Yesterday, we lost a great entertainer: Sherman Hemsley. Although he went on to play other successful TV roles, his most famous and beloved is that of George Jefferson of the hit sitcom, “The Jeffersons,” alongside the late great TV veteran, Isabel Sanford.
It’s not such a big deal now to turn on the TV and see a black man portrayed as a wealthy businessman, but back in the ‘70s, a character like George Jefferson was an anomaly.
With “The Jeffersons,” a spin-off of “All in the Family,” where George and Louise Jefferson were the working-class neighbors of the bigoted Archie Bunker, producer Norman Lear churned yet another hit out of his sit-com factory.The opposite of “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” told the rarely-relayed story of a black family business that afforded its owners the chance to move out of the old neighborhood, not just to a nice home in the suburbs, but to a DE-luxe apartment in the sky!
It’s funny; I was just having a conversation with a co-worker after the show yesterday about what I didn’t like about the message today’s rappers send to young people when they brag about owning private jets, Lamborghinis and yachts. I’m all for working hard and being on the come-up (You know that), but I’d like to see these paid hip-hop stars brag more about things that are more attainable for the average kid with a dream.
“The Jeffersons,” along with being hilarious, gave poor and middle-class African-Americans a chance to see Black people living a lifestyle that most had never witnessed unless they were employed in the service industry. For some, it was the first time they could see themselves not as maids or as doormen, but as actual occupants of a big-city high rise. The best part of all, George Jefferson wasn’t embarrassed of his wealth and success; he earned it and owned it. His proud strut is an indelible memory in the minds of anyone who ever tuned in, along with his trademark George-isms, like “Honnnnky,” “zebra couples” and his personal nickname for his TV wife, Weezie.
When I give the charge at HBCU commencement ceremonies, I often urge students to upgrade their current environments, even if it means moving out of the ‘hood. I think it’s okay to physically leave a situation but still value it, support it and love it. If your barber, your beautician, your favorite restaurant and only dry cleaner you trust is in the community where you grew up, there’s nothing wrong with driving across town to handle your business. That’s sort of the lesson George Jefferson taught a lot of folks. George never forgot where he came from and never was ashamed of letting others know either.
Some of the critics thought he was too over-the-top, too cartoonish, even “coonish.” I never let other people tell me what I should or shouldn’t be offended by. “The Jeffersons” was a comedy and a fictionalized look at a black family — we get that. But I can’t help but think there are a lot of successful black people out there who were made to believe they could work hard, work together as a family and have a better life because of George and Weezie.
If you’re one of them, I’d like to hear from you.