie in the “Our Gang” short films from 1930 to 1935. Stymie was a slick-tongued con-artist who was self-assured, nonchalant, and ready with a sly comment as well as clever ideas to solve problems. Beard was 10 when he left the series in 1935 and he acted in minor roles in feature films before retiring when he began high school. Falling into drug use and street life, Beard became addicted to heroin.
Allen Clayton Hoskins portrayed the character of Farina in 105 “Our Gang” short films from 1922 to 1931. During the McCarthy era Hoskins was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee which found that as a teenager, Hoskins had attended dances sponsored by the Young Communist League and the Socialist Workers Party. The committee took his passport and Hoskins was blacklisted.
In 1975, Hoskins was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame along with Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Ruby Dee and Quincy Jones. The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Inc. was founded in 1974, to support and promote black filmmaking.
Another famous African American singer, dancer and actor of his day was Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham. Markham often performed at New York’s Apollo Theater where he wore blackface makeup and huge painted white lips. Starting in the 1950s Pigmeat Markham began appearing on television, making multiple appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
William Best, a film and television actor, was known professionally as “Willie Best” or “Sleep n’ Eat.” Like Perry, Best was often given roles of lazy, illiterate, or simple-minded characters.
Like many black actors of his time. Best was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles. He was often seen briefly as a hotel, airline, or train porter, or as an elevator operator, custodian, butler, valet, waiter or deliveryman. He was in 124 films and received screen credit in at least 77, an unusual feat for an African American bit player.
Bit players were usually not given screen credit in the 1930s and 1940s, and were often referred to in credits with such descriptions as “room service waiter” or “shoe-shine boy.”
In 1942 Best was arrested for possession of marijuana and in 1951 he was arrested for possession of heroin. The adverse publicity hurt Best’s career, which ended in 1951 when he was seen in the Roy Rogers western “South of Caliente.”
Many of the African American stereotypes in film and television came from the minstrel show, an American form of racist theatrical entertainment developed in the early 19th century. The shows depicted African Americans as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky. Minstrel songs and sketches usually featured characters like the slave and the dandy, the mammy, the mulatto wench, the old darky and the black soldier.
The shows were performed by mostly white people wearing blackface make-up to play the role of black people. Blackface was a performance tradition for around 100 years beginning around 1830. In the first film adaptation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1903, all of the major black roles were white people in blackface. D. W. Griffith’s racist, “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 also used white people in blackface to represent all of its major black characters.
Until the early 1950s, many well-known entertainers performed in blackface, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Doris Day, Milton Berle, William Holden, Marion Davies, Myrna Loy, Betty Grable, Dennis Morgan, Laurel and Hardy, Betty Hutton, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Donald O’Connor and Chester Morris and George E. Stone.
Blackface lived on into the 1950s in animated theatrical cartoons. It was estimated that roughly one-third of late 1940s MGM cartoons “included a blackface, coon, or mammy figure.” Bugs Bunny appeared in blackface at least as late as Southern Fried Rabbit in 1953.