Why Andy Griffith Matters: Race, Politics, America, and Me
My father adored Andy Griffith.
Kind of an unusual name when talking about racial issues of today. Andy Griffith was an actor who had his own show aptly titled, “The Andy Griffith Show”, and later another favorite, “Matlock”. He played a character named Sheriff Taylor where he was the law enforcement officer in a small mythical town in Mayberry.
He was a down home sheriff. He upheld the law in Mayberry but understood the different nuances and personalities of the people around him. He knew that one tactic didn’t necessarily fit all. To some of the neurotic personalities or more refined, Andy had a solution for everyone’s issues.
So where does my father and race fit into all of this?
Look back at the first thing I said. My father adored Mr. Griffith. He would sit down and watch the show with me, which was in syndication by the 1980s. When Matlock premiered, I remembered taking a bath and he rolled the television in the bathroom just so we wouldn’t miss a scene. My mother would not have approved of such a thing, but what she doesn’t know….
I always wondered just what it was about Andy Griffith that my father liked. My father was from Alabama. I heard all the stories about what happened when black men stepped “out of line”, lynchings, and calling twelve year old white boys “Sir”. I’m infuriated by these stories to this day, but I still couldn’t figure out just what my father liked about this show, and in particular, Andy Griffith! Was it his slow Southern drawl? Was it his winning smile? Was it that he never really locked anyone up? What was it?
I have to admit. It didn’t keep me up at night, but when I’d catch reruns of the show, I think about my dad.
My father left on a Friday night in the back of ambulance. I held his hand as he breathed his last breaths on this Earth as my sisters slept in bed. I’ll always remember that March night my father left and never came back home. I had to watch Andy Griffith and Matlock alone.
And one day, it hit me. I understood why my father adored Andy Griffith so much. I thought about how he went his entire life looking away when White people spoke to him. I thought about how he acted in a servile manner while around them. I thought about how he believed that they took his manhood away from him. He couldn’t go to school and was illiterate, worked as a sharecropper close to where my family members were enslaved on a plantation. It was like they’d never left. I was thunderstruck.
Andy Griffith wasn’t like these other white men. He was the embodiment of how white men should be. My father adored Andy Griffith because he saw in a character the way that white people should have treated him. Andy Griffith never put on “airs”, never spoke down to anyone, and treated everyone in his own special way. My father grew up watching a lot of white people that treated him horribly. He was trained, in that way that black people know, how to act when around white people in real life. However, he could dream of being treated like an equal while watching television. Only in the fantasy town of Mayberry, could a man live his life without vicious dogs biting, fire hoses spraying your clothes off your body, and nightsticks cracked across your skull.
Sheriff Taylor (Andy Griffith) was the example of how white people could be. How they should have been. What they could be.
But they weren’t. Not to him. When he turned the television off, he went right back to that world where he had to avert his eyes, people called him by his first name, he was always in boyhood no matter how many birthdays he had, and he was nothing more than a n*******.
Some will mistake my words and believe that I’m demonizing an entire race of people. That’s not what I’m doing. However, these things need to be talked about. When we downplay what black people have gone through in this country because it makes others uncomfortable, we silence everyone from that conversation. We can’t fix what we don’t acknowledge. I acknowledge my father. I know what he went through growing up in the South. He was a victim of his time. He was a victim of white supremacy. That is my father’s truth and I’ll continue to speak it.
That’s the world my father grew up in. However, I’m glad that I was able to escape with him, even if it lasted for an entire episode.