AMOS 'N' ANDY: Past as Prologue?
Q: If you watch UPN the programming is very stereotypical with old demeaning images of African Americans reborn and morphed into the present. Amos 'N' Andy has been reborn. Do you think television programming is repeating the mistakes of the past?
-- Shannon Greenbay, La Jolla, California
October 2005 response by Mark Freeman, Associate Professor
School of Theatre, Television and Film, San Diego State University
A: Amos 'n' Andy was born on radio in 1928. But its stereotypes
and caricatures have roots deep in American culture and branches
that are still evident today. The negative images in Amos 'n' Andy
not only have historical precedents, but that they continued to
inform televised representations of black Americans long after the
show was no longer available.
What is the significance of these depictions in popular culture
on the African-American family? African Americans are among the
heaviest viewers of commercial television. As a working premise it
may be fair to assume that images are not insubstantial, that they
powerfully shape perceptions, values and behavior; and that
consequently negative images have negative consequences. The
negative consequences of television viewing are likely to be
disproportionally borne by viewers who are younger, less educated,
and those whose sense of self-worth and self-image are the least
formed -- that is our children. In particular, the unmonitored,
unsupervised, uncritical viewing of television puts children at
risk, and makes them the most vulnerable to negative consequences.
I've chosen Amos 'n' Andy for this case study because of the
importance of the show -- both as a radio series and as the first
national television series to cast African-Americans in leading
roles. Because the last Amos 'n' Andy radio program was broadcast
on 1/25/60, and the television series was withdrawn from syndication
in 1965 a generation and a half has grown up without direct access
to the material.
Between June 28, 1951 and June 11, 1953 CBS broadcast 78 half
hour episodes. The programs were shot on black and white film,
and in 1951 the series was the most expensive show produced for
television. The program was designed as a situation comedy set in
Harlem. The majority of the stories revolved around the Kingfish
(Tim Moore) and his schemes to both avoid work and, if possible,
take financial advantage of the ignorance and naivete of Andy and
other characters/caricatures. Although set in a decidedly
middle class milieu and often depicting black professionals, the
series did little to support black self-esteem, needless to say it
did provide positive role models.
Amos 'n' Andy was created by Charles Correll and Freeman
Godsen. Their personal histories were shaped by the Civil War and
the legacy of slavery and race relations in the South. Correl's
family was related to Jefferson Davis, the president of the
Confederacy. Godsen's father joined the rebels at 17 and was one of
75 officers who refused to surrender at Appomattox. Godsen claimed
to have been raised by a "mammy" and shared his home with Garrett
Brown, an African-American boy "adopted" by the Godsens.
Freeman and Garrett created minstrel shows for the family's entertainment.
In fact the minstrel show tradition is the foundation for the
"humor" of Amos 'n' Andy which depends on race for its effect.
What are the characteristics common to these popular entertainments?
Perhaps the most salient feature is that both Amos 'n' Andy and
minstrel shows were created by whites, to entertain primarily white
audiences. Thomas Rice created the Jim Crow caricature --
"plantation style" song and dance combined with "comic" dialect. By
the 1850s minstrel shows were popular throughout the United States
and toured widely in Europe. By the 1920s these caricatures had
become institutionalized in American popular culture. In fact the
first talking picture The Jazz Singer (1927) starred Al Jolson
singing "Mammy" in black face. Books of "Darky Jokes," "Minstrel
Jokes," and "Coon Jokes" were readily available in most 5 and 10
On the Real Side by Mel Watkins (pp. 29-32) raises issues
critical to an understanding humor at the expense of blacks and
"Black Humor." "Blacks were funny for most white Americans
only insofar as they engaged in quaint, foolish or childlike
behavior, or stumbled over a language they were only half
heartily taught to speak, and [during slavery] forbidden to read."
(Watkins, p. 29). This "naive humor" reinforces the power relationships
between superior whites and inferior childlike blacks.
Nathan Huggins' Harlem Renaissance in (Lipsitz in Spigel
and Mann) "points out that minstrel show stereotypes enabled white
society .... to attribute to black people the characteristics that it
feared the most in itself ...." Blacks represent laziness, greed,
gluttony and licentiousness. The "... psychic reinforcement...
enabled whites to accept the suppression of their natural selves"
(Lipsitz 94), and instead embraced thrift, sobriety, abstinence and
restraint -- behaviors necessary to the functioning of an industrial
capitalist order. ... "Amos 'n' Andy did for the values of the 1950s
what the minstrel shows accomplished for previous generations.
