It is one of the more peculiar anomalies of American popular culture. Black people, by and large, LOVED The Andy Griffith Show! Judging only from the tweets, postings and random comments I’ve been hearing from African Americans since the show’s star passed away last week, their devotion to the series persists to this day despite the fact that throughout its eight-year run not one African American had a speaking part on the show.
And we’re not talking about any eight-year period in American history. This was 1960 through 1968, the flashpoint years of the civil rights movement when southern towns more or less resembling Mayberry were stages for some of the bitterest, most violent struggles for racial equality. The southern sheriffs frequently seen on nightly network newscasts during those years were nowhere near as kindly, wise and reasonable as Andy Taylor. I’ve no doubt there was those who thought those distinguished Alabamans, Eugene “Bull” Connor and Jim Clark, were, at rock bottom, decent, professional law enforcers who had the misfortune of being caught on the Wrong Side of History. But that’s not what most folks remember about them now.
One waited for the wave of revisionism borne by that movement’s legislative and cultural transformations to render The Andy Griffith Show’s wistful depiction of a bucolic, integration-free southern town as anachronistic camp (at best). If anything, the show became even more widely beloved and cherished in Rerun Heaven. African Americans didn’t seem interested in even retroactive picketing against the show’s obvious blank spaces – though said spaces were in the intervening years gleefully, even wickedly mocked by such artists as Drew and Josh Alan Friedman whose two-page comic strip parody of the Griffith show had the whole town of Mayberry lynching a hapless black motorist unlucky enough to have driven into Gomer Pyle’s service station. (“Suddenly Aunt Bee strikes!” was the legend on a panel in which the best cook in town applies a rolling pin upside the nameless negro’s cranium.)
This raggedly funny short does the same thing with actual clips from the show while this keenly observed piece challenges the presumption that there were no black people whatsoever in Mayberry, N.C. (I did say no “speaking part,” didn’t I? Let me check. Yes, I did.)
So how come The Andy Griffith Show gets a free pass from the black community for benign neglect even as shows as varied as Downton Abbey and Girls get hammered these days on social networking sites for having no black characters in their respective storylines?
Here’s a theory. Maybe not mine alone, but I’ll heave it onto the floor and let people stare at it:
The laid-back – how to put this – southern-ness of the Mayberry vibe is something that everyone with roots to the region can relate to, Black, White or Other. And even with those aforementioned blank spaces where black actors should have been, there was something funky, occasionally spicy about the show’s comfort food to make me wonder whether The Andy Griffith Show could plausibly be considered a precursor to the black family sitcoms that would start coming in waves in the 1970s. I’ll even go so far as to proclaim this show as the pre-post-civil-rights-era-black-family-situation-comedy.
Yes, I know. But as knotty and awkward as this definition sounds, I bet I’ve got at least a couple of witnesses out there who know what I’m saying here. I keep waiting for a kind of negative-image version of Mayberry to surface on TBS; maybe with Tyler Perry as the wise, kindly and widowed sheriff of a predominantly black working-class town in, say, central Florida. I’ll bet you the national debt that you could cast black faces in every other role in that town and you wouldn’t have to write new scripts – or a new theme song.