by Shani O. Hilton
When the news of Andy Griffith’s death was confirmed, I called my dad.
He is three hours behind me, and was just waking up in a suburban tract home located in the largest city in American history to ever file for bankruptcy. It is a long way from me, and a long way from where he grew up, in a haphazardly built house in all-black Slate Hill, in Roanoke, Virginia.
Tuesday was a long time from when my dad watched “The Andy Griffith Show” in the 60s. And it felt like a long time from when I would spend afternoons watching the show with him in the 90s.
And he was quiet for a minute and he cleared the sleep from his voice and he said, “Oh man.” And I said, “Yeah, man.” And he said, “I was just watching ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ yesterday.”
We can all say that we were just watching “The Andy Griffith Show” yesterday. Because anyone with a television could have watched it yesterday. It is on every day.
My friend Brooke is a progressive Southern white woman from a tiny town in Georgia. We shared our sadness over Andy’s death on gchat, and then she asked me what I got out of “The Andy Griffith Show” when I watched it as a kid. In her world, and in many worlds, Mayberry is shorthand for a simpler time. And as we all know — we all know this, right? — a “simpler time” is shorthand for a time when white people didn’t have to think about whether they were treating nonwhite people (or women) like humans. As Brooke said, it was mostly the “good old boys” who still clung to the ideals of Mayberry.
What I told her was that Sheriff Andy Taylor was better than Mayberry and that’s the thing people don’t get. People are nostalgic for Mayberry, but Andy spent most of the series (after the early years when his character was a silly hayseed) trying to improve it. To be nostalgic for it is missing the point. To be nostalgic for it is forgetting that Mayberry was based on a town where Griffith grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and where he was called “white trash.”
My dad agreed with me, sort of. What he told me was this: “I never looked at Andy as being too good for the others — I looked at him as being a stabilizer. A good soul who wanted to elevate those around him.”
The simplicity of the storylines remains a huge part of the appeal, my dad said. Firm morals + a wacky situation x a dash of Don Knotts being ridiculous = just good clean fun. You know the plot lines even if you haven’t seen it: Opie finds a wallet with $50. Aunt Bee starts wearing a blonde wig. Andy tries to help the church buy a new organ. And so on.
But even more than that was this: “They didn’t come across as being racist,” my dad said.
They didn’t give themselves the opportunity. Only one black actor — Rockne Tarkington — ever had a speaking role on “The Andy Griffith Show.” The story went like this: Opie was starting piano lessons. Aunt Bee was into it, but Andy wasn’t too keen. Opie then met the cool new football coach who was a black ex-NFL player. Opie suddenly found himself conflicted! Football or piano? My dad remembered this storyline clearly. (“I didn’t miss too many episodes, Shani-o.”)
Our conversation slipped into reminiscences of all the all-white shows we have known, and whether we are better off with showrunners pretending that people of color didn’t exist. “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” — other much-loved staples of that era in our household — would occasionally take a crack at edgier storylines involving race or gender. At best they were ham-fisted; at worst, downright racist.
All-white can sometimes be all right: “The Andy Griffith Show” didn’t have a chance to be particularly racist because it didn’t try for anything beyond sweet simplicity.
These are 50-year-old (or 100-year-old? 1,000-year old?) trade-offs. I must consider the whiteness of “Girls” and “Bunheads” and why Barney almost never sleeps with black women on “How I Met Your Mother” and why “Friends” was set in an impossibly white Manhattan and why the only black girl on “Buffy” was killed in season two and why Mercedes on “Glee” has to be so damn sassy and why Shonda Rhimes is the only showrunner regularly casting people of color in roles that aren’t explicitly People of Color. Or I must opt out altogether and hit up the black internet’s impressive collection of web series.
But back to Mayberry. Well, first, back to Virginia. Maybe more than any of the good things about the show itself, my dad’s happy childhood is why he still has enjoys these black-and-white relics. (And my love for them is obviously informed by my love for him.)
He grew up on the edge of a black neighborhood, off a gravel road that winds up a small hill. In one direction lay the self-contained black community that raised him and loved him.
In the other direction was an all-white neighborhood. It may not have nurtured him, but it was familiar, and he said it’s part of the reason why the dichotomy of being black and not seeing himself in what he watched never made him flinch.
“My Mayberry’s on the right side of me,” he said.
Mine is, too, I guess.
Shani O. Hilton is a journalist in Washington, D.C. Her favorite Cartwright is Adam, of course.