Everything considered precious but contested in white society --
like the family or the work ethic -- became violated in the world of
the Kingfish (Lipsitz, 95).
When the same type of humor is employed by blacks for blacks
it has been describes in psychological parlance as
"masochism" -- redirecting rage away from dangerous persecutors and onto
themselves. This is a kind of false consciousness; an internalized
oppression, a self-hating notion that agrees with the
stereotypes. This is a tendency not unique to African Americans.
Freud described the phenomenon in his discussions of Jewish humor.
This strategy may appease whites, at the expense of further eroding
estimates of black self-worth.
On the other hand, when such jokes are delivered by blacks for
black audiences there is an undeniable sense of irony -- intended to
reveal the barbarity of a system premised on a system of inherent
inferiority. Activist Julius Lester reversed the messages of Amos
'n' Andy. "Kingfish has a joie de vivre no white person could
poison, and we knew that whites ridiculed us because they were
incapable of such elan. I was proud to belong to the same race as
Kingsish" (in Lipsitz 97). So how should we understand the humor
in Amos 'n' Andy? Henry Louis Gates recounts that "One of my
favorite pastimes is screening episodes of Amos 'n' Andy for black
friends who think that the series was both socially offensive and
politically detrimental." ... He assets that, "The performance of
those great black actors ... transformed racist stereotypes into
authentic black humor." The historian Thomas Cripps suggests that
only the main characters are stereotyped by language and dress. He
points to many examples of well-dressed, supporting actors speaking
in Yankee accents. (In fact there were Black professionals
including a doctor, a minister, a teacher, a detective, a real
estate broker and a nurse.) Only a few of these professionals were
darker skinned. My own reading is that this does little to mitigate
the show's concentration on and viewers repeated exposure to the
negative impressions created by the lead characters.
Context has much to do with our evaluations. Patricia Davis a
UC professor, "I think how excited my relatives would be when
blacks first showed up on tv -- it didn't matter that it was Amos 'n'
Andy. It was just a confirmation that there were blacks in the
world" (LA Times). Similarly Gates recalls his mother shouting that
"someone 'colored ... colored!' was on TV and we had all better come
downstairs at once" (Gates, NYT).
Today images of oppression are sometimes reclaimed by
reframing them. Lightning's molasses like slowness in Amos 'n'
Andy can be read as subversive. He's dragging his feet not obeying.
In analyzing the effects of comedy I believe it's essential to
determine whether the humor is subversive -- a challenge to authority
and conventional wisdom; or mainly cathartic -- temporarily
releasing (social) tension, but ultimately supporting the status
quo. Perhaps one key to use is to determine who's doing the
laughing -- and at whose expense." ... Hollywood's slickest
hipster[s] operate not as cultural purveyors of black American life,
but rather as safety valves, generating laughs that mask the
conflict between black aspirations and the maintenance of white
power" (Erhenstein, 9).
In the minstrel shows and their successors on radio, white men
impersonated black men. (In fact a white man -- Marlin Hurt --
even played a black woman -- Beulah, a character instantly recognizable
by her high-pitched screams.) Lillian Rudolph who played Madame Queen,
Andy's girlfriend on the tv series, spent three months studying with
a white vocal coach so that she could master the "minstrel style
black dialects" (A&J p., 35). And Godsen himself coached the
black male actors. He maintained that as the creator of the series
he "ought to know how Amos and Andy should talk." Spencer Williams
-- Andy in the TV series -- had been an director of independent black
films. He replied to Godsen that I "ought to know how Negroes talk,
having been one all my life" (Clayton, Ebony in Fife p. 9). What
we have is "a white man teaching a negro how to act like a white man
acting like a negro" (A&J p., 35). Take away this phony accent
and much -- if not all -- of the "humor" is drained from the dialog.
