MORE than 20 years after CBS took the show out of circulation, ``Amos 'n Andy'' is still a sore point in the American psyche. The original radio program was wildly popular among audiences black and white. But when it moved to television in the early '50s, there was trouble from the start. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People charged that it reinforced the ugliest racial stereotypes. CBS stopped producing new episodes in 1953; in 1966, it withdrew the show entirely.
Since then, there have been few kind words. Yet many recall ``Amos 'n Andy'' with a secret and uneasy mirth. In a recent essay in the New York Times, Henry Louis Gates suggests something people of both races have doubtless felt but dared not say. Gates, an African-American who teaches literature at Duke University, describes playing his videotapes for black friends. ``After a few minutes, even hard-liners have difficulty restraining their laughter,'' he writes.
People enjoy it, even while they think they aren't supposed to. Perhaps the time has come when even a white man can discuss this show without recriminations.
I was too young to understand the big to-do over ``Amos 'n Andy.'' I simply felt bewildered when they took it off the air. The household in which I lived was turbulent, and my image of normality came from TV sitcoms such as ``Ozzie and Harriet.'' These were idealized portrayals of middle-class America which I watched with both longing and shame - nightly accusations that my own world was deviant and unseemly.
``Amos 'n Andy'' was different. Like ``The Honeymooners,'' it showed humanity with its hair down. People yelled and screamed, dinner tables became free-fire zones. It was comforting to know that I was not entirely alone. Plus, of course, the show was riotously funny.
Several months ago I went to the Museum of Broadcasting in New York, to see if the show for which I have such fond memories was really as bad as its critics said. The museum has only one episode in its public archives. (CBS won't even discuss it.) The thing that jumps out after all these decades - apart from the monumental character acting of Tim Moore as the Kingfish - is something perhaps too obvious to be noticed at the time: namely, how utterly middle class it is. At a time when most white Americans probably associated blacks with inner-city tenements and rural hovels, ``Amos 'n Andy'' brought into their living rooms a black world of lawyers and doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs that was a mirror image of their own.
The central figures are comic, of course, with echoes of racial stereotypes. But they are comic in a context of black respectability and authority. In the episode at the museum, George Stevens, known to his friends as the Kingfish - gets a draft notice intended for a 19-year-old of the same name who is an earnest and clean-cut student. When Kingfish mutters ``yessuh, yessuh,'' he is talking to a black draft board official. Even Lightning, the dimwitted janitor and most blatantly racist stereotype, is a foot-shuffler by black standards, not by white.
Kingfish and Andy were not only racial figures, but also black versions of universal comedic ones. Was Kingfish a cunning ne'er do well? So was Sergeant Bilko. Was he domineered by his wife, Sapphire? (Critics said this perpetuated the stereotype of weak black males.) So was Ed Norton - as was, in a grimmer mode, the weak, apron-wearing white father played by Jim Backus in ``Rebel Without a Cause.''
Perhaps the problem was that ``Amos 'n Andy'' took comic liberties that are acceptable only among friends - that it made the black experience part of the family before America was ready. (One of the show's creators, a white man, had a black step-brother.) There was good reason for many Afro-Americans to react to ``Amos 'n Andy'' as they did at the time. They had suffered one degrading media portrayal after another, from the utterly racist ``Birth of a Nation'' through Jack Benny's valet Rochester.
That ``Amos 'n Andy'' was written by two white men, who actually performed the lead roles on radio, tainted the whole enterprise with the aroma of blackface. In the infant days of television, it seemed essential to nip any such tendency in the bud.
``The dilemma of Amos 'n Andy,'' Gates writes, ``was that these were the only images of blacks that Americans could see on TV.'' Whether the Cosby show and others puts us beyond that point is not for me to say. I'd like to think so. It would be great to watch Ralph Kramden and Kingfish and have one big laugh together.