Publicity photo of Freeman Gosden as Amos and Charles Correll as Andy from the radio program Amos ‘n’ Andy CBS
As I talk to my subject who shall be named Steve, though it’s not his name, we are both transported to some other place. Steve is in a place constructed by the skeins of memory, me, in the place constructed by his words and my mental Rolodex of 1950 media cliche’s.
The topic under recollection is television (TV). Steve grew up in 1950’s mid-west America in the small town of Jamestown Ohio. Steve was born in 1953 and is African-American and lower class, facts that all affect his memory’s construct.
The television was a solid structure, cased in brown wood and too heavy to move alone. The image it showed was black and white. The TV was placed in the corner of the room, with two lounges facing each other in the center of the room, the preference being given to people rather than the wooden box. It was a comfortable room that never saw plastic covers.
Steve was the only child of a single mother, who wasn’t always home. So his relationship with the TV became that of babysitter, teacher and companion. As a boy, he was usually alone with the TV, watching Howdy Doody or whatever else was on, since the choice was limited. Sometimes there was an uncle or his mother sitting with him, in his one bedroom house, in the sparsely populated town. Steve remembers imitating the actors on the TV. One time he was watching a crime show, the man was wearing a hat. Not having a hat of his own, Steve found the top of a coffee tin in the garbage and repurposed it with the milliner’s savvy of a five-year-old. The man on the TV shot his accomplice, when asked why he killed the man, he remarked “he was bleeding too much”. It was later while mimicking the show that Steve cut himself on his coffee-tin lid-hat. His mother returned to the house to find her child [Steve] cowering with fear under the bed, should his mother kill him for bleeding too much. I laughed at hearing this as my own children have often had trouble distinguishing reality from the drama playing itself out on the screen.
When describing the shows he watched, time became elastic as he jumped from time period to time period, the shows all melting together like a surrealist landscape or the wardrobe of my eighth grade maths teacher who refused to give up her crocheted antique-pink dress. I prodded him about what shows he remembered. Where there any black people on TV? Nah, Nah there weren’t. And then there was a moment ‘Oh yeah! I remember! The Laurence Welk Show!’ Steve’s energy escalated and he sat up straight on his McDonalds’ stool. ‘There was that one guy on the Laurence Welk Show, the tap dancer.’ He described how the house would be full of people not really paying attention to the TV that was playing in the corner, someone would say ‘That brother’s on the TV again’, and everyone would stop what they were doing and come into the room and watch the one person who looked like them, Arthur Duncan.
The cultural space that TV filled was so aptly described in this one example. Television existed in Steve’s space, but is also was a re-enforcement of the oppression that existed outside the home, breaking down boundaries in what would have previously been a culturally exclusive space inside the home. In this context Steve exemplified how even though television was welcomed into homes as early as he remembers, in 1964 black people in America were still dropping everything to watch themselves on screen. Such discussions open the door for research on the construction and destruction of identities through television.