Minstrel shows reached thousands and created the framework
for popular depictions of black life. Radio and later television
uncritically adopted these portrayals and by the agency of the mass
media shaped our shared culture. The Amos 'n' Andy radio show
at its height was a pervasive artifact of American culture. In
1931 there were an estimated 40 million nightly listeners out of a
U.S. population of 123 million. At times the show captured 74 percent
of the national radio audience (A&J p., 31). The program was mentioned
frequently in the Congressional Record. 2.4 million fans wrote in
suggesting names for Amos' and Ruby's newborn daughter. The
show introduced a number of expressions into the vernacular including:
"Check and Double Check; Holy Mackeral," and "I'se regusted." [Not
to mention the characters of the series themselves. For example
Huey P. Long the populist governor of Louisiana ironically took his
nickname "The Kingfish" from the series]. And the show's
popularity resulted in a variety of lucrative spin-offs including a
daily comic strip, a candy bar, toys, greeting cards, two books and
a feature film. The prospect of an Amos 'n' Andy TV show was
eagerly anticipated. Experimental TV broadcasts were made
throughout the 1930s and in fact one broadcast at the 1939 New York
World's Fair featured Godsen and Correll as Amos 'n Andy.
What were the basic caricatures common to the minstrel tradition
and Amos 'n' Andy? Fred MacDonald, radio historian (Don't
Touch That Dial) describes three such characterizations. (Note Gates,
NYT 11-12-89 -- "In 1933, Sterling Brown, the great black poet and
critic divided the full range of black character types in American
literature into seven categories: the contended slave; the wretched
freeman; the comic Negro; the brute Negro; the local color Negro,
and the exotic primitive.")
Coons -- a clown, murdering the English language, conniving to fleece
a comrade out of money, bumblingly avoiding employment -- The Kingfish --
stupid and scheming, and Andy lazy and domineering. "Consistent with
the values of the 1950s as mediated through popular culture, family responsibilities
-- or neglect of them -- define Kingfish ... his most serious flaws stem from
his neglect of the proper role of husband and father" (Lipsitz
95-96). "As in so much of American comedy, marriage in Amos 'n' Andy
gave us a snare and a straitjacket -- a cruel prank played upon men who'd
rather be fishing, swapping lies, wiping beery foam from their lips
in a cool, dark bar. Instead they find that married life is one long
chore; the honey-tempered angels they wooed in innocent youth
have turned into witches, shrews. ... When Andy announces his engagement
to a 21-year-old beauty queen, the Kingfish slaps him on the shoulders
and chortles, "Welcome to the land of the living dead" (Wolcott in A&J p. xviii).
Lightning was a Step'n Fetchit-like character. He was dull witted and slow
of speech. He moved like "molasses" (not lightning). He played one of the
most demeaning roles -- but was not without self-awareness. Nick Stewart
says he took the role because "I couldn't have learned without an opportunity to
play these roles, but I saw how this was poisoning the black community.
People used to say to my children -- "Hey let me see you talk like your daddy."
Calhoun the "shyster." This portrayal of a "coon lawyer" was perhaps one of
the most offensive to middle class African Americans. The NAACP complained bitterly
about the portrayal of "Negro lawyers ... as slippery cowards, ignorant of their
profession and without ethics" (A&J p. 62).
Toms are typically good, gentle, religious and sober. In their 1929 book,
All About Amos 'n Andy, Correll and Godsen described Amos as -- "trusting,
simple, unsophisticated" (p. 16). This is an example of the notion that
we're all equal before God and saved by faith and prayer. A romantic if not
outright reactionary response to the realities of racism (segregation, poverty,
lack of educational opportunities) which existed outside the boundaries of the show.
Mammy is quick tempered, a source of earthy wisdom who brooks no backtalk.
Kingfish's wife Sapphire, and especially her mother, are frequently cast as the Kingfish's
foils. The result is domestic violence -- usually verbal, sometimes physical. "The
glorification of motherhood pervading psychology and popular literature of the the
1950's becomes comedy in Amos 'n' Andy. Wives named for precious stones
(Ruby and Sapphire) are anything but precious, and "Mama" in this show appears as
a nagging harpy screaming at the cowering -- and emasculated -- black man."
(Lipsitz 95 The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class and Ethnicity in
Early Network Television Programs.)
What was the response of the African-American community to Amos 'n Andy?
Thomas Cripps identified three types of reactions by activists in the period between
World War I and World War II -- like the NAACP attempted to affect the products
of white producers. They often called for substantial changes to offending programs.
This response was often characterized as censorship. The second response was of
"Hollywood Negroes" who in defense of their limited livelihoods were often
opposed to the activists. The alternatives as they perceived them were that they
could either play a maid for $700 a week or be a maid for $7 a week.
The third kind of response came from independent producers of "race movies" who
were often far removed from the Hollywood sources of expertise, funds and distribution.
