IF I STOP I'LL DIE:
THE COMEDY AND TRAGEDY
OF RICHARD PRYOR.
John A. Williams
and Dennis A. Williams.
Thunder's Mouth Press.
234 pages. $19.95.
THE ADVENTURES OF AMOS 'N'
ANDY: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF
AN AMERICAN PHENOMENON
Melvin Patrick Ely.
The Free Press.
322 pages. $22.95. "We seldom appear in the media as who we say we are, rather, as who whites say we are."
That statement, attributed to actress Ellen Holly, is from the biography of Richard Pryor, but it serves well as a commentary on "Amos 'N' Andy." It helps explain the mid-1970s success Mr. Pryor enjoyed. He was everywhere: on the movie screen, the television screen, his routines playing on a million records, his lines slipping comfortably into the conscience of black America.
The quote also reveals the problems many -- not just black Americans -- had with "Amos 'N' Andy." Created by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll -- two men steeped in the minstrel tradition that birthed Zip Coon and Jim Crow -- "Amos 'N' Andy" were how whites imagined blacks to be. One black actor from the show's short-lived television version recounted the bizarre circumstance of "a white man teaching a Negro how to act like a white man acting like a Negro."
Yet, as Melvin Patrick Ely's excellent social history shows, to dismiss "Amos 'N' Andy" as racist trash is to miss some of its genuine humor. It also is to overlook "a story of who we are as a nation."
Set in Chicago, the show traced the lives of two men who had come from the South to operate the Fresh Air Taxi Company. It became enormously popular, sending expressions like "check and double-check" and "holy mackerel" into the lexicon of American English.
For black Americans, it presented a curious problem. Here was a radio program -- later a television program -- that tried to depict their lives with some degree of honesty when blacks were virtually non-existent elsewhere in the media. Still, there was a sense of unease.
In 1931, the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, collected nearly 750,000 signatures in hopes of driving Amos 'N' Andy off ** the air. The effort failed. Fans from both sides of the color line were unwilling to do without the show.
While some blacks wrung their hands over the show and others laughed along, many whites found it reassuring. After all, it did not openly disparage blacks.
"Even at its best, though, 'Amos 'N' Andy' did not challenge the basic status quo; at its worst, it gave Jim Crow and Jefferson Snowball a new lease on life," writes Dr. Ely, who teaches Afro-American and Southern History at Yale University.
But it endured, from the "Sam 'n' Henry" prototype that first aired in 1926 to its final incarnation in 1960, when the show's disturbing unreality simply became too much to bear. All of this is detailed in this thoroughly researched and straightforward book.
Unlike "Amos 'N' Andy," which was aimed at whites, Richard Pryor spoke directly to blacks. He strutted across the stage, his humor slashing through America. It was political, racial humor, and he knew of no sacred cows. He could be a black preacher cursing the handicapped members of his congregation, or a father who called his son n----r and told him to be home by 11.
For many black Americans, he was a mirror, reflecting their own thoughts, fears and joys. For others, he was a window onto another world. But, oh, the price he paid.
John A. Williams, whose previous works include the classic novel "The Man Who Cried I Am," and his son, Dennis, formerly of Newsweek, trace Mr. Pryor's rise to the top of the entertainment world and the rough times after he reached the pinnacle. Using anecdotes, newspaper clippings and recordings, they offer a revealing portrait of the comedian and his world.
Unfortunately, this seems to have been done without talking to Mr. Pryor. He is quoted at times, but we don't know to whom he is talking. If it was the authors, then why doesn't Mr. Pryor discuss major incidents? In 1967, while playing the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev., he left the stage in the middle of his act. It was a watershed event. His comedy, imitative to that point, was never the same afterwards. Yet Mr. Pryor is mute on this event and that is too bad because, more than anything else, the book lacks his voice.
The authors are right to use "tragedy" in their title. Blessed with so much talent, Mr. Pryor often thwarted his own self. The entertainment industry offered its own obstacles. He acted in movies that while entertaining, never achieved the stunning level of his albums and concerts. Some of the films -- "The Toy," for example -- were disgraceful.
Then, too, there was Mr. Pryor's affection for cocaine. The Jan. 8, 1980, incident in which he set himself on fire while freebasing is well known. But he had been using coke for years.
Yet, the personal disasters, the divorces and lawsuits, didn't keep Pryor from cutting a path for Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans and others. It's hard to believe he is nearly 51, slowly wasting away from multiple sclerosis. Not too long ago, he was the uncrowned king, the man who told you the water was cold, and deep, too.
"He was a force. He told the truth, and in the process had us rolling on the floor, gasping for breath and wiping away tears of laughter that could just as easily have been tears of sorrow," Dennis Williams writes. "It was the word made real."