Seizing the "means of production" they produced hundreds of all black films between
1914 and 1950. These pictures were inspired by a backlash against racist depictions
of black life. In 1937 there were about 800 inner city theaters -- most of which featured
all black films. Most of these films were Black imitations of Hollywood B genre
films -- black cowboys, cops and crooks. Even the most obvious genre picture had the
advantage of depicting blacks as people rather than social problems. Perhaps the most
well-known producer of "race movies" was Oscar Micheaux who wrote, produced,
directed and distributed over 20 films between 1918 and 1940.
There is evidence of some support for the program among certain segments of the
black community. For example, in 1931 Chicago's weekly black newspaper the
Defender invited Godsen and Correll to be guests of honor at a community picnic
which the Defender described as being attended by 35,000 (and Time magazine
characterized as 6000 pickaninies). Duke Ellington's Cotton Club band played "The
Perfect Song." The audience broke into applause identifying it as the theme song
of Amos 'n' Andy rather than from the 1915 Ku Klux Klan epic Birth of a Nation (Ely 4).
At about the same time the Pittsburgh Courier was editorializing for the banning of the
program from the airwaves. (Ironically by the time of the TV series the Courier would
be calling the NAACP protesters of the series "pinks.")
A survey of Negro "adult leaders" in 1932 confirmed the division of opinion about
Amos 'n' Andy which ranged from sheer delight to "marked resentment and emphatic
disapproval" (Cripps p. 267).
The imminent arrival of TV in America was predicated since the 1920s. Experimental
broadcasts were made in the 1930s including one at the 1930 NewYork World's Fair
which featured the radio stars from Amos 'n' Andy. Television didn't really take off in the
U.S. until the 1950s. Amos 'n' Andy was sponsored by Blatz Beer and ran from 6/28/1951
When the show premiered it was the only one with an all black cast. (Although the writers,
directors, producers, and technicians were white.) In fact, the program was designed for white
audiences. Especially in the early 1950s TV audiences were restricted to those who could
afford the new appliances -- about 20 million predominately white households.
The TV shore framed itself as folklore explicitly comparing the show to Huck Finn,
Paul Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle (A&J 1). Perhaps Uncle Remus might have been a
In response to NAACP protests about the TV show, a survey by Advertest
(sponsored by the network) claimed that 75 percent of the 365 blacks interviewed
disagreed with the proposition that Amos 'n' Andy reinforced stereotypes. The program's
premier coincided with the NAACP's 1951 Congress and was viewed by the delegates
assembled. Organizing received a head start from this circumstance. This is how the
NAACP characterized it's objections to the show:
Why was the NAACP eventually more successful in mounting a campaign against the
TV show than the radio show? Before World Ware II the NAACP had been a shadow
of its postwar size and strength. But "membership increased 10 times over during the 1940s.
By 1948 black leaders were making waves in American journalism and entertainment. The
Democratic Party courted them in the election. President Truman appointed a Civil Rights
Commission and declared 1949 a 'Year of Rededication' to the principals of racial equality
... The liberal concept of full integration -- gradual, painless, nonviolent, but inevitable,
captured the American conscience" (Jones 51).
- It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uniformed and prejudiced people that
Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.
- Every character in this show with an all negro cast is either a clown or a crook.
- Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves.
- Negro lawyers are shown a slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession and
- Negro women are shown as cackling screaming shrews, in big-mouthed close-ups
using street slang just short of vulgarity.
- All Negroes are shown as dodging work of any kind.
- Millions of white Americans see this Amos 'n' Andy picture and think the entire
race is the same.
Honey I'm Home
The times had changed. The same Defender picnic that feted the white Godsen and
Correl in 1931 denied the all-black cast an invitation 20 years later in 1951. In 1951
the show ranked 13th in the Nielsen ratings (A&J 62). And in 1952 it won an Emmy award.
The NAACP responded by initiating a boycott of Blatz beer. By April 1953 Blatz withdrew
its sponsorship and CBS announced "The network has bowed to the change in national thinking."
Yet the series was in syndication more than four times as long as it was broadcast on the
network. It remained in syndication for 13 years after it was withdrawn from the network schedule.
And it aired in 218 markets in the U.S. as well as in Australia, Bermuda, Kenya and Western
Nigeria. As late as 1963 it still played on 50 U.S. stations. The programs were finally locked in
vaults as of 1966. Yet in the 1970s CBS applied for a renewal of its copyright. Networks
reacted to the controversy over Amos 'n' Andy by eliminating black families from television.
Fifteen years passed from Amos 'n 'Andy until the introduction of another African-American
situation comedy (Julia in 1968). I would argue that despite the legacy of the civil rights
movements, and the rise of a substantially larger African-American middle class, the
stereotypes of Amos 'n' Andy have been recycled from year to year and show to show.
The 1970s continued to feature "coons and mammies" in minstrel shows including Sanford and
Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, What's Happening, and Diff'rent Strokes (Cummings, 78:
The Changing Nature of the Black Family).
Even The Cosby Show, while seeming to be the exception to this trend, may have reinforced
preconceptions among white viewers through its ironic portrait of successful black professionals.
For both Amos 'n' Andy and Cosby live in world which seems determined only by personal
choice. Cliff Huxtable's affluence and the Kingfish's chronic unemployment are not placed in
a social context. Racism, discrimination, the historical roots of poverty and lack of opportunity
are nowhere to be found in these shows. Cosby and the Kingfish both move in a world without
social constraints, where individual initiative or its lack are the only determinants. "The domestic
bliss of the Huxtable household is perceived by whites as the exception to the rule of black family
life, reaffirming the notion that racism wouldn't be a problem if only blacks were more like 'us'"
(Ehrenstein, The Color of Laughter p. 8). Both Amos 'n' Andy and the Cosby Show reinforce
a singular vision of the American Dream. The close identification of Bill Cosby and Clift Huxtable
confirms the "truth" of American fairness and opportunity (Jhally and Lewis p. 8 and Miller pp.
213-214 in J & L).
Negative stereotypes of black life continue. South Central was, in the words of Brotherhood
Crusade President Danny Blackwell, "the Amos 'n' Andy of 1994." Ultimately as Tony Brown
has observed, black families "became narrow, negative, stereotypical portrayals designed to
reflect what television producers and distributors believe the majority of the American
public/market imagines black families to be." (Television and the Black Family in Black Families
and the Medium of Television, p. 85, see note Cummings images of the black family.)
Are there solutions to the problems I've identified here? Historically there has been a call
for greater black participation in all phase of television. If there were more black producers, if
there were more black writers -- goes the argument -- if there were more black actors and
more black television programs, then African-American images would be represented more
accurately. Unfortunately, the evidence does not seem to support such an outcome. Fox TV
more than any other network "has been committed to airing so-called black programs in prime
time ... nearly a third of Fox's series [in 1994] were black oriented....." (Rosenberg p. F32).
And yet not a single on-going program represents a substantial improvement in the depiction
of African-American families. A poignant example -- Robert Townsend, a well-respected,
talented African-American actor and independent filmmaker, is the star and co-executive
producer of Parent in the 'Hood. The program -- theoretically aimed at family viewers,
is crude, sexually explicit and tasteless, and relies on working class coon and mammy caricatures
for a good portion of its "humor." The easy answer to why these forms persist lies in the
exigencies of a market-driven, consumerist commercial television industry. "The sitcom is a
corporate product. It is a mass consumption commodity ... The promises of bureaucratic
democracy, managerial capitalism, secular humanism, and mass consumption are miniaturized,
tested, and found true in the funny travails of TV families. The sitcom is the Miracle play of
consumer society" (Jones p. 4).
Perhaps the coming 500 channel universe will offer diversity, intelligence and humor not based
on racist stereotyping. Or perhaps we will have 500 channels of the same old ... same old.
Let me suggest that while it is essential to continue to organize and protest the debasing
impacts of negative television images, it is simultaneously imperative that we empower our
children to become critical viewers. Unless we teach ourselves and our children the basic
skills of media literacy, there is too great a risk that we will become what we watch.
The alternative is to choose television selectively, to watch it actively, to discuss and analyze the
programming with children, to take control of an electronic medium that comes into our most
Children ought to be engaged as producers of video, not as passive consumers. Making video
is one of the best ways to understand the mechanisms of television. Given access to tools and
encouragement to create images that correspond to the realities of their lives, a new generation
may be able to create community-based productions that capture the reality of their families and
their experiences. Perhaps the future offers the possibility of a decentralized, democratized
media -- a model not unlike the Internet which offers many voices for each of us to choose;
rather than as mass media from a few centralized sources to the largest possible audience.
What ever the future holds, it is clear that the popular models of African-American family
found on television are need in of radical change